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  • Putting a value on human waste

    Amanda Ross
    July 31st, 2014

    Internal knowledge sharing is vital in our organisation.  It is a struggle to keep up with the amazing variety of different work Practical Action is doing all over the world.

    Yesterday was particularly illuminating.  A video conference in the morning covered the potential of showcasing our work using the global mapping tools on Google Earth. And at lunchtime we discussed private enterprise in the faecal sludge market.

    In the city of Faridpur in Bangladesh, the sewerage system reaches very few of the cities’ 30,000 households.  And there is no allocated place to dump waste.   Most families have pit latrines that are emptied by enterprising individuals who transport the waste by bicycle and dump it wherever they can.  This often means in the local river – not a good idea for public health.

    Practical Action Consulting have been carrying out a study, funded by the Gates Foundation, is to see whether this human waste when converted into compost can become a marketable commodity.

    The municipality of Faridpur plan to build a treatment plant to process the waste and the sweepers who empty the latrines have indicated that they are happy to deliver to the new site, if they are provided with motor bikes as the site is several miles outside the city.

    Projected waste treatment site

    Projected waste treatment site

    There are three big challenges

    1. Relationships between the private sweepers and the municipality are difficult and there is also some conflict between Hindu and Muslims organisations of sweepers
    2. Most households do not have safe or adequate septic tanks
    3. Rebranding faecal sludge as an acceptable fertiliser which fetches sustainable price in the market

    Our staff in Bangladesh are developing a business proposal to test whether or not this is a viable proposition.  Any dragons out there keen to invest?

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  • 3 Shocking Stats on inequality!

    Margaret Gardner
    July 28th, 2014
    1. The worlds ‘85 richest people as wealthy as poorest half of the world’
    2.  The ‘Wal-Mart family (US based retailers) own more wealth than the bottom 40% of Americans’
    3.  ‘The richest 1% of the UK population are now wealthier than the poorest 50% put together’
    Chris Evans car

    Chris Evans car

    And how do the rich spend their money – well UK radio and TV personality Chris Evans bought in 2010 a $19 million car

    I knew the first of these statistics, coming across the second pushed me into writing this blog – and then as I live in the UK I thought I’d find out what the stat was for here – I was shocked!

    The world is far from an equal place and while of course happiness or wellbeing can’t be measured by money alone this degree of inequity is damaging, for example

    Research has shown that more inequitable societies have a greater degree of social problems – murder rates, infant mortality, obesity, and life expectancy – women and men who come from a more equitable society have better lives.

    Too much wealth can give people too much control over the lives of others. Think Rupert Murdoch! (Australian-American news magnate friends with Tony Blair, he strongly supported the Iraq war. More recently his newspaper empire has been mired in phone hacking and bribery scandals).

    Inequality is destabilizing - economists say some incentives are needed but when inequality gets to the levels illustrated above it can leave those at the bottom feeling angry, marginalized and disenfranchised.

    Sustainability – the consumption levels enjoyed by the rich and sought by many – more and more things – are incompatible with the finite nature of our planet. In our pursuit of trinkets (I’m not a car lover!) we risk devastating environmental degradation. Climate change is happening now.

    And then there’s gender – knowing that I wanted to write this today I started looking for stats on the financial control women have across the world. Turns out it’s pretty hard to find – the figures normally quoted by the UN ie “women perform 66% of the world’s work, produce 50% of the food, but earn 10% of the income and own 1% of the property.” are estimates. However the just released Human Development Report 2014 (HDR) identifies being a woman as a marker of vulnerability – not surprising but still shocking! The HDR also points to political inequality with 21.6% of the world’s parliamentary seats occupied by women (you may think that was biased by some more misogynist countries but shockingly the figure for the UK is 22.6%!). Women have huge potential to change the world – educating and supporting women and girls is one of the most powerful forms of poverty reduction. Through inequity we are missing out on so much potential.

    And justice…….

    I overheard a critique of someone – not me – recently. The critical person said ‘passionate about the problems but not so articulate about the solutions’. I am passionate about the solutions and feel we at Practical Action have so many we are already delivering and more that together with others we have still to discover. But I’ll leave you to read some of my and others past blogs to discover those.

    $19 million car – imagine the cost of a service!




    (source for the statistics – Oxfam,  Politifact, New Economics Foundation)



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  • 10 Highlights from the Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning issue of the Gender & Development Journal

    Rosalind Watson
    July 28th, 2014


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  • Global opportunities in the draft science curriculum

    Julie Brown
    July 28th, 2014

    I recently made myself a cup of coffee, sat down, took a deep breath, and started to look though the new draft science curriculum for England for KS4  ( 14-16 year olds). I wanted to see if it offered any opportunities for pupils to learn how science can be used to reduce global poverty, and role they have to play in global issues such as climate change and food security.Such opportunites are really important if we want the next generation to understand and become as passionate about

    Testing materials as part of the Beat the Flood challenge

    Testing materials for a model flood-proof house

    working toward technology justice as we are at Practical Action.Along with other organisations such as Think Global we had put forward the case for inclusion of global issues when the DfE opened the consultation some months ago, so I had my fingers crossed.

    Somewhat to my surprise and delight, although the content pupils need to cover has little very obvious global context, the way in which the content is to be taught described under the heading ‘working scientifically’, certainly does.  This is great news as it aligns with what we have always believed in at Practical Action, which is that where possible science should be taught ‘through a global lens’.

    Let me give you an example.  In ‘working scientifically’ the document states that students should be taught…

    ‘’the role of science in understanding the causes of and solutions for some of the challenges facing society, such as climate change, food security, water supply, health and energy issues.’’

    And that they should be given the opportunity for…

    Evaluating associated personal, social, economic and environmental implications (of the technical applications of science)

    In the chemistry section, part of the content states that pupils need to cover ‘bulk properties of materials’ . We would suggest that a great way for them to do this, fitting in with the requirements of ‘working scientifically’, is for them to design a model of a flood-proof house using different materials, and link this to both climate change and health. Having understood flooding is made worse by climate change, and the detrimental effect of flooding on health, they can go on to consider what they can personally do to help slow it down. As it so happens one of our most recent resources, our Beat the Flood challenge would be perfect!!

    The KS2 ( 7-11 years) and KS3 ( 11-14 years) science curriculum for England has already been produced. To see where our resoruces fit these curricula and the science curricula for other countries in the UK please see our Global learning in science docments, which have been downloaded by over 1,000 teachers.

    And finally …I have to say i am particularly pleased by the recognition of energy as a global issue, something we strongly suggested was included.


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  • The Tao of #Feedingdev

    Andrew Clenaghan
    July 25th, 2014

    How Energy, Water, and Agriculture all need each other

    watering vegetable in Turkana

    Practical Action (@Practicalaction) and Devex (@Devex) are holding a Twitter Chat on Monday, July 28 at 3PM BST/10AM EST.   By following the hashtag #feedingdev you can join the discussion about how the different components of the development arena – energy, water and agriculture - are inter-related within a well-functioning agricultural value chain.  Water is needed to produce food and energy, energy is needed to move and treat water and to produce food, and often food is used as a source of energy.

    In implementing our four key thematic programmes in Agriculture, Energy, Urban WASH and Disaster Risk Reduction, @Practical Action have come to realise that these systems are becoming increasingly more complex and dependent upon one another.  A change in one system can cause significant impacts in another. The systemic approaches we are now implementing and advocating for support the #feedingdev initiative to reimagine solutions for food security.

    These and are based on four main principles

    • The supply of food, energy and water is irrelevant if it remains inaccessible to the poor.
    • The supply of food, energy and water should be adaptable to climate change and protect the world’s resources for future generations.
    • People do not need any technology, they need the appropriate technology.
    • Women and men have different needs and are impacted differently by the agriculture-energy-water nexus.

    Key questions to address during TwitterChat:

    At a recent virtual workshop, attended by Practical Action staff from our seven country offices around the world, a list of key questions emerged.  The answers to these will help us better address the challenges of implementing a nexus approach’ for food security. We’d like to raise these questions with the larger twitter community:

    • Q1: Does a ‘nexus approach’ require complex, high-cost program design & implementation, or can it be simple and low-cost?
    • Q2: What are the major ‘trade-offs’ for smallholder farmers in the agriculture-energy-water nexus?
    • Q3: How can a robust evidence base be established to measure the impact of a ‘nexus approach – what indicators are useful and appropriate?
    • Q4: How can civil society effectively work with the private sector to take appropriate technologies to scale?
    • Q5: How can gender considerations best be included in the agriculture-energy-water nexus approach?

    “Economic development is something much wider and deeper than economics…Its’ roots lie outside the economic sphere…in political independence and a national consciousness of self-reliance.” (E.F. Schumacher)

    Join the Twitter chat on Monday, July 28 at 3PM BST/10AM EST using #feedingdev

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  • Explaining Practical Action to my dad!

    Margaret Gardner
    July 24th, 2014

    My father visited us last weekend for my daughters 18th birthday. Lots of nice food, some wine and good conversation. But he has been reading the Daily Mail and after years of supporting my work in international development he suddenly decided to quiz me.

    His big question – or lots of questions wrapped into one  – was ‘how do you differ from Oxfam, why is is what you do important and what do you believe in?’

    I started with the last question first and the official Practical Action answer ‘we believe in Technology Justice: A sustainable world free of poverty and injustice in which technology is used to the benefit of all’.

    He doesnt drink alcohol but even so his eyes glazed over – too much jargon I suspect. I tried the simpler answer we believe in working together with people to develop and deliver practical, sustainable solutions. And we are good at it!

    For people who live in areas covered by water during the monsoon season, such as the riverine areas of Bangladesh, it is impossible to grow crops. Practical Action has developed a technology to allow farmers to grow food on flooded land.

    Harvesting crops from a floating garden in Gaibandha, Bangladesh

    I always find examples help people understand best what Practical Action does and I love our work on podcasts and floating gardens. So talked about new solutions to old problems such as podcasts to disseminate animal health information to farmers in Zimbabwe. My dad loves animals and is deeply committed to their welfare. So he started to look interested at this.

    I also talked about rediscovering and re-engineering old solutions to new problems, such as using ‘floating gardens’ for Bangladeshi farmers made landless by river erosion. They are great – the rafts are from the stems of water hyacinths which are a weed and they enable communities to grow food during the monsoon. The original floating gardens were developed by the Aztecs – which I always think is pretty wow!

    Getting into my flow I started talking about Technology Justice and used another example – drinking water.

    My dad loves history so I talked about the Romans building pipes and acquaducts to get fresh water into their cities. About the Victorians in UK cities engineering sewage systems to take away waste. And yet how even today lots of poor people in the developing world dont have access to clean water and decent sewers, so lots of people including lots of kids get ill and die.

    For me this is technology injustice hitting you in the face. We have the knowledge and technology to prevent these deaths - we should be able to do soemthing about it.

    I think – or maybe hope-  at the end of the conversation my dad thought we are a clever organisation, making practical things happen, working together with people. I could tell he loved some of our stories and suspect he’ll be looking at our website – may even read this! But I suspect next time I see him Ill get more questions – Im hoping they will be about how you build a floating garden. I might catch him testing one out on his pond!





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  • Rice duck farming – An early adopter’s story

    July 21st, 2014

    Last month, during my field visit, I met with a farmer and an early adopter.

    Rice Duck Farming Beneficiary

    Rice Duck Farming beneficiary in Nepal

    Raj Mani Chaudhary, a resident of Khaireni-7, Chitwan in Nepal is all smiles when asked about Rice Duck Farming. Before, he did not have any idea about rice duck farming. He used to plant paddy in his field in a traditional way like he always used to do. But it was not until last year when he found out about Practical Action’s Rice Duck Farming Pilot Project. He was really curious, so he attended the training. He says, “I found the concept of rice duck farming very fascinating, you not only benefit from the duck meat but also the droppings which is used as organic fertilizers, and at the same time the ducks in the field save your time and labour for weeding and manuring.”

    The rice duck method for growing rice involves releasing ducklings into paddy fields about one or two weeks after the seedlings have been transplanted. The ducklings help rice grow by eating insects and weeds. It eliminates the use of pesticide and the farmer saves his time by avoiding the manual work of pulling out the weeds from the field. The ducks also stir up the soil in the paddy fields with their feet and bills which creases the oxygen content of the soil, making it more nutritious for the rice seedlings.

    In April 2013, Mr. Chaudhary attended training on rice duck farming, where he learned about raising the ducklings, space transplanting the rice, integrating duck in the rice field, fencing and so on. As an initiation, Practical Action provided him with 81 ducklings for his 4.5 Kattha land (1 Kattha= 0.33 Hectare).

    He recalls the very first day of releasing the 15 days old ducklings to his paddy field, “I was very anxious and curious, I did not know how the combination of rice duck farming work. I used to watch the ducklings play around in the paddy field for hours.” After exactly 5 months, his patience paid off. The yield rose by 20 percent and he was able to make extra money by selling the duck meat.

    Being an early adopter, Mr Chaudhary cannot stop sharing the benefits of rice duck farming – higher yield, organic rice that can be sold at a higher price, the duck meat which fetches extra income, the droppings which act as fertilisers and the ducks which assist by pulling out the weeds and eating the insects.

    He is a role model for fellow farmers in his village and urges them to adapt rice duck farming in their land. “I cannot wait for this year to start my rice duck farming,” he chuckles.

    Although Practical Action’s innovative rice duck farming is in its early days, we believe the innovation will benefit more farmers financially in the future.

    Rice Duck Farming

    Rice Duck Farming

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  • Hens bring happiness

    Amanda Ross
    July 15th, 2014

    My daughter has recently started keeping a few chickens in our garden.  I now have a daily supply of fresh eggs and ‘the girls’ (Audrey, Cherie and Margot) fortunately require very little input from me. Occasionally they escape their enclosure and excavate my vegetable plot but generally they have been a positive addition to our household.  Only the cat begs to differ.

    Audrey, Cherie & Margot nesting among the potatoes

    Audrey, Cherie & Margot nesting among the potatoes

    Keeping chickens has a far greater impact on the lives of women in the Kassala region of Sudan.  Eggs provide their families with an excellent source of protein in a normally less than adequate diet.  But the ability to sell their produce offers the prospect of some extra income in a society where this is hard to achieve for women.

    In an interesting collaboration with our energy work, some of the women in this project have been given solar lamps for their chicken houses.  Light is important for hens as they generally lay eggs when they have at least 16 hours of daylight - difficult to achieve in equatorial regions.

    Our hens supply us with endless amusement and the luxury of a really fresh breakfast.  For women in Sudan they are an opportunity for financial independence and a key ingredient for a more balanced diet.


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  • An updated podcasting device for farmers

    Meadhbh Bolger
    July 14th, 2014

    Chloe Tuck, an Industrial Design and Technology at Loughborough University worked with Practical Action in her final year project to help design a more contextually appropriate device that would suit the podcasting scheme in Zimbabwe. She writes about her design and her experience below.

    About the Mp3 device  

    Chloe at her project stand

    Chloe at her project stand

    Practical Action has been using Mp3 players in its  current project to share podcasts on farming techniques between communities. This provides more people with skills and knowledge which enable them to better their own lives. The technique of podcasting is preferred over traditional techniques like pamphlets and radio as users are not restricted by literacy ability and can learn at their own rate. The project has been well received by the pilot communities in Zimbabwe; the emphasis on local knowledge shared in local voices proved to truly be a vehicle for self-progression.­ However, despite the success of the programme, the devices currently being used are not optimally designed for the Zimbabwean rural community context. The main problem is the need for the batteries of the Mp3 player to be re-charge; a resource that is not easily accessible meaning it can be weeks between charges.

    Newly proposed design

    After conducting a considerable amount of research, test rigs, prototyping, user interactions and discursive design, a finalised design was proposed. This new design tackles some of the key problems faced by the current devices, and would be expected to bring ease of use and effective results to communities. The key features of the device are:

    - Kinetically powered by hand: Renewable technology that requires little exertion. This is implemented through the use of a 3:1 gear ratio and a dynamo. 2 minutes of hand cranking at 120rpm generates up to 15 minutes audio feedback. Once charged the energy is stored in an internal replicable battery.

    - Modularity: The product is split into two separate components, the dynamo unit and the Mp3 unit. The units self-locate together using magnets and pass charge from the generator unit using induction. This has many benefits to the design including improved sustainability; if broken only half the product is deposed of preventing unnecessary redundancy of technology. The dynamo unit can be used to provide charge to other devices when not in use such as lights and when available mobile phones. The weight of the product is dramatically reduced making for a more pleasurable user experience when in use in the field.

    - Inter-changeable handle: Many hand cranked devices are prone to broken handles rendering the entire product defunct, creating waste. The key innovation here is the removable and replaceable handle. The device has a loop that is permanently attached that accommodates a handle that is held in place through tension and pressure, if this is lost it can be replaced with a similar shaped implement, something as simple as a stick. This considerably elongates the useable life of the product.

    The colours and patterns chosen were directly influenced by research into decorative Zimbabwean patterns and basking weaving with a contemporary twist. Not only does this break away from the often dull colour schemes of most Mp3 players but also provides a stark contrast to the its surroundings making it easy to find if dropped. The device also allows the users to record their own podcasts and feedback.

    Where to next?

    Despite combating the main design flaws of the current device, after conducting user focus groups with the fully functioning prototype it became clear that some facets still need fine tuning to create the optimum results. To carry this project forward there needs to be more research into the user interface and user experience of the product to create a truly seamless and intuitive product.

    See full project here Kemo-be; Bringing community minds together

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  • ‘Untouchables’ negotiate their terms in Jessore, Bangladesh

    Rosalind Watson
    July 11th, 2014

    ‘It’s true that, at least in the public sphere, the Dalit community has made progress since the days within living memory when they were beaten if their shadow touched a higher caste person, wore bells to warn of their approach, and carried buckets so their spit wouldn’t contaminate the ground.’ – National Geographic

     Caste vs. Constitution

    Making up approximately 20% of the populations of India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh, the Dalit community is excluded from the caste system altogether, but sometimes referred to as a ‘scavenger’ caste, within which are more divisions, the lowest considered to be litter pickers, toilet cleaners, those preparing bodies for funerals, removing dead animals from roads and killing rats and other pests.

    Under the 1950 India constitution the Dalit community was afforded affirmative action (in education and hiring quotas) and the concept of untouchability officially banned under Article 17. The Prevention of Atrocities Act in 1989 made it illegal amongst other actions to take away their land, interfere with their right to vote and burn down their homes.

    However Dalits continue to face discrimination, especially in rural areas where access to communal water sources are restricted and land ownership is rare: ‘Most rural Dalit’s earn their living as agricultural laborers or as collectors of human waste to be used as fertilizer.’

    In 2010 the Robert K Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights identified 98 distinct practices across 1589 villages pertaining to caste based discrimination (Page 5) including a ban on hiring cooking pots for weddings, smoking a pipe, touching vegetables in a shop and driving through a village in a vehicle.

    Rural to urban movement

    Many Dalit families left rural areas to live in the rapidly growing cities, usually in slum areas, and are often exploited. Many are not allowed to rent outside their communities .Urban services (water, sanitation, hygiene, waste management) are often not accessible to poorer communities. This is a combined failure of planning, financial and management capacity and governance. The fact that the Dalit community has little say in the services provided to them means that they rarely see improvements in access to services in their own communities. The conditions in which they live make it difficult for them to form effective representative organisations.

    Delivering Decentralisation: slum dwellers’ access to decision making for pro-poor infrastructure services

    Participatory planning

    Participatory planning

    Delivering Decentralisation focuses on improving the lives of 36,000 slum dwellers by enabling communities to engage in the planning and decision making processes of local government, helping them to form effective representative organisations to ensure that they are able to improve the delivery of public services in their area.The programme is taking place in Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, in Faridpur & Jessore (Bangladesh), Butwal and Bharatpur (Nepal), Kurunegala and Akkaraipattu (Sri Lanka) fromApril 2012 – March 2016. Partners in Bangladesh include the Society for the Urban Poor (Faridpur, Bangladesh) and Development of Health and Agriculture Rehabilitation Advancement (Jessore, Bangladesh).

    Old Pourasava, Jessore

    One of the focus areas is Old Pourasava, one of 5 Dalit wards in Jessore, established in 1946. The main profession of the community is cleaning and empting safety pits and sewerage lines.

     At the beginning of the project the community had only two toilets for 80 women and 65 men. There was a water tap coming from the municipality water supply line. People would fetch water twice a day (7am-10am and 12pm-6pm). There was one tubewell which remained out of order most of the time.

    Practical Action worked with the Dalit community in Jessore to help them form elected representative organisations (Settlement Improvement Committees) to lobby for improvements to the delivery of public services in their area. The election process was participatory with the supervision of an electoral body consisting of the Municipality Mayor, Councilors, Executive Director (or Field Coordinator) of partner organisations and representatives from Practical Action. The community also formed a Society Development Federation (SDF) as a platform to communicate and coordinate with Municipality, partners and other development agencies for different services like education, health and income generating activities. The committees have been elected for 2 years.

    Coordination meeting

    Coordination meeting

    The community then prepared a participatory plan using social mapping, resource mapping, well-being analysis, Chapati diagrams, and priority ranking of needs. They identified and prioritised needs to address demand by seeking funding from development partners, the municipality and other potential service providers, providing a road map to the community for their next course of action. Before finalisation the action plan was shared with Municipality Councillors in the presence of the whole community.


    jessore 2

    Sharing the action plan


    For community leaders to observe how development was being achieved in a similar context, exposure visits were organised to Gaibandha Municipality to gather knowledge on waste-to- compost, waste-to-biogas and other techniques which could be replicated in Old Pourasava.

    Practical Action supported the community in the design, procurement and construction of drainage and footpaths. Prior to construction, the community volunteered to remove uncollected and accumulated waste.


    Women and girls

    Clearing waste in preparation for laying new footpath and drainage systems

    Clearing waste in preparation for laying new footpath and drainage systems

    The association and its members are motivating adult female and adolescent girls to diversify their economic opportunities to supplement family income to invest in better health and education for their children. Links with organisations who can support training and income generating activities as well as childcare have been made (e.g. Family Planning Association of Bangladesh). 

    Challenges to the programme

    The programme faced challenges to ensure the participation of extremely poor people in the planning and monthly meetings of slum improvement committees due to their long working hours. The programme also faced challenges in bringing synergy between different community associations; the community expressed concern that if they join other existing associations their special agenda inclusion will be lost since they would become a minority in a federation. Sharing meetings to discuss views, planning and progress were organised between other community organisations while they remained separate entities.


    Beyond the programme

    51dffcbb-66e4-4859-8327-6ed90a000074_WyI2MDB4NjAwIiwic2NhbGUiXQAfter Practical Action helped to facilitate development planning, a new organisation was formed with the aim of making Dalit settlements healthy and liveable through access to inclusive services. The organisation is helping 6 Dalit communities develop their neighbourhood plans, led by their respective community associations.

    Members participated in Jessore Municipality’s pre-budget meeting and expressed the priority areas in which they want to draw down support from the annual development budget of Jessore town.


    The project is advocating for Jessore Municipality to bring other stakeholders in to support other priorities reflected in their neighbourhood plans. Community Association leaders are also negotiating with non-state development agencies for access to doorstep health and education services at fair prices. The Association approached bodies such as the District Social Welfare, the District Women Affairs Office amongst other development agencies, and was successful in receiving different types of income generation training for the Dalit community. These follow on actions are building the aspiration of a healthy living environment and fuller integration into society; building relationships and accessing services and resources which will leverage change beyond the close of the programme in 2016.




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