Africa Lights the Way

In the dark and cold season, with the snow blowing and a wind that cuts like a knife, here’s some warm and shiny news from Kenya…

KIPTUSURI, Kenya — For Sara Ruto, the desperate yearning for electricity began last year with the purchase of her first cellphone, a lifeline for receiving small money transfers, contacting relatives in the city or checking chicken prices at the nearest market.

Charging the phone was no simple matter in this farming village far from Kenya’s electric grid.

Every week, Ms. Ruto walked two miles to hire a motorcycle taxi for the three-hour ride to Mogotio, the nearest town with electricity. There, she dropped off her cellphone at a store that recharges phones for 30 cents. Yet the service was in such demand that she had to leave it behind for three full days before returning.

That wearying routine ended in February when the family sold some animals to buy a small Chinese-made solar power system for about $80. Now balanced precariously atop their tin roof, a lone solar panel provides enough electricity to charge the phone and run four bright overhead lights with switches.

The future is small, smart and decentralized. Will we win the energy race, or will we be buying Chinese solar panels because we did not invest in manufacturing our own? I have faith, and I believe that the prize for this race will be one giant step for mankind.

Read the rest of the story here.

Also, read between the lines. Sara Ruto’s energy use is modest and focused on what is essential for her family. Conservation and non-wastefulness are part of the mix. I’m going to switch off a couple of lights now. If enough people do that it makes a difference.

Hunger and Callous Waste

My family is Irish-American, brought here by the consequences of a famine called The Great Hunger. There’s a book of the same name, but I can’t read more than a few pages without putting it down.

One glaring injustice the book records is the fact that Ireland exported vegetables to England all during the famine while its own people starved. That’s economics. You see it again in the songs of the Great Depression— Woodie Guthrie’s ‘oranges rotting in their creosote dumps’.

Someone told me a story about the mansion, Blithewold, when it was still a playground of the rich in the 1930’s. A young boy found a job in the kitchen helping the cooks. One day the family ordered squab. That’s baby pigeons, and the boy was still young enough that it bothered him to wring their necks, but he did what he was told. The squabs smelled wonderful as they cooked and the boy was very hungry. Just as they were done, the family changed their mind, and he watched as all the food was thrown into the garbage. You think that kind of thing couldn’t happen now?

Today we have unprecedented communication across the world. We have the means to respond with quickness and flexibility to a natural disaster. We can’t claim ignorance– perhaps stupidity has a longer shelf life. That would explain this story out of Kenya– from the New York Times…

Because Kenya’s gourmet vegetable and cut-flower industry exports mainly to Europe, and because the cloud of volcanic ash has grounded flights to much of northern Europe since Thursday, its horticultural business has been waylaid as never before.

On Monday, Mr. [Kenneth] Maundu [ general manager for Sunripe produce exporters] stared at the towering wreckage: eight-feet-tall heaps of perfectly good carrots, onions, baby sweet corn and deliciously green sugar snap peas being dumped into the back of a pickup truck.

“Cow food,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s about all we can do with it now.”

Thank the gods they keep cows, at least. You can’t save everything, but look at this…

“Volcano, volcano, volcano,” grumbled Ronald Osotsi, whose $90-a-month job scrubbing baby courgettes, which are zucchinis, and French beans is now endangered. “That’s all anyone is talking about.” He sat on a log outside a vegetable processing plant in Nairobi, next to other glum-faced workers eating a cheap lunch of fried bread and beans.

It’s been a bad year for agriculture in Kenya and low-wage workers can’t even afford to eat decently. And what is the corporate response to this hardship?

Thus, the trash heap of greens. At Sunripe, one of the most profitable sides of the business is prepackaging veggies for supermarkets in Europe. Most of the peppers, corn, carrots, broccoli and beans are grown in the Rift Valley, trucked to Nairobi, and then washed, chopped and shrink-wrapped. There are even some packages labeled “stir fry,” which few Kenyans have ever heard about.

The vegetables are marked with the names of some of England’s biggest supermarkets. (They requested not to be mentioned in this article.) But those supermarkets are very particular about their brands and do not allow Sunripe to give away excess produce with their labels on it.

So, on Monday, a man in a Sunripe lab coat and mesh hair net stood at the back of the pickup truck in the company’s loading bay tearing open plastic bags of perfectly edible vegetables, each worth a couple of dollars, and shaking out the contents. Sunripe does give away unpackaged food, and two nuns from an orphanage stood nearby, waiting for some French beans.

I’ll bet a photographer was standing by to catch the grateful nuns holding their plastic bags of beans. It will show up in the quarterly report. You won’t see them composting the best of Kenya’s farms while unemployed workers go hungry. Jeeze– you’d think they could have at least made soup. Really– there’s no ignorance any more except the willful kind. This is malignant stupidity and greed.

I hope that someone soon will publish a list of the corporations that mandated the destruction of food produced by underpaid workers, now laid off and missing wages. The NYT didn’t dare, but surely someone in Kenya, or in England, knows and is ready to out them.