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  • Safer cities – how Practical Action is bringing safe drinking water, free from Iron and Arsenic contamination, to slum communities in Bangladesh

    Satkhira is one of Bangladesh’s oldest municipalities, created in 1869. Bordering the world famous Sunderbans, home to Royal Bengal Tigers and a globally important mangrove ecosystem, it’s a town that tourists pass by, but plays a hugely important role for the people living in the region.

    Climate change is beginning to wreak havoc here. Erratic monsoon rainfall, and flooding (which never used to affect this part of Bangladesh) have combined to make subsistence farming incredibly difficult. In recent years more and more farming families have given up their traditional way of life to make a living and find security in Satkhira. This steady flow of climate migrants was beginning to put the town’s resources under pressure. When cyclone Aila smashed the region in 2009 the sudden influx of many thousands of refugees meant that the existing infrastructure failed. Satkhira is still trying to overcome this problem five years later, and every day, the steady influx of economic and climate migrants continues. With very little cash, and only able to find poorly paid jobs, many of these migrants end up living in the informal settlements dotted around the town.

    Access to drinking water is a real problem. The natural geology of the region means that shallow wells are contaminated with arsenic and iron. The contamination causes serious health issues including some cancers as well as kidney and liver failure. Coupled with this is the increasing salinity of groundwater caused by the tidal surges of cyclones, the reduction of river flow as water is diverted upstream for irrigation and the switch from traditional rice and jute farming to raising lucrative salt water shrimps. Farmers are allowing the seawater to inundate their land as shrimp farming generates more income than rice paddy can. We passed many of these shrimp farms on the road into Satkhira.

    Practical Action is working with the slum communities and the municipality of Satkhira to help find solutions to their joint problems. I was here to better understand the work that has been funded by our record breaking ‘Safer Cities’ appeal, match funded by the Department for International Development, that ran over Christmas 2013. In Satkhira the funding means communities like the one I visited today, called Missionpara, can have access to clean, safe water and sanitation too. Missionpara is a relatively small settlement of around 30 households, with about 180 people squeezed into tiny homes in what would be a long access road between two properties here in the UK.

    In Missionpara the community has been dependent on shallow tube wells that supply iron and arsenic contaminated water. With Practical Action’s help, the community now has a brand new sand filter that removes the contamination and pipes clean water to every house in the community (to find out how this simple technology works click here).

    The community has organised its own water supply committee and every family pays a small sum (about 50p a month) that contributes to a maintenance fund to ensure the filter, pump, pipes and taps will still be working years into the future. As we arrived to meet the water supply committee chair, a lovely lady called Aklima, the heavens opened. The monsoon is due to start on the 10th June (very precise!) I was told and these showers were the precursor.

    As we huddled together under the filter superstructure, I was shown a traditional test that proved the filter was indeed working. Two identical glasses of water were place on the pump housing and guava leaves crushed into them. In a matter of moments, the glass filled with water from the old tube well began to discolour as a black compound began to precipitate out of the water. The glass filled with water from the filtered, piped water system remained clear.

    add guava leaves...

    add guava leaves…

    ...wait a couple of minutes

    …wait a couple of minutes

    ....and the poisoned water is revealed as it discolours

    ….and the poisoned water is revealed as it discolours

    Missionpara is just one slum community that has been helped in this way by our safer cities appeal. I’ll be visiting other communities over the next few days and exploring how our work is changing lives, and you can follow the story here as I blog about my experiences.

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  • “Technology to deliver what it promises – that is, to make their lives better.”

    Jamie Oliver
    May 15th, 2014

    I was driving through the Warwickshire countryside on my way to work this morning, listening to Chris Evans Radio Show. I always try to time my drive to make sure I hear one of the news reports that run every half hour, it’s nice to start the day hearing what is going on around the world.

    Earlier this week they were reporting that people using mobile phones, tablets and laptops just before bed is having a terrible effect on our natural body clock, meaning that we have more restless nights. Yet, today one of the main news stories is the planned merger of Dixons and Carphone Warehouse and something that struck me was a quote from Sebastian James , Dixons CEO, about the £3.8bn deal.

    “Together we can create a seamless experience for our customers that will enable technology to deliver what it promises – that is, to make their lives better.” S.James

    What struck me was that Dixons and Carphone Warehouse are merging so that they can improve the lives of their customers, when actually a couple of days earlier we were hearing how these devices were having a huge negative effect on our lives and health.

    Memory and Pat

    Two weeks ago I saw a true example of technology delivering on what it promises, making lives better. I visited a Practical Action project in Mutare, Zimbabwe where we have worked with the local community to install a micro-hydro system. We visited the local clinic that is now powered by the micro-hydro system and got to see first hand the difference this technology is having. We arrived at the centre at about 5pm and spoke with the Sister, who was telling us what services the clinic could offer and how busy they were, seeing 600 people a month. How refrigeration of vaccines allows them to vaccinate more children, all year round and how they have light in the maternity ward. We were lucky enough to visit the maternity recovery ward and meet new mother Memory with her 6 hour old daughter, Precious. We heard how Memory was particularly keen to have her baby at the clinic as she knew that it had electric lighting, whereas in the past candles would have been used.

    Now for me, powering a clinic that serves 600 people every month seems like technology delivering on it’s promise – that is, to make our lives better.

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  • My afterthoughts on Living Below the Line

    Helena Molyneux
    May 15th, 2014

    Is it possible even in the UK to manage on less than £1 a day for food and drink?  Yes with research, planning and determination. 

    Helena1Is the diet very unpleasant?  No. But £5 shopping requires ingenuity with limited ingredients. After a couple of days, even when I tried to ring the changes, it started to feel a bit samey. And to my surprise, it took more time than usual to work out what to make.

    Three things became my life-savers: a bottle of lemon juice (29p), porridge for breakfast (5p a portion) and root ginger (9p and not all used by the end of the five days).

    Food for thought

    What I did get a lot of, however, was food for thought. Firstly a much greater appreciation of the level of skill involved in managing a shopping budget of £1 a day.  Having access to a plot of land to grow vegetables and fruit and having some chickens would make a huge difference in managing a budget and a diet.

    Vegetable growing techniques

    Soil Desalination for Vegetable CultivationEven in adverse conditions, there are techniques which make vegetable growing possible. Practical Answers is a wonderful source of know-how on useful techniques.

    People access this know-how via the web or via in-country enquiry and extension services.

    Take a look at an example brief.  This one describes how to desalinate soil for vegetable growing

    Secondly I was intrigued how living below the line gave rise to interesting conversations. People often started out telling me they wouldn’t be able to do it and then began to work out how they would. We would end up talking about how their shopping list differed from mine. In most cases people realised they could do it, though were glad they don’t have to.

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

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  • Sweat, determination and hard work

    A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work – Colin Powell

    Visiting some of the communities that Practical Action work with has inspired me to reflect on Live Below the Line, so here are my musings. A reflection of Live Below the Line and Practical Action’s work in Mutare, Zimbabwe.


    This week thousands of people across the UK have risen to the challenge and are taking on Live Below the Line, an anti-poverty campaign challenging participants to have a strict budget of just £5 for 5 days. I was apprehensive when I took on the challenge a few weeks ago, and it certainly lived up to the billing. It is a true challenge, but I didn’t find it difficult in the ways that I thought I would.

    I thought I would struggle eating plain, boring food for 5 days and I knew that a lack of caffeine would have an effect. But the thing I found most difficult was how much time it took to prepare food throughout the week. Each evening, we would prepare dinner and then breakfast and lunch for the following day, spending a couple of hours in the kitchen, creating a meal from basic ingredients. This was made more difficult as our energy levels were running low at that time of day. The food we made was actually pretty good and I ate 39p pizzas for most of the week. For me, being so used to a convenient lifestyle is what makes Live Below the Line so challenging.

    Yesterday, I had a fantastic day but learned that actually, during my Live Below the Line week, my life was still quite convenient.

    I was walking in the hills around Mutare, Zimbabwe as we visited a micro-hydro scheme that is being installed to bring power to a community.

    The beauty of the project is that it is community led and we saw the entire community getting involved, from a group women singing whilst they dug sand out of the river bed to a group of men who were building a business centre that will be powered by the micro-hydro system. This is hard work… really hard, but they are excited about how they are shaping their community and their future.

    Later that day, I realised that not only are these people working so hard to transform their community, but they also have a very different definition of hard work. They are doing manual labour to develop their community, but this is on top of the fact that they grow their own food and process their crop. Walking in the hills above the village (viewing the source of the micro-hydro system) we met someone walking the other way. I was breathing hard after the climb and the lady walking in the other direction was carrying a large bag of maize on an 8km walk across difficult terrain to the mill to have it processed into flour.

    When I did Live Below the Line, I found it hard work and lots of effort, yet the ingredients were bought from a supermarket less than a mile from my home, and if that was too much effort I could have had them delivered to my door.

    What really struck me about my day in Mutare, is that this is not a community of people who are waiting for a fairy godmother to make their dreams come true. This is a community that are excited to put in the sweat, determination and hard work hard needed to transform their community and shape their future, to lift themselves out of poverty, for good.

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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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