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  • The end of my Live Below the Line challenge

    James Smith
    May 3rd, 2014

    I’m back ‘above the line’, having spent five days living on just £1 a day (the equivalent of the extreme poverty line) for all my food and drink.

    End of the Live Below the Line challengeRediscovering food groups

    After midnight, I reverted to childhood and had a midnight feast of a chocolate éclair, an apple and some grapes. This morning I reintroduced myself to a further much-missed food group: coffee.

    I was meant to take part in Edinburgh’s Park run this morning but didn’t really feel up to it. I felt okay for the first four days of the challenge but really flagged yesterday. I recall eating pretty badly for extended periods of my undergraduate degree and doctoral fieldwork in Botswana so I suppose its partly what your body and mind can get used to. It might also be age, but I won’t dwell on that….

    I – or rather the friends, family and colleagues who supported me – raised £770. As a household we raised more or less £1,000 for Practical Action. I am very pleased with that!

    Transformative power
    I’m not sure what I learnt really. Given my job and my years living in Africa I had a reasonably good sense of the realities of poverty. I had a much less good sense of how much I take my own diet and lifestyle for granted, however.

    There is intuitive power to be grasped in attempting to understand how other people think, live and aspire; and transformative power lies beyond that. I believe that Practical Action is fully committed to the former, and I hope that the last five days can contribute to Practical Action helping people achieve the latter.

    There is still time to sponsor me and help Practical Action transform the lives of more people.

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  • Making time for Live Below the Line

    James Smith
    April 29th, 2014

    The first two days of my Live Below the Line challenge are almost done, and its looking like the week will be divided into ‘Chickpea Monday and Tuesday’ and Lentils to the End of the Week’. I’ve become a great fan of homemade falafels: much better than shop bought. 

    The big problem is time. Luckily I can be pretty flexible about working from home and in theory I live close enough to work to dash home, cook, eat and get back to work, but life is not so simple – work and freshly preparing every meal is a challenge. Still, homemade falafel will leave a culinary legacy beyond the five days.

    Live below the line cup of lentilsSo the second half of the week is going to be three days of prepared lentil-based dishes. I even have dedicated implements (well, a cup).

    Dhal, soup and casserole are all bubbling away. Everything will be prepared and ready for rapid warming through. I’m slightly concerned I will be sick of lentils before I even start to eat them but I do have flapjacks to fall back on.

    live below the line dhal, soup and casserole

    Caffeine deficiency 

    no coffee on live below the lineThe biggest challenge, though, isn’t food-related. Its not even calorie-related. Its coffee. I struggle to function without an early morning and mid afternoon espresso. I’ve worked it out, a small espresso requires 14 grammes of coffee. It works out at 19.25p per cup. Its simply too expensive!

    So, I’m looking forward to a Saturday morning coffee and maybe a croissant and maybe a…. I’ll stop there. I am acutely aware that for me this is finite. It’s not for a very significant proportion of the world’s population.

    Time can be oppressive, there is not enough of it, we are trapped by the immediacy of deadlines or stressed by the juggling of commitments. Or it stretches too far in front of us, with little hope of anything better, only the worry of future stresses and shocks.

    Practical Action are doing amazing work to help people build resilient livelihoods and vibrant communities. People have been incredibly generous so far. I’ve had to raise my fundraising target several times. There is still time though -

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  • Getting ready to Live Below the Line

    James Smith
    April 26th, 2014

    I’ve just completed a very convoluted shop for my Live Below the Line challenge. It takes a lot longer and requires a lot more thought to shop for two for £10 than it does to stick a ‘normal’ weekly shop on a debit card.

    James live below the line1Geographically, our diet would probably be located east of the Mediterranean and in North India. I suppose I could have gone Scottish and spent five days mashing, boiling and (mainly) frying potatoes, but variety is the spice of life (although limiting ourselves to cumin means that even the spice is lacking in much variety).

    Not being a great fan of porridge I am especially looking forward to making flapjacks (thanks Gemma Hume for the recipe).

    Live Below the Line flapjacks recipe

    Evening meals are going to be various combinations of beans, tomatoes, onions and spices. Flatbread and rice for sides.

    There are two tricky issues to overcome. One is lunch at work. It’ll have to be soup I guess.

    The second is that extremely bad timing means we have a friend coming to stay next week. Big apologies to Gabriella Carrozza for involving you in our fundraising ‘diet’ without even asking. Its meant to be a holiday! I promise to provide supplementary sustenance.

    So, tomorrow flapjack making and binge eating. Then, Below the Line…..

    You can still take part or donate to me or to my wife, Barbara.

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  • My Live Below the Line shop

    Helena Molyneux
    April 25th, 2014

    Today I shopped for my Live Below the Line challenge, which starts on Monday. I spent just under £5 on food, which has to last me for five days.

    But it was not as bad as I thought! I had some ideas and checked them out yesterday on  You put in your postcode and the item you want to research, e.g. pasta. It then tells you which local supermarket has the best deal and quotes the price.  In my case, it was mostly ASDA. Even Waitrose was good for some products e.g. lemon juice 28p.

    Live Below the Line shop

    Here is a picture of what I bought. Some items are only viable if you buy a large packet e.g. porridge in kilo bags, whereas I’ll only eat 40g rams per day.  So a lot of the dry goods you see will be eaten after Living Below the Line.

    So what is my strategy?  The idea is to do various combinations of the ingredients I’ve bought and keep a calculation so that I stay under £1 per day.  Basic sample menu so far:

    Breakfast – porridge 3p per portion  (1kg bag 75p)

    Lunch – a lentil salad flavoured with onion, lemon juice, olive oil, chillies, a bit of carrot – 20p

    Dinner – pasta with spiced up tomato sauce 30p, half a can of pineapple 22p, total 52p

    Day total 75p.  Phew! There is some room for manoeuvre … a treat maybe?

    I found bananas for 11p each, so that’s a possibility.

    You can still take part – just sign up to the Live Below the Line challenge here.  And if anyone wants to sponsor me, please do.

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  • Living Below the Line – an easy decision

    James Smith
    April 25th, 2014

    From Monday for five days I will be living on £1 per day in support of Practical Action. As a trustee and a firm believer in empowering people through access to appropriate technology and innovation, the gesture of support, and associated fundraising was an easy decision.

    At the back of my mind I recognise the slightly arbitrary nature of £1 (or $1.50) per day as a definition of extreme poverty, and the fact that five days is a gesture that can’t possibly capture the long-term, cumulative grind of poverty. What it does do though is make the abstract nature of very small ($1.50 per day) and very large (1 billion people undernourished in 2009) numbers real.

    It reminds me of the poverty of restriction, of limiting of options and lack of choice. I generally don’t give much thought to food. I worry a bit about what is ethical, what might make me fat, and what is healthy but its hardly a preoccupation. I only think about food if a supermarket aisle or menu is directly in front of me.

    james eating

    Thinking about my £5 food budget has forced me to sit down and make choices and trade-offs. I’ve had to plan and think and become preoccupied. It reminds me of the perpetual planning needed to navigate poverty.

    Relative wealth insulates us from having to make decisions, and when we do have to do so it can insulate us from the implications of those decisions. One of the reasons I am raising money for Practical Action is exactly their concern with sustainability, justice and unequal development. You can engage with and support their endeavours by Living Below the Line too, or even by sponsoring me.

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  • Living below the line

    Helena Molyneux
    April 17th, 2014

    In less than two weeks I start living below the line for 5 days, spending £5 or less on food and drink. I made this commitment to Practical Action a couple of months ago not long after taking over as Chair of Trustees. And now I am feeling OMG, what have I let myself in for. It will be hard.

    101012 Upper Guruwe - livelihoods improvement agri processing - peanut butter making

    Making peanut butter

    Truthfully, there are aspects which will not be hard. I like rice and pasta simply flavoured. I don’t mind forgoing meat.  Porridge is a great filler in the morning. I am OK with drinking lots of water – hot or cold. I will give what I would normally have spent on food and drink as a donation to Practical Action.

    But I will miss: a morning coffee, having lots of fruit and vegetables, a glass of wine and probably most of all, spontaneous decision making about what I eat. Living on £5 for the 5 days requires planning and research about where I shop. But these limitations and frustrations are what most people live with every day of every year.

    Reflecting on my experience of the five days is one of the things I want to get out of it. And that’s apart from raising awareness of the work Practical Action does in enabling people to lift themselves out of poverty by accessing simple, useful know-how and technology and of course raising funds for that work. If I can have the optimism and lack of self pity during these 5 days that the people I met in Zimbabwe when I went to visit Practical Action’s work there have, that will be something.

    Farmers from Upper Guruwe

    Farmers from Upper Guruwe

    I took this photo in northern Zimbabwe, a place called Upper Guruwe where Practical Action has enabled local communities to improve their vegetable growing. And not just that, but also enabling people to create higher value-added food products which they can sell at market and so earn more money for themselves and their families eg. peanut butter making also pictured here. One of the things that really impressed me was how people make sure that the elderly and the sick in their communities get the benefit of these vegetables – not just keeping them all for themselves or for selling at the local markets.

    Do have a go at Living Below the Line too.  Who knows what you might learn from the experience or how much money you might raise if you get people to sponsor you. And if anyone wants to sponsor me, please do.

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  • Water – don’t take it for granted

    April 10th, 2014

    I’ve never been one to drink much water, I don’t really like it, tea’s my poison and failing that a nice diet coke goes down well. During my week doing live below the line however, my relationship with water really changed. It became my crutch. It became my best friend –  the one thing that I could have that kept me feeling full and sweetened the horrible taste that was permanently hanging around my mouth from the poor diet I was enduring.

    child drinking safe clean water in Kenya

    Communities in Turkana, Kenya, get access to clean, safe water for the first time!

    About half way through the week I went to the tap to fill my bottle up, on the way through the office, my eye was drawn to a photo on the wall of a woman collecting water from a dirty pool.

    As I stood at the tap letting it run until it was cold enough, I started to think. It’s all very well living on £1 a day, it was really making me empathise with the tedious lack of choice and eating to survive rather than eating for pleasure, but the very people I was doing it for had another problem…they couldn’t just go to a tap and keep hunger at bay with a glass of clean water.

    It might shock you to hear that 758 million people are without clean safe water. We live in 2014 and yet millions of people have no access to something as simple as clean water. It really made me think. Without water I would have been more hungry, felt weaker and without doubt would have felt worse. It almost felt like cheating!

    The good news is that my efforts living on £1 a day have helped solve just a teeny weeny bit of the problem. Last year Practical Action helped 68,000 improve their access to drinking water and sanitation. The money that I raised might be a drop in the ocean (pardon the pun!) but every little helps and until all 758 million people have access to clean water, living on £1 a day suddenly feels like a walk in the park!

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  • Why I Lived Below the Line (apart from peer pressure…)

    Highlights and LowlightsI was asked the other day if I took on the challenge of Live Below the Line just because I felt I had to as a member of Practical Action staff. I thought about it for a few moments and whilst a motivating factor, once past the sense of obligation, it was the competitive streak in me that found me darting around the supermarkets on a Sunday afternoon trying to make my £5 stretch further than anyone else.

    Let’s be clear about this. I definitely didn’t make my £5 stretch further than anyone else. And it wasn’t a case of quality over quantity either. The banana and tinned spinach smoothie on day three is testament to that. (I’ll be writing a blog about preparing for LBTL soon – lesson number one, don’t buy tinned spinach).

    I took on Live Below the Line because I wanted to challenge myself in the same way I’ve challenged myself running races, cycling long distances and climbing mountains. I wanted to prove to myself that if there are people living below the poverty line, then I could too. I was offered a pint in the pub on day one by a friend – ‘I won’t tell, no one will know’ he said. ‘I’ll know’ I said.

    Pub LBTLThis was the same determination and frustration I faced for 5 days, opening the fridge in the silence of an empty house, home from work before my girlfriend, with no one but myself witness to whether I reached in for something I hadn’t bought with my £5. ‘I can’t’ I said. ‘I’ll know’ I said.  Yes I was talking to myself. Hunger has strange side effects.

    Live Below the Line is a personal challenge, and a challenge it certainly is. There are millions of people that live on less than a £1 per day on food, drink, and living costs too. There was no way I was going to fail at just 5 days of £5 for food and drink when so many live so much harder than this little struggle I faced. By taking on the challenge I helped grow awareness of the issues facing the poorest in the world, raised money for Practical Action’s work, encouraged others to take part (and do better than me) and gained a personal sense of how lucky I am to have a sort of gadabout hedonistic lifestyle of convenience. That’s got to be worth the challenge in itself.

    You can still challenge yourself, family and friends by signing up for this year’s Live Below The Line here. Avoid tinned spinach and you’ll be fine.



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  • Smelling the coffee

    April 7th, 2014

    Last week, the Practical Action team spent four days exhibiting at the London Coffee Festival. Thursday and Friday were attended by those working in the coffee trade, and the weekend was open to coffee loving members of the public. I arrived early on the Friday and wasted no time in locating the Green & Black’s stand – yep chocolate for breakfast – but after deciding it was too early to find the Kahlua, I donned my Practical Action apron.Coffee Fest

    The atmosphere was buzzing throughout the day; traders spoke passionately about their products, and coffee enthusiasts stocked up on freebies to last them a lifetime. There seemed to be people there from all over Europe, and from all kinds of exciting coffee-related initiatives. We were there (armed with free flapjack) because Practical Action supports coffee farmers in places like Peru and Bolivia. Not only were we keen to share this with people, but we also wanted to find some challenge participants for Live Below The Line.


    Live Below The Line is a world-wide campaign to raise awareness of extreme food poverty, which the World Bank has recently defined as living on $1.25 a day. This equates to £1 a day for those living in the UK, so we have been asking people to take on the challenge of spending just £1 a day on food and drink for 5 days.

    You’d think that people who routinely spend about £3 on one cup of coffee would declare the challenge impossible, but no! Over the course of the Festival over 200 people signed up to Live Below The Line and raise money for Practical Action.

    We made sure that we weren’t throwing people in at the deep end by sending them off equipped with a memory stick loaded with an example shopping list, recipes and a participant starter pack. In keeping with the Festival, we also gave them a free Practical Action mug, magnet and flapjack.

    Next weekend, we’re taking Live Below The Line to Spitalfields Market in London, but this time we will be providing shoppers with LBTL lunches at just 40p a portion. There’s still plenty of time to sign up for Live Below The Line - on the website you can find links to participant blogs, and recipes for inspiration.

    Jamie London Coffee Festival


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  • Day 3 of Living Below the Line

    This week I am taking on Practical Action’s challenge to Live Below the Line. The World Bank defined the new international poverty line as $1.25 a day for 2005 and so Live Below the Line challenges participants to live on a food and drink budget of just £5 for 5 days. I’m taking on the challenge with my girlfriend, Lizzie, and so we have a joint budget of £10 to see us through from Monday to Friday. All of our meals have been based around a staple of chapatis as a very cheap, filling carbohydrate. Early in the week we made Split Pea Dhal which was pretty basic, but yesterday evening we realised we could make pizzas within our budget, which was a revelation.

    A big part of the challenge was to try and carry on with my life as normally as possible whilst only spending £1 a day on food and drink. So that meant 6-aside football on Monday and cricket nets Tuesday. And today (Wednesday) I am absolutely exhausted. I don’t think this is just down to how I am fuelling my body. I think it’s also how much time and effort it takes to prepare everything, when you’re starting with basic ingredients. Yesterday I was up much later than I wanted to be as I still needed to make chapatis from scratch for today’s lunch. Normally, had I got late into the evening without lunch planned for the next day, I’d know I could just leave it and pick up a £3 meal deal from the local supermarket without too much hassle, but not this week. This week, each evening we are spending about 3 hours between us in the kitchen preparing food for dinner and breakfast and lunch the following day.

    It’s not the food that I miss (I’ve been quite happy with what we’ve been eating), it’s the convenience that we enjoy when we are able to spend a bit more money.

    That got me thinking about the people I met in Turkana, Northern Kenya, last summer. Even with all the mod-cons of our kitchen and an electric oven it’s still taking most of our evening to prepare our food. But for some people in Turkana, preparing their food is a much longer process still. It can take most of the morning to collect the water needed for the day (and still there is not enough). Then if they are cooking on an inefficient three-stone stove, they will need to collect plenty of fire wood before they can even start thinking about kneading any flour for chapatis or any other food preparations. And what if the only water they have access to isn’t clean, then they have spent their day preparing a meal that could make their family very sick.

    So whilst taking part in Live Below the Line is challenging and tiring, it is also enjoyable and thought provoking. And if you’re happy to put the work in, you can create some pretty delicious meals.

    If you are interested about finding out more about Live Below the Line and seeing how you can get involved. Go to


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