Money is whizzing through the airwaves and cell towers of Zimbabwe, as a mobile cash-transfer system is on track to become the country’s biggest bank.
EcoCash, a mobile money-transfer service operated by telecommunications company EcoNet Wireless Zimbabwe, has reached a million subscribers in under six months since its launch, according to Mobile Money Africa. EcoCash enables money transfers across all networks between mobile users, a rapidly expanding sector of the Zimbabwean population.
And in a country where 80 percent of residents do not have access to mainstream bank accounts, a service that requires nothing but a mobile phone is a popular and more convenient alternative. Mobile phone users now make up 77 percent of the population, compared to just 6 percent in 2006, reports Mobile Money for the Unbanked. And EcoNet Wireless, EcoCash’s parent company, has that market cornered in Zimbabwe, with 6.5 million customers, which represents 70 percent of the market share of cell phone users, according to Mobile Money Africa.
EcoCash, a mobile money-transfer service, has reached a million subscribers. “There is a lot of money to be made by investing in the poor,” says Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara.
Within that segment, EcoCash has seen success by targeting the low-end market. Customers don’t need to have bank accounts, and 1,400 street agents throughout the country help make subscribing a quick and easy process. Agents receive a commission when customers total transactions reach $50, encouraging agents to target those likely to be actively using the service.
While the legalization of foreign currency in 2009 has pulled Zimbabwe’s previously plummeting economy out of a nose-dive, it’s also created challenges, including a shortage of change. The "coin problem" can make small transactions difficult to complete accurately, reported the New York Times, and small transactions tend to be the kind low-income users make. But now mobile cash services like EcoCash allow precise payment, regardless of the size of a transaction.
The ease of transactions is just one factor contributing to the skyrocketing popularity of EcoCash. Actual banks are more difficult to access than mobile phones, and the dark history of the Zimbabwean dollar contributed to widespread distrust of traditional banking services, reports the Zimbabwe Daily Mail.
Visibility aids EcoCash in its market domination. EcoCash markets its services through advertisements on public mini-buses, known as kombis, in urban areas, and over radio talk shows in rural areas. Widespread marketing helps keep EcoCash ahead of other, smaller competitor. And while some competitors require users to have bank accounts, EcoCash allows customers to bank with just their phone.
EcoCash modeled much of its strategy off of the success of Kenyan mobile money service M-Pesa, also under the umbrella of a telecommunications company, Safaricom. M-Pesa’s popularity has exploded in Kenya, with a customer base of close to 15 million subscribers, up from 2 million over five years.
Like EcoNet, M-Pesa’s parent company, Safaricom, dominates the telecommunications market in Kenya with a 67 percent market share, according to The Zimbabwe Independent. Like EcoCash, M-Pesa grew rapidly in its first year, although EcoCash’s first-year growth outpaced that of M-Pesa. And while Microfinance Africa reports that other countries have had difficulty replicating the long-term success of M-Pesa, similar marketing and business strategies and market domination make EcoCash a potential candidate to exhibit similar growth.
Most current EcoCash transactions are small, but the service is looking to increase its reach “into business services, such as bulk payments, salaries, and merchant transactions,” according to Mobile Money for the Unbanked (MMU). Customers currently pay a fee between 2 percent and 7 percent for transfers, but EcoNet hopes that as business volume continues to increase, those fees will be lowered further.
EcoNet sees the mobile money service “as a strategic business, rather than simply another product in its portfolio,” Francis Matseketsa, the head of EcoCash, told MMU:
"EcoCash believes that its primary economic driver will be cost savings on airtime distribution, as transaction revenue alone has not yet pushed the service to break even ... [and] offers a 5 percent discount on airtime purchased with EcoCash, a promotion that has proved very popular with customers."
Yet whether or not EcoCash proves to successfully bring Zimbabwe towards a thriving cashless economy, it has already demonstrated its ability to create jobs and keep cash changing hands – or phones – in what was long known as one of the world’s worst economic climates.
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How will the world find the water to feed a growing population in an era of droughts and water shortages? The answer, a growing number of water experts are saying, is to forget big government-run irrigation projects with their mega-dams, giant canals, and often corrupt and indolent management.
Farmers across the poor world, they say, are solving their water problems far more effectively with cheap Chinese-made pumps and other low-tech and off-the-shelf equipment. Researchers are concluding that small is both beautiful and productive.
“Cheap pumps and new ways of powering them are transforming farming and boosting income all over Africa and Asia,” says Meredith Giordano, lead author of a three-year research project looking at how smallholder farmers are turning their backs on governments and finding their own solutions to water problems.
“We were amazed at the scale of what is going on,” Giordano says. Indian farmers have an estimated 20 million pumps at work watering their fields. As many as 200 million Africans benefit from the crops they water. And in addition to pumps, she notes, “simple tools for drilling wells and capturing rainwater have enabled many farmers to produce more crops in the dry season, hugely boosting their incomes.”
Such innovations are becoming a major driver of economic growth, poverty reduction, and food security, says her report, "Water for Wealth and Food Security," published by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), a research center based in Sri Lanka.
The report says better support for this hidden farmer-led revolution could increase crop yields threefold in some places — and could add tens of billions of dollars to the household incomes of poor farmers across Africa and south Asia, the two regions where the majority of the world’s poor and food-insecure rural people live.
But such help could be a while coming, because much of the revolution is happening out of sight of governments and international organizations. In Ghana, the study found, small private irrigation schemes cover 185,000 hectares – 25 times more land than public irrigation projects. “Yet when I asked the agriculture minister there about these schemes, he hadn't even heard of them,” says Colin Chartres, director of IWMI.
For years, national governments and aid agencies have believed that centrally planned and run irrigation schemes, mostly tapping large rivers, are the answer to the world’s growing shortage of reliable water supplies needed to grow the food for people in arid countries and those with highly seasonal or unpredictable rainfall. But the record of such schemes has proved patchy at best. The 2000 report of the World Commission on Dams, set up by the World Bank, found that a quarter of dam-fed irrigation schemes watered less than 35 percent of the land intended, cost over-runs were almost universal, and a quarter of the irrigated fields were waterlogged or poisoned by salt. Not surprisingly, farmers have increasingly been making their own arrangements for water.
I have seen this revolution taking hold all over the world in recent years. In northern Nigeria, I saw the canals of the state-owned Kano Irrigation Project clogged with weeds, and the fields often untended, while a few miles away, farmers lined up pumps on the banks of the river, diverting its flow to their fields.
Across India, I met farmers who are reviving the ancient tradition of digging ponds to capture water as it falls onto their land during the short monsoon, storing it for growing crops during the long dry season. In Mexico, I found farmers irrigating fields in the middle of a state irrigation scheme by pumping up the prodigious amounts of water seeping from unlined irrigating canals.
Charlotte de Fraiture of UNESCO’s Institute for Water Education in Delft, the Netherlands, agrees there is a hydrological revolution going on. Rich farmers have always had the money to buy pumps, she says, but “with the availability of cheap Chinese pumps, this type of irrigation is accessible to a much larger range of farmers.” You can now buy pumps at almost any town market for as little as $200.
Even the cheapest models transform livelihoods. “The capacity of even a small pump with 1 to 5 horsepower is bigger than most farmers need,” says de Fraiture. “So they hire them out.”
In India, small-time rural entrepreneurs travel the countryside on bikes or donkey carts, with pumps strapped on the back. They rent the pumps for a dollar an hour, so even the poorest farmers can get some water from a local river or underground water reserve. In Burkina Faso in West Africa, pump owners supply a complete service, keeping small vegetable gardens irrigated for $120 to $150 per growing season.
Of course, pumps need a power source, usually either electricity or diesel. But in India, some farmers are using dung from their cows to generate biodiesel. One Gujarati practitioner told IWMI researchers that dung-powered pumping saved him $400 a year in fuel.
Such farmers are not being green; they are being pragmatic. According to the IWMI’s Chartres, a big push by aid groups a few years ago to get poor farmers to invest in treadle pumps to raise water from shallow aquifers beneath their fields has largely failed. “Most farmers don’t want to sit in the hot sun all day, pumping up water with their feet,” he says. “Not when you can hook up a motor pump for a few dollars.”
Farmers are also finding inexpensive ways to conserve water by using drip irrigation – delivering water down pipes from where it drips through holes close to plant roots. Conventional drip irrigation is costly to install. But in central India farmers have found a novel solution. They buy rolls of cheap perforated plastic tubing that ice-pop sellers use to package their frozen candies. The perforations, which the ice-pop sellers use to tear off each individual popsicle holder, turn out to be ideal for dripping water close to crop roots.
Too often, we have a picture of poor smallholder farmers as passive victims of natural disasters, or the grateful recipients of aid from others. But here they emerge in a different light. It is they – rather than governments, NGOs, or Western aid-givers – who are the active players, taking charge of their own destiny.
But there is a downside, which the IWMI report touches on, and which in some regions is a major threat to both future water supplies and the survival of the farming communities themselves.
The danger is that independent action by farmers to water their fields is creating a “tragedy of the commons” – in which everyone grabs what water they can while they can, because they know that all will suffer when the water runs out. This is especially a risk where farmers are pumping out underground water reserves at rates that the rains cannot replenish.
Seven years ago, I toured Gujarat with Tushaar Shah, head of IWMI's groundwater research station. He was in despair at what he called “hydrological anarchy” in the Indian state. A million farmers had bought cheap pumps that they were plugging into the heavily subsidized state electricity grid. The pumps often ran 24 hours a day, bringing massive volumes of underground water to the surface. The farmers’ yields often doubled, but the water tables were plummeting. “It looks like a one-way trip to disaster,” he told me then. “Nobody knows where the pumps are, or who owns them. There is no way anyone can control what happens to them.”
Yet today, Shah is one of the co-authors of the IWMI study advocating more of the same. What changed? He says that, on his advice, the state government of Gujarat has tamed the anarchy by restricting power supplies for farmers to eight hours a day. Water tables are still falling, he admits, but with pumping time limited, the decline is much slower than before.
Many will think the IWMI report underplays the risk of hydrological anarchy. But, when I put this to Chartres, he countered that in many places, there is still huge scope to encourage farmers to make better use of both surface and underground water. In some of the poorest parts of eastern India, there is water to spare, and there are better livings to be had. In Madhya Pradesh, for instance, farmers have increased their incomes by 70 percent by constructing on-farm ponds.
The story is the same in sub-Saharan Africa. Much of the continent is often thought of as short of water. The images of hungry people searching for food in droughts are seared in our memories. But much of Africa has abundant water for much of the time – what’s needed is to find better ways to store and tap it.
State-sponsored irrigation projects in Africa have a dismal record. IWMI quotes a UN estimate that only 3 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s renewable water resources are currently used for agriculture.
Given how little is known about African farmers’ informal irrigation, this is probably an underestimate. But even so, there is clearly room to scale up. Millions of Africans could transform their livelihoods by deploying pumps, according to Chartres. “There are huge investment opportunities for unlocking the potential of this farmer-led approach,” he says.
What should be done? Chartres calls for more investment in bringing electricity to rural communities, encouraging the local manufacture of pumps, and supporting local water entrepreneurs. He says this should be coupled with an effort to map water reserves and prevent farmers from taking too much when supplies are tight.
De Fraiture agrees. She despairs that governments and donors alike “continue to focus their attention and investments on the underperforming public irrigation sector, when private irrigation is both more important and has larger potential” for scaling up.
The new thinking from IWMI about managing water supplies has a striking parallel with how researchers are discussing other global commons, notably forests. Once it was assumed that only states could protect forests. But recent research suggests that local people often know best how to both protect and use them.
Now the same lesson seems to be emerging for water.
Governments cannot shirk their responsibility for ensuring that water is used wisely. But perhaps they should give up the idea that the water in rivers and underground is theirs alone – or that only they can manage it.
• Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He serves as environmental consultant for New Scientist magazine and is the author of numerous books, including "When The Rivers Run Dry" and "With Speed and Violence." In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Pearce has written about how indigenous people are using GPS technology to protect their lands and about the promise of “climate-smart” agriculture.
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Hawa Aden Mohamed won the United Nations refugee agency's Nansen Refugee Award Sept. 18 for her work in helping thousands of Somali women and girls, many of them rape victims, start new lives in their battered homeland.
Mohamed is a former Somali refugee who returned from safety in Canada to her war-torn country in 1995, launching an education program in Puntland to shelter and train Somalis who have fled war, famine, and violence, it said.
Known as "Mama Hawa," she founded the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development, which has assisted more than 215,000 displaced and victims of violence since 1999, it said.
"In a society like Somalia, it's very often that a woman or a girl is raped, and they are severely marginalized thereafter. So what she has done is given them is a home, a new start, hope for a new life, and their dignity back," UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told a news briefing.
Young Somali boys also receive vocational training in carpentry and welding to keep them off the streets and avoid them falling prey to criminal or armed groups, the agency said.
Somalia's new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, took office Sept 16, calling for an end to terrorism and piracy in a nation mired in conflict for more than two decades. More than 2 million people have been displaced.
Recent laureates include the late US Sen. Edward Kennedy, for sponsoring asylum legislation, and former British soldier Chris Clark, for removing mines in Lebanon, allowing displaced people to return home after Israel's 2006 invasion.
Ms. Mohamed, currently hospitalized in Kenya recovering from surgery, is expected to attend the awards ceremony in Geneva Oct. 1, Ms. Fleming said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Jason Neely)
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Keeping coastal mangrove forests intact or replanting them is cheaper than building man-made structures to protect coastlines threatened by climate change, according to the head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“Our message is, ‘Don’t assume that man-made or engineered solutions are the only ones to protect our coasts and rivers and to provide drinking water. We are not against engineering in the absence of natural solutions, but look at what nature has to offer,’ ” urged Julia Marton-Lefevre at the recent World Conservation Congress in South Korea.
Preserving mangrove forests can help regulate rainfall patterns, reduce the risk of disasters from extreme weather and sea-level rise, provide breeding grounds for fish, and capture carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to slow climate change, she said. That suggests preserving them will be essential to fighting climate change and protecting lives and livelihoods in the face of climate shifts already under way.
IN PICTURES: Sustaining the environment
“Standing trees help us with inevitable climate change,” she said. “Keeping mangroves intact on the coast is not only good for capturing and storing carbon but also very useful for protecting the coast in times of extreme weather conditions and acting like nurseries for fish to ensure people have protein to eat,” she said.
Ms. Marton-Lefevre said the financial benefits of maintaining mangrove forests outweigh those of, for instance, cutting mangroves to build coastal hotels, particularly when their effect on disaster risk is taken into account.
And “it is the same for trees standing rather than being cut down [in terms of] protecting against landslides,” she said.
“Ecosystems, including mangroves, play a role in mitigation and adaptation. You have to respect the forests, wetlands, peatlands, and oceans in capturing and storing carbon. Once you respect that, then maybe there would be an impetus to take care of [them] better,” she said, during an interview with AlertNet.
“Standing forests also provide livelihoods for people,” she added. “You don’t have to cut the trees down to raise cattle. You could also grow food inside the forest canopy,” she said.
Part of what is driving cutting of mangroves and other forests, experts at the conference said, is a lack of alternatives to fuel wood.
In Pakistan’s Balochistan province, for instance, the juniper forests of Ziarat are being cut because residents have no other way of getting fuel. But pilot projects to provide alternative energy sources, including solar lighting, are helping make a difference, experts said.
IN PICTURES: Sustaining the environment
Pakistan’s mangrove forests, similarly, have been reduced from 600,000 hectares (1.3 million acres) to 86,000 hectares (190,000 acres) over the last 50 years, according to a documentary film shown at the conference.
But an IUCN-backed effort to ensure “mangroves for the future” has so far overseen replanting of 30,000 hectares (66,000 acres) of mangroves, said Mahmood Akhtar Cheema, manager of IUCN’s program office in Islamabad, Pakistan.
• Johann Earle is a Guyana-based freelance writer with an interest in climate change issues.
Since April, the Nature Conservancy has secured more than $16 million with the Conservation Note, a new investment program that will return an interest rate of up to 2 percent to the charity’s supporters.
Under the arrangement, supporters who provide at least $25,000 to the Nature Conservancy to invest for a term of one, three, or five years will earn 0 to 2 percent in interest and get all their money back.
The Conservation Note has been given a double-A rating by Moody’s.
The Nature Conservancy will use the money from supporters to help it shoulder the costs involved in transferring a protected piece of land.
For instance, the Nature Conservancy recently purchased a Colorado ranch on sensitive land and obtained a conservation easement that prohibits the land from being developed, thereby lowering its value. The lower price made it possible for five families with adjacent ranches each to buy a portion of the property back from the Nature Conservancy. The buyers all agreed not to develop the land.
Money from the Conservation Notes helped the charity make up the costs involved in selling the land and getting the easement.
“What is so exciting is that it opens up a whole new avenue of supporting conservation with resources aside from philanthropy,” says Charlotte Kaiser, who manages the program.
Supporters do not receive tax breaks when they invest in a Conservation Note, but foundations can count their investment toward meeting the federal requirements that they pay out at least 5 percent of assets to charities every year.
Ms. Kaiser says that the sluggish economic recovery prompted the Conservation Note idea. Land values have declined, making it easier for the Nature Conservancy to buy real estate. But charitable donations are still hard to come by, so the charity sought another approach that would appeal to supporters.
Says Ms. Kaiser: “We saw a big opportunity.”
Managing irrigation pumps and water systems is a difficult and costly task for many farmers in developing countries.
The amount of time and energy farmers spend watering their crops often compromises time that could otherwise be used for family and community obligations. It also compromises their safety at night, when they are most vulnerable to animal predators.
A new innovation from the India-based company Ossian Agro Automation, called Nano Ganesh, seeks to transform the way farmers manage their water systems by giving them the freedom to turn pumps on and off, from any location, with their mobile phone.
Santosh Ostwal, cofounder of Nano Ganesh, created mobile-based technology that gives farmers the flexibility to remotely switch water pumps on and off from any distance using cell phones or landlines. Ostwal, an electrical engineer by trade, had a personal connection to the plight of farmers. After observing the hardships his 82-year-old grandfather faced in tending his farm and monitoring the availability of electricity to operate water pumps, he began to construct a remote control that farmers could use within 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) of the farm.
He later modified the remote control by expanding its range to 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). In 2008 Ostwal altered the technology so that it could function over an unlimited range granting farmers the flexibility to start and stop the flow of water from anywhere there is a mobile connection.
Nano Ganesh also allows farmers to check the availability of electricity to the pump and verify the on and off status of its operation. Both of these features offer cost-saving benefits to farmers who otherwise may not be able to shut their pumps off before their fields have become overly saturated.
This is important for two reasons. One is that overwatering can lead to soil erosion and nutrient depletion. The second reason is that the inability to remotely shut off water pumps leads to unintentional water and electricity waste.
With the help of Nano Ganesh farmers will be able to conserve water and electricity more effectively. This will minimize the environmental and financial costs of farming. In fact, the product description suggests that farmers can recover the cost of the technology in just 11 days from the water and electricity savings it will produce.
So far, Nano Ganesh has assisted 10,000 farmers in India, and it is now being used in Australia and Egypt. The innovation received international recognition from the Global Mobile Awards in 2010 and Nokia’s Calling All Innovators Contest in 2009. Nano Ganesh has also received acknowledgement from several institutions in India, including the Mahratta Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Agriculture.
• Sarah Alvarez is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet Project. To purchase "State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet" please click HERE.
Some 30 countries taking part in a convention in Oslo, Norway, this week, are being encouraged by activists and government officials to join a treaty banning the use of cluster munitions and help halt their harmful impact on civilians, the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) said.
More than 100 governments are at the summit in the Norwegian capital.
A total of 111 countries have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which was adopted in 2008 and entered into force in 2010, but superpowers Russia, China, and the United States are among those that have not, Laura Cheeseman, the director of the disarmament group CMC said.
The convention prohibits the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of cluster munitions. It also requires destruction of stockpiles, clearance of the weapons, and victim assistance. Among the convention’s signatories, 75 countries are legally bound by its provisions, and ratification is under way in most of the remaining 36 countries.
"We’ve got half the world on board, but there are a number of countries that remain outside the ban,” Cheeseman told AlertNet from the conference. “There’s really no good reason for any of these countries not to come on board and to sign up to the convention.”
The weapons consist of small bomblets that open and explode across a wide area when they are launched from the ground or dropped from the air.
“These weapons harm civilians both at the time of use because of their wide area effect – but they also fail to go off on impact a lot of the time, so they lie on the ground deadly and active for years – sometimes for decades – after a conflict has ended,” Cheeseman said.
More than 17,000 cluster munition casualties were reported globally in 2011, according to the coalition, which is made up of more than 350 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The group estimated in a recent report that the true number of casualties might be between 20,000 and 54,000.
Civilians accounted for 94 percent of casualties. Of these, 83 percent were male and 40 percent were children, the report said.
Almost 745,000 cluster bombs containing almost 86 million bomblets have been destroyed since the convention came into force in 2010, the report said.
“What we want is for these countries to look into these reports of cluster munitions use and make sure they never use the weapon again,” she added. “We want them to work to join the convention.”
Also under discussion at the convention is how national legislation required by signatory countries that have yet to ratify the treaty could undermine its original intent.
Article 21 of the convention says that signatories may engage in joint military operations with governments who are not legally bound by the treaty.
The spotlight is on Australia and Canada, two countries setting out legislation that cites occasions when they might be able to take part to help in joint military operations where cluster munitions are being used, Cheeseman said.
The proposed Canadian legislation, which could be completed within six months, goes against the letter and the spirit of the law, Paul Hannon, the executive director of Mines Action Canada who also sits on the CMC advisory board, told AlertNet.
"Our view is that this is a great treaty, and it bans cluster munitions for all time, and that means no Canadian should ever be involved in use of cluster munitions for anyone, in any place, at any time, for any reason,” Hannon said from Oslo.
Campaigners were unsuccessful in their fight to change the Australian legislation, which was ratified in its parliament in August, but has not yet been passed into law.
“The Australian [CMC] campaign fought for two years to get the legislation changed, so the government knows there’s a huge stigma against not only the weapon, but on the possibility of the Australian government being involved in its use,” Hannon said.
“I’m hoping the Canadian government has been paying attention to that as well and is more open to making changes and amending our legislation," he added.
Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is battling to reform one of the world's most corrupt nations without support from the shadowy "godfathers" who wield power from behind the scenes.
But while Western nations and international agencies admire her drive from afar, they hold little sway in Nigeria. Ms. Okonjo-Iweala's ability to fight corrupt interests is constrained by her lack of support from wealthy figures such as ex-state governors, military officers, and ruling party hacks who use huge patronage – or sometimes violence – to drive politics back stage.
"Her only 'godfather' is the international community, and that doesn't cut it," said a senior adviser to the national assembly, who asked not to be named.
When she quit her Washington job and flew back home, Okonjo-Iweala knew her second stint as finance minister would be tough. She now admits it has been even tougher than she imagined.
"It was much harder. It has not been easy, and the struggle is still ongoing," she told Reuters in her office in Abuja, the capital, exhausted by a night negotiating with oil unions. "You make progress, then you get courage to make more ... Fighting corruption is something we need to keep working at."
Okonjo-Iweala has started to tame government expenditure and make limited reforms, but her room for maneuver is limited by her restricted access to state revenue, 80 percent of which comes from oil. She has also found herself again fixing problems she tackled during her first term that ended six years ago, only for these achievements to have been undone in the meantime.
Okonjo-Iweala, who missed out on the World Bank presidency earlier this year, may yet decide to take another high-profile international job. She is tipped as a possible next World Trade Organization head, although she has so far shown no interest.
Should she decide to leave Abuja, her biggest challenge will be ensuring any reforms she makes can't be undone.
Nigeria's dysfunction is hugely profitable for some. Its moribund power grid allows importers of generators and diesel to make immense sums; dilapidated refineries leave Africa's top oil producer dependent on imported petrol that has made billionaires of a handful of tycoons thanks to a corrupt fuel-subsidy scheme. Ports are clogged with goods held up by bribe-seeking officials.
Some of the elites which profit from these inefficiencies are blocking attempts at structural reforms, including Okonjo-Iweala's, such as curbs on state spending and the removal of the fuel subsidy, raising doubts about how much they can achieve.
"[Her] intent is absolutely the way for fiscal policy to go. The difficulty is likely to be in the implementation of those plans," says Razia Khan, head of Africa research at Standard Chartered. But she adds: "There is a sense that ... if it can't be done by Ngozi, then it is unlikely to be achieved by anyone."
Backing from President Jonathan has given Okonjo-Iweala some clout. Nevertheless, she has had to move cautiously, hoping for piecemeal rather than revolutionary change.
Analysts give as an example port reform and the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF), set up to manage Nigeria's oil savings, which her predecessor Olusegun Aganga designed and pushed through parliament. Okonjo-Iweala has in turn had to win over powerful state governors, who initially opposed the fund.
Okonjo-Iweala points out that the budget deficit fell from 2.95 percent of total economic output in 2011 to 2.85 percent in 2012. A further drop to 2.21 percent is projected for next year.
She is tackling the recurrent spending that makes Nigeria's government one of the world's most costly, she says. Simply running the administration – before a single road or hospital is built – is swallowing 71 percent of total spending this year.
That is down from 74 percent last year, and in 2013 it will drop to 68 percent, but it still dwarfs an equivalent figure of about 40 percent in the continent's top economy, South Africa.
Domestic borrowing is also down from 852 billion naira ($5.38 billion) in 2011 to 744 billion naira in 2012, even though GDP growth is forecast to slip to 6.5 percent this year from 7.4 percent in 2011.
"Bringing back fiscal prudence and steadying the macro-economy, that's no mean achievement," she told Reuters, wrapped in a bright green-and-pink traditional dress and head scarf.
She says port delays have been cut to one week, from three before she took office, and wants to cut them to 48 hours.
Yet some of this progress has involved returning to problems she already tackled when she was finance minister from 2003 to 2006 under former president Olusegun Obasanjo.
At that time she won acclaim for getting Nigeria's foreign debt forgiven. When she left office, recurrent expenditure was 65 percent of the budget, lower than where it is now.
Nigeria's Excess Crude Account (ECA), where the state saves oil money when prices are high, had $20 billion in 2007 shortly after she left, but raiding had cut it to $4.22 billion by the time she returned. It is now being restored to $7.35 billion.
Nigeria's patronage system, which squanders much of the revenue raised from the 2 million barrels of crude oil the country produces a day, shows no sign of weakening. An attempt to remove the wasteful fuel subsidy in January provoked strikes and protests led by unions backed by the fuel marketers, forcing the government to reinstate it partly.
Okonjo-Iweala has responded to evidence of multibillion-dollar fraud in the fuel subsidy by imposing tougher conditions on payments. Unions, backed by the marketers, are threatening to strike again and leading a campaign for her to resign.
"When you fight corruption, corruption fights you back," wrote columnist Omoade Adelani in Nigeria's Business Day daily. "Those whose means of livelihood are tied to the corrupt sources are threatened by her determination to restore accountability."
Most financial leakage occurs before revenue even gets to the treasury, at the state oil firm or oil ministry level, areas over which Okonjo-Iweala has no oversight.
Nigeria's federal system also means oil money is distributed between states and local councils before what's left over arrives at her ministry.
Other problems strangling Nigeria's prosperity, such as with the power supply and oil refineries, lie outside her remit.
"All these reforms can't just be left to the finance ministry. These are huge institutional changes that need commitment across ministries," said Bismarck Rewane, head of Lagos-based consultancy Financial Derivatives.
The biggest drain on Nigeria's budget, the fuel subsidy, is an explosive issue. Her support for an abortive attempt to remove it earlier this year damaged her credibility and she has since shelved it. "It's above my pay grade," she says.
Sovereign debt researchers like Standard Bank's Samir Gadio think efforts to tame government spending don't go far enough. Fiscal policy is "exceptionally loose. Nigeria should be running a massive fiscal surplus,", given high oil prices, said Gadio.
Neither has Okonjo-Iweala done much to reform the opaque way in which budgets are put together. Nigeria bases its budget on an oil price that is well below market levels and production assumptions that are well above actual output.
Next year's budget assumes oil at $75 a barrel, even though Bonny Light crude is trading now at about $115, and production is at 2.5 million barrels a day.
Oil income above the budget price is supposed to go into the ECA, which can then be used to finance the deficit or cushion against price shocks. The money can also be saved for the future or distributed to institutions, but there is little disclosure about how it is used, and it is often raided even when prices are high.
"Despite her efforts, there's no transparency in the assumptions on which the budget process is built," said Antony Goldman, head of Africa-focused PM Consulting. "Until that is cleared up, there's going to be little confidence that the budget is a real representation of what's earned and spent."
Perhaps her most lasting impact could be championing the sovereign wealth fund. If used properly, it could put oil funds out of the reach of even the most profligate of future rulers.
She overcame opposition from the state governors, who fear it means less money for them. After eight months of talks, they agreed to it in June. As a compromise, it starts with a modest $1 billion, but once it has enough momentum, it could achieve what has long eluded Nigeria: investment for future generations.
"She's playing the long game. The governors were blocking the SWF and without their support, it was never going to take off," said Kayode Akindele, partner at Nigeria-based consultancy 46 Parallels. "But once it's up and going, its going to be very hard for the governors to kill it."
If she can do that, she could take another international job knowing that at least one major reform can't be undone.
An international aid charity is taking an unorthodox approach to helping people in Cambodia and Vietnam improve sanitation and hygiene: It asks beneficiaries to help pay for the construction of latrines and hand-washing stations, but then gives them cash rewards when they get results. The effort will now spread, thanks to a $10.9-million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The East Meets West Foundation, in Oakland, Calif., works with local groups to provide hygiene education, train masons to build high-quality latrines, and broker low-cost loans that families can use to install latrines and hand-washing devices. Families receive a $10 rebate to help offset construction costs after an independent group has verified that the latrine is in place.
Communities also get incentives: They receive cash awards to be put toward public-works projects, such as roads and sanitation facilities in schools, when the percentage of households that have latrines and hand-washing devices hits 30 percent, and the communities receive more money when those rates reach 95 percent.
Millions of people in Vietnam and Cambodia lack sanitation facilities, and the cost of building them ranges from $50 to $250 per household, depending on the region, says John Anner, the organization’s president.
“There’s simply no way that philanthropy is going to fill that gap or that the government is going to put up that kind of money,” says Mr. Anner.
Beneficiaries bearing part of the cost helps scarce grant dollars go further, he says, and scale is important because the benefits of improved sanitation, such as better health and cleaner water, depend on large numbers of people in the community adopting good hygiene practices.
East Meets West says it will be able to use the Gates grant to bring hygiene education and well-built latrines to 344,000 households, or more than 1.7 million people.
Mr. Anner says that the number of participants in areas where the organization has already offered the program has consistently exceeded its forecasts.
“Everybody knows that when you’re sick you can’t go to work; kids can’t go to school,” he says. “Medical costs are paid for out-of-pocket in a lot of these places, and they can be very, very high.”
The loans also help the charity identify people who will take the project seriously and keep the facilities in good repair, says Mr. Anner.
“Straight-up charity makes it very difficult to distinguish between people who really, really want what you have to offer and people who are just willing to take anything’s that free.”
International aid organizations are finding out if and how people are using their products thanks to tiny sensors developed by Portland State University’s SWEETLab.
A lack of reliable data makes it hard for aid organizations to know whether technologies actually improve the lives, health, and prosperity of people in communities around the world. But SWEETLab (Sustainable Water, Energy, and Environmental Technologies Laboratory) is looking to change that.
The lab has developed remote-sensing technology to monitor the use of development infrastructure, such as latrines, cook stoves, and water filters. The sensors send information about the frequency of use and behavior patterns back to partner organizations, such as Mercy Corps, The Gates Foundation, DelAgua, and Vestergaard Frandsen, said lab director Evan Thomas.
The goal, Thomas says, is to “have better information about what’s going on in the field, because monitoring projects is usually based on somewhat unreliable [paper] surveys.” And, according to Thomas, "the sensors help us answer two questions: Does the product work, and do people use it?"
Thomas, a professor of engineering and faculty fellow in the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University, is also the program director for DelAgua Health and Development Programs, a partner organization using the sensors on a large program in Rwanda. He sees the sensors as a way to better evaluate the effectiveness of aid projects and, by extension, donor dollars.
The project in Rwanda "demonstrates the potential to deploy and monitor international health programs like this on a very large scale," Thomas predicts.
The $50 million Rwanda project will distribute water filters and cook stoves to 600,000 homes throughout the country’s western province over the next year to improve clean water access and reduce the demand for wood fuel for cooking, according to Thomas. SWEETLab’s sensors will be installed on about 500 of the stoves and filters to monitor their use and tell DelAgua whether the products are being embraced by local residents.
The efforts in Rwanda are also unique because they use an innovative carbon-credit financing scheme to generate revenue and fund the scaling-up of future projects. Information about the use of the technologies can now be accurately recorded and sent back to DelAgua.
SWEETLab’s sensors are being used well beyond Rwanda, too. In Indonesia, SWEETLab's first partner, Mercy Corps, had been using spot surveys to determine whether people were using new latrines and hand-washing stations, Thomas told SmartPlanet. But only with remote data collection did Mercy Corps find that fewer people were using the hand-washing stations at night, and some people were just using them before prayer time.
"When the sensors are transmitting data, we’re getting what we hoped for: frequent data on the use of water and sanitation infrastructure in our target communities," Laura Bruno, Mercy Corps’ senior program officer for Southeast Asia, told Fast Company. Mercy Corps can use this information to adjust sanitation education programs.
Other SWEETLab partnerships include a project with the Gates Foundation that installed 60 sensors on sanitation stations in India, designed to assist in a study evaluating behavior change around open defecation, according to Thomas. Another partnership with Mercy Corps will put sensors on cook stoves in Haiti.
Data collected by the sensors is compiled by partner organizations, which use the information to understand the behavior patterns of people they serve and to assess and improve the effectiveness of their projects.
Each sensor is powered by five AA batteries, and “cell phone networks send data to a web-based platform, where the results directly inform any adjustments to the technology or educational efforts on the ground,” according to Portland State.
That’s much faster and more reliable than relying on costly surveys and spot checks, which can provide valuable qualitative information, but often fail to fully identify challenges to the success of projects.
Thomas is hopeful that outcomes of current projects will allow SWEETLab to continue to expand its partnerships and monitor the effectiveness of more aid projects through remote-access data.
More accurate information about how well aid projects are working will let organizations tweak their approaches to better meet local needs.