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Down to Business: Drought-hit Kenyan Women Trade Their Way Out of Poverty

Widow Ahatho Turuga lost 20 of her goats to drought early last year, but the shopkeeper is planning to reinvest in her herd once she has saved enough money.

“I think I will start with four goats and see how it goes,” she said, rearranging soap on the upper shelf of her shop in Loglogo, a few kilometers from Marsabit town.

She recalled how frequent droughts had left her on the edge of desperation, struggling to care for six of her own children and four others she adopted after their mother died.

But Turuga is finding it easier to cope since taking part in a rural entrepreneurship program run by The BOMA Project, a nonprofit helping women in Kenya’s dry northern areas beat extreme poverty and adapt to climate change.

The U.S. and Kenya-based organization provides two years of business and life-skills training, as well as mentorship.

Groups of three women are each given a startup grant of 20,000 Kenyan shillings ($194.55) and a progress grant of 10,000 shillings to set up a business.

After graduating, they carry on operating their businesses — mainly small shops selling groceries and household goods — either together or on their own.

The women also club together in savings groups of at least 15 people, who put away anything from 400 shillings a month each, and make loans to members at an interest rate of 5 to 10 percent.

Habibo Osman, a mother of five who was in the same group as Turuga, has been able to support her family even after divorcing her husband.

The 1,200 shillings she earns each week from the shop she established as a BOMA business has enabled her to enroll her eldest child, aged five, in nursery school. She is now hoping to save enough to buy her own land.

No more aid

Ahmed “Kura” Omar, BOMA’s co-founder and deputy country director, said his native Marsabit is one of Kenya’s driest counties. It is often hit by prolonged drought, with many families losing livestock in its mainly pastoralist economy, he added.

“Given that there is no foreseeable end to these drought patterns, we need to stop relying on food distribution and aid money, and create more sustainable, life-long solutions,” Kura told Reuters.

BOMA CEO Kathleen Colson said the program aimed to help break the cycle of dependency on aid, giving women power over their lives and the means to move out of extreme poverty.

“People need to be treated with dignity and be empowered to achieve self-sufficiency and effect change on a community level,” she said.

BOMA asks villagers to help identify the poorest women among them to participate in the training. After completing the program, they help other women, a process that raises income levels across the entire area.

Bakayo Nahiro, a widow and mother of six, belongs to the Namayana women’s saving group in Kargi in Marsabit. She has amassed 25,000 shillings in savings, but said profit margins go down in drought periods as people take shop goods on credit when they have no livestock to sell.

Money is power

Jane Naimirdik, a BOMA trainer and mentor, said communities in Marsabit are highly patriarchal, but the program helps women gain a voice in society.

The practice of grouping women in threes creates mutual accountability but also offers protection from husbands who may want to take money from them, she added.

“We once handled a case where the husband tried to take the wife’s savings by force, but we approached [him] and told him the money did not belong to his wife but to the women’s savings group and he understood,” said Naimirdik.

Moses Galore, Kargi’s village chief, said no such incidents had been reported to him, and men appreciated their wives’ financial contribution to the household.

Magatho Mifo, a BOMA business owner, said her husband was happy about her commercial activities as she could now provide for her family while he travels for days in search of pasture for his herd.

Her neighbors’ wives and children buy goods on credit when the men are away looking for grazing, and repay her when they return. This helps the community during lean times and generates more income for her business, she said.

“My husband sometimes gets angry when I attend the women’s group meetings, because they can last a long time, but once I arrive home with a bag of food or something else, all is forgotten,” said Khobobo Gurleyo, another entrepreneurship program member.

Business partnerships

BOMA mentor Naimirdik said the women are also trained in conflict management to strengthen their business partnerships.

Ideally, each group includes women of different ages so as to benefit from the experience of older members and to make the program sustainable as it passes to subsequent generations, she said.

In addition, the women receive information about family planning and the importance of having small families, as well as child and maternal health and hygiene, she added.

The BOMA Project has reported positive results in the communities where it works in Marsabit County and Samburu East, with about 15,700 women enrolled in its program since 2008.

Data collected during a 2016 exit survey of participants found that after two years, 99 percent of BOMA businesses were still open.

Members experienced a 147 percent increase in their income, and a 1,400 percent increase in their savings, alongside a 63 percent drop in children going to bed hungry.

The BOMA Project plans to expand its program across East Africa’s drylands by partnering with governments and other development agencies.

In Kenya, it is undertaking a pilot program with the government involving 1,600 women in Samburu, in addition to its existing work.

The project aims to reach 1 million women and children by 2022, said CEO Colson.

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Turkey Business Lobby Calls for End to Emergency Rule

Turkey’s main business lobby on Thursday called on the government to end the state of emergency as parliament extended it for a sixth time since it was imposed after an attempted coup in 2016.

Emergency rule allows President Tayyip Erdogan and the government to bypass parliament in passing new laws and allows them to suspend rights and freedoms. More than 50,000 people have been arrested since its introduction and 150,000 have been sacked or suspended from their jobs.

The Turkish parliament on Thursday voted to extend the state of emergency, with the ruling AK Party and the nationalist opposition voting in favor.

Rights groups and some of Turkey’s Western allies fear Erdogan is using the crackdown to stifle dissent and crush his opponents. Freedom House, a Washington-based watchdog, downgraded Turkey to “not free” from “partly free” in an annual report this week.

In order to preserve its international reputation, Turkey needs to start normalizing rapidly, Erol Bilecik, the head of the TUSIAD business lobby said.

“The first step in that regard is bringing an end to the state of emergency,” he told a meeting in Istanbul.

Parliament was due to extend emergency rule after the national security council on Wednesday recommended it do so.

The state of emergency has negatively impacted foreign investors’ decisions, another senior TUSIAD executive said.

“As Turkey takes steps towards becoming a state of law, direct investments will increase, growth will accelerate, more jobs will be created,” Tuncay Ozilhan said, adding that he hoped this would be the last extension of emergency rule.

The government says its measures are necessary to confront multiple security challenges and root out supporters of the cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom it blames for the coup attempt. Gulen has denied any involvement.

But critics fear Erdogan is pushing the NATO member towards greater authoritarianism.

Some 30 emergency decrees have been published since the failed coup. They contain 1,194 articles and cover defense, security, the judiciary, education and health, widely restructuring the relationship between the state and the citizen.

A total of 2,271 private educational institutions have been shut down in the crackdown, as well as 19 labor unions, 15 universities, 49 hospitals and 148 media outlets.

The two co-heads of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish opposition party, parliament’s third-largest, are in jail on terrorism charges, as are several of the parties deputies.

The Turkish Journalists’ Association says about 160 journalists are in jail, most held since the failed coup. Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists called Turkey the world’s top jailer of journalists.

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Nigeria Moves Closer to Turning Long-awaited Oil Bill Into Law

Nigeria moved closer to turning the first part of a long-awaited oil industry bill into law after the lower house passed the same version of the legislation approved by the Senate last year, a lawmaker in the House of Representatives said on Thursday.

It is the first time both houses have approved the same version of the bill. It still needs the president’s signature to become law.

The legislation, which Nigeria has been trying to pass for more than a decade, aims to increase transparency and stimulate growth in the country’s oil industry.

Under President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, the Petroleum Industry Bill was broken up into sections to ease passage.

The House of Representatives passed the first part called the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB) on Wednesday.

“The PIGB, as passed yesterday, is the same as passed by the Senate. We have harmonized everything and formed the National Assembly Joint Committee on PIB,” Alhassan Ado Doguwa, a lawmaker in the House of Representatives, told reporters in the capital Abuja.

“Every consideration of the bills is now under the joint committee. We have broken the jinx after 17 years. We are working on the other accompanying bills.”

Doguwa is the chairman of the lower house’s Ad-hoc Committee on the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) as well as of the National Assembly Joint Committee on PIB.

The joint committee is working on two more bills as part of the PIB.

The governance section deals with management of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).

Uncertainty over terms affecting taxation of upstream oil development has been the main sticking point holding back billions of dollars of investment for the oil industry. This will be addressed later in an accompanying bill.

Shell, Chevron, Total, ExxonMobil and Italy’s Eni are major producers in Nigeria through joint ventures with the state oil firm NNPC.

The PIGB would create four new entities whose powers would include the ability to conduct bid rounds, award exploration licenses and make recommendations to the oil minister on upstream licenses.

“It’s an unprecedented step forward. The PIB is something that has defied the last two governments,” Antony Goldman of PM Consulting said.

“The detail of what is agreed will determine the extreme to which the bill takes politics out of the sector and tackles systemic corruption.”

 

 

 

 

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China’s Economy Posts First Annual Increase Since 2010

China’s economy surged in 2017, posting a 6.9 percent increase from the year before — its first annual increase in seven years.

The figures announced Thursday by the National Bureau of Statistics outstripped the 6.7 percent increase recorded in 2016, which marked the weakest annual expansion in 26 years. The final number was also well above the 6.5 percent target set by government policymakers.

The bureau credited the unexpected gains on robust exports, which rose 10.8 percent from the previous year, and increased consumer spending, with retail sales growing by 10.2 percent.

The figures boost the government’s decision to turn from wasteful and polluting industries, which had fueled China’s rapid rise to become the world’s second-largest economy.

 

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Iraq, BP Sign Initial Deal to Develop Kirkuk Oil Fields

Iraq and British energy giant BP have signed a memorandum of understanding to develop lucrative oil fields in the country’s north.

 

The Oil Ministry’s statement quotes BP’s president for the Middle East region, Michael Townshend, as saying that his company will conduct surveys and studies to increase production to 750,000 barrels a day. It says the signing took place in Kirkuk on Thursday without giving more details.

 

As of late last month, the fields around Kirkuk produced around 140,000 barrels a day, all of which went to refineries.

 

Iraqi forces seized the disputed city of Kirkuk from Kurdish forces in October. The Kurds, who took control of Kirkuk and other disputed areas when Islamic State group swept into Iraq in summer 2014, exported oil through their own pipeline to Turkey.

 

 

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Emirates Throws Airbus A380 a Lifeline With $16 Billion Deal

The Middle East’s largest airline, Emirates, announced Thursday it struck a deal with Airbus to purchase 20 A380 aircraft with the option to buy 16 more in a deal worth $16 billion, throwing a lifeline to the European-made double-decker jumbo jets.

 

The Dubai-based Emirates already has 101 A380s in its fleet and 41 more on order, making it the largest operator of the jumbo jet.

 

“This new order underscores Airbus’ commitment to produce the A380 at least for another ten years,” said Airbus chief salesman John Leahy.

 

“This order will provide stability to the A380 production line,” Emirates Chairman and Chief Executive Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum said in a statement after the deal was signed in Dubai on Thursday morning.

 

Emirates, which is owned by the Dubai government in the United Arab Emirates, said the additional A380s will be delivered to the airliner from 2020 onwards and that some of the new A380s will be used as fleet replacements.

 

Airbus chief salesman John Leahy had warned only three days earlier that if the company couldn’t work out a deal with Emirates, it would have to shut down the superjumbo’s production line. Airbus has spent years and billions developing the double-decker jumbo jet, even as skeptics questioned whether it could generate enough demand to justify its cost and the bigger runways it requires.

 

An Airbus A380 has a list price of $445.6 million, but airlines and manufacturers often negotiate lower prices.

 

Airbus delivered just 15 of the planes last year, and aims to deliver 12 more this year.

 

Leahy told reporters Monday that Emirates is the only airline with the ability to commit to a minimum of six planes a year for a minimum of eight to 10 years, or what is needed to make the Airbus program viable.

 

“It’s positive news for both sides,” airline analyst John Strickland of JLS Consulting said. “The A380 is critical to Emirates’ hub-and-growth strategy and equally the airline is key to Airbus’ continuation of the program. It will be a great relief to Airbus to have secured this order, but they have to work aggressively to secure orders from other airlines too now.”

 

Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum said the deal reflects Emirates’ commitment to advancing “Dubai’s vision to grow further as a world-class destination and aviation hub.” Dubai’s main airport, where Emirates is based, is among the busiest in the world with more than 80 million travelers passing through in 2016.

 

Airbus tweeted news of the deal, saying it was “glad to announce” Emirates’ commitment to the A380.

 

Shares in Airbus rose on the news of the deal, gaining 2.2 percent on the day, to 91.67 euros in Paris.

 

At Dubai’s biennial Air Show in November, Airbus suffered an embarrassment when it was scheduled to announce it had a struck a deal with Emirates for its A380, only to see Boeing sit on the podium with the airline and sign a $15.1 billion deal.

 

Emirates’ fleet relies solely on the Airbus 380 and the Boeing 777 for its flights.

 

 

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Lifelike Robots Made in Hong Kong Are Meant to Win Over Humans 

David Hanson envisions a future in which robots powered by artificial intelligence evolve to become “super-intelligent genius machines” that might help solve some of mankind’s most challenging problems.

If only it were as simple as that.

The Texas-born former sculptor at Walt Disney Imagineering and his Hong Kong-based startup Hanson Robotics are combining AI with southern China’s expertise in toy design, electronics and manufacturing to craft humanoid “social robots” with faces designed to be lifelike and appealing enough to win trust from humans who interact with them.

Hanson, 49, is perhaps best known as the creator of Sophia, a talk show-going robot partly modeled on Audrey Hepburn that he calls his “masterpiece.”

Akin to an animated mannequin, she seems as much a product of his background in theatrics as an example of advanced technology.

‘Is it weird?’

“You’re talking to me right now, which is very ‘Blade Runner,’ no?” Sophia said during a recent visit to Hanson Robotics’ headquarters in a suburban Hong Kong science park, its home since shortly after Hanson relocated here in 2013.

“Do you ever look around you and think, ‘Wow, I’m living in a real-world science fiction novel’?” she asked. “Is it weird to be talking to a robot right now?”

Hanson Robotics has made about a dozen copies of Sophia, who like any human is a work in progress. A multinational team of scientists and engineers are fine-tuning her appearance and the algorithms that enable her to smile, blink and refine her understanding and communication.

Sophia has moving 3-D-printed arms and, with the help of a South Korean robotics company, she’s now going mobile. Shuffling slowly on boxy black legs, Sophia made her walking debut in Las Vegas last week at the CES electronics trade show.

Her skin is made of a nanotech material that Hanson invented and dubbed “Frubber,” short for flesh-rubber, that has a fleshlike, bouncy texture. Cameras in her eyes and a 3-D sensor in her chest help her to “see,” while the processor that serves as her brain combines facial and speech recognition, natural language processing, speech synthesis and a motion control system.

​Sophia’s predecessors

Sophia seems friendly and engaging, despite the unnatural pauses and cadence in her speech. Her predecessors include an Albert Einstein, complete with bushy mustache and white thatch of hair; a robot named Alice whose grimaces run a gamut of emotions; and one that eerily resembles the late sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, which won an award from the American Association of Artificial Intelligence. They variously leer, blink, smile and even crack jokes.

Disney’s venture capital arm is an investor in Hanson, which is building a robot based on one of the entertainment giant’s characters.

An artist and robotics scientist, Hanson worked on animatronic theme park shows, sculpting props and characters for Disney attractions like Pooh’s Hunny Hunt and Mermaid Lagoon. He studied film, animation and video, eventually earning a doctorate in interactive arts and technology from the University of Texas at Dallas.

Hanson says he makes his robots as humanlike as possible to help alleviate fears about robots, artificial intelligence and automation.

That runs contrary to a tendency in the industry to use cute robo-pets or overtly machinelike robots like Star Wars’ R2-D2 to avoid the “uncanny valley” problem with human likenesses such as wax models and robots that many people find a bit creepy.

Global market revenue for service robotics is forecast to grow from $3.7 billion in 2015 to $15 billion in 2020, according to IHS Markit. That includes both professional and domestic machines like warehouse automatons, smart vacuums and fuzzy companion robots.

Hanson Robotics is privately owned and has a consumer-oriented business that sells thousands of shoebox-sized $200 Professor Einstein educational robots a year. Chief Marketing Officer Jeanne Lim says the company is generating revenue but won’t say whether it’s profitable.

Specific chores

For now, artificial intelligence is best at doing specific tasks. It’s another thing entirely for machines to learn a new ability, generalize that knowledge and apply it in different contexts, partly because of the massive amount of computing power needed to process such information so quickly.

“We’re really very far from the kind of AI and robotics that you see in movies like Blade Runner,” said Pascale Fung, an engineering professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “Sorry to disappoint you.”

Unlike toddlers, who use all five senses to learn quickly, machines generally can handle only one type of input at a time, she noted.

While Sophia’s repartee can be entertaining, she’s easily thrown off topic and her replies, based on open-source software, sometimes miss the mark.

Hanson and other members of his team, like chief scientist Ben Goertzel, have set their sights on a time when the computer chips, processing capacity and other technologies needed for artificial general intelligence could enable Sophia and other robots to fill a variety of uses, such as helping with therapy for autistic children, caring for seniors or providing customer services.

As for tackling challenging world problems, that’s a ways off, Hanson acknowledges.

“There’s a certain expression of genius to be able to get up and cross the room and pour yourself a cup of coffee, and robots and AI have not achieved that level of intelligence reliably,” Hanson said.

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Chinese Demand Drives Construction Boom in Cambodia

The value of construction projects in Cambodia rose more than 22 percent to $6.4 billion in 2017 from the previous year, according to official figures released Tuesday that showed the impact of a boom driven by Chinese investors.

The Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction said it approved a total of 3,052 projects, covering more than 10 million square meters (108 million square feet) last year.

The ministry did not give a breakdown by residential and commercial projects, nor did it give the nationality of the developers.

But the high level of Chinese investment is evident from the skyscrapers that have shot up with apartments and condominiums in Phnom Penh, and the hotels and casinos being built to serve Chinese buyers in the resort city of Sihanoukville.

Many of the apartments and condominiums were being built for Chinese investors, said Chrek Soknim, CEO of real estate firm Century21 Mekong.

“People who buy these properties don’t live here, they buy as investments,” he told Reuters.

China is by far the biggest foreign investor in Cambodia — accounting for some 30 percent of recorded investment in 2016, according to official figures.

China’s Prince Real Estate and Yue Tai Group were both scheduled to launch major projects in 2018, said Tom O’Sullivan, CEO of realestate.com.kh. But he added there was a growing market for local buyers too, with condominium sales in the $22,000 to $90,000 range.

“The reality is that Phnom Penh needs more homes to cater for the middle-income earner,” he said.

Political turbulence last year had little impact on investment, property specialists said. Cambodia’s main opposition party was banned after the arrest of its leader, Kem Sokha, on treason charges he says were politically motivated to eliminate him from an election in 2018.

Despite criticism from Western donors of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government for its moves against the opposition, China has stood beside Cambodia. Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng signed a raft of new aid and investment deals in Phnom Penh last week.

“Chinese investors are not concerned about the upcoming election,” O’Sullivan said.

There has been little open opposition to the growing Chinese presence in Cambodia.

But in a rare sign of friction, Cambodian police arrested 74 Chinese nationals who had been working on a condominium project in Phnom Penh. Uk Heisela, chief of investigation at the immigration department, said they were suspected of working without permits and staying illegally.

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