Food scarcity and arid land


In my last blog post I wrote about the importance of agriculture to our economy. Then I started hearing stories that farm sales were down, especially dairy. Apparently of over 4,000 farms on the market, only around 200 sold last month.

Good news for some of the farmers who want out, because there are foreign investors who want to buy them. One company wants to spend $1.5 Billion dollars buying NZ farms. You would have to wonder if we can’t make a good living out of farming how can other countries do it? If we do sell them, where will the earnings from those farms go? Not into our pockets I would suggest.

China has a problem. They have a large dry land mass and not enough water to grow the crops they need and a huge and growing population. What are they doing about it? They and other countries such as Middle East are buying good arable land wherever they can get it for a good price. For example China is buying farming land in Mozambique, Angola, Malawi, Nigeria and even Zimbabwe. It’s not all bad, they are teaching local farmers better techniques in animal husbandry, improving crop yields etc.

What are the motives of China and Arabic countries in buying this land? They need the food. In Ethiopia, one of the worlds poorest countries, not only are they selling land to foreign countries, they are giving them tax holidays for a number of years, but what is of greater concern is the expectation that most, if not all of the crops will be going back to countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

I ask myself therefore, again, why can’t we produce high yield crops on our fertile soils and sell it to the countries that need it. Once those countries have bought our land, we won’t be getting it back and I wouldn’t expect us to gain much in GDP from the crops they grow.

As I said in my last blog, the ‘good old days’ were when we were largely an agrarian economy, we had plenty and we also had plenty to export. Now we have fantastic biotechnology and the ability to increase yields, quality and in many cases without using GM technologies.

I would hate to look into our future and see a country that can’t feed itself, that grows crops on farms owned by other countries, go straight offshore to feed them with minimal economic benefit to us. I would welcome someone to explain the logic of this.

We have expertise, maybe we should be assisting some of those countries who are unable to maximise the return on their land, help them thrive and clip the ticket. That would be a win win. While we do that, we also continue to research and improve product, the grasses and other food sources for animal feed etc. We do have some successes such as Fonterra, Livestock Improvements and many other thriving areas of research and results in biotechnology. We should stick with what we are good at and rather than give our farms to the Chinese, Arabs and others who want them, let the Government buy them. They could be run by unemployed people, who would get training on the job and perhaps even interest free loans to purchase some of those plots and use the skills they have obtained to build themselves a healthy asset and income, while increaseing our balance of payments. Is that silly? What’s wrong with my thinking?

In February this year there were around 168,000 people unemployed. Lets put them to work on those farms, teach them a trade, help them make something of themselves and help them earn the money to buy there way in with low interest loans and subsidies. What could we produce with 168,000 people working instead of paying them to do nothing. The single person benefit is around $160. That works out to a wasted loss of around $26,880,000 per annum. I say lets buy those farms and keep them in New Zealand hands.

This Video from TVNZ gives an example of what is happening.

More on Mugabe


I sit here in the comfort of my living room with a coffee and having read the newspaper and being grateful for the good fortune to have been born in a peaceful country and to be living comfortably in another. I read the morning paper online to the news that Mugabe receives welcomes and hugs at an African Summit after the sham of the latest election.

I have met several people from Zimbabwe who have come to New Zealand having lost pretty much everything, who constantly live in fear for friends and family that didn’t have the wherewithall to leave or refused to leave their homes that they spent their lives building. It is impossible to imagine what it is like in Zim right now. Mugabe has engineered another election and is of course the victor. South Africa which fought for the rights of coloured and black people seems to be torn with the fact that Mugabe kicked out white people and that he is now having people beaten, tortured and killed for trying to use their free will.

President Bush and others including our Prime Minister Helen Clark are calling for sanctions. The problem is that weapons supplied to Mugabe’s regime come from China and other countries such as South Africa and they are unlikely to cease this lucratuive trade, although how he manages to pay for them in a country that is essentially bankrupt, beats me. The people of Zimbabwe are worried that they will now be tomorrow’s news and will be forgotten. China has also refused to deny Zimbabwe’s attendance at the Olympic Games, which is understandable having been the subject of boycotts and ‘political intereference’ themselves in the past and they don’t have a great track record when it comes to human rights.

Many people painted their fingers red or deliberately invalidated their votes to avoid voting for Mugabe. There are stories that the Zanu PF were out in force with a project they called ‘Show Me Your Thumb‘ and beating those who hadn’t voted. There are now rumours that voting lists have been obtained by the Zanu PF thugs which will be used to punish those who did not vote for Mugabe.

So what happens next? In my humble opinion, the result of boycotts and sanctions will simply make the situation in ZImbabwe more desperate. More people will die and the country will be washed in rivers of blood followed by disease and starvation while Mugabe languishes in his oppulence. There won’t be much to save before long.

I’ve asked the question before, why do people rush into Iraq to ‘save the people’ and not into Zimbabwe. I know the answer is oil. Come on world, lets not sit back and watch this continue. I challenge the people of the United States, the most powerful country in the world. You, who managed to leave your countries for a better world, who said, “we must not forget” after World War ll. New Zealand, as always will play our part, but we don’t have the might to do more than condemn and send in a few supporting Peace Keepers. We are after all a country smaller than many of your cities. We played our part to bring down Apartheid but this needs worldwide support. This sort of despot should not continue to play his games with the lives of human beings.

Final question. How does he manage to travel the world with impunity? Why is it that an ‘accident’ doesn’t happen to him? Is there a reason that his presence is tolerated? Am I missing something?

The Zimbabwe Election Result


Is it just me? Why is it that when there is a perversion of democracy in some countries, the US and other nations march in and take over to protect the people, for example Iraq, and in other cases such as Zimbabwe, nothing is going to happen until it is a total disaster. In my blog last month, I was largely focussing on the technology angle, where people were using technology such as SMS to get information out of the country. The exercise raised my awareness of the problems over there and this morning a story in the NZ Herald told of a South African Jounalist who was arrested and spent 3 days in jail for being in Zimbabwe without accreditation.

I was pleased to see that Condoleezza Rice came out on Friday criticising South Africa for not taking a more positive stand and it is fair that they should start looking there. Could it be that ZA is taking a soft position because the black people have thrown the white people out? I did see on TV recently that there were many black refugees who had crossed the border and were biding their time in South Africa hoping that eventually the tide would turn and it would once again be safe to return to their homes, or what is left of them.

Of course my bent is on technology and oe of the things I love about the modern Internet environment is that it makes it very difficult to totally censor information. There are countless ways to get information out of a country despite political interference. In the old days journalists had to smuggle film and other documents over the border at great personal risk. Today there are mobile phones, satellite phones and many other ways of getting information out.

There are also great ways to use technology to show information and one of these is the Google Mash Up. The Zimbabwe Civic Action Support Group have devised a web site which shows information spatially information about ‘election conditions’ where you can see the sites of incidents and through pop up windows read information about them. Even for someone who has never been there, this gives a much more real perspective of what is happening over there.

There are also countless blogs coming out of the country, giving details from organisations as well as heart wrenching diaries from individuals.

SMS continues to play a major part and a recent article in CIO Magazine shows an innovative way that an SMS Hib has been used to not only help share information with the people through subscription phone lists, but also to help promote democracy and political participation by encouraging people to say what they would like the country to be like after the election.

Something that also stands out in the human psyche of oppressed people is their ability to laugh and joke about their position. I think this performs a number of functions, one it is a passive form of protest, but it is also a coping mechanism. It appears that SMS is frequently used in Zimbabwe to share these jokes. An example is a text message passed from one person to the next like:

“We would like to apologise to the nation for the late release of the presidential results. This is due to the rigging process, which is proving to be more difficult that we had anticipated.”

This interesting concept is explored by Mobile Active a global network focussed on the use of mobile technology for positive purposes.

The mobile phone continues to have an amazing impact on society that was never envisaged when it was first developed as a business tool. They are enabling knowledge sharing in ways that are providing freedom of expression and information sharing and making the world a much smaller place. There was a time that people could enforce their wishes on minorities in less developed countries with impunity and noone would be any the wiser. Today it is all but impossible to censor people and something uttered from a hidden room in Harare can be heard all over the world microseconds later. If only we could get the powers who profess to support democracy and freedom for all people, regardless of race, creed or gender, to act before any more innocent people are injured and killed and people’s lives and livelihoods are destroyed forever.

Zimbabwe Elections


I started off, over the weekend, writing about the use of SMS as a tool and the many uses and of course I barely scratched the surface, but the whole Zimbabwe election issue is a concern, even from a technological perspective. ITC (information technology and communication) has provided new media including the mobile phone and Internet as a means of sharing information despite the efforts of political rulers. I.e. it is getting harder and harder for people in power to censor information anywhere in the world. Many countries have tried and failed to stop information travelling out of their geography.

Despite the intentions of the Mugabe regime, there is a continuous flow of information leaving Zimbabwe that is telling the rest of the world what is going on. I suspect that it will be impossible for Mugabe’s ZANU-PF to hoodwink the world again, telling everyone that he has won the election when it is clearly not true. Reuters has reported that bloggers are sharing the news with the world as it happens.

Whilst technology can be used to blur the truth, I think we are living in the most transparent environment in mankind’s short history. It is certainly possible to edit photos and video to distort the truth, but given that IT and communications technologies are available to the masses and not just to a wealthy minority and of course we are now much more IT literate, the opportunities to even stretch the truth such as Hilary Clinton’s recent ‘mistake’ about coming under sniper fire in Bosnia recently are becoming few and far between.

Back to Zimbabwe, I believe that largely due to communications and IT, Mugabe will no longer be able to get away with his version of democracy and the transparency of news and event information in real time has finally forced leaders from around the world to denounce what is going on there, even if they have turned a relatively blind eye to it until now.

It’s nice and comfortable to sit at home and watch this happening on TV and on the net, thinking it won’t happen to me. But I’ll bet the expat’s from Zimbabwe that I have met, who now live here and in other parts of the world and have lost pretty much everything they have worked for over generations, thought that once upon a time. Coups happen somewhere in the world pretty much every year and are at least in part covered up with attempts at disinformation and if it doesn’t directly hurt the major powers, it is often conveniently ignored. It’s my opinion that it’s going to be harder and harder for the powers of the world to do this. And that’s a good thing.

People used to say, “As an individual, there’s nothing I can do”. Today in Zimbabwe there are plenty of individuals doing something with their mobile phones and laptops and hopefully they will be able to bring about change, because if they don’t, there could be a civil war of proportions that make the disaster that is Zimbabwe today look like a picnic.

Zimbabwe election SMS and other TXT Messages


This weekend President Mugabe is doing everything he can to ensure that he is once again re-elected and it seems that while he is giving cars and houses to doctors along with other good will gestures, the radio stations are being heavily censored. For example, according to Zimbabwe Independant Weekly, last night, all ZBC radio and TV stations stopped normal programming to provide live coverage of Zanu PF’s election manifesto launch that lasted for four hours. Of course the others got no coverage.

Radio stations like SW Radio Africa tried to break through and provide independant coverage by Short Wav Radio and apparently this technology is also being jammed (purportedly and ironically by Chinese technology) so they and other stations are now using SMS technology to bring news headlines to those who want to balance the information flow.

SMS was conceived in the 1980’s primarily as a means to advise people that they had a voice message or had missed a call. The first deployments were in 1993 in Los Angeles, Norway and UK and by 1995 the average usage per GSM subscriber was 0.4 per month!

Today SMS is a way of life and used in so many different ways. Just for me in recent times I have used SMS to comunicate with business clients to confirm appointments and to communicate with coleagues. I have paid for car parking via SMS and this morning sent a woke up message to my daughter in Australia.

I have donated to many charities via SMS, voted for performers on TV and entered competitions by sending an instruction to a Short Code.

On TXT Tunes you can pay to buy and download my songs using SMS.

SMS has had a phenomenal impact on the written language as teenagers created shortcuts in an effort to fit more information into the 160 character messages. Sum adults cn find dis hard to read, but u r not r u? In business I have found this difficult finding young staff who can write a business letter and have found some CV’s on my desk with wrting that automatically precludes potentially very intelligent people from working with me.

In recent times I have been working with projects that allow people to send a SMS request to a GPS locating device, which in turn sends an SMS with spatial co-ordinates to our reverse geocoder that then facilitates sending the nearest street address to the originator again as an SMS message. A next step to this is emergency locator technology for elderly or sick people, where they can send an SMS with the calculated nearest street address to an authority or service if they are in trouble. Car navigation systems will soon be able to do the same when a car has an accident. In New Zealand it is not uncommon for someone to drive down a bank on a winters night and not be able to tell people on their phone where they are. Imagine a system where of airbags are deployed in a car, the bluetooth connection to the driver’s mobile phone automatically sends an SMS with their exact location to the breakdown service.

Watch this space!