A taste of my forthcoming book– Weaving Success: Stories of Change in African Higher Education, to be published later this year by the Institute of International Education. The book chronicles changes at universities in nine African countries that received support from the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, a collaborative of seven major U.S. foundations:

At universities across the African continent, young scholars often start off on the academic career path as tutorial assistants with bachelor’s degrees, and can wait years before the opportunity of further training comes along. This reality presents a frustrating dilemma, both for aspiring young academics who want to build careers, and for universities that desperately need them to advance and help build capacity further, yet have few resources to invest in their training.

While providing doctoral training in particular drives up an institution’s running costs substantially, the reality is that those few universities that do have the strength to increase the post-graduate (and particularly doctoral) training they offer must now do so, in order to meet the pressing demands of higher education expansion—and fast.

In recognition of this dilemma, the MacArthur Foundation supported young lecturers from Bayero University, in Kano, Nigeria, in obtaining their PhDs abroad, in order to help develop a critical mass of academics with the global connections and expertise necessary for building a culture of advanced training and research at the university, from the ground up. Read the rest of this entry »

After an unintentional six-month hiatus, I’m back to MindFields with a post about an event that encapsulates an emergent movement, geared towards unshackling Africa’s ingenuity and creative, problem-solving spirit. For much of this year, I’ve been busy working on a book project for the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa — traversing the continent collecting stories of some of the unseen successes coming out of African universities. So I landed at the University of Nairobi just in time to catch the tail end of the second annual Maker Faire Africa, a gathering of tinkerers, designers, artists and inventors, all keen to share and grow their innovations.

The event, curated by New York-based blogger and entrepreneur Emeka Okafor, and convened by a group of bloggers, stemmed from their realization that Africa — a continent which according to stereotypes produces little — in fact holds a great wealth of backyard tinkerers and inventors, Okafor says. This creative class works largely unsupported and in obscurity, offering a sort of unacknowledged wellspring of productive creativity that could be harnessed to generate wealth and development on the continent. What they lack is the necessary access to markets, networks and resources to scale up their products and make themselves known.

The Maker Faire is an attempt to bring these isolated problem-solvers together to build platforms for their ideas to spread. “It is essentially an effort to validate these brilliant individuals,” Okafor told me. “Hopefully over a period of time we’re building an auto-catalytic, self-sustaining community that builds on its own strengths and its own resources. We hope that a lot of what happens will be emergent and self-directed, as opposed to us laying down what the rules should be.”

Under the white tents erected in a courtyard at the university, Makers traveling from as far as South Africa and Wales display their inventions and share their hopes of making it big. Norbert Okec, a retired chemist from Uganda, displays a solar-powered traffic light that he assembled from LED’s and scrap materials. “The idea behind this was to keep it as simple as possible. It’s an open-source project, and so it is easy to imitate, and improve,” he says. The project developed as a response to Kampala’s pervasive gridlock — an increasingly common problem that in many African cities is exacerbated by a lack of working traffic lights. Read the rest of this entry »

The work of the Barefoot College does not stop when that great blinding orb that powers life on earth vanishes below the horizon, however.

In the evening, Laxman drove us into the village, where girls obliged to do housework and look after the livestock during the day attend night school.

Talk about dedication to learning.

Twenty-seven girls between the ages of six and fourteen sat cross-legged upon mats in the dust underneath a tarpaulin in the dim light of a solar-powered lantern, passing around slates and chalk to begin the evening’s lesson. The girl facing the camera in this photo was fascinated, and couldn’t stop turning around to gawk at us.

Most of the girls, Laxman explained, are from low-caste families who were further impoverished when they sold their farm land in this village in order to make way for a new highway. The families know how to farm, he said, but not how to save or invest their money.

Although primary education is free, he said, their families see more value in utilizing their daughters’ labor than in educating them — though boys are often sent to school.

Learning at the night school is based on daily life — basic literacy, numeracy and knowledge of agriculture, health and water. None of these girls will likely ever get more than a fifth-grade education, Laxman said.

But that is enough, at least, to equip them for a life of conducting basic business and looking after their families. Apparently when a woman has five years of education or more, her children are healthier.

It was only here in this place that the true horror of the caste system struck me. I hadn’t really thought much about it before.

Over three thousand years, such venerables as the Buddha and Gandhi — and no doubt countless others in between them — tried and failed to do away with it.

Now the inequities persist still, especially in rural life, Laxman said — although now the distinction between castes is more a factor of economics than of religious power structures. (For a fantastic and wildly illuminating take on caste, pick up The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.)

Until more value is placed on education, it’s hard to see that changing.


In India recently, I visited a visionary — indeed revolutionary — institution called the Barefoot College, which embraces a very refreshing development ethos. Shunning the paternalistic, hand-out mentality so typical amongst organizations that work with the rural poor, this place seeks instead to empower rural people to uplift themselves by acquiring the technical skills to serve their own development needs.

Set in a small village called Tilonia, in the parched semi-desert of Rajasthan, one of India’s poorest states, the college is a place of informal, unstructured learning, where village women in colorful saris with toddlers in tow sit concentrating on configuring solar-powered electrity circuit boards and soldering radio parts.

It may call itself a college, but this is no ordinary place of learning.

I wanted to go there because I’d heard that the reach of their work extends not only to the parched, isolated villages of India, Bhutan, Pakistan and Afghanistan — but also to communities in some 21 different African countries.

I was escorted around the college by Laxman Singh, who has worked at the college for the past 20 years and is himself of low-caste origin. He explained the college’s focus on empowering women by offering them exposure to technologies that aid development and raise living standards in ways that also protect the fragile environments where so many live.

The college itself is a showcase for some of these innovations: solar panels are ubiquitous, as well as parabolic mirror-reflector cookers. Various tanks and channels around the grounds, and conduits on the buildings, form an elaborate system of rainwater collection and storage — inspired by traditional practices.

The women who learn such techniques here, Mr. Singh said, will bring their education and skills back home to their villages and put them to work for the betterment of the community. “Women can change everything,” he says.

That is the idea behind the Barefoot Solar Engineers initiative: women selected by their communities travel to the college in order to learn how to solar-electrify their villages. They spend six months at the college learning the intricacies of configuring circuit boards and hooking up solar panels, before they return home equipped with enough materials and spare parts to be in business for the next 5 to 10 years.

Solar engineers in training

Households pay fees equivalent to what they’d otherwise have to spend on kerosene and candles — thus ensuring sustainability of the program and a livelihood for the barefoot engineer.

Helen Nchenge, 43, from Cameroon was one of 21 women from seven different African countries studying at the college when I visited.

She said that the access to solar lanterns would help children in her village do their school work at night without having to use smelly, dangerous and costly kerosene.

“This is going to change peoples’ lives, because the village has been living in darkness,” she said.

Another thing I missed out on while I was busy wandering incommunicado in the Himalayas was the ruckus over the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s apology for reporting — without scientific basis — that the Himalayan glaciers might likely melt away by 2035. 

How disappointing to learn at this critical moment — when, as I see it, humanity essentially needs to make that leap of faith and accept that climate change is for real, before the window of opportunity to do something about it slams shut — that our venerable and Nobel-lauded climate scientists are prone to hubris and shoddy fact-checking, as if nothing more was at stake than the politics of some podunk biology department. 

While I was blissfully unaware of this latest climate debacle unfolding on Twitter and in the reader forums of the New Scientist, however, I felt a creeping sense of alarm as I climbed higher towards Machupuchre, the distinctively shaped peak at the center of the Anapurna mountain range, and listened to my guide Dambar Thapa speak about the gradual receding of the glaciers that he’s noticed over the years. 

Gazing across a forested valley at the spectacular snow-clad mountains, I was feeling that odd sensation of guilty pleasure that I feel so often when it gets incongruously warm and pleasant in winter. Call it global warming neurosis: a moment of happiness tarnished somewhat by the knowledge that the delicious warmth might well be a portent of suffering and doom. The sun was out, and I had stripped down to my t-shirt. It was probably 20 degrees ( about 70 Farenheit). 

People in the Himalayas speak about global warming not as some distant threat, but as something that’s here and tangible. When my husband and I were planning our trek in Kathmandu, for example, I questioned the tour operator because I had read something about the possibility of avalanches on the route in winter. 

Here today, gone... when?

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Harnessing the power of water

Just got back from a spectacular 11 day trek in the Anapurna region of Nepal, to learn of the horror that has gripped Haiti. It’s getting increasingly difficult to cut yourself off from the outside world these days. You pretty much have to go somewhere as remote as the Himalayas.

Even where I was, in the region of the Anapurna Base Camp, globalization is steadily encroaching. For those of us whose lives are ever-complicated by the world’s interconnectedness, a brief escape from the constant flood of news and information is bliss.

But in places where information and resources are so hard to access (everything from a bottle of coke to basic construction materials is carried up the mountain on somebody’s back), one really sees the benefit of spreading good ideas. I’m thinking especially of the access to hydro and solar power which has become widespread in the Anapurna region over the past few years.

Nepal is rich in water resources, and a number of families and trekkers’ tea houses have constructed their own tiny hydro power plants along the banks of the plentiful streams in the area. These are simple sheds fed with stream water which enters in a tube, spins a turbine to generate the power and then is channeled back in the river.

A typical hydropower shed

These are low impact, de-centralized sources of clean energy. Each plant generates something between one and four kilowatts, which means that while cities like Kathmandu cope with six hours of load-shedding a day, these places have a small but steady stream of constant power.

Having access to reliable sources of lighting and heat brings other benefits, too. Now, there’s that much less kerosene to be lugged up steep trails — which is a fire hazard to boot. Plus residents no longer have to gather firewood, depleting the forests. Pretty cool.

photo by Kitty Lindow

It’s the end of my third day in Kathmandu. Since I’ve been so Africa-oriented for the past few years, it’s hard not to see a lot of parallels between here and various places in Africa, despite the obvious differences. The first day here was a mad rush to take in a few of the tourist sites before the start of a 3-day general strike, or bandh, decreed by the Maoists, which was supposed to grind all transportation and business activity to a halt.

(Basically, as I understand it, the Maoists waged a 10-year insurgency here, before signing a peace deal a few years ago that has brought them into the government. But they accuse the government of bad faith dealings and have been boycotting since May, while calling more and more of these bandhs to drive home their displeasure. Those in the know say that what they really want is revolution.)

So during that first day a lot of time was spent sitting in gridlock inhaling eye-watering pollution (face masks are very common here) while ‘rushing’ to amazing Buddhist and Hindu holy sites, and a beautiful old city replete with the most intricate eighteenth-century wood-carved buildings and temples. Religion seems so integrated into daily life — everywhere on the streets you see little shrines with statues adorned with bright chains of marigolds and butter lamps, and smeared with brightly colored wax drippings. People pause ever so briefly on their way past to spin a prayer wheel or yank the cord of a clanging bell. I found it particularly fascinating and moving to watch the elderly Tibetan refugees circling the huge Buddhist shrine of Bodnath. I’m so struck by the beauty and the squalor here. Read the rest of this entry »

VIDEO: Solar power cools camel-transported vaccines on treks to remote areas.

A fascinating idea from Wole Soboyejo, a professor of engineering at Princeton who is doing much to boost the quality of science, higher education and entrepreneurship, both in his home country, Nigeria, and beyond. Check out this video footage from Princeton.

In the final countdown to the UN climate change talks taking place in Copenhagen next month, now seemed like a really good time to take a deep breath and delve back into my past experience covering some of the fearsomely bureaucratic regulatory issues of climate change, like the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol — and the opportunities and perils these present for developing countries — for BNA and the South African Institute for International Affairs.

As Southern Africa appears fated to be hit particularly hard by climate change, two key questions have emerged:

How does the region adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change, which, even if all greenhouse gas-spewing activity were to cease right now, would still continue to accelerate for years to come, due to the delayed cumulative effect of all our prior emissions?

And, how do developing countries spur their growth using clean technologies?

Oh, and of course a third: who will pay? Read the rest of this entry »

How can we as a planet grow enough food to feed our growing population without destroying biodiversity, depleting our water and poisoning our environment with chemicals in the process? One of those zillion-dollar questions…

In South Africa, one of the country’s leading food retailers, Woolworths, last week announced that it has been working with its suppliers to develop a new approach to farming that breaks the cycle of dependence on chemicals, improves the soil, protects biodiversity and conserves water. 

The approach, called “Farming for the Future” is not strictly organic; the idea is to minimize rather than eliminate all those chemical nasties that form the backbone of modern agribusiness — for example by aerating and composting the soil instead of applying synthetic fertilizers.

The company says that by the year 2012 about 85 percent of its fruits and veggies will be produced by the new method — while an additional 6 percent will be organic, and the remaining 9 percent will be imported. Read the rest of this entry »