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Forest products critical to fight hunger – including insects / New study highlights role of insects for food and feed consumption

Posted on 13 May 2013 by Africa Business

ROME, Italy, May 13, 2013/African Press Organization (APO)/ Forests, trees on farms and agroforestry are critical in the fight against hunger and should be better integrated into food security and land use policies, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said today at the International Conference on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition in Rome (13-15 May).


“Forests contribute to the livelihoods of more than a billion people, including many of the world’s neediest. Forests provide food, fuel for cooking, fodder for animals and income to buy food,” Graziano da Silva said.


“Wild animals and insects are often the main protein source for people in forest areas, while leaves, seeds, mushrooms, honey and fruits provide minerals and vitamins, thus ensuring a nutritious diet.”


“But forests and agroforestry systems are rarely considered in food security and land use policies. Often, rural people do not have secure access rights to forests and trees, putting their food security in danger. The important contributions forests can make to the food security and nutrition of rural people should be better recognized,” Graziano da Silva said.


Frittered critters – wild and farm-raised insects


One major and readily available source of nutritious and protein-rich food that comes from forests are insects, according to a new study FAO launched at the forests for food security and nutrition conference. It is estimated that insects form part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people. Insect gathering and farming can offer employment and cash income, for now mostly at the household level but also potentially in industrial operations.


An astounding array of creatures


With about 1 million known species, insects account for more than half of all living organisms classified so far on the planet.


According to FAO’s research, done in partnership with Wageningen University in the Netherlands, more than 1900 insect species are consumed by humans worldwide. Globally, the most consumed insects are: beetles (31 percent); caterpillars (18 percent); bees, wasps and ants (14 percent); and grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (13 percent). Many insects are rich in protein and good fats and high in calcium, iron and zinc. Beef has an iron content of 6 mg per 100 g of dry weight, while the iron content of locusts varies between 8 and 20 mg per 100 g of dry weight, depending on the species and the kind of food they themselves consume.


First steps for the squeamish


“We are not saying that people should be eating bugs,” said Eva Muller, Director of FAO’s Forest Economic Policy and Products Division, which co-authored “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security”.


“We are saying that insects are just one resource provided by forests, and insects are pretty much untapped for their potential for food, and especially for feed,” Muller explained.


Farming insects sustainably could help avoid over-harvesting, which could affect more prized species. Some species, such as meal worms, are already produced at commercial levels, since they are used in niche markets such as pet food, for zoos and in recreational fishing.


If production were to be further automated, this would eventually bring costs down to a level where industry would profit from substituting fishmeal, for example, with insect meal in livestock feed. The advantage would be an increase in fish supplies available for human consumption.


Bugs get bigger on less


Because they are cold-blooded, insects don’t use energy from feed to maintain body temperature. On average, insects use just 2 kg of feed to produce 1 kilo of insect meat. Cattle, at the other end of the spectrum, require 8 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of beef.


In addition, insects produce a fraction of emissions such as methane, ammonia, climate-warming greenhouse gases and manure, all of which contaminate the environment. In fact, insects can be used to break down waste, assisting in the composting processes that deliver nutrients back to the soil while also diminishing foul odours.


Enabling policies lacking


However, legislation in most industrialized nations forbids the actual feeding of waste materials and slurry or swill to animals, even though this would be the material that insects normally feed on. Further research would be necessary, especially as regards the raising of insects on waste streams. But it is widely understood by scientists that insects are so biologically different from mammals that it is highly unlikely that insect diseases could be transmitted to humans.


Regulations often also bar using insects in food for human consumption, although with a growing number of novel food stores and restaurants cropping up in developed countries, it seems to be largely tolerated.


As with other types of food, hygienic production, processing and food preparation will be important to avoid the growth of bacteria and other micro-organisms that could affect human health. Food safety standards can be expanded to include insects and insect-based products, and quality control standards along the production chain will be key to creating consumer confidence in feed and food containing insects or derived from insects.


“The private sector is ready to invest in insect farming. We have huge opportunities before us,” said Paul Vantomme, one of the authors of the report. “But until there is clarity in the legal sphere, no major business is going to take the risk to invest funds when the laws remains unclear or actually hinders development of this new sector,” he explained.



Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

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“Currently Africa represents only 3% of global electrical consumption, but by 2020 electrical consumption in Africa will have increased by 60%.”

Posted on 10 May 2013 by Africa Business

Exclusive interview with Rick St. John, Regional Director South Africa Region, Lucy Switchgear – a long-time supporter of African Utility Week and a silver sponsor at this year’s event.

Q. What are you most excited about currently in terms of Lucy Switchgear products and solutions?
A. This year we plan to launch a new generation of ring main units at the exhibition, to add to our large range of ground mounted and pole mounted switchgear for the secondary power distribution market.

Specifically designed to comply with South African requirements, the new Aegis 24Kv secondary distribution ring main units have vacuum circuit breakers insulated with SF6 gas in a hermetically sealed, stainless steel tank, ensuring reliability, safety and virtually maintenance-free operation. The range can be fitted with electronic relays or (TLF) time limit fuses for protection and each unit can be tailored with a number of options according to customers’ needs.

With the addition of our automation solutions, which provide a range of automation building blocks, from retro-fit equipment to a complete turnkey solution, the company is ready to meet the diverse and ever growing needs of the South African power distribution market.

Q. What is on the calendar for Lucy Switchgear in 2013?
A. We are developing a number of exciting products, which use cutting edge technology, to grow our product ranges in ring main units, overhead distribution switchgear, remote terminal units (RTU) for remote operation and control and SCADA automation software, to meet the changing needs of the global marketplace.

We are also expanding our training and consultancy offering to support companies during project planning and implementation, and offer dedicated after sales support throughout the product lifecycle.

Q. What opportunities do you see in Africa?
A. Currently Africa represents only 3% of global electrical consumption, but by 2020 electrical consumption in Africa will have increased by 60%. Increases in population density in cities and developments in infrastructure and industries will drive demand for electric power. This will represent a huge opportunity for companies that provide products and services to the electrical distribution and supply industry and we anticipate a significant increase in the demand for switchgear products.

Q. What do you think makes Lucy Switchgear competitive in this market?
A. Lucy Switchgear is a global leader in medium voltage, secondary distribution solutions, with over 100 years’ industry experience in engineering brilliant solutions for our customers. We design cost effective, safe and reliable products and solutions which meet our customers’ requirements.

Our global presence means we are able to support customers in markets across the world but alongside this we have also maintained our flexibility to work with customers, listening and responding to their needs. Our highly skilled engineers can customise products using cutting edge technology and our consultants can provide advice and support before during and after projects.

Q. What do you think are the biggest challenges to the South African/African energy/water market?
A As with most African countries, a shortfall of electrical generation capacity due to lack of investment is delaying the growth of markets.

Q. Why did you decide to become a sponsor of African Utility Week?
A. African Utility Week is the largest conference in Africa with most countries sending delegates, therefore being a sponsor is essential for exposure to the Electrical Utility companies attending.

We see Africa as a key growth market for Lucy Switchgear and we are committed to developing our business in the region. We are investing in new products that meet the specific needs of the marketplace and expanding our consultancy offering to support companies during project planning and implementation. We also offer training from our experienced technicians and dedicated after sales support throughout the product lifecycle.

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14th Annual FPSO Congress 2013. Driving FPSO Project Profitability through Sustainable Business Models and Technological Advancements

Posted on 07 May 2013 by Africa Business

We have reached a milestone for our 14th FPSO Congress this year. As we look back at the past 13 years, the growth of our event has indeed mirrored that of the FPSO industry, and this year is no exception.

The topics and themes for this year’s Congress have been specifically handpicked by our Advisory Board and aligned to complement the evolving trends in the FPSO market.

With three dedicated streams per day focused on FPSO topside technology, construction and design, turrets and moorings, asset integrity, process safety, FPSO field operations from the North Sea, Asia, Africa and Brazil, and FPSO financing and contracting, the Congress this year reinforces its position as the world’s largest meeting for the FPSO community.

The presence and participation of 15+ C-level officers and senior management from leading vessel owners and oil operators including BW Offshore, MODEC, SBM Offshore, Bumi Armada, Petrofac Production, Petrobras, PNOC, Tullow Oil and more is testament to the quality of this event.

With the Technology Hall this year doubled in size plus a brand new Demonstration Area to include 50+ key industry players such as ABB, Kongsberg, Wartsila and GE Oil and Gas, vendors and solution providers recognise that the FPSO Congress is the definitive platform to expand their business horizons and network with existing and new clients.

What’s New This Year?

1. Meet the Cs– An unprecedented line up of 15+ C-Level speakers and attendees including BW Offshore (CEO & CTO), Bumi Armada (CEO), Maersk FPSOs (COO), Petrofac Production (COO), EMAS Offshore (COO) and more

2. More Oil Operators Speaking– including Petrobras, Apache Energy, Tullow Oil, Premier Oil, Husky CNOOC Madura Limited, NPDC, PNOC and more

Visit Pages 12-13 for further details

3. Dedication and Focus- 3 streams each day focusing on topside construction, FPSO field operations, turrets and mooring systems, financing FPSO projects, topside technologies, asset integrity, process safety and emerging markets

Visit Pages 6-9 for further details

4. Global Stage –Case studies and project spotlights from Asia, the North Sea, West Africa and Brazil

5. Double the Size, Double the Opportunities – We have doubled the size of our Technology Hall and added the FPSO Demonstration Area; Find the right technology and solution at the Congress

Visit Pages 14-15 for further details

Join us this year at the FPSO Congress, 17 – 18 September at MAX Atria @ Singapore Expo, and hear insightful and critical presentations from CEOs, COOs, VPs, and Engineering and Commercial Heads from oil operators, vessel operators, EPCs, subcontractors and financiers. Even better, take this opportunity to network with your counterparts and industry colleagues. This four-day Congress is the industry event that you absolutely cannot afford to miss.

To find out more, please visit our website or email us at

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Last Flight to Abuja

Posted on 24 April 2013 by Africa Business

Last Flight to Abuja the blockbuster airplane disaster thriller from multi award winning Nollywood filmmaker Obi Emelonye is now finally available to be watched online anywhere in the world on all internet enabled devices. The feature film originally inspired by a series of airplane disasters that rocked Nigeria in 2006 is available to be seen for a small fee via Distrify, the innovative online self distribution platform based in the UK.
Based on real life events, Last Flight to Abuja went on to become the highest grossing film of 2012 at the W Africa box office and is officially holder of the titles of the biggest ever premiere and the longest running movie in Nigeria cinema history.
The much anticipated online release comes just before the film competes in 5 key categories including Best Film at the 2013 African Movie Academy Awards. The producers are preparing to finally release the film on DVD to the international market in late May 2013, a few weeks ahead of the first anniversary of the Dana Air tragedy.
Last Flight to Abuja was originally premiered to the world in June 2012 just one week after the Nigerian Dana Air and Ghana bound Nigerian cargo plane tragedies and paid tribute to the many deceased and has since been used as an advocacy tool to raise awareness for increased aviation safety in Nigeria, Ghana & Africa as a whole.
As the producers embark on the online release, all involved with the film remain sensitive towards the feelings of the family and friends of the victims may their souls continue to rest in God’s perfect peace.

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Posted on 23 April 2013 by Africa Business

BP today announced plans to invest in excess of R5 billion in South Africa and Mozambique over the next five years in new and on-going infrastructure upgrade projects to improve business efficiency and assist Government’s objectives to enhance energy security and enable the transition to cleaner fuels.

During a visit to South Africa today, Iain Conn, BP Group Managing Director and Chief Executive of Refining and Marketing, said that BP was committed to pursuing operations and investments across Africa. In Upstream, BP is pursuing opportunities in Angola, Algeria, Namibia, Libya and Egypt. In Downstream, beyond today’s announcement about South Africa, BP is also making investments to improve and upgrade the fuel import infrastructure in neighbouring Mozambique.

In South Africa, an investment of close to R5 billion will be spent on various projects across the BP Fuels Value Chain including refinery, terminal and retail network assets. This is a sign of BP’s growing confidence in the South African economy as an attractive investment destination especially after the adoption of the National Development Plan (NDP) as the road map for the country.

Mr Conn stated that around half the investment will be spent in upgrading and modernising the refinery infrastructure at Sapref, a joint venture with Shell. The infrastructure upgrade will primarily be to comply with South Africa’s proposed clean fuels requirements.

In February 2013, the South African Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan undertook to announce the support mechanism for biofuels and upgrade of refineries to encourage South Africa to produce cleaner fuels which are environmentally friendly.

“We anticipate that the remuneration mechanism will be finalised shortly as we have already started to invest in the project and our intent is to be ready to produce clean fuels in 2017,” said Mr Conn.

Part of the R5 billion investment is aimed at building and upgrading terminals to world-class facilities that are leading the industry in terms of safety, operational integrity and technology. BP’s investment will also ensure greater security of supply. An example of this investment is the new and recently-commissioned facility built in partnership with Sasol at Alrode outside Johannesburg. Once completed, this terminal will be the most modern and technologically advanced in Africa with high safety management systems and standards.

BP’s retail network will benefit from the announced investment which will improve customer experience. The conversion to a “best in class” convenience retail offering, in partnership with Pick n Pay, will see 120 Pick n Pay Express stores opened in the next five years across South Africa. Coupled with improvements to the BP Express convenience offering, the fuel forecourts will be upgraded with a standardised look.

Iain Conn emphasised that BP’s commitment is not only about the capital and commercial investment, it is also about being part of a South African community and continuing to contribute to the improvement of people’s lives through a focused transformation programme aligned with Government’s goal to create jobs, develop skills and build entrepreneurs, as well as achieve sustainable economic growth.

“This is part of our on-going efforts to be a good corporate citizen as we pursue our business objectives in all the markets in which we operate”, said Mr Conn.

BP has been at the forefront of transformation over a number of years. In 2001, BP became one of the first companies to form an empowerment initiative and this has resulted in cash pay-outs to BEE shareholders to the tune of R300 million.

Subsequently, Masana, a joint venture between BP and its BEE partners, was formed in 2005. This has been one of South Africa’s empowerment success stories which has doubled its growth since inception.

BP continues on pioneering the transformation journey with the latest hydrocarbon (crude oil) procurement initiative which invited and encouraged local previously disadvantaged enterprises to participate in a tender process.

A long standing support for skills development and quality education continues to be at the cornerstone of BP’s involvement in high school enrichment programmes, artisan to PhD support programmes, and general industry skills development for the previously disadvantaged. To this end, BP, as part of the South African Petroleum Industry Association (SAPIA), is involved in an industry-wide skills development initiative that will culminate in a Petroleum Institute which will assist the Southern Africa region.

Mr Conn reiterated that “the investments we are making in South Africa are not only a sign of confidence in the policy direction the country is taking, but they are also our commitment to all South Africans through the successful development of the energy infrastructure, market and associated skills and opportunities.”

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Posted on 17 April 2013 by Africa Business

  • 5 Ways Drones Could Help In A Disaster Like The Boston Marathon Bombing
    Plus three robots that are already saving lives.

    Yesterday, the President of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Michael Toscano told U.S. News: “Whether it is in response to a natural disaster or a tragedy like we saw in Boston, [unmanned aerial systems] can be quickly deployed to provide first responders with critical situational awareness in areas too dangerous or difficult for manned aircraft to reach.”

    Is he right? Well, he’s not entirely wrong. Drones, like manned helicopters used by police and emergency responders, can hover, provide a great overall picture of action on the ground, and direct aid to where it’s needed. The trick is that, right now, drones don’t do that uniquely, which is what a sales pitch on their special capacity demands. Boston did in fact have a police helicopter flying overhead, and the problem of low fuel reportedly overheard on the police scanner is a problem that another helicopter could have solved just as easily. Drones aren’t particularly special in disaster relief-yet.

    As drone tech advances, we could soon see remotely piloted vehicles joining the ranks of police departments and emergency response organizations. Here are five drones that might save a life in a future disaster.

    1. The MQ-8C Fire Scout: This full-size, unmanned helicopter could ultimately replace police or medical evacuation helicopters. The crew compartment can, among other things, be converted to hold an EMS team for medical airlift, or extra fuel to stay aloft longer.

    2. Quadrotors: Drones like the Aeryon Scout provide a wealth of video coverage, spying on rooftops and moving in fearlessly to document a blast zone. (Of course, civilian smartphones did much of that work in Boston.)

    3. Swarm of Swiss robots: By emulating the patterns ants use to hunt for food, these swarming drones can efficiently scan a large area and then converge where they are needed-a strategy that requires an awful lot of manpower when it’s used by human search-and-rescue workers.

    4. Incredible HLQ: This quadrotor is designed to carry relief supplies to places people can’t access, or can’t access fast enough, during an emergency. It’s in development now after a successful Kickstarter campaign.

    5. The Pars Aerial Rescue Bot: While not strictly applicable to Boston, this Iranian lifeguard quadrotor could aid in disasters along coastal areas, flying through severe weather to rescue people from drowning.

    Flying machines aren’t the only rescue robots we can expect in the future. Unmanned ground machines also have a lot to offer. CHIMP, a monkey-tank-robot created by Carnegie Melon, is designed specifically to climb over rubble or up ladders to save people in collapsed buildings. DARPA’s Robotics Challenge, in which CHIMP is an entrant, has inspired several robots designed to take the place of humans in emergency situations.

    Three types of ground robots are already saving lives around the world:

    1. A whole fleet of earthquake-response rescue robots: These are currently at work in Japan, and they include the RoboCue victim-recovery bot.

    2. Talon: QinetiQ’s bomb-disposal robot made a name for itself fighting IEDs in the Iraq War. There’s also a police version available.

    3. The Land Shark EODS: This remotely controlled robot is used to detonate explosives safely away from people. Massachusetts State Police have at least one on hand.

    The future will certainly see more robots rushing to save lives, and undoubtedly some of those will be flying. The future promise of flying rescuers, however, should not distract us from the actual ground robots that are being used in Boston presently.


  • FYI: Can Humans Get High On Catnip?
    Samantha J. Kitty fiending for some catnip Evan Kafka via Suzanne LaBarre
    Related: Can cats get high on marijuana?

    While cats may feel effects from marijuana-no word on whether Sir Harry Paus actually likes the experience-“kitty pot” does not have a reciprocal effect on humans.

    In the late 1960s, some researchers reported catnip gave people a marijuana-like high, but it turned out they had simply mixed up the two plants. As veterinarian Arnold Plotnick of Manhattan Cat Specialists in New York wrote to me in an email, “Think about it… catnip is cheap and legal. If it had a significant effect on people, everyone would be smoking it.”

    Meanwhile, cats do feel effects from marijuana, but it may be scary for them. “Animals can’t understand they’re being intoxicated, therefore it can cause considerable anxiety,” says Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center in upstate New York.

    It’s not clear why the active chemical in catnip, nepetalactone, doesn’t affect humans, Kornreich says. Pot affects cats because like many mammals, including humans and dogs, cats have receptors in their brains for pot’s active chemicals, cannabinoids. Cannabinoid receptors make pets susceptible to feeling symptoms when they inhale secondhand smoke or, more commonly, accidentally eat their owners’ stashes. (It’s actually a bigger problem with dogs, he says, because dogs eat everything.)

    Kornreich has seen pets come into veterinary emergency rooms after marijuana exposure. “The pets are presented for anxiety, active heart rate, acting a little unusual,” he says. “They may react differently to sound and to being touched” perhaps because, like humans, drugs alter their perception.

    Kornreich urges pet owners to take their pets to a vet if this happens, adding that vets are not required by law to report marijuana they run into during their practice. Most veterinarians care more about making pets better, he says. “It’s more just focused on the well-being of the patient.”

    He also strongly discourages purposefully exposing a pet to marijuana. Fido and Kitty can’t consent to getting high. “I don’t think it’s right or fair to make that decision for an animal,” he says.

    If pot affects cats because they have cannabinoid receptors, does that mean people aren’t affected by catnip because they don’t have nepetalactone receptors? Scientists aren’t sure. “While it seems that this is a reasonable hypothesis to explain why humans don’t respond to catnip like cats do, I cannot find any studies that rigorously test it,” Kornreich says. While many brain receptors are common across different animals, many receptors also differ, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented for humans to lack a receptor present in cat brains.

    In cats, inhaled nepetalactone stimulates the olfactory bulb, the part of the brain that processes odors. The olfactory bulb then interacts with the amygdala, the brain region associated with emotion and decision-making, and hypothalamus, which controls a variety of bodily functions. From the hypothalamus, nepetalactone stimulates a sexual response in cats that are genetically predisposed to sensitivity to catnip. (About 20 to 30 percent of cats don’t seem to react to the plant.)

    Some insects seem to react to nepetalactone, too. Strangely enough, chemical companies are studying nepetalactone because it seems to repel mosquitoes, ticks and mites, like a kind of natural DEET. For the insects to change their behavior around nepetalactone, even if negatively, suggests that they have nepetalactone receptors.

    As for smoking catnip: not only does it fail to get people high, it can make them feel pretty awful. Too much catnip, whether smoked or drunk as a tea, could cause headaches and vomiting.

    Have a burning science question you’d like to see answered in our FYI section? Email it to


  • Audi Wants Its Cars To Predict Where Traffic Will Be
    Traffic Jam
    Side-stepping traffic by mining data

    At the GPU Technology Conference 2013 show in San Jose, Audi announced some of its plans for its Cars of the Future, The Register reports. One of the coolest ideas: cars that can predict where traffic will be, so drivers can avoid it.

    The amply named Predictive Traffic function would mine traffic records and current reports, including social media, as well as scheduled events like sports games that could bring cars to a standstill. The system, under Audi’s plan, could also predict a driver’s most likely destination based on their traffic history.

    Pretty neat! Along with that, Audi announced a concept for a reworked directions system that would operate in a “human-like” way, giving directions based on landmarks instead of streets. A Smart Parking feature would work similarly to the traffic-predicting system, but do it for parking spots: mapping out available spots and prices for those spots, rather than making you drive around in circles hunting one down.

    We don’t have too many details yet on exactly how these systems would work, but since Audi did make a self-driving car, hopefully we’ll see these projects come to life soon, too.

    [The Register]


  • Magnetic Brain Stimulation Removes Craving For Cigarettes
    Smoking Kills Challiyil Eswaramangalath Vipin via Wikimedia
    Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt!

    Scientists at Medical University of South Carolina temporarily blunted cigarette cravings among smokers by magnetically stimulating nerve cells in their brains. The procedure, called transcranial magnetic stimulation, is already approved by the FDA to treat depression, though its efficacy is controversial (it’s also been prescribed to stop people from lying and treat adult ADHD.)

    In the experiment, researchers randomly assigned 16 smokers to either a 15-minute session of high-frequency transcranial magnetic stimulation (in which coils placed over the forehead send magnetic pulses into the prefrontal cortex), or 15 minutes of sham treatment. The magnetic stimulation isn’t painful and doesn’t require sedation or anesthesia. The scientists told the volunteers not to smoke for two hours prior to the experiment.

    Before the treatment, the researchers showed the smokers both neutral images (such as mountain scenes) and images intended to provoke nicotine cravings (such as a person lightning a cigarette.) Then they asked the volunteers to rate how they felt about statements like “I would do almost anything for a cigarette now” and “I am going to smoke as soon as possible.” After the magnetic stimulation, the participants saw similar images and again rated how much they craved a cigarette.

    The researchers found that the participants who got the real magnet treatment expressed significantly less desire to smoke at the end of the experiment compared with those who got the fake treatment. In fact, the craving reduction was positively correlated with how nicotine-dependent the volunteer was, meaning that those who smoked the most saw the greatest decrease in cigarette craving after the magnetic stimulation.

    The authors of the study note that people trying to quit smoking would need several sessions of transcranial magnetic stimulation per day in order to see longer-lasting reductions in cravings. The paper appears in Biological Psychiatry.


  • Everything You Need To Know About Ricin, The Poison Mailed To President Obama
    Ricin (on Breaking Bad) via Breaking Bad Wiki
    Ricin is one of the most poisonous substances on Earth, it’s scarily easy to make, and somebody is mailing it to the President and at least one U.S. senator. What it is, how it works, and more, inside.

    Yesterday, an envelope addressed to Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, was found to contain a white granular substance that was identified as ricin. Today, a similar letter addressed to President Obama was found. These envelopes were intercepted off-site–they never got anywhere near their targets–but as a precaution, Capitol Police have shut down mail service until they can figure out what’s going on.

    In the meantime, let’s talk about ricin!

    How poisonous is it?
    Oh, man. Very. It’s dangerous in just about any way it gets into your system, though ingesting (eating) it is about the least dangerous way. Injecting or inhaling requires about a thousand times less ricin to kill a human than ingesting, and that’s a very small amount indeed. An average adult needs only 1.78mg of ricin injected or inhaled to die; that’s about the size of a few grains of table salt–which ricin resembles visually.

    How does it work?
    Ricin, a toxic protein, infects cells, blocking their ability to synthesize their own protein. Without cells making protein, key functions in the body shut down; even in survivors, permanent organ damage is often the result of ricin poisoning. It’s a highly unpleasant way to be poisoned: within six hours, according to the Center for Disease Control, victims who have ingested ricin will feel gastrointestinal effects like severe vomiting and diarrhea, which can lead to serious dehydration. Then the ricin infects the cells of the vital gastrointestinal organs as they pass through the body, leading to the failure of the kidneys, liver, and pancreas.

    Inhalation of ricin has a different effect, since the ricin proteins aren’t interacting with the same parts of the body. Instead of gastrointestinal problems, you’ll develop a vicious, bloody cough, your lungs will fill with fluid, and eventually you’ll lose your ability to breathe, causing death. Injection, too, is different, depending on where you’ve been injected, but will generally result in vomiting and flu-like symptoms, swelling around the place of injection, and eventually organ failure as your circulatory system passes the protein around the body. Death from inhalation or injection usually occurs about three to five miserable, agonizing days after contact.

    Interestingly, there aren’t any immediate symptoms, and indeed there can be a significant delay before symptoms show themselves, up to a day or two.

    Exposure on the skin is generally not fatal, though it may cause a reaction that can range from irritation to blistering.

    That sounds…horrible. Is there an antidote, at least?
    Haha. No. The US and UK governments have been working on an antidote for decades–here’s a nice article describing the progression of one such antidote–but there isn’t one available to the public. The CDC’s website states bluntly, “There is no antidote for ricin toxicity.” There are some steps you can take if you get to a hospital immediately; for ingestion, a stomach pump can sometimes prevent the ricin from reaching the rest of the gastrointestinal system at its full force. But…that’s about it, really.

    How does it stack up against other poisons?
    Well, that depends on what your aim is. Ricin is much easier to produce than other popular biological weapons like botulinum, sarin, and anthrax, but it is not as potent as any of those, which limits its effectiveness as a weapon. It also is not very long-lived; the protein can age and become inactive fairly quickly compared to, say, anthrax, which can remain dangerous for decades. There were experiments back around World War I attempting to make wide-scale ricin weapons, packaging it into bombs and coating bullets in it, but these proved not particularly effective and also violate the Hague Convention’s agreements on war crimes, so the US discarded ricin.

    It’s much more effective, weapon-wise, as a close-contact, small-target weapon–by injecting, as with Georgi Markov, or by putting small particles into an aerosol spray and blasting a target. It’s also not contagious, which limits its effectiveness as a tool of biological warfare. But it’s considered highly dangerous partly because it’s still outrageously toxic and partly because it takes no great skill to produce.

    So it’s not hard to make?
    Well…no. Like, not at all. It’s made from the byproduct of the castor oil manufacturing process. You take the “mash” of the castor oil seeds, which contain around 5-10 percent ricin, and perform a process called chromatography. Chromatography is a blanket term for a set of techniques used to separate mixtures, usually by dissolving in liquid or gas. The US government has done its best to eradicate recipes for ricin from the internet, sort of; a patent was filed back in 1962 for ricin extraction, and the Patent Office took it off the publicly available server in 2004 for safety reasons. That said, the recipe is super easy to find; here at the PopSci offices, I’m blocked from listening to Rdio on my work computer, but I found a recipe to make an outrageously deadly poison in about a minute.

    The techniques involved are undergraduate-level chemistry, creating a slurry with the castor bean mash and filtering with water and then a few easily-found substances like hydrochloric acid.

    It comes from castor beans?
    Ricin is a highly toxic protein that’s extracted from the seed of the castor plant, often called a “castor bean” or “castor oil bean,” despite not technically being a bean. The castor plant is extremely common; it’s used as an ornamental plant throughout the western world, prized for its ability to grow basically anywhere as well as its pretty, spiky leaves and weird spiny fruits. It’s also an important crop; the seeds are full of oil, and castor oil is used for lots of legitimate purposes. It’s a common laxative, for one thing, and since it’s more resistant to high temperatures than other kinds of vegetable oils, it’s a nice alternative to petroleum oil in engines.

    Wait, but you can eat it? So how is this a poison?
    Ah, yes. Castor oil is perfectly safe, according to the FDA and your grandma, but ricin is not castor oil. Castor seeds are still poisonous; this study says that a lethal dose of castor seeds for adults is about four to eight seeds. But the oil itself does not contain ricin; the ricin protein is left behind in the “castor bean mash” after the oil is extracted from the seed. Poisoning from eating the seed itself is rare.

    Have there been cases of ricin poisoning in the past?
    You mean, beyond the several times it’s been featured as a major plot point in Breaking Bad? Sure! The most famous is probably the assassination of Georgi Markov in 1978. Markov was a Bulgarian novelist, playwright, journalist, and dissident, and was murdered by the Bulgarian secret service, with assistance from the KGB, by ricin injection. He was crossing a bridge when he was jabbed in the leg with an umbrella, which delivered a ricin pellet into his bloodstream. He died three days later of ricin poisoning.

    There are plenty of incidents of people arrested for attempting (or, more often, succeeding) to make ricin; it’s a pretty easy poison to make. In fact, there was even another ricin-in-the-envelope attempt made back in 2003–a person identifying as “Fallen Angel” sent letters filled with ricin to the White House, apparently as a result of some new trucking regulations (seriously). “Fallen Angel” was never found, but the letters were intercepted and did not cause any injury.

    How dangerous are these envelopes filled with ricin?
    The envelope strategy has more to do with potential ease of getting the poison close to targets than its strength as a delivery system. If you’re targeting the President of the United States, it’s easier and more anonymous to mail a letter than to try to get close to him with an umbrella modified for ricin-stabbing. But it’s not a great way to poison someone with ricin. Assuming the letter actually got into the target’s hands, of the three ways ricin can get into a person’s system (inhalation, injection, ingestion), only one–inhalation–is really possible, and it’s not that likely.

    Inhalation as a weapon is best accomplished through a mist, ideally delivered through an aerosol. But that’s not possible in a letter full of powder. It’s possible that small granules of ricin could be released into the air and inhaled when handling the letter, but it is not an effective way to poison someone. And whoever’s sending these letters evidently doesn’t know that the government set up an elaborate mail-screening system after the 2001 Anthrax scare.


  • Mystery Animal Contest: Who Is This Fuzzy Sniffler?
    Guess the species (either common or Linnaean) by tweeting at us–we’re @PopSci–and get your name listed right here! Plus eternal glory, obviously. Update: We have a winner!

    So, here are the rules: To answer, follow us on Twitter and tweet at us with the hashtag #mysteryanimal. For example:

    Hey @PopSci, is the #mysteryanimal a baboon?

    And then I might say “if you think that’s a baboon, perhaps you are the baboon!” But probably not, because this is a positive environment and all guesses are welcome and also this is not a very common animal so guess whatever you want!

    The first person to get it right wins! We’ll retweet the answer from @PopSci, and also update this post so your amazing animal knowledge will be permanently etched onto the internet. Show your kids! Your dumb kids who thought that was a baboon!

    Update: And the winner is…Logan Copeman, who correctly guessed that this is a viscacha (Lagidium viscacia, also spelled vizcacha)! Specifically, this is a southern or mountain viscacha, a rodent found in South America. Yep, rodent: the viscacha is not related to the rabbit family, though it looks similar; the rabbit belongs to an entirely different branch of the evolutionary tree, and the fact that the viscacha looks so much like a rabbit is an example of convergent evolution. Convergent evolution describes when two species not closely related end up adapting to their environments in the same way.

    The viscacha lives in the southern Andes mountains, and is closely related to the chinchilla. It’s sometimes known as a long-tailed rabbit, thanks to its long ears and fluffy coat. It moves similarly to a rabbit, on very strong hind legs, hopping around its mountain home to eat a variety of grasses, mosses, and lichens. It lives in colonies, like all members of the chinchilla family, which can widely range in size. It’s not particularly rare; it is sometimes hunted for its meat and fur, but is believed to be holding steady, population-wise. Hi viscacha!


  • EuropaCity Is The Ultra-Green Mall Of The Future
    EuropaCity BIG
    Imagine a mall. Now imagine a mall in the year 2150.

    The design firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), along with a few added team members (Tess, Transsolar, Base, Transitec, and Michel Forgue) have won first place in a competition to design an experimental “urban center” in France called EuropaCity. Located in Île-de-France, the wealthiest and most populous region in France, EuropaCity is intended to be a center of culture and retail, combining all sorts of experimental sustainable technologies.

    But as a design–and a pretty spectacular one at that–it’s best experienced through images. Click through to the gallery to see and read more about the proposal!

    Click to launch the gallery.


  • Nanosponges In Your Blood Could Soak Up Infections And Poison
    Nanosponge Engineers at the University of California, San Diego have invented a “nanosponge” capable of safely removing a broad class of toxins from the bloodstream, including toxins produced by MRSA, E. Coli, poisonous snakes and bees. The nanosponges are made of a biocompatible polymer core wrapped in a natural red blood cell membrane. Zhang Research Lab
    Mice who got nanosponge injections survived lethal doses of toxins.

    A newly invented “nanosponge,” sheathed in armor made of red blood cells, can safely remove a wide range of toxins from the bloodstream. Scientists at the University of California-San Diego inoculated some mice with their nanosponge, and then gave the animals otherwise lethal doses of a toxin–and the mice survived.

    This is especially interesting because a nanosponge can work on entire classes of toxins. Most antidotes or treatments against venom, bioweapons or bacteria are targeted to counteract a specific molecular structure, so they can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution; this nanosponge can.

    Scientists led by Liangfang Zhang, a nanoengineering professor at UCSD, worked with a class of proteins known as pore-forming toxins, which work just the way they sound: By ripping a hole in a cell membrane. These toxins are found in snake venom, sea anemones, and even bacteria like the dreaded drug-resistant Staph aureus. The proteins come in many different shapes and sizes, but they all work in a similar way.

    They designed a nanosponge to soak up any type of pore-forming toxins. It consists of a tiny (85-nanometer) plastic ball wrapped in red blood cell membranes, which basically serve as a decoy and soak up the poison. The plastic ball holds everything together, and keeps the protein away from its real cellular targets. The entire nanosponge is 3,000 times smaller than a full red blood cell. The devices had a half-life of about 40 hours when the team tested them on lab mice, according to a release from UCSD.

    They injected mice with 70 times as many toxic proteins as nanosponges, and the sponges still neutralized the poison and caused no visible damage to the animals, the team reports. Next up are clinical trials in animals, to verify that it works safely in a wide range of cases.

    The paper is in this week’s issue of Nature Nanotechnology.


  • Wearing A Kilt Could Make Your Sperm Stronger
    Temperature regulation is the key to fertility.

    Temperature affects how much sperm a man makes, so there’s been speculation that the freedom offered by a kilt can increase production. Turns out that that at least could be right: a new metastudy says wearing a kilt “likely produces an ideal physiological scrotal environment, which in turn helps maintain normal scrotal temperature, which is known to be beneficial for robust spermatogenesis and good sperm quality.”

    The study (PDF), published in the Scottish Medical Journal, reviewed the literature on the link between scrotal temperature and reproduction. We know sperm fares better in lower temperatures, and some researchers have suggested that restrictive clothing could negatively affect sperm production. Enter: the kilt, which author Erwin J.O. Kompanje describes thusly: “The Scottish kilt is a male garment that resembles (but is not!) a knee-length, pleated skirt.”

    The author hypothesizes that, based on past findings about temperature and sperm production, a kilt, specifically one worn in the undergarment-free “regimental” style, would be an ideal environment for sperm production. Kompanje searched through related research, focusing on statistics in Scotland and noting along the way that 70 percent of kilt-wearers choose to go regimental. Kilts (at least in Scotland or other countries where they’re more commonly worn) might also be psychologically valuable, increasing feelings of masculinity when worn. Kompanje goes so far as to write that a downturn in Scottish fertility is correlated with the frequency of kilts being worn, although he admits it’s still somewhat speculative until a randomized trial happens. Gentlemen, put on your kilts for science.


  • We Could Eat Trees: Scientists Turn Inedible Plant Cellulose Into Starchy Snack
    Turning plant byproducts into digestible carbs could feed more people.

    Someday, it will be be summer again and it will be time for fresh sweet corn. In the future, you might be able to eat the whole thing, cob and all.

    This weird possibility is courtesy of some scientists at Virginia Tech, who have transformed cellulose, a mostly indigestible polymer, into helpful, indispensable starch.

    Plants produce cellulose and starch, which are chemically similar, for very different purposes. Cellulose forms the cell walls of most plants, algae and even some bacteria, and we use it for anything from clothing (cotton is almost all cellulose) to paper to ethanol. Starch is a plant’s energy source, and it’s ours, too, in the form of tasty things like potatoes, wheat and corn. The difference between the two is a simple change in the hydrogen bonds that form the molecules.

    Animals like cows and pigs can digest cellulose thanks to symbiotic bacteria in their digestive tracts, but humans can’t. It’s important in our diets as source of fiber, in that it binds together waste in our digestive tracts. Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech, set out to make it a food source.

    Since cellulose and amylose are both glucose chains, you would just have to rearrange their hydrogen bonds. This is anything but simple, although essentially Zhang and colleagues used chemistry. They worked with a series of synthetic enzymes to break down the hydrogen bonds in some plant material that would not otherwise be used for food, like corn cobs and leaves. The “enzyme cascade” enabled the cellulose molecules to reconfigure into amylose, which is a form of starch. A key ingredient in this process, a special polypeptide cap, is found in potatoes.

    The resulting product is not exactly the future of bread flour, but it can be used as a fiber source, or food-safe biodegradable packaging, perhaps. The remaining portion of the original material was treated with microbes to produce a form of glucose that can then be used for ethanol. The whole process didn’t require any unusual heat or chemical reagents, other than the enzymes themselves, so it would be easy to reproduce on larger scales, Zhang and his colleagues say.

    Cellulose is the most common carbohydrate–indeed the most common organic material–on the planet, so using it for food could be a superb way to feed millions of people, they argue.

    “There is an urgent need to use abundant and renewable nonfood agricultural and forest residues and dedicated bioenergy crops that can grow on marginal land and require low inputs,” they write. The paper appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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Accra, Ghana: Africa Mining Investment & Development Summit 2013

Posted on 14 April 2013 by Africa Business

Event: Africa Mining Investment & Development Summit 2013

Dates: 9th to 11th July 2013

Venue: Holiday Inn Accra Airport, Accra, Ghana



As Africa moves forward with their mining development initiatives, global investors are starting to realize the vast potential of this untapped market to greater heights. The resource rich African market are continuously welcoming investors that is keen to unlock and understand the investments and environmental concerns of many African countries.


The Africa Mining Investment & Development Summit (AMIDS) 2013 will be held in Accra, Ghana on 9th to 11th July 2013. We will provide insights from various stakeholders, have extensive understanding of the mining and investment potential of Africa, and resolve challenges and barriers that will be encountered along the way. We aim to provide a platform to learn from Africa mining industry’s pioneers and new entrants.


Together with Neoedge’s line of premier conferences, we aim to bring mining industry’s best speakers and delegates. Network with not only the mining and mineral exploration companies but expect to meet regulators, engineering support companies, upstream and downstream mining sector infrastructure development organizations, financial institutions, advisory and consultancy firms.


Make the move towards the next big thing in Africa.


The following key themes will be addressed in depth with Real Examples and Case Studies:

African Market Overview


  • The African Mining Road Map: What has been done and what will be done
  • 3 E’s for policy and regulatory challenges: Explaining, Enhancing and Enforcing
  • Resource nationalism and local content for long term benefits
  • Understanding current legal system and managing through uncertainties
  • Managing taxation complexity and trade barriers


Mining Industry Developments


  • Developing infrastructure and transportation for viable business and society rehabilitation
  • Labour relations and human capital progress in Africa
  • Geological database for ease access to information and enhance productivity
  • Automating mine operations for lesser downtime and better production gains
  • Improving mining logistics for cost efficient and reliable operations
  • Emphasising safety and sustainability in the rising African mining industry


Financial Investment Environment


  • Unlocking the potential of Africa’s mining investment industry
  • Africa’s Mining Financial Trends: Making that “unconventional financing”
  • Surviving volatile commodity price fluctuation for continuous economic growth
  • Financial modelling for mining exploration and production projects
  • Funding new mining investments and expanding existing projects: Opportunities and Challenges

Summit Objectives


  • Understand the current investment situation of major African countries in the mining industry
  • Hear the latest regulatory and policy development straight from government/association representatives
  • Identify the most viable mining frontier markets in the African region
  • Learn the best practices in investing on mining projects direct from the industry experts
  • Maximize the full potential of your mining investments towards profitability
  • Navigate through the fluctuating global commodity market and manage supply and demand trends
  • Benchmark on Africa’s most successful countries in global mining arena
  • Harness the potential of African mining industry through technology development
  • Discuss African region’s development plans from talent development, infrastructure, safety and sustainability
  • Familiarize your self with the legal and taxation regimes



For full agenda, speaking oportunities, sponsorship, exibitions, media partnership, please email us your detail contact information to rueburn@neo Please indicate subject title “Africa Mining Investment & Development Summit 2013”.


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IBM Report: Technology Holds the Key to Economic and Social Reform in Accra, Ghana

Posted on 12 April 2013 by Africa Business

Cloud computing, Big Data and mobile technologies can help transform Accra into a smarter city – improving lives and bolstering the West African hub’s continued rise to prosperity


Joe Mensah, Country General Manager, IBM Ghana (left) presents an IBM Smarter Cities report on Accra, Ghana to the city's Mayor, Alfred Vanderpujie. (PRNewsFoto/IBM)


ACCRA, Ghana, April 11, 2013 /PRNewswire/ — IBM (NYSE: IBM) today announced the launch of a report entitled “A Vision for Smarter Growth: an IBM Smarter Cities Report on Accra, Ghana” that highlights how the rapidly emerging West African city should turn to technology to transform its key urban systems. Based on the opinions of local experts from across public and private sectors and civil society, the report identifies city services, transportation, and energy as essential for Accra‘s urban reform.

According to the International Monetary Fund, Ghana is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, driven by an emerging oil and gas industry, a growing base of consumers and significant foreign investment. Its capital, Accra, is one of Africa‘s fastest emerging cities. According to Mastercard’s African Cities Growth Index, Accra is ranked Africa‘s top city in terms of economic potential over the next five years. Accra has also experienced significant demographic growth, the city’s population expanding by over 1 million people – a 35 percent increase in the past decade, placing increasing strain on the city’s resources.

“As Ghana’s capital, Accra is emerging as one of Africa‘s economic success stories,” said Alfred Vanderpujie, Mayor of Accra. “But such growth is not sustainable in the long term if we do not act now to put in place the systems and processes of the future. Technology is clearly one of the fundamental building blocks for creating a smarter and better functioning Accra.”

The publication of the IBM report follows the launch of the Ghana government’s National Urban Policy Framework and Action Plan, which is aimed at improving infrastructure and raising revenue in Ghana‘s cities to reduce poverty and tackle urban growth challenges.

“Cities across Africa are facing the dual challenge of rapid urban and economic growth,” said Joe Mensah , Country General Manager of IBM Ghana. “IBM’s approach is to enter a dialogue with key stakeholders and experts on the ground to understand the challenges and explore where technology can be successfully applied to transform the systems on which our cities depend. The scale of Accra and its challenges creates a manageable environment for implementing smarter systems that could really improve lives and business.”

Transforming City Services
Rising numbers of residents place increased strain on existing resources and require more effective delivery of city services such as water, sanitation, refuse, public safety, education and healthcare. The Government of Ghana sees improved revenue collection as key to Accra‘s transformation and its ability to fund investment across all of the city’s systems – a key part of the country’s Urban Policy Framework and Action Plan:

“We estimate that Accra loses up to 50 percent of its current revenues to fraud or underpayment by residents,” said Lydia Sackey , Metro Director of Budget, Accra Metropolitan Assembly. “Revenue generation is key to improving city services in Accra. Quite simply, if we don’t raise enough revenue, we are not able to perform our functions and produce enough services for people in the city.”

The IBM report highlights how mobile payment systems could help make the process of paying taxes easier for Accra‘s residents in the future. Hosting city services in the cloud would translate to more transparent and cost-effective municipal service delivery and an online platform for cataloguing property values could lead to a substantial increase in property tax revenues.  Big Data analytics could help city authorities more easily identify cases of tax under payment or fraud.

The Transportation Headache
Like all African cities which are currently experiencing rapid rates of urbanization, transportation is one of Accra‘s key challenges with growing numbers of citizens and vehicles placing increasing pressure on the city’s road networks. With 90 percent of all transport in Accra by road, traffic jams have a negative effect on many other areas such as business, emergency response, the environment, education and healthcare.

The IBM report lists a number of areas where technology can help. While the long-term goal should be the construction of a modern mass public transit system, instrumented, interconnected and intelligent technologies can help in the meantime to form the basis of a smarter transportation system. Smart and networked traffic lights could help to ease the flow of traffic through the city. Cameras and social media technologies could help monitor the road network and provide intelligence to decision makers. By using Big Data technologies to analyze mobile phone data, city officials could gain a clearer view of how people move around within the city and how the existing transportation systems could be enhanced.

The Energy to Grow
Ghana has grown so fast in recent years that electricity supply has become a serious problem and Accra regularly suffers from load-shedding and blackouts. The IBM report highlights energy source diversification from Ghana‘s current 77 percent reliance on hydro-electricity as key to improving supply as well as establishing new commercial enterprises.  For example, telco provider Airtel is piloting the use of wind and solar power as a backup to grid power for its mobile stations in Ghana – an alternative to the costly and environmentally unfriendly generators that businesses rely on.

“Telecommunications sites that are near grid power will always use grid power and in Ghana that comes to about 70 percent of sites. But even those that are on grid power still have generators to back them up because of the grid’s lack of reliability,” said Philip Sowah , CEO of Airtel Ghana.

Smart meters can help monitor and manage electricity distribution and smart grids can help energy providers anticipate and isolate problems limiting impact on lives and business. By building a smarter energy system, Accra can help lay the groundwork for future investment and economic growth.

Laying the Foundations for Smarter Cities Across Africa
In addition to working alongside leaders in Accra, IBM is actively engaged in dialogue with cities across Africa to help public and private sectors address urban challenges and opportunities. In 2012, an IBM Smarter Cities Challenge team was deployed in Nairobi, Kenya to advise on technology solutions to resolve Nairobi‘s traffic challenges; while another team spent a month in the city of Tshwane, South Africa developing a crowdsourcing solution to improve the city’s water management system and enable citizens to report water leaks. Further teams will be deployed in other African cities this year. IBM’s new Africa Research Lab is also developing pilot solutions to optimize traffic management, public safety and government services.



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Seizing the Opportunity: Jobs and Safety Nets in the Middle East and North Africa

Posted on 11 April 2013 by Africa Business

The region’s governments have a unique opportunity for fundamental reforms to bring down barriers to employment and develop safety nets designed to lift people out of poverty

WASHINGTON – More than half the working-age population of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are neither employed nor in school, and both the share of women not working and the unemployment rate for  young people are the highest in the world.  When it comes to protecting the poorest citizens most government-sponsored social safety nets offer inadequate protection and keep many in poverty generation after generation.  Safety nets are crowded out by unaffordable general subsidies that often benefit the rich more than the poor and cause significant economic distortions that lower the demand for labor. Two new reports from the World Bank Group analyze these stark challenges to the health of MENA economies.

Jobs for Shared Prosperity: Time for action in MENA tackles the causes for the high levels of joblessness and offers proposals for creating more dynamic economies that generate jobs. Inclusion and Resilience: The Way Forward for Social Safety Nets in MENA, demonstrates ways in which resources can be redirected toward safety nets that enable the poor to climb out of poverty and contribute to economic and social progress

The call for economic and social justice is intimately related to the need for more equal access to economic opportunities, jobs  and more effective safety nets,” said Inger Andersen, World Bank Regional Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa.By seizing this historical moment and fundamentally changing the rules of the game, the region can lay the foundations for inclusive growth, and provide the poor with the means to climb out of poverty.”

Labor markets in MENA currently provide only a few good jobs for a few protected workers who are predominantly older and male.  Young people and women are left to bear the brunt of these inefficient labor markets. Sadly, MENA holds two world records: three out of every four working-age women in MENA are outside the labor force, and one quarter of the youth population is looking for work but cannot find it

To solve this problem, the report identifies three areas of action.  First, there needs to be a better business climate for the private sector to create the good jobs of the future.  The region has the world’s oldest firms and managers demonstrating a lack of ‘creative destruction,’ the process whereby older less efficient firms are replaced by newer more productive ones,  which has played such an important role in the fast growing economies of Eastern Europe and Asia. Lowering the barriers to both entry and exit of firms would create a dynamic private sector, which encourages investment and innovation, and ultimately increases the demand for labor.

Second, the report argues for reforms across the region’s educational systems so that young people are equipped with the skills required for productive jobs in a vibrant private sector.  This requires better governance of the educational system and a focus on teaching 21st century skills.  Third, the labor market and social protection policies in the region keep a few workers, mainly older and male, well protected, while the majority find themselves without any protection.  The region needs to move towards protecting incomes for all, so that people can change employment in search of more productive jobs without risking their livelihoods.  The Arab uprisings have created a demand for reform and provide an excellent opportunity for governments to address these longstanding issues.

A complementary report on safety nets in the region expands on this last point and highlights the need for redirecting public funds away from subsidies towards safety nets.

The old system that protected a privileged few while purchasing stability with universal subsidies is no longer viable or desirable,” said Steen Jorgensen, World Bank Director for MENA Human Development. “A new social contract that responds to the call for bread, freedom and justice is needed to unleash the region’s vast human potential and help the poor not just to survive, but thrive.”

As well as a source of frustration, the high level of joblessness translates into high levels of vulnerability. The region still has large numbers of people living below the poverty line, around a quarter of the population in many instances.  Poorer children have higher levels of malnutrition, in both the region’s low and medium-income countries, which can cause irreparable harm, lowering learning capacity and increasing risk of school drop-out. The long range consequence is lowered adult productivity and generations trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty.

MENA countries commit a sizeable portion of their national budget to subsidies. While subsidies do have a positive impact on poverty, they benefit the rich more than the poor, and place a heavy burden on public finances. Fuel subsidies in particular have a negative impact on labor markets, making it cheaper to invest in and operate new machinery rather than hire new workers. Their high cost leaves little room for targeted social safety nets, such as direct cash transfers. The average MENA country commits 5.7 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on subsidies and safety nets, but a full 90 percent of this goes toward universal subsidies on food and fuel. On the other hand, countries of similar income levels spend on average 1.3 percent of GDP on social safety nets. The lack of spending on safety nets in MENA has meant that one third of the poorest segment of society is not covered by any form of social protection.

The Palestinian Territories were the first to conduct extensive reforms to unify their fragmented system of social safety nets and better target the poor with expanded cash transfers. Their unified system now reaches 97,000 households with targeted cash transfers, and has allowed them to mitigate the effects of past food and fuel crises by scaling up payments to the most vulnerable. Similar reforms are possible throughout the region, but the first vital step is building public trust. It sets the stage for the game-changing reforms that would drive competition, generate jobs, redirect precious public resources to the most needy, and allow the region’s great human potential to become the source of growth and shared prosperity. As with reforms to the business climate and labor markets, the Arab awakening opens the possibility to truly provide social justice, by getting cash into the hands of poor people and removing the general subsidies that benefit the rich and powerful.


Source: World Bank

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“Solar investors, project developers and EPCs are shifting from a short term cost per Watt focus to a more accurate measure of a system’s value based on the levelized cost of electricity, expressed as cost per kilowatt hour.”

Posted on 08 April 2013 by Africa Business

Exclusive interview with Stephan Padlewski, Market & Program Leader at DuPont Photovoltaic Solutions.  DuPont is a silver sponsor at the upcoming Clean Power Africa.  A DuPont specialist will also address the solar conference session on:  “Know What is in Your Modules – Materials Matter”.

1) What are you most excited about currently in terms of DuPont’s products and solutions?
Materials designed and proven to improve the power output and reliable lifetime of solar panels lower the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE), making solar a better investment.  There are three key materials that should be carefully considered: metallization pastes, encapsulation and backsheet materials.

    Photovoltaic metallization pastes boost the efficiency of solar cells to deliver significantly more power output from solar panels.  Every 1% improvement in sunlight conversion efficiency could result in a 6% cut in the cost of the overall solar power generation system. DuPont is the leading supplier of these high-efficiency materials – Solamet® pastes have essentially doubled cell efficiency over the past twelve years.
    Encapsulation materials surround and protect solar cells and panel circuitry.  While Ethylene vinyl-acetate (EVA) has been widely used, degradation in external environments has been increasingly observed.  Many are now considering DuPont ionomer encapsulants, which were recently shown in independent testing to be at least 25 times more effective than standard EVA encapsulants in preventing Potential Induced Degradation (PID), an increasing cause of solar panel failure.  Additionally, ionomer has almost two decades of field use as an encapsulant, and has demonstrated exceptional results in both reliability and durability, delivering excellent long term system performance.
    DuPont™ Tedlar® polyvinyl fluoride (PVF) film, used in the backsheet of solar panels, has set the standard in the industry because it provides critical, long-life protection to the panel.  Tedlar® is the only product that has been field-proven to deliver high performance in all climates for more than 30 years.  Alternatives to Tedlar® are all relatively new materials for use in SOLAR and are unproven in the field for long term (> 25 years) use.  These backsheet materials are lab-tested in a way that artificially accelerates the effects of aging vs. field-tested over significant periods of time.  Unfortunately, lab tests do not accurately predict lifetime performance.  Backsheet failure can result in safety issues, power and investment loss.

      2) What is on the calendar for DuPont in 2013?
      In 2013, DuPont Photovoltaic Solutions will continue to focus on developing advanced materials that improve the power output and lifetime of solar panels, lowering overall system costs and encouraging faster and broader adoption of solar energy.

      We are also working to address a key issue of concern.  There is a race for survival in the solar industry today, fueled by the drive to achieve grid parity, and exacerbated by industry overcapacity.  As costs are being cut, some manufacturers are substituting unproven and inferior materials that threaten system durability and lifetime.  Sacrificing quality for cost is a tradeoff that has the potential to create widespread system failures and to give the entire solar industry a black eye at a critical time in its growth.

      DuPont therefore has a heavy focus this year on helping solar investors, project developers and EPCs understand the factors most critical to quality in solar panel selection.  Materials are critical and those that are proven to deliver superior power output and extend the lifetime of panels will generate increased rates of return for solar projects.

      We are beginning to see traditional thinking evolve.  For example, solar investors, project developers and EPCs are shifting from a short term cost per watt focus to a more accurate measure of a system’s value based on the levelized cost of electricity, expressed as cost per kilowatt hour.  This is a better measure of overall cost of ownership that takes system lifetime appropriately into account.  We are also seeing increased specification for key materials such as polyvinyl fluoride films, which are the only backsheet materials field-proven to protect solar panels for more than 30 years.

      3) What opportunities do you see in Africa?
      We anticipate significant growth opportunities for solar energy in Africa.  The market could grow from the current hundreds of megawatts to hundreds of gigawatts over the next decade.

      Power supply is a major issue in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa.  The conventional electrification approach involves large and centralized power sources such as nuclear or coal combined with the deployment of power grid systems that need to stretch over large territories.  This approach implies very large up-front capital expenditures and very long lead times.  By contrast, a decentralized and scalable power source such as solar can provide electricity to a large proportion of the population including rural areas, rapidly and cost effectively.

      Diesel generators are widely used today to power mini grid systems for private and small communities.  Solar panels could be plugged into these grids.  Initially, that would lower the use of diesel generators, lower the cost of electricity and minimize environmental impacts.  The LCOE from solar power today can be as low as USD $0.10 per kilowatt hour – about half or even a third the cost of conventional generators that require complex logistics for fuel supply, maintenance and involve high fuel costs. Longer term and as energy storage technology matures, solar and other intermittent sources such as wind could become primary electrical power sources, covering electricity needs over the entire day cycle.

      Africa has the opportunity to bypass the conventional electrification infrastructure approach with its centralized, carbon-based power source combined with a complex distribution system.  Africa can directly adopt a state-of- the-art electrification model involving clean and decentralized renewable power combined with smart grid systems and storage in the future without relying upon high capital cost distribution infrastructure.

      The amount of sunlight Africa receives has the potential to meet and exceed the amount of energy that Africa will ever need.  Solar energy systems can generate cost-effective electricity, and deliver it to even the most remote locations across the continent.

      4) What do you think are the biggest challenges to the South African/African energy market?
      The biggest challenges are in building and strengthening investor confidence, which is the key to a healthy solar industry in South Africa.  And, well-defined regulatory and legislative frameworks are needed that allow for feed-in to the grid at all voltage levels.  These frameworks will further allow the market to develop at a sound pace.

      5) Why did you decide to sponsor at Clean Power Africa?
      Africa has great potential for growth in solar, it’s a key emerging market for us.  It also presents a great opportunity to connect and network with regional players, in particular downstream investors, project developers and EPCs.

      6) What surprises you about this industry?
      With the abundance of sun in Africa, and given the high cost, volatility, limitations and complexity of fossil fuels, we would expect solar energy to play a larger role in the current market.

      The African continent is well suited for solar power, since it is mostly rural and there is a need for power in many areas.  Solar energy can help address these issues in the short-term and also contribute to local economic development.

      7) What will be your main message for the event delegate and visitor?
      In the past, an investor, developer or system owner didn’t need to be an expert in materials technologies for solar panels.  High quality, proven technologies were assumed.  It’s still not necessary to be a materials expert, but now you need to be aware of what’s in your panel and what to ask for. In today’s market, industry consolidation and the efforts to maintain profitability throughout the value chain are driving short-term decisions with long-term implications.

      We believe that the industry’s short-term focus is resulting in lower quality and lower performing materials being used in solar panels, which shifts more risk to system owners who may experience premature power degradation and decreased system lifetime.  Warranties and ‘bankability’ status are no longer effective to mitigate risks.  The panel manufacturer that supplied your system may not be around long-term. Becoming aware of your system’s bill of materials, component design and manufacturing processes is the key to ensure durability, reliability and long-term performance of a solar investment.

      8 ) Anything you would like to add?
      Please visit our website to learn more about the role of materials in powering solar



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