Improving water security may get the highest priority, not spilling water the second highest

i have read the very interesting press release of the University of Oxford : “New funding to improve water security for 10 million people in Africa and Asia by 2024“(see their post below).

Professor Charlotte Watts, Chief Scientific Advisor and Director of Research & Evidence Division, at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office says : “More than ever, we recognise that water security, that is ensuring sufficient quantity and quality of water for different uses with an acceptable level of risk, is critical to the health, well-being and prosperity of people. We know that the poorest, and most disadvantaged, often lack safe and affordable water to drink or wash their hands, and are hit hardest by extremes in weather. The REACH programme, led by the University of Oxford, has made advances in science, policy and practice to understand and address these inequalities for over two million people since 2015. I am delighted that the FCDO is supporting additional REACH work which will help deliver water security for 10 million poor people in Africa and Asia by 2024. The REACH programme’s work, which began in 2015, has already improved water security for more than two million people, working with UNICEF and in partnership with government, private sector and academia in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Today, REACH is launching a new Global Strategy for 2020-2024, which recognises the progress to date and identifies gaps to strengthen future work aligned to four priority themes:  climate resilience, institutions, water quality and inequalities.

REACH’s work on inequalities is of the highest priority to support the UK Government’s commitment to eradicate poverty. Gendered inequalities in pay, legal rights or access to quality education is often increased with floods and droughts which make basic water services unaffordable, unreliable or unsafe to drink. REACH will be working to understand and respond to these inter-sectional inequalities in ongoing work.

I fully agree that REACH’s work on inequalities is of the highest priority to support the UK Government’s commitment to eradicate poverty. However, I am strongly convinced that limiting (avoiding) the spilling of water, in particular in the field of food production, should get almost the same attention.

Without going into details, I want to draw attention to the many successful methods applied worldwide in container gardening for food production.

Let one example be a sufficient proof : The fact that providing drainage holes in the sidewalls of containers, instead of in the bottom, leads to saving significant quantities of irrigation water (and the therein dissolved fertilizers).


Recommended reading :


By Prof. Dr. Willem VAN COTTHEM (University of Ghent, Belgium)

P1100592.JPGPeople are asking me why I am in favour of drilling drainage holes in the sidewall of a container.  Why are those in the bottom not good enough ?

Of course, the classic drainage holes in the bottom are functional. Rain or irrigation water is running through the potting soil towards the bottom.  A possible surplus of water is thus easily evacuated through that single hole or the different holes in the bottom.

However, potting soil contains a high number of bigger and smaller cavities, that are filled with air.  When watering a container (pot, bottle, bucket, barrel, etc.), irrigation water is running rather swiftly towards the bottom of the container.  A number of those cavities are thereby filled with water and air is pushed out.  That is visible e.g. when we immerse a pot in a bucket of water: we see the bubbles leaving the potting soil during a short period, until influent water has pushed out most of the air of the bigger cavities. Even if we do not see bubbles leaving the soil anymore, a certain volume of air is the still remaining in the potting soil, namely that in the smallest cavities. 

This means that, when watering a container with the classic drainage hole(s) in the bottom, water will run quickly through the potting soil, moistening that soil for its major part, but not completely.  A lot of precious water will run out of the container through the drainage hole(s) in the bottom and be lost for moistening of our plants. This means that a number of cavities will still be filled with air (leaving those small parts of the potting soil dry).

Now, imagine what will happen if we put the container with holes in the bottom in a recipient, e.g. a bowl.  Water running out of the drainage hole(s) is then collected in the bowl.  From there it will gradually be re-absorbed by the potting soil (and the rootball).  It re-enters our container and after a certain time it moistens the potting soil almost completely.  However, if we exaggerated when watering, too much water will be collected in the bowl and that water will stand there for a longer time, having a negative effect on the roots (e.g. by asphyxiation).

On the contrary, if we did not exaggerate when watering, only a smaller quantity of water will be collected in the bowl, and that quantity will rather quickly re-enter the container, completing the moistening of the potting soil and the rootball.

Considering this phenomenon, it came to my mind that drilling drainage holes in the sidewall should have the same effect as collecting a quantity of irrigation water in that bowl.  My experiments proved the positive effect.

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Photos WVC: 2009-12-30 BOTTLE PREPARATION P1030170.jpg and 2009-12-30 BOTTLE PREPARATION P1030171.jpg

In a first series of experiments I drilled 2 opposite holes (diameter 0,5 cm) in the sidewall of plastic bottles at 2,5 cm above the bottom.  I preferred to get 2 opposite holes, expecting that one of the holes could be clogged.  Somewhat exaggerating the watering, I noticed that a lot of water was running out of the 2 drainage holes.  Nevertheless, the quantity of water kept in the bottom of the bottle was readily moistening the potting soil above, having a positive effect on the growth of the plant in it.  None of the holes was clogged in a first period, but I expected that it could happen when the growing roots would reach the bottom of the bottle.

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Photos WVC: 2010-03-03 BOTTLE PREPARATION (P1030641-P103064 / 2010-03-29 AVOCADO P1030768.jpg and 2010-03-29 AVOCADO P1030765.jpg

Therefore, I have set up a second series of experiments with 2 opposite drainage holes, having a diameter of 1 cm (reducing the risk of clogging).

A third and fourth series of experiments were set up with 2 drainage holes (diameter 1 cm) in the sidewall but respectively at a height of 5,0 cm and 7,5 cm above the bottom.


Finally, I used bigger containers with bigger holes (3 cm) at different height.

My general conclusion of these experiments is that drainage holes in the sidewall of a container are better than the ones in the bottom, because:

(1) one is saving a lot of water (less loss);

(2) one is saving also a quantity of fertilizer (otherwise lost by leaching);

(3) one registers better plant growth

It is obvious that there is a close relationship between the dimension of the container (and thus the volume of the potting soil) and the height of the drainage hole(s) above the bottom.  The higher the holes in the sidewall in small containers, the bigger the risk of asphyxiation and root rot.  One should also determine the optimal diameter of the drainage holes.

Today, I hope that researchers or students will set up scientific studies to determine the optimal method to improve plant growth in containers by taking into account the position and dimension of drainage holes in the sidewall.

Anyway, container gardeners using planters without any drainage holes are hereby recommended to drill those holes not in the bottom, but in the sidewall.

A Way of Agriculture To Manage Both Land Degradation, Groundwater Depletion

Paddy farmers in the field, in Gingee, Tamil Nadu, December 2018. Photo: rajeevrajagopalan/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I have two pots of snake plants of similar age on my balcony, both planted on the same day but with different soil fills. One has cocopeat – coconut shell powder mixed with soil – and the other has regular, local soil, which has lower soil carbon content. This is why the plant growing from cocopeat is taller, has broader and more colourful leaves. Most productive Indian soils have less than 0.6% soil organic carbon; healthy soil should have at least 0.75%. The more the soil’s carbon stock, the healthier the plant, the people and the planet.

On October 2, Rattan Lal, who received the World Food Prize this year, delivered a virtual lecture in which he discussed how gradual soil degradation and loss of soil carbon contributed to the collapse of grand civilisations through history – from the Inca in the Andean region to the Indus Valley civilisation. His point was that a similar fate may await us if we don’t pay more attention to our soils.

According to the recently published Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India, 96.4 million hectares – making up 29% of the country’s total geographic area – became degraded from 2011 to 2013. The most important process of degradation was water erosion, which contributed to 11% of the total degradation.

Why is water, which should be enriching our aquifers, degrading land? Agriculture accounts for 90% of India’s freshwater consumption, and gets this water mostly from the ground. It’s also true that, according to the Central Groundwater Board, some 40% of our groundwater units are not in the ‘safe’ category. Both the Centre and state governments have been attempting different institutional, economic and technological ways to address the problem of groundwater depletion (if they are).

So as such, we are facing a potential crisis on two fronts: groundwater depletion and land degradation led by water erosion. In the longer term, both these forces will also accentuate the effects of climate change. To keep feeding our huge population, as well as export food, one place we need to look is right beneath our feet: the soil.

In this regard, consider the concept called conservation agriculture (CA). It consists of three agro-ecological practices: no ploughing, maintaining a permanent soil mulch or cover, and diversification in the cropping system. CA addresses both water management and checking soil degradation. This system increases water supply by capturing and releasing water in aquifers, with zero-tilled soil acting as a catchment. It also downsizes the crop demand for water by reducing evaporation and transpiration losses.

The 2020 World Water Development Report has endorsed CA for water management. Other alternative sustainable agriculture practices, including zero-budget natural farming, permaculture and direct-seeded rice, also adopt some principles of CA, although not all.

The agro-ecological literature includes many other benefits for farmers, including gradual reduction in fertiliser need, cost-savings and increased yield. According to one well-known paper, authored by Rattan Lal and published in 2004, a gain in carbon stock by one tonne per hectare of degraded land could translate to crop yields of wheat, maize and cowpea increasing by 20-40, 10-20 and 0.5-1 kg, respectively.

Bio-sequestration of carbon, using practices like CA, has the potential to offset 5-15% of the world’s fossil fuel emissions, by reducing 0.4-1.2 gigatonnes of carbon per year. Covering the soil with residue could also reduce the soil’s temperature by 4-5º C.

But for all these benefits, a continuous, zero-till CA system has yet to find widespread adoption within India.

In my experience working with farmers, as part of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, I have noticed a few barriers. First, the CA system is site-specific; it is not a “one size fits all” approach. It requires farmer-led testing plots at each new site, and which can then be scaled up gradually. Second, many farmers believe that tillage or ploughing is necessary for crop cultivation, and ploughing requires both farmers and extension workers to be trained.

Third, it is difficult to manage weeds. In June this year, for example, The Tribune reported that paddy farmers in Punjab rejected direct-seeding because “they require more seeds and have to spray weedicides twice, so the input cost doesn’t reduce” as was “being advertised” by the state agriculture department. In this regard, the support of the government and civil society is vital. Fourth, it’s important to have enough mulch or residue to keep the soil covered – but farmers typically burn this material.

Finally, farmers need the right kind of mechanisation to practice zero-tillage. Some solutions already exist, such as the multi-crop ‘Happy Seeder’ and jab-planter for smaller plots. Adopting CA could also provide opportunities to introduce small mechanised zero-till implements; mechanised, tractor-based tillage accounts for about 22% of mechanisation in Indian agriculture.

India’s precarious groundwater situation, land degradation and the threat of climate change all together make CA a desirable proposition – at least if we intend to tackle these challenges without comprising our agricultural productivity.

Gurpreet Singh is a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Management in Agriculture, IIM Ahmedabad. His PhD thesis is on water-saving technologies in agriculture in India, with a special focus on conservation agriculture and micro-irrigation.

Taking resilient food security to scale means supporting innovation among millions of farmers over millions of hectares


Photo credit: Agroforestry World

Panelists representing participating organisations. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/ Susan Onyango

GEF-funded program on resilient food security targets smallholder farmers in 12 African countries

Africa’s population is expected to double from 1.26 billion today to over two and half billion by 2050, little more than 30 years from now. At the same time, land degradation, loss of biodiversity and the effects of climate change pose increasing challenges to the continent’s agriculture sector, particularly smallholder farmers.  If left unchecked, these challenges will threaten the food security of millions of people, particularly in the drylands. Affected countries will require national policies and farmer practices that safeguard food production, as well as frameworks for mutual cooperation across the agricultural and environmental sectors, if they are to ensure the sustainability and resilience required to feed their people.

A smallholder farmer with his fruit tree seedlings. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Ake Mamo –×510.jpg

In an effort to address these multiple challenges, more than 80 government and development sector experts met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 5 July 2017, to launch the Integrated Approach Programme on Fostering Sustainability and Resilience for Food Security in sub-Saharan Africa. Financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the 5-year, USD 116 million programme is designed to promote sustainability and resilience among small holder farmers through the sustainable management of natural resources – land, water, soils and genetic resources – that are crucial for food and nutrition security. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is the  lead agency with the Programme Coordination Unit hosted by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) at their headquarters in Nairobi. Bioversity International, UN Environment, UNDP, FAO, World Bank, UNIDO, AGRA and Conservation International are all involved.

Number of people needing humanitarian assistance on the rise


Photo credit: FAO

A livestock owner in Kenya with his remaining cattle after drought killed two-thirds of his herd.

FAO issues alert over third consecutive failed rainy season, worsening hunger in East Africa

14 July 2017, Rome – Poor rains across East Africa have worsened hunger and left crops scorched, pastures dry and thousands of livestock dead – according to an alert released today by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The most affected areas, which received less than half of their normal seasonal rainfall, are central and southern Somalia, southeastern Ethiopia, northern and eastern Kenya, northern Tanzania and northeastern and southwestern Uganda.

Poor rains across East Africa have worsened hunger and left crops scorched, pastures dry and thousands of livestock dead – according to an alert released today by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The most affected areas, which received less than half of their normal seasonal rainfall, are central and southern Somalia, southeastern Ethiopia, northern and eastern Kenya, northern Tanzania and northeastern and southwestern Uganda.

The alert issued by FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) warns that the third consecutive failed rainy season has seriously eroded families’ resilience, and urgent and effective livelihood support is required.

“This is the third season in a row that families have had to endure failed rains – they are simply running out of ways to cope,” said FAO’s Director of Emergencies Dominique Burgeon. “Support is needed now before the situation rapidly deteriorates further.” 

Increasing humanitarian need

The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance in the five aforementioned countries, currently estimated at about 16 million, has increased by about 30 percent since late 2016. In Somalia, almost half of the total population is food insecure.  Timely humanitarian assistance has averted famine so far but must be sustained. Conditions across the region are expected to further deteriorate in the coming months with the onset of the dry season and an anticipated early start of the lean season.

Read the full article: FAO

Key to food and nutrition security



Linking up the SDGs: the key to food and nutrition security

The latest United Nations population projections released in June 2017 suggest that there will be 9.8 billion people by 2050, an increase of 2.4 billion people over 2015 estimates. That means that our population is growing faster than the last several rounds of UN projections for 2050 suggested. This growth will be concentrated in the so-called Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and the African continent, but the number of people in India, Indonesia, Pakistan and the United States is also expected to increase.

This projected population growth both heightens the need for the Sustainable Development Goals while simultaneously making them more difficult to achieve. The locations where population growth is likely to happen are also areas subject to increased exposure to climate extremes, civil conflicts, high levels of natural resource degradation and poor infrastructure development. Government resources in the poorest countries experiencing rapid population growth will be most constrained and basic needs, including food security and nutrition, are in peril. The FAO confirmed at their biennial conference in July that, currently, 19 countries are facing severe food crises due to a combination of conflict and climate change.

How can strong, positive progress on the SDGs be made under these daunting circumstances? A new report by the International Council for Science (ICSU), titled A Guide to SDG Interactions: From Science to Implementation, will be presented during the July 10-19 session of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) at the United Nations in New York and provides some useful answers.

 Read the full article: CGIAR

Legume seed systems in Nigeria


Photo credit: ICRISAT

Participants at the workshop. Photo: OC Akerele


An action plan for the 2017 cropping season for groundnut and cowpea was drawn up at a training workshop to strengthen the capacities of stakeholders in the legumes value chain in Nigeria.

The training centered around five specific objectives:

  • Strategy to increase production and productivity of groundnut and cowpea to meet the Nigerian seed road map target;
  • Appropriate data collection using updated digital tools;
  • Strengthening of seed dissemination pathway (formal and informal seed sector);
  • Developing a seed business plan and marketing strategy; and
  • Developing policies and regulations related to seed development.

The key issues identified for implementation are as follows:

Read the full article: ICRISAT

Investment in Small-Scale Agriculture



Report Encourages Investment in Small-Scale Agriculture

The More and Better Network recently published a report, Investments in Small-Scale Sustainable Agriculture, shedding light on the lack of financial investment plans available to small-scale food producers across the globe. The More and Better Network is an international network for support of food, agriculture, and rural development to eradicate hunger and poverty, and this report emphasizes the major challenges small-scale food producers face in maintaining their businesses and enhancing food security, as well as the importance of community organization.

According to the United Nations Global Compact, small-scale agriculture provides food for approximately 70 percent of the world’s population. Additionally, there are approximately 2 billion people living in poverty in developing countries that depend on some form of agriculture for their livelihoods, according to the Initiative for Smallholder Finance. While small-scale producers are shown here to play a major role in global food systems, The More and Better Network highlights that global investments in small-scale agriculture constitute a small share of governmental budgets and investments in developing countries, which results in a decline in food security and an increase in overall hunger and poverty levels.

To illustrate this, the report draws on statistics published by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which states that, globally, governments have allocated less than two percent of central government expenditures to small-scale agricultural development between 2001 and 2015; and, that Official Development Assistance (ODA) —which refers to the flow of international financial aid for developing countries— for agriculture declined by 50 percent globally by 2004.

Read the full article: Food Tank

Crop irrigation with untreated wastewater


Photo credit: IWMI

Basudev Mondal irrigates a farm near the busy EM Bypass road of Calcutta, India growing brinjal or egg plant. Photo: Chhandak Pradhan / IWMI

Crop irrigation with untreated wastewater

A major health and environmental menace

The use of wastewater to irrigate crops is far more widespread than previously estimated, according to a new study, exposing hundreds of millions of people to health risks and posing a major environmental hazard.

Study results, based on on advanced modeling methods, show that 65% of all irrigated areas within 40 kilometers downstream from urban centers – amounting to about 35.9 million hectares (Mha) worldwide – are affected by wastewater flows to a large degree. Of this total area, 29.3 Mha are in countries where wastewater treatment is very limited, exposing 885 million urban consumers as well as farmers and food vendors to serious health risks.

Five countries – China, India, Pakistan, Mexico and Iran – account for most of this cropland. The new findings supersede a widely cited 2004 estimate, based on case studies in some 70 countries and expert opinion, which had put the cropland area irrigated with wastewater at a maximum of 20 million hectares.

Read the full article: IWMI

Jamaican Farmer Field Schools and drought


Photo credit: Foodtank

Surviving the Drought with Jamaican Farmer Field Schools

Since winning the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition’s YES! Competitionlast year, Shaneica Lester and Anne-Teresa Birthwright now run a knowledge transfer project for small-scale farmers in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. Lester and Birthwright’s program, which focuses on irrigation conservation education, provides farmers with skills and education necessary to combat drought-related issues that impact their lands.

Lester and Birthwright’s Irrigation Farmer Field Schools (IFFS) include lessons on water conservation, understanding climate change, soil and water management, and ecosystem analysis. Through participating in the IFFS program, Jamaican farmers learn about technologies and techniques that can be directly applied to their fields and adapted to suit their needs, providing farmers with agency to decide how to manage their land and allocate their resources.

“We wanted to avoid a top-down approach and instead encourage self-empowerment within rural communities. A participatory approach allows farmers to be a part of their own solution by contributing their knowledge and expertise, as well as their perception and understanding of climate change,” Lester and Birthwright said in an interview with Food Tank.

Small farmers drive Jamaica’s agricultural sector and ensure the nation’s food security. When researching the challenges experienced by small rural farmers, Lester and Birthwright discovered that drought was the primary leading factor causing Jamaicans to quit farming and preventing young people from wanting to farm.

Read the full article: Foodtank

More investments in sustainable rural development required


Photo credit: FAO

Turning political will on ending hunger into action requires strong focus on national strategies, including to those on nutrition, health and education policies.

Achieving Zero Hunger by 2030 requires turning political will into concrete actions

Achieving the international community’s goal of eradicating hunger and malnutrition by 2030 is indeed possible, but this requires a scaling up of action, including greater investments in agriculture and sustainable rural development, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said.

Speaking at a side event on Zero Hunger at the FAO Conference, Graziano da Silva pointed to some stark facts and figures.

“Today more than 800 million people are still chronically undernourished … and unfortunately the number has started to grow again,” the FAO Director-General said.

Around 155 million children under five are stunted – close to a quarter of the total while 1.9 billion people are overweight, of which at least 500 million are obese and 2 billion suffer from micronutrient deficiency, he added.

While progress in combating the related scourges of poverty and hunger has been made in recent decades, these achievements are at risk of being reversed as conflict, population growth, climate change and changing dietary patterns, all pose new challenges, Graziano da Silva said.

He noted that the world is facing “one of the largest humanitarian crises ever” with more than 20 million people at risk of famine in four countries: North Eastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen.

An enabling policy and institutional environment

Graziano da Silva noted that the 2030 Agenda calls for strong commitment to national decision-making and greater self-reliance by Member States, underscoring how “we are seeing this happen with regional initiatives and organizations playing a substantial role.”

He cited the Malabo Declaration adopted by African Union leaders to end hunger in Africa by 2025 and also referred to the strong commitment to food security made by countries in the Asia and Pacific region and in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Turning political will into action requires a stronger focus on national strategies, including to those relating to nutrition, health and education policies. The FAO Director-General called for enhancing governance and coordination mechanisms to facilitate dialogue and create incentives for different sectors and stakeholders to work together and to sharpen the focus of Zero Hunger initiatives. “For that, decision-makers need solid and relevant evidence, including statistics and monitoring data,” he added.

“And last but not least, we have to significantly increase investments,” Graziano da Silva said. 

Read the full article: FAO

New zinc-enriched high-yielding wheat


Photo credit: CIMMYT

Hans-Joachim Braun (left, white shirt), director of the global wheat program at CIMMYT, Maqsood Qamar (center), wheat breeder at Pakistan’s National Agricultural Research Center, Islamabad, and Muhammad Imtiaz (right), CIMMYT wheat improvement specialist and Pakistan country representative, discussing seed production of Zincol. Photo: Kashif Syed/CIMMYT.

Farmers in Pakistan benefit from new zinc-enriched high-yielding wheat

Farmers in Pakistan are eagerly adopting a nutrient-enhanced wheat variety offering improved food security, higher incomes, health benefits and a delicious taste.

Known as Zincol and released to farmers in 2016, the variety provides harvests as abundant as those for other widely grown wheat varieties, but its grain contains 20 percent more zinc, a critical micronutrient missing in the diets of many poor people in South Asia.

Due to these benefits and its delicious taste, Zincol was one of the top choices among farmers testing 12 new wheat varieties in 2016.

“I would eat twice as many chappatis of Zincol as of other wheat varieties,” said Munib Khan, a farmer in Gujar Khan, Rawalpindi District, Punjab Province, Pakistan, referring to its delicious flavor.

Khan has been growing Zincol since its release. In 2017, he planted a large portion of his wheat fields with the seed, as did members of the Gujar Khan Seed Producer Group to which he belongs.

Read the full article: CIMMYT

Solar irrigation pumps in Ethiopia

A farmers in Lemo woreda with his newly installed solar irrigation pump (photo credit: IWMI/ Petra Schmitter). –


Expanding use of solar irrigation pumps in Ethiopia

In the first phase of the Africa RISING project in the Ethiopian highlands, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) investigated technologies that could improve farmers’ access and use of the available water in their surroundings for better agricultural production and productivity. Water scarcity and lack of technologies for accessing and managing available water are major constraints to farming in Ethiopia.

Starting in August 2015, IWMI introduced and tested the effectiveness of water lifting technologies such as solar-powered irrigation pumps that help farmers’ easily access water from near their farms. The solar pump-based irrigation was tested in the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Region. Farmers from the Upper Gana and Jawe kebeles used these pumps to irrigate fodder (oats and vetch mixed cropping) for their animals and fruits and vegetables farms in the dry seasons.

An assessment showed that most of the farmers used the pumps to lift water for domestic purposes and agriculture across seasons. They claimed improved production and productivity; saved labour and time and improved access to clean water.

To expand these benefits to more farmers, IWMI, the Solar Development PLC (the main supplier of solar pumps in Ethiopia) and partners are working together to accelerate wider adoption of the technology as a key goal of the second phase (2017-2021) of the Africa RISING project.

Read the full article: Africa Rising

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