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Wednesday, 2 September 2015

What Uganda needs to achieve the much needed demographic dividend

On the 11th July, 2015, Uganda Celebrated World Population day, an event hosted in Sembabule district.  The Global Theme was: “Vulnerable Populations in Emergencies”, and local theme was Prioritizing Community Transformation: Addressing the needs of Vulnerable Populations".
Policy wheels for creating and earning the demographic dividend
Demography in Uganda is a very vital matter given the population structure and has an impact on education, health, job creation and nature of economic reforms an economy under takes, governance and accountability among others.

One of the participants of a Youth Debate organised by UNFPA and STF shares his view on teenage pregnancy and male involvement​. Photo by: Els Dehantschutter
The above variables are all function of a sustainable population. Such can be achieved when young people are not only improved in "human quality" but also empowered and given a chance to make critical decisions about their social life and sexual choices among others.
   A local school performing on World Population Day 2015​. Photo by: Els Dehantschutter
With the above, inter-playing factors the above factors in the best manner, Uganda can achieve a demographic dividend with positive help from partners like UNDP Uganda, UNFPA Uganda and other sexual reproductive health organizations.
          A young woman receiving information on Sexual Reproductive Health​: Photo  by: Els Dehantschutter

An OpED elucidating how Uganda can use this window period as a growth accelerator was published in the New Vision on 26th August, 2016 written by same author. 

Thursday, 6 August 2015

The World May Not be ready for its Next Epidemic

By Sam Agona

By 1918 as the Great War (World War 1) was ending, men got out of deep trenches where living conditions could not be imagined to get any worse. Something flared up as benevolent as any other cold, the influenza pandemic was breaking out, and by 1919, it had killed as estimated 40 million people, effectively obsoleting the record hitherto set by the four-year Black Death Bubonic Plague of 1347 to 1351 synonymously called Spanish Flu.

A ward full of patients of victims of Influenza 1918

Far from the normal cold, an outlandish scourge out to ravage earth had broken loose. Influenza. In two years it went on to affect a fifth of the world's population with its wrath being most felt by people between 20 and 40 years. An estimated 675,000 Americans died of the influenza pandemic, ten times as many as in the world war; half of Americans who died in Europe did not fall to the enemy’s bullet but to influenza virus. Medics watched patients die trying to clear their wind pipe of blood-tinged froth, sometimes a patient’s mouth gashed with blood. Physicians of the time were helpless against the dominant agent of influenza. Most of humanity felt the effect of this influenza strain; it followed path of its human carriers, along trade routes and shipping lines. Outbreaks swept through North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Brazil and the South Pacific. In India the mortality rate was extremely hefty with about 50 deaths per 1,000 people. One thing underlined, the world was not ready for the epidemic.

The 2014 Ebola epidemic has been terrible. The bright spot is that, on March 5, 2015 Liberia had released the last known Ebola patient but an infection re0ccured on March 20th, a single case easier to treat. Between 1976 when Ebola was first reported till 2013, it had killed about 1500 people in totality, countries however did not take great leaps to improve on response strategies to the virus; this time, 24,340 people have been infected with Ebola since December, 2013 and over 10,000 have died. Just like response in the pre-1918 influenza outbreak, affected countries were not only unprepared but had no response systems in place. In West Africa, financial accountability of Ebola funds has generated tremendous audit queries in Sierra Leone mainly.
                                           Construction of an Ebola response center in Libera early 2015

Like in the Ebola stricken countries, most poor countries do not have systematic disease surveillance mechanisms deployed; even after an emergency is evident, mobilizing trained personnel for areas of need which should be within days is not possible. In West Africa affected countries were handicapped, only turning to look at not-for-profit groups like Doctors-Without-Borders for response. This means one thing, the world is not ready to respond to its next epidemic. Currently, much of the debate about response to Ebola has been whether WHO, CDC and others could have responded better.

As Gates Foundation puts it, central to the discussion should not be how systems were insufficient, but how there hardly any systems in totality. Just like in pre-influenza 1918 when countries could not conduct research on imminent diseases due to warring tensions; today, vaccine labs work based on market demand and cannot continue conducting extensive research on Ebola in times when there are no infections; simply because demand plummets. The world is always resuscitated by the scathing fact that there is no Ebola vaccine when a virulent outbreak occurs. Several Ebola vaccines were first conceived more than a decade ago but then shelved. As Dr. Jeremy Farrar of Wellcome Trust puts it, medical-research, pharmaceutical and global-health communities have hardly dragged their heels as the past year’s epidemic progressed, nor did affected governments, donor governments and private philanthropists; coupled with lack of consensus on agreement over trail protocols caused further delays.

Decisively, today, world has 7+ 1 billion people with unpredictable mobility; people who are dynamic in character and behavior; people whose life patterns tend towards impatience; people with human desire accompanied by peculiar responses to the respective desires; on several occasions getting uptight and up-close without knowing either’s name. People are moving for various businesses, conferences, holiday, almost as much as demographic changes that were created by the Great War. Just as humans were carrier to influenza, today each human is potentially vulnerable to or is potentially a carrier to a virus or disease they barely even know. Unless human health surveillance systems are globally improved, human are at risk more than ever before.

Twitter: @samagona

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Global Health Corps: Understanding Uganda’s MDG Progress

By Sam Agona

This year 2015 marks the end of MDGs implementation. Recognisable success has been hit on all the eight goals however there is still a lot to be done to continue with progress as well as sustaining what have so far been achieved.

Ending poverty by 2015 was one of Uganda's goals; much as nominal face of poverty looks to have reduced but in real sense poverty has increased due to excessive inflationary tendencies and reduction in the level of ownership of property such as land, animals and several property that is non monetary.
Read on. 

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Tobacco! Why continue growing?

After WHO reporting that non communicable disease will be the leading cause of death in low and middle income countries such as Uganda by 2030 (currently at 4.9 million deaths annually from a cigarette smoking population of 1.1 billion). Such a statistic convinced the Parliament of Uganda’s Committee on Health to table the Tobacco Control Bill 2014. Among other factors, such occurrences cause market changes thus affecting its purchase from the local farmers. Controversially however; it has not caused a proportionate slump in growing and farming of tobacco. The purpose of this piece is to understand why farmers continue to grow tobacco even amidst the poor market conditions compared to other cash crops.
                                                     Man expending his time in  his tobacco field (Photo by: AP)
It is inarguable that tobacco farming has become undesirable but it is also clear that we still have a long way to go since tobacco is still grown across the country and it is still a major cash crop grown by about 75,000 farmers in 25 districts in Uganda; the farmers are sporadically spread over West Nile, Bunyoro, middle - northern and south-western Uganda.

In Arua, Terego and Maracha, in every ten plantations, eight are for tobacco. In Maracha, the populace holds that almost all people who got decent education achieved their feat due to income from tobacco sales thus a practice not worth ditching. In Arua, people believe that tobacco is the main livelihood source and the least they are willing to do is stopping to grow it.
Most farmers are attached to a tobacco buyer. In West Nile, most of them are working for British American Tobacco (BAT) whose license was cancelled. These buying companies give farmers loans that are used to buy fertilizers and other inputs needed in tobacco growing. So this has tied farmers to stay in the tobacco business, even when willing to move on. A 2012 report by Centre for Tobacco Control in Africa (CTCA) shows that tobacco cultivation is a labor - intensive process that hastily drains soil nutrients and requires tremendous use of pesticides and fertilizers.
                                                       Students visiting a tobacco garden as field exercise (Internet: Photo)
Tobacco growth largely depends on weather and will thrive in the rainy season, any reduction in rainfall means one thing; facing losses head-on.  During times Mother Nature does not smile at them, they automatically face losses. The leaves are also highly affected by hailstorms. Further, unlike food crops like tomatoes, cabbages, groundnuts which mature in three months, tobacco requires an amorous seven months to grow therefore a farmer can only afford a single season.

Conclusively, agricultural bodies need to come up with a workable farmer education plan. Creating financial literacy, change strategy and availing alternative food crops to tobacco. Farmers need to understand and be made appreciate the alternatives they have to tobacco.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

A year after: Revisiting 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa

By Sam Agona

It is one year since Ebola broke out in West Africa and this piece in the New Vision gives a view on state of the Health Systems in West Africa prior to the outbreak and how the response behaved. 

An Ebola Care Centre constructed in Liberia as a response strategy

A woman showing signs of Ebola stretched off to an Ebola Care Center in Liberia

As a communication strategy, a salon car being used to inform people about Ebola (Photo by CDC Global)

An Ebola Travel Questionnaire used at entry point by countries to prevent the spread of Ebola into other countries.

In Sierra Leone, hand washing was emphasized by scaling access to washing equipment

                                   Posters used in West Sierra Leone to inform people about Ebola

 A member of the Ebola response team being disinfected as they remove their protective equipment

Boots used by Ebola team response group, part of their Protective Equipment washed and spread to dry. 

A rapid diagnostic tool for Ebola that was initially tested in Guinea; at the peak of infection, diagnosis was taking up to days, this did not only make treatment a challenge but once an Ebola suspect showed signs of infection, delay in testing meant they stayed infectious for longer periods and yet not proved.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Uganda’s journey in leveraging internet access through NBI; but forgot the local Citizen

By Sam Agona 
In 2008 Uganda launched the National Backbone Project under Ministry of ICT. This project involved laying optic fiber cables interconnecting major towns around the country and was expected to lead to enormous benefits including but not limited to low cost access to connectivity and near ubiquitous connectivity within Uganda. However till date, this seems not to have materialized as expected.

Precisely the objectives of the project included establishing a national backbone; connecting all ministries in a single Wide area network; establishing a government data center and connecting 28 major districts in Uganda to the backbone. Its expected outputs included having all government Ministries connected; e-government services implemented, 28 districts/towns connected to national backbone.
And in turn, the outputs were expected to lead to improved communication between government ministries; improved services delivery by government ministries; reduced cost of communications; increased economic development and subsequently a reduction in poverty.

                                               Cables being rolled out on the streets (Internet Photo)

And after the first phase, the achievements included having ministries connected to e-government network; there is video conferencing services rolled out in all Ministries; Kampala, Entebbe, Bombo, Mukono and Jinja connected to national backbone and 183 Km of optical fibre cable laid; this is a very forward strategy however in the whole plan, citizenry, the local tax payer was not catered for.
This project drew a lot of political clout, as can be shown in part of the budget speech on 12th June, 2014 where the Minister of Finance of Uganda, Maria Kiwanuka read this statement in reference to the ICT sector;

“This sector is achieving increasing importance as a support to the other sectors. It is no longer a sector on its own but it is an input to health, education, business and trade, agriculture and weather forecasting. During the year just ending, we have completed construction of two phases of the National Transmission Backbone Infrastructure which has improved internet connectivity at an affordable cost. This has reduced the cost of bandwidth to $ 300 per megabit per second per month, down from $600 prevailing on the market. Bulk internet bandwidth agreements have been signed with Government institutions with 18 ministries so far being supplied with cheaper bandwidth. I encourage the private sector to utilise the infrastructure in order to reduce their ICT costs of doing business and enhance their efficiency and profitability”.

But again, let us reverse to circumstances surrounding the roll out of NBI. In the 2012 National ICT Policy for Uganda, a lot was promised with section 3.2.1 a) vividly stating “Extension of the national backbone infrastructure to cover the entire country as well as addressing last mile challenges”. The policy went on to state much more but the interest of this blog is to discuss how local internet access has been affected by inability to scale up networks links to last mile beyond Ugandan government structures.

In 2008, NBI was managed by Ministry of ICT however by 2010, NITA-U got operational but had a lot to clear out with the then Minister of ICT Dr. Ham Muliira. Initial designs rotated around having a greater capacity of the NBI links dedicated to inter-connecting government ministries, establishing video conferencing, VoIP services, mailing facilities among others. Government to government communications is very important however, there needs to be an expeditious way of improvising capacity for local citizens whose businesses and ventures would heavily benefit from the backbone capacity, therefore the whole point of having an e-government has not allowed the effect of the NBI trickle down to the local man. Worse still, in the country side, the effect of the NBI has not been seen. Major regional offices in up country districts either do not have connectivity at all or the office holders are using 3G data modems which is a reflection of an insufficiency in the implementation of a well written policy.

On paper, the ICT policy put up measures that would help scale internet access to citizens; an implementation of this would help organisations and individuals who need reliable internet connectivity to run their ventures such as countryside hubs,   media reporters, and other users of through mass usage of online facilities. The last mile connectivity has not worked at local government level as was supposed to be.

                                                  Cables used in NBI (Photo by: Daily Monitor)

With the NBI capacity reaching the local users, the cost of 1mbps internet link would be no more than $50.00, but the inability of the cable effect to provide service to the last man  has left a service void which is  exploited by private telecom companies charging an average of $600.00 for the same link capacity. This still explains why in areas like northern Uganda, Zoom, private service provision firms have stepped in to provide service. In Kampala, recently launched Smart Telecom has intensively capitalised on data services. If the NBI had met its objectives, probably much of the connectivity services would have been provided by the government backbone than private firms which tend to provide service at a high cost.  This high  internet costs, this affects the level of content search by researchers and people interested in learning such as students, people and institutions creating content and need to share and at the same time, it has made it challenging and expensive for content creators, bloggers, publishers and other professionals in that line to expose their work using internet services.

Uganda Communications Commission responsible for licensing telecommunications service providers in Uganda is making it difficult to license other firms (service providers) trying to enter into the data provision market. This is because, the more the service providers, the lower the costs of service could most likely become. Data services in Uganda is the cash cow of the industry and seemingly the regulator (UCC) would not want it tampered with by new entrants who most likely can tilt market balance  against already established market players. Based on this backdrop, new entrants will be frustrated and service will stay limited for a longer period.

Conclusively, the limited and high cost of internet service in Uganda is majorly because the implementing bodies of the National Backbone Infrastructure (NBI) did not put much consideration into the populace. This is probably because the RCDF spearheaded by UCC is working on last mile connectivity. If we are to base on RCDF to roll out connectivity throughout Uganda, this may take a while to be felt. . Several district local government offices still do not have any connectivity; there is not much effort towards achieving final connectivity at the districts. Cost of internet is still very high, something that has frustrated much hope that Ugandans had in the optic fiber cable (NBI). However, if priorities are realigned and the objectives followed, the next few years could see Uganda having gigabytes of bandwidth and increased access and usage of internet. 

This article appeared on the Global Voices website. 

Friday, 13 February 2015

Why your favorite FM Radio Station suffers so much noise from “neighboring” Stations

By Sam Agona

With the opening up of the airwaves, almost all major towns in Uganda have a local radio station of their own. Some towns however have more than the others with Kampala peaking in number of radios 57 out of about 260 radio stations (Source: UCC, 2011).

                Uganda Communications Commission, the body responsible for licensing radios in Uganda 

Uganda Communications Commission takes action against radio stations that interfere with airwaves of their “neighbors”, but the problem has still remained mainly among stations in Kampala. This is caused by one or a combination of the following;

A typical interior of an interview room in a Radio Station

Co-channel interference; because there is no such thing as an exclusive channel in the world of radio, there always will be situations where you have somebody else on your channel. Hopefully, this co-channel user is hundreds of miles away from your coverage area, but that is not always the case. The best thing you can do is avoid applying for a channel that is being used by another licensee in close proximity to you. In most situations, however, that cannot be accomplished.
If the co-channel station is more than 12 dB below your RF-signal level, interference will be minimal. If it is less than 12 dB below your RF-signal level, mitigation techniques can be used including moving to the opposite side of the tower, lowering the antenna height, changing CTCSS or DCS codes, lowering power levels, reducing receiver sensitivity, adding attenuators, or a combination of these items.
Adjacent-channel interference; such interference generally is a factor of how strong the signal being received by the adjacent channel is compared with the strength of the desired signal. Most receivers allow up to a 60 dB difference in strength between the desired signal and the adjacent-channel signal before there is degradation to the former. Same mitigation techniques as co-channel interference are relevant.

                                       Peter Otai of Magic FM during his Radio Show

Transmitter noise; all transmitters put out noise on the frequencies close to the operating frequency of the transmitter. If you have a receiver that is within 200 kHz of a transmitter frequency, and in close physical proximity, you probably do have transmitter noise affecting your receiver signal’s minimum threshold. Distance and special filters usually are used to correct this kind of problem. You may need to move the receiver away from the transmitter site.

Harmonics; All transmitters and some other devices put out harmonics when power is applied. The number of harmonics produced can range from 2 to 10; the greater the number, the greater the signal distortion. An example of a harmonic-caused problem would be a transmitter operating at 152.1 MHz. If a receiver at the same site was operating at 456.3 MHz, it would hear the VHF transmitter, no matter what you did to filter the VHF signal out of the UHF signal. Good low-pass or other filters normally fix these kinds of problems.

Radio-frequency interference can be minimized by using the correct protection device for the circumstance.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

What next after 18 years of Universal Primary Education? Case: Uganda

By Sam Agona

The last 20 years has seen the developing world trying to leverage access to primary education. It increased literacy levels but might have just not achieved all desired. 

      Children on Kaaza Island on Lake Victoria study their primary education under UPE

Buildings like this have been raised in Ugandan schools but not fully utilized

                                                        Numbers increased with UPE 

Classes have still remained partially empty even with resources provided. 

Monday, 26 January 2015

Post Girl Child Summit rejuvenates passion for Girl Child Advocacy in Uganda

January 22nd, 2015 saw UNFPA Uganda, UNICEF Uganda and DFID UK come together for a common cause; advocating for the ending of female genital mutilation, child and forced marriages in Uganda. While this phenomenon sounds more of a rural problem, several testimonies were recorded from urban areas too. Numerous indications of challenges faced by the girl child were made by teenagers who attended the summit however the girls were only a handful fraction of girls who face several challenges in Uganda.

Young girls like the pictured are at highly at risk (Photo Credit: UNICEF Uganda)

As Rachael Ninsiima notes, in Uganda, less than 1% of girls who give birth below 18, do attain a university degree by age 30; a trend that also affects their children’s education cycle. About 60% of children born to teen mothers earn elementary education compared to 80% of children of later child bearers.
Teenagers Judith mentioned that child and forced marriages are as a result mistreatment from step-mothers making young girls go out to look for comfort; Jolly echoed that bad peer groups cause girls to think they are in love yet they (girls) are still young; Sheila on the other hand, resonated that poverty has a great deal in promoting child marriage, because men contribute financially to the girl's family. On a conservative note, one girl disparaged that culture was giving parents a leeway to marry off girls at young age, further contextualizing it by citing that girls of Indian heritage were married off to ensure they commit to one man while young. 
The Author however, thinks young girls are pushed out of school to marry early as an alternate means to the tedious schooling/ education process in Uganda. According to ANPPCAN 2010, enrollment rates in primary schools stood at 97.1%, dropout rates stood at 67.6% of the enrolled percentage; with girl child secondary enrolment at a paltry 21%. Further disparaging is the prevalence of corporal punishment in several schools regardless of government ban in 2011, thus some form of institutionalized violence meted against school going teenagers by both teachers and parents, making school undesirable.
                  Miss Uganda, Leah Kalanguka speaking words of inspiration to young girls (Photo Credit: UNICEF Uganda)

According to Uwezo 2010, only 4% of P.3 pupils could read a P.2 level story fluently, showing how challenging education is to some pupils. This forces girls to look for easy options in marriage; partly accounting for 7,564 defilement cases reported in Uganda Annual Crime and Crime Report, 2010. The rise in child abuse rates has been aggravated by an inverse in prosecution rates. Markedly, out of the defilement cases reported to police in 2010, only 3,401 (45%) were taken to court, leaving a total of 4,163 (55%) cases either dropped or not followed up.
Worth recalling is that, the MDGs 2015 planned for girl children and women generally. As a signatory to Beijing Platform of Action following the 54th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women of March 2nd, 2010, Uganda is committed to not only promoting but also achieving MDG.3, promotion of gender equality and women empowerment. Women cannot be strong figures in society when girl children are being violated by parties supposed to protect them. The National Development Plan of Uganda spells out a set of cultural practices and perceptions that are negative towards girls’ elevation.

        Girls telling their story using music dance and drama joined by Minister Karoro Okurut (Photo Credit: UNFPA Uganda)

Despite the NDP, gender based violence continues to be a major concern in rural Uganda. According to Sexual and Reproductive Health Report, 2013 at least 59% of women who have ever been married experience some form of physical or sexual violence. Women comprise about 70% agricultural population, they experience unequal access to, and control over, productive resources, notably land, limiting their ability to raise productivity and move out of subsistence agriculture. Such a situation is exacerbated in circumstances where young women are forcefully married to men; they are void of bargaining power to own any resources, creating a vicious circle of an uncouth situation.

Such perpetuations are what UNFPA Uganda, UNICEF Uganda and DFID UK are out to fight. To that end, Sustainable Development Goals need to prioritize the girl child to create end to this uncouth cycle.