Category Archives: Opinion Articles

CANCER IN KENYA: HAVE THE CHICKENS COME HOME TO ROOST?

According to the World Cancer Research Fund International, Kenya ranks 49th in the top 50 countries with the highest the occurrence in cancer among women. This is quite alarming since we know that there are many cancer cases that go undetected in our country due to lack of screening facilities. Many countries on this list rank very high because of their effectiveness in detecting cancer cases in their population and it is indeed sad to think we might rank higher in this list if each and every cancer case was detected in Kenya. According to the Kenyan Network of Cancer Organizations, only a paltry 20-30% of cancer cases are detected on time due to lack of diagnostic equipment.

Talking to many Kenyans, you get this idea that each and every family has a story about a relative who has died from cancer, is fighting cancer or in those rare cases survived cancer. This gets one wondering whether the increase in cancer cases is a case where the chickens have come home to roost due to our daily exposure to carcinogens or even simply the change in our diet and lifestyles.

Speculative Nature of Cancer Causes

It is extremely tricky to determine the cause of many forms of cancer on an individual. With many cancer cases, you cannot definitively apply the principle of cause and effect and causes are speculative at best in most cases. To make it worse, some scientists think that occurrence of cancer might even have more to do with our genetic predisposition than external factors. In certain cases such as lung cancer, cause and effect is more direct since we know if you smoke the likelihood of you developing lung cancer is high. But based on research, exposure to certain culprits such as asbestos  or chemicals in cigarettes offer a direct correlation to the occurrence of cancer. Furthermore, it can take even decades to develop cancer after exposure to cancer causing agents. This is unlike chronic diseases such as diabetes where it is easy to diagnose and treat.

Escalation in Cancer Cases for our Parents’ Generation

Growing up, cancer did not seem to be everyone’s conversation as it is today. This leads one to wonder whether cancer in our parents’ generation is as a result of those chemicals they used in our dips or sprayers to kill ticks; pesticides to treat coffee, preserve maize and beans; herbicides to kill weeds or fertilizers; banned chemicals such as DDT or even Doom for killing mosquitoes. Could it be just the transition from eating good-old fashioned natural foods of our grandparents to processed foods that are now easily available in our supermarkets?

This is a question that scientists in Kenya will need to answer if the upward trajectory of cancer cases is to be stopped.

How about Prevention?

But how do you prevent a disease for which you do not definitively know the real cause?

Probably erring on the side of caution might be the best way forward for us for now, taking precautions when we handle chemicals and trying to incorporate natural foods to our daily diets.

According to Cancer Research UK, 4 in 10 cases of cancer are preventable by doing the following (This is also supported by a nearly identical list by Mayo Clinic a top hospital in the world when it comes to cancer treatment):

  1. Not smoking
  2. Keeping a healthy body weight
  3. Eating a healthy, balanced diet
  4. Cutting back on alcohol
  5. Enjoying the sun safely
  6. Keeping active
  7. Observe safety precautions when using any kind of chemical

A weekend away from the ever-increasing smog and smoke in our major cities might also do the trick especially when it comes to lung cancer.

And then, unfortunately, we have to leave the thorny issue of genetic predisposition to God and hopefully genetic engineering of the future.

OPINION: THE 8-4-4 SYSTEM HAS BEEN UNFAIR TO THE KENYAN STUDENT

The announcement that the government will move to end the 8-4-4 system is very welcome and long overdue. By introducing a system that focuses more on continuous assessment over national examinations in addition to placing emphasis on identifying and nurturing talents in students is a great step forward.

We know we are preaching to the converted but nevertheless bear with us!

Although so much maligned, the original intent behind the 8-4-4 system was noble in that it intended to emphasize teaching subjects that would give students practical skills by the time they left secondary school. But as time went on, the system was diluted and completely moved away from this core emphasis and became what it is today – a system whose main goal became preparing students for national examinations.

Due to this, the 8-4-4 system became very punitive to otherwise bright and creative students who were not great exam-takers. With no large emphasis on student happiness, extra-curricular activities, practical training and no-room for out-of-the-box learning, the system has seriously stifled imagination and creativity on the part of students and teachers.

The focus on national examination is highly unfair since eight years or twelve years of work comes down to a couple weeks of testing. God forbid, if a student happened to come down with a bout of malaria coinciding with the national examinations. An otherwise bright student is “sent to the back of the line” in a span of a week or a month with no chance for recourse.

We also know of cases where students have mental blocks due to the stress of studying for the exam or even the near-medical emergencies when nervous students accidentally ingest acids during chemistry practical exams. And not to mention the numerous hours of tuition that took away the all-important extra-curricular activity time from students. And the fact that students being forced to repeat one or two classes in-order to retake exams is just downright judgmental and senseless.

OPINION: GLOBALIZATION IS HERE TO STAY DESPITE WHAT THEY MAY SAY.

Globalization is a ship that has long sailed. And in its wake it has left many beneficiaries and even more victims. Barack Obama must have seen the writing on the wall even before he ran for president – His main message to the American worker during the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns was simple: Retool and retrain yourselves to prepare for the tide of globalization.

The free movement of goods, information, people and culture are the main tenets of globalization. However for America, globalization must be examined in the context of consumerism. It is in this context that America finds itself in its current peculiar position – the struggle between globalization and protectionism.

As a result of belonging to a broad and relatively affluent middle class, many Americans can easily afford so-called “luxury” items in large numbers.

And therein lies one of the main propellants of globalization, American consumerism. But there are two caveats to the story of the type of consumerism seen in America.

First, Americans will pay for luxury items but they will not overpay for them. It is for this reason why the  label imprinted at the back of an Apple iPhone proclaims “Designed in California. Assembled in China,” simply because it is cheaper to build the phone in China but to protect Apple’s intellectual property all innovation occurs in California. (This CNN Money article sums up why the slogan “Buy American” in this day and age sounds good in theory but not practice)

Secondly, Americans will vehemently demand for quality and reliability in their products leading to one of the reasons why foreign manufacturers continue to do so well in America. A great example is Toyota, which at one point had eclipsed General Motors as the largest  car seller in the US. With their “no-frills” approach, Toyota was able to outshine the American auto manufacturer by selling cheaper but highly reliable cars.

It is the inability of American auto manufacturers to sell reliable cars coupled with the great recession that led to the 2009 near-collapse of the American auto industry. Inevitably, it was accompanied by massive job losses. However, when the car manufacturers recovered and addressed the reliability deficit, they still had to contend with cheaper cars from Japan. To stay competitive in this new reality, they began sending jobs to Mexico!

Hence the unintended consequences of consumerism and globalization.

Therefore as long as consumerism in America drives the economy, even the most well-intentioned protectionist policies by the government to curb globalization will backfire. Especially if they hurt the financial bottom-line of the ordinary American.

The question is, are Americans willing to pay let’s say $300 more for their iPhone, $3000-5000 more for a car or even $3 more for a six-pack of Mexican-brewed Corona beer (as the proposed 20% Mexico wall surcharge would certainly be passed to the consumer) to keep jobs in America?

Countries like China are also dealing with their own expansion in consumerism, therefore adding more fuel to globalization. Their population’s appetite for Western-made luxury goods is fast becoming legendary. So what happens when China escalates its protectionist policies in response to America’s protectionism? Maybe a consumer revolt of their own?

It is quite obvious that world corporations are not innocent in all this and are probably the biggest offenders especially in perpetuating the negative effects of globalization. Increasing shareholder value is their guiding principle and be rest assured they will never leave money on the table. Looking at President Trump’s businesses he seems to be a great beneficiary of globalization and I bet he did not become a billionaire by leaving money on the table.

One assured fact is that as long as globalization favors corporations and continues to feed consumerism, globalization will continue being this well-oiled machine that is unstoppable and will run over anyone who tries to stand in its path.

A link to this article was previously posted on Facebook on January 25, 2017. See the Facebook post.
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OPINION: TRIBAL POLITICS IN AMERICA – WHO KNEW?

Having put the West on a pedestal for a very long time as the bastion of democracy, people around the world must be perplexed by the recent happenings in the US and Western Europe including the election of Donald J Trump as President in America, Brexit in the UK in addition to the strengthening of Far Right movements in France, Italy and Germany.

What we have come to realize is that tribal politics are not isolated only to our African countries after-all. What a relief! The tribes in the West just have different names. For example, in the US these tribes are called progressives, conservatives, alt-right, republicans, democrats, white, black, blue-collar and elite etc. And with such vigor and vitriol, each tribe shouts in the highest voice that it is better than the other and it has all the answers to what ails their country. Sounds familiar?

To the extent that bitterness and hatred for each other has blinded even the most intelligent people to facts and truth, is a tell-tale of the “tribal” slant of American politics. Sitting through last year’s presidential elections, the irony could not be lost on many of us that the elections eerily felt like those we see in many non-democratic countries – they were devoid of any ideological or policy arguments and merely a clash of personalities and the exaltation of the tribal groups.

It seems as if the West and Africa are traveling in opposite directions. As Africans get more informed about their surroundings, the West seems to be getting more unenlightened about theirs. It is amazing to see how the same tools such as social media have been used to achieve these opposite results. On the one hand, social media seems to be enfranchising Africans in becoming stakeholders of their political system and a tool for fighting injustice.

However it seems on the other hand, social media has become a tool of disenfranchisement in the West bombarding the electorate with mistruths or “alternative facts” that will inevitably isolate them from their political system.

The funny part is that as Africans we are well aware of the dangers and consequences of tribal politics. The West is suffering from a form of amnesia, a product of being so far removed in time from their last great conflict which was WWII and having it so good for such a long time. People have forgotten the pain that is inflicted on them when reason is thrown to the side for expediency or the exaltation of a single tribe above all others.

We as Africans are trying to run away from the fire of tribalism as fast as we can, but the West seems dead-set on running into the fire with gusto!

A link to this article was previously posted on Facebook on January 25, 2017. See the Facebook post.

OPINION: IS KENYA READY FOR NUCLEAR POWER GENERATION?

A Little Background

The generation of nuclear power is at the heart of Kenya’s Vision2030 goals as part of the government’s diversified energy policy to address current power shortages and provide adequate electricity to keep up with a growing economy. As with any infrastructure project that comes with enormous financial, environmental and safety implications, there are many proponents and strong opponents of nuclear power generation not just in Kenya but everywhere in the world.

On the one hand, the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that occurred following a major earthquake and tsunami is a powerful reminder that, with commercial nuclear power generation, factors out of our control combined with human error can lead to catastrophic results. The radiation effects of this accident will be felt for years to come in Japan and beyond.

On the other hand, countries all around the world have used nuclear energy to generate electricity peacefully and safely for the last fifty years. Advocates of nuclear power generation point out to the safe operation of 104 nuclear power plants in the US, with the exception of a couple incidents – the most notorious being the Three Miles Island (TMI) incident that occurred in 1979. Furthermore, they also point out to nuclear generation’s high efficiency, reliability and low amounts of emitted greenhouse gases as compared to fossil fuel based generation.

Even though major cost overruns and delays were experienced during the construction of many US nuclear power plants, nuclear power generation now accounts for 20% of all electricity produced. It also accounts for 70% of all power generated in France. As such, nuclear power has undoubtedly proven itself to be a great alternative when it comes to power generation.

Needless to say, the Three Miles Island (TMI) incident showed the dangers of nuclear power generation. This incident, in addition to the strong public opposition that ensued, are among the key reasons why not a single nuclear power plant was commissioned anywhere in the US between 1977 and 2013 . In order to avoid a repetition of such incidents as TMI, major redesign requirements, safeguards, hurdles and redundancies have been introduced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for any future nuclear power plant construction.

What most countries that use nuclear energy as a significant source of power have learnt is that, with the great benefits of this form of power generation comes major responsibility on the part of the government and utility companies. Some unresolved technical problems with nuclear power generation still loom large, such as the issue of spent nuclear waste storage.

Despite numerous studies and large amounts of money spent on waste storage, no permanent repository for nuclear waste has been built in the US. This is alarming since most waste sits in temporary storage areas within most nuclear power plants with no permanent storage plans in place. Many isotopes in nuclear waste have a half-life of more than 1000 years, requiring a truly long-term waste management plan.(this number can be cut down if new technologies such as transmutation or reprocessing advance to the point where nuclear waste can be fully recycled). Such really long-term issues must also be considered by countries looking to venture into nuclear power generation.

How about Kenya?

The hard fact is that our structures at this time or in the near future cannot support safe generation of nuclear power.

As much as it sounds unrealistic for Kenya to even consider nuclear energy as one of the pillars of our country’s future energy policy, it makes a lot of sense. With recent technological advances in nuclear reactor technology and the promise of small modular reactors (SMRs) as safer, portable, compact and cheaper alternatives to traditional nuclear reactors, a country like Kenya can now consider looking to nuclear energy for power generation without completely breaking the bank. However, SMR technology is still young with only three designs in operation around the world. Due to the lower output of SMRs, more than one SMR is required to match the output of conventional reactors currently used, decentralizing the dangers associated with nuclear power generation to multiple units or locations.

There are major scientific technological hurdles that have to be overcome with renewable energy sources to make them more efficient and cost-effective. While the initial average levelized cost (cost per every unit/hour of electricity produced) for most renewable energy sources and that of advanced nuclear power generation are high, the efficiency of nuclear energy is far higher to that of any renewable energy source. Therefore, the return on capital is nearly assured for the life of the nuclear power plant, while for renewable energy sources government subsidies might be needed to make them sustainable. Based on this latter fact, even an aggressive buildup of renewable energy sources might not be able to meet the energy needs anticipated by Kenya Vision2030.

Furthermore, we have seen over the years that hydroelectric power generation is not reliable due to the erratic weather and climate. Power generation from imported natural gas or coal will certainly alleviate the problem but the cost of generation will still be higher since these raw materials have to be imported in addition to higher greenhouse emissions.(The recent discovery of coal in the Eastern region of Kenya may make coal-fired power generation more viable).

Soul-Searching

That said, major soul-searching has to happen and tough questions need to be asked if we choose to focus on nuclear power generation. The question is, can we be able to put the required safeguards in place prior to the construction of the first nuclear plant?

It is commendable that the government is following a milestone approach as guided by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This approach provides 12 milestones that need to be met prior and after nuclear power generation.

There is no doubt that our scientists and engineers can be trained to meet the challenges of building, maintaining and decommissioning nuclear power plants. However, needless to say, for this form of energy, zero tolerance to corruption cannot just be a dream but a reality. A corrupt mindset by any stakeholder in this process would be a major national security threat that could render parts of our country inhabitable for generations to come. With nuclear energy there is potential to cause catastrophic damage, if let’s say, just a single corrupt engineer decided to use cheaper low quality piping to repair a steam generator. Safeguards around “taking shortcuts” need to be established. In nuclear power generating countries, random psychological tests and extensive background checks are a routine part of many job functions in the nuclear industry to ascertain the state of mind of every employee and any propensity to put a nuclear facility at risk. Such a system would be needed in Kenya too.

In addition, cost overruns are a worldwide norm for nuclear power plant construction projects. Also, what many forget is that the upfront cost of putting safeguards, human capacity building and back-end cost of decommissioning a nuclear power plant at the end of its life might amount to be nearly as much as the actual cost of building the plant itself. It is safe to say that the total cost of building, maintaining, waste storage and decommissioning a nuclear power plant will most likely exceed the estimated cost of USD 3.5 – 5 Billion since structural redesigns might be needed during the actual building of the plant.

This is especially true for Kenya since we will be starting with no pre-existing nuclear infrastructure program be it military or commercial. This is unlike countries such as the US, UK, France, Germany that had existing military nuclear safeguards and infrastructure in place before venturing into commercial nuclear generation.

This important fact cannot be understated as it continues to provide a subtle advantage of know-how transfer from the military to commercial nuclear energy in the form of relatively young trained military personnel who take up industry jobs after discharge. For this reason the cost of employee training and certification is reduced significantly.

Our Conclusion

It might be prudent for Kenya to wait for a couple years to see how the newer, cheaper and safer technologies such as small modular reactors (SMR) advance before we take the plunge. Considering that a country like Germany plans to phase out nuclear power generation by 2022 and none of the nuclear power plants in the US are licensed to operate beyond 2050, the future of this type of energy is at a crossroads. This might mark the end of today’s conventional power plant design and a shift to newer technologies such as SMRs. Furthermore, with many regulatory hurdles to be overcome for new reactor designs in the US, other active players like China, Russia and France will most likely determine the direction nuclear power will take around the world – all the more pushing towards newer designs and making today’s designs obsolete.

The national discussion around this topic must continue and encouraged to gauge the feasibility of such a massive project in addition to our willingness to embrace the necessary changes that have to take place before we achieve safe nuclear power generation in Kenya.


Read more about Kenya’s Energy Situation at energypedia

How does a Small Modular Reactor work. Read more from nuscalepower.com


A link to this article was previously posted on Facebook on December 28, 2016. A big thank you to our followers for a robust discussion of the article. Follow this link to see the discussion.