Hobbits, hyacinths and happiness
Who would’ve thought that hyacinths and happiness would go together so well? But they do in flood prone Bangladesh. Practical Action works with some of the poorest people, forced by their poverty to live on land that shifts with the annual floods, so nowhere is ever really home, and making a garden is an act of faith. With water comes water hyacinth in abundance, a weed which Practical Action helps communities turn into floating gardens – an example of a really simple technology that works wonderfully well. The hyacinth leaves, supported by bamboo poles, are woven into a bed, on which is laid soil, into which seeds for lettuces, okra, sweet onions, pumpkins, etc., are planted. The plants’ roots reach down through the hyacinth bed to the flood waters, and nature does the rest. What could be simpler? It doesn’t have to be just hyacinth leaves; any material can be used to create a floating garden in this way, enabling food to still be grown when floods make normal planting impossible, bringing happiness to communities who previously struggled to meet their families’ food needs.
This is just one example of a project which Trusts and Foundations are helping Practical Action implement….and we have many more for which we need support. If you’re a Trustee of a Trust or Foundation and would like to know more, contact me on Liz.Frost@practicalaction.org.uk.
And the hobbits? They don’t have anything to do with floating gardens I’m afraid, but being keen gardeners themselves and enjoying at least six meals a day, I think they would really approve of such a simple but productive technology.No Comments » | Add your comment
In these straitened times, many of us are planning a more low key Christmas this year. The good news is that recent research has discovered that what most people want from this festival is to “spend Christmas reconnecting with the things and people that matter most to them.” Early planning is vital where thrift is concerned and while Christmas is a time for fun and indulgence, it doesn’t have to cost huge amounts of money.
I was surprised to discover how helpful Practical Action could be in providing ideas for gifts to make myself! Practical Answers, our online database of technical information, has a wealth of information on all sorts of foodstuffs. Browsing through the section on food processing, I was inspired by the possibilities. I think I might make some elegantly labeled jars of green mango or lime pickle or perhaps some lime marmalade?
If I’m feeling more adventurous I might try smoking some salmon, curing bacon or making some snacks like banana chips. I even found some tips for designing my packaging and labels. There’s plenty of rather more complicated guidance for those with carpentry skills (definitely not me) who would like to build a woodworking bench or a simple solar drier to preserve next year’s surplus produce from your garden or allotment? I think I might play it safe and stick with something simpler like making some candles, always popular gifts. Why not give some of these a go yourself? Do let us know how you get on.
All this information has, of course, been compiled primarily for the benefit of people in developing countries, and quantities are often for small scale commercial enterprise. I thought I might try making pineapple jam, but will have to do some maths first as 158 kg of pineapples might be rather too many!
Have a browse through the list of technical information online to get an idea of the wealth of knowledge that Practical Action has amassed over 44 years. The website has information on more than 200 different technologies. And it is practical information that is helping people all over the developing world to develop skills and to launch enterprises that will lift their families out of poverty.
More than 1.5 million information sheets were downloaded last year and Practical Action staff worldwide responded to 9,700 individual enquiries on technical subjects. This is the practical application of EF Schumacher’s philosophy: “The best aid to give is intellectual aid, a gift of useful knowledge. A gift of knowledge is infinitely preferable to a gift of material things.”
I’m hoping this Christmas will be a chance for my family to focus on these simple pleasures rather than spending large amounts on ‘must have’ presents. Putting my time and effort into making gifts for my loved ones will, I’m certain, be time well spent. Now how about a glass of banana beer?No Comments » | Add your comment
If, like me, you’re filled with excitement at the thought of tonight’s final of The Great British Bake Off, I think you’ll enjoy this story of how the fortunes of Peruvian baker Luz Marina Cusci Cáceres have been transformed, with a little help from Practical Action.
It is a Thursday morning in September 2012, and visitors are gradually arriving at a huge food festival that is a highlight for many Peruvians. Within a few hours, the place will be packed with hungry diners and long queues will form at the myriad food stalls. There is no respite for Luz Marina Cusi Cáceres, who has just returned to her stall after she has run out of stock. Her stall is to be found among the organic producers section, where delicious home-grown Peruvian goods are sold.
But what is so special about Luz Marina? And what does her story have to do with Practical Action?
Several years ago Luz Marina participated in Practical Action’s project ‘Development of productive uses of electricity in the Cusco region’. During her participation in this project, she developed her baking knowledge, and learnt how to bake traditional kiwicha [a traditional Peruvian cereal] biscuits in a more efficient manner.
Luz Marina used to make kiwicha products by hand until Practical Action came to her town, San Salvador, and worked with the community to introduce a variety of electricity-generating technologies such as solar panels.
“We knew nothing about electrified machinery before, but with the help of Practical Action engineers we began using kitchen appliances, like the electric whisk, which need electricity to operate.”
Luz Marina had always sold kiwicha, but she did not do anything to the raw kiwicha to add real value to it. An Italian woman in the town who knew how to make biscuits shared her baking skills with Luz Marina.
“She taught me that I could sell biscuits made out of kiwicha, which would fetch higher prices at market than raw kiwicha products.”
Once Luz Marina learnt how to bake the biscuits, rumours of her delicious culinary treats spread across town, and people started asking for more.
“People would eat them and then buy them. So I kept making the biscuits better, and although there is still room for improvement, I am now a much better baker than I was before. In 2009 I decided to start a baking business with three of my friends who also cook with kiwicha. It is very helpful to work as a group; we have a lot of confidence, we know each other, and we are united.”
The real turning point came when Luz Marina met a customer named Hugo. He was so impressed by the biscuits and the commitment of Luz Marina and her friends he helped the bakers to obtain the official hygiene certification they needed in order to sell their products in larger markets.
“Now we sell our biscuits in Ayacucho and San Gerónimo. We have to stock the stalls with 1000 packets every two weeks! What would we do without electricity? We use an electric whisk to make our biscuits. It saves us time and means we can make better quality biscuits that sell in their thousands! We still need more encouragement from the council though – it would help if they advertised and promoted our products.”
In addition to the biscuits, Luz Marina and the bakers are now selling kiwicha-based pastries and honey. At the bustling food festival these have been hugely popular.
“We have sold 6000 packets of biscuits in three days! I am very grateful to Practical Action – without electricity we could not have made a productive or profitable living from baking. The electricity has transformed our baking. And baking has changed our lives”.No Comments » | Add your comment
Half of Sudan’s population live in acute poverty.
This means that for millions of women, men and children, each day is a struggle to survive.
It is a country blighted by civil unrest, (so many people I have met have lost loved ones to the fighting), devastating droughts, and recurrent food shortages. Nowhere is the impact of these factors felt more sharply than across the rural areas of Sudan, which are home to a majority of the population.
For these families, an unsafe living environment, poor nutrition and few ways to earn an income have, lamentably, become a way of life.
Practical Action always focuses on the poorest of the poor, helping the most vulnerable, the most marginalised, those who live on the very fringes of society, to transform their lives. So we are operating in the rural areas of Kassala, Blue Nile and Darfur to reach out to those communities whose survival is no more certain than the balancing of a diamond upon a blade of grass.
Our work in Kassala is particularly impressive. This project represents an ongoing programme which aims to strengthen the self-reliance of its traditional farmers. By providing access to innovative technologies and training, the project is directly improving the lives of 99,760 people in rural communities! It’s a huge number – just slightly larger than the population of my hometown of Rugby. This project has helped to strengthen livelihoods and sustain and improve their traditional methods of production. As a result of Practical Action’s skill-sharing, communities can now grow enough food to both eat and sell at market, and are more resilient to poverty.
Before my arrival in Sudan, I was optimistic that I might be able to travel to Kassala to see the work first-hand. But after the expulsion of foreign staff from the area, it has been impossible for me to make this journey.
So today, four people from Kassala - Samera, Siham, Mohamed, Abubker - come to Khartoum to meet me at the Practical Action offices. This journey takes seven hours by bus, and across terrible roads in the oppresive heat, I am sure it is neither a comfortable or enjoyable experience. For Siham and Abubker, the visit today is the first time they have ever travelled to their capital city. I feel so incredibly humbled that my presence here is the reason for their trip.
Aged 65 years, Mohamed Mohamed Musa is the oldest of the group. He was born in 1947 (it is significant and rather moving that he knows his birth year, as so many people do not). He is a tall man, but so thin that his collar bones protrude sharply. He wears a ‘jalabya’, a simple long white gown, and an ‘eimma’, a turban. This is traditional clothing for a Sudanese man, and to complete the look he sports a pair of Ray Ban style sunglasses. It is a strange combination of the ancient and the new. I am fascinated by his face. He is toothless and lined, and just so animated. His face seems to tell a story of its own.
My questions for Mohamed are endless – I think he gets rather fed up with my unceasing curiosity in his life. He has two wives, for instance. The first marriage was arranged, the second one took place so he could take care of the daughter of a cousin after her parents died. He has many, many children. He can read and write – and he left school aged 12.
But most importantly, he is passionate about seeds – and about Practical Action.
Practical Action introduced Mohamed to a new type of sorghum seed. These seeds do not need as much rain to grow as the old variety, and as there is now less rain due to climate change, this is essential. The seeds also yield more crops – so when Mohamed harvests them, he has more to take to market. The new variety of sorghum weighs more too, which means Mohamed’s crops fetch a better price. The seeds – and the new hand tools and new terracing techniques that Mohamed now has - are transformational.
“In the past, we were always hungry. I was always worrying about the future, fighting for tomorrow. But I couldn’t give up, otherwise I would not have been able to care for my family.
I was a poor man, but now I am rich – not rich with money, but rich with knowledge. I’m proud I have knowledge because I can share it with my children and all the other poor families in my village. Other farmers come to me and ask me for my skills . We are so happy to have worked with Practical Action, but we will know what to do long after Practical Action goes. Practical Action is like our mother and we are like her children. There is not enough time to talk about all the good works that Practical Action does.”
I could write Mohamed’s words for the whole evening. He is so effusive about Practical Action. And he is so passionate about his new seeds that at one point he reaches within his jalabya and plucks out a handful of seeds. He has brought them all the way from Kassala to show me. He knows I am meeting farmers from Darfur this weekend, and he wants to tell me about these seeds, so I, in turn, can pass on his knowledge to other people in need. Mohamed is like hope embodied – he believes so vehemently in the power of these tiny seeds.
But juxtaposed against these stories of hope were tales of uncountable tragedy. While listening to 21 year old Siham recall her childhood and talk about the day soldiers came to her village with guns to bomb hundreds of innocent people – including her best friend – it takes as much self-control as I can muster to stop myself from crying.
It has been an overwhelming day. I am reminded of one of my favourite George Eliot quotations:
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”
And I think maybe this explains why so many of us turn our backs in the face of suffering. I do not want to turn away. I want to listen to that roar. And then I want to write about it.2 Comments » | Add your comment
This International Women’s Day is all about empowering women to end hunger and poverty. Women play a vital role in food production in developing countries. In fact, 43% of the agricultural workforce are women. Yet they have very limited access to resources such as land, credit and agricultural training and information compared to men.
I was therefore happy to attend an event in parliament on the 7th March on ‘Effective Solutions for Agricultural Development through Empowered African Women Scientists’. The event concentrated on getting women into leadership positions within science and technology and building their skills and confidence within the agricultural sector. It also places the spotlight on the need for research into aspects of agriculture that are important and helpful to women farmers.
I listened to the stories of two African women scientists, Dr Sheila Ommeh from the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya and Christine Mukantwali a senior scientist from Rwanada. Both women are AWARD (African Women in Agricultural Research and Development) fellows. Both women have invested considerable time in researching sustainable agricultural solutions to help their communities and have acted as role models for girls in local schools, encouraging them to get interested in science.
It was great to hear about the importance of getting more women into science. However, this got me thinking about the wider topic of women and technology.
Technology is a vital element for any community. It plays a significant role in food security, agriculture and small scale production. Women use technical skills and knowledge in their daily activities; they continually innovate and adapt technologies in response to things they face in their everyday lives. However, their role and technical skills are often overlooked and undervalued.
There are four main reasons why women are less visible in the application of technology than men:
- Firstly, much of women’s work is unpaid. Women have responsibilities for child care and subsistence tasks and this means it is less visible in national statistics.
- Secondly, is the cultural perception of what constitutes ‘technology’. Women carry out a considerable number of technical activities every day. For example, they farm, process crops, weave, sew, collect wood and water, tend to small livestock, fish and look after children. These activities are mostly domestic , small scale and considered un-technical.
- Thirdly, the perception of what comprises technology is mostly in the realm of ‘hard’ technology- that of equipment, like computers or machinery, but ‘soft’ technology is usually overlooked. Soft technology comprises the skills, concepts and knowledge needed to use the ‘hard’ technology. Women often have a lot of skill but use less complex equipment (e.g. in food processing).
- Fourthly, the fact that few women are involved in agricultural extension work, research and development or technical development planning has meant there has been little challenging of assumptions made about the nature of productive roles and responsibilities and assumptions that have undermined women’s roles and technical capacities.
The spotlight on women in science should open up and include the empowerment of those women that use technology day in and day out. Practical Action’s ‘Discovering Technologists’ training guidelines is aimed at increasing the skills of those involved in technology development, working in the agricultural development sector. The training is an empowering process whereby women can realize that their knowledge is not only technical but also valuable, and this realisation leads to women themselves consciously exploring, strengthening and sharing the expertise that they have.No Comments » | Add your comment
The hill and mountain districts of far and mid-western Nepal have been hit by persistent food insecurity. The agricultural produce is not sufficient for household consumption in many areas of the country due to high dependency on subsistence agriculture, very small land holdings, inequality in land holdings, low productivity, limited agricultural infrastructure, use of traditional tools and lack of appropriate technologies.
In my recent visit to one of the Practical Action’s project sites in mid-west Nepal I saw a ray of hope where people were continuing the land leasing approach for food production introduced by Practical Action.
Practical Action, with support of the European Union, implemented a food security project in this area, focusing on a land leasing approach targeting smallholder farmers who owns less than 0.05 hectare of land or are landless.
The project has supported the group of small land-holding or landless farmers in accessing the land through a land leasing approach. The project has also people in accessing various appropriate agricultural technologies, extension services, agri-infrastructures and linking with markets.
A survey indicated that the proportion of project households having food sufficiency for less than three months has been decreased to 6.7% from 58.3%. The study also revealed that the food sufficiency for three to six months, six to nine months and more than nine months have been increased to 41, 33.8 and 18.5% from 28, 10.7 and 2.9 per cent respectively.
The smallholding farmers, who I met recently, were very happy and were continuously practicing the plastic house technology and micro irrigation technology in their leased land. They were receiving support from the local agro-vets and local resource people developed by the project. It is encouraging that from the selling of the vegetables and other agricultural produces, they were able to buy some pieces of land on their own where they can grow more produce to fulfill their food need.
With this evidence, I think the land leasing approach can be a sustainable approach that can be replicated elsewhere while working with the smallholders or landless farmers to secure or improve their food security conditions.5 Comments » | Add your comment
World Food Day gives us an opportunity to not only reflect but also to rethink how we can, in our capacities, feed the world.
Feeding the world is one of today’s biggest challenges for many countries, especially in the greater Horn of Africa where more than 11 million people face starvation. In recent months, millions went hungry and countless malnourished children died. Many are still without food today. This was, and still is, without doubt, a major world crisis. In Kenya, nomadic pastoralists living in the fragile northern parts of the country are particularly at risk. Women, the old and children under five are worst affected.
The region has suffered from more intense recurring drought and flooding over the years. The affected populations who have witnessed the negative effects now associated with climate change know the consequences of these natural and man-made disasters. The levels of malnutrition and famine have reached their highest percentages.
The distressing experiences of their tales haunt those who dare spare some time to ‘feel them’. One such statement is from Kausa, a 50-year-old grandmother, we met in Elwak, northern Kenya, two months ago.
“As a woman, it hurts to see my children cry with hunger,” she said. “It’s more painful as a mother to tell them that I don’t have any food to give them.”
The sheer need of this situation only confirms my belief that Practical Action’s long term development work, which is reaching out to these vulnerable communities to increase their resilience to climate change and drought, is needed now more than ever.
We know that pastoralism will be seriously affected by climate change but on the degree and locations of these impacts we are less certain. But unless we put in place adaptation to climate change, many millions of the poorest already negatively affected by food insecurity and other challenges will continue to suffer the most.
Tackling food insecurity/hunger requires more than just increasing livestock production and farm outputs. We should all aim to produce sufficient food to supply the full nutritional requirements of the human species whilst attempting to live in harmony with the natural environment and its finite resources.
Simple calculated steps on the choice and use of appropriate technologies can, and always will, yield good results. A vital step is to empower these vulnerable communities and groups to take control and increase their own food production. And to do this, we have to combine the best of all approaches to sustainably to improve the food security situation.
For the pastoralists, whose mainstay is best suited for the fragile ecosystems they inhabit, it is time to put in place pro-pastoralist policies and interventions that will lead to the industry being not only profitable, but competitive, more resilient, better able to provide environmental benefits and give greater choice, innovation and value to producers for them not to rely on relief aid.
Sustaining the above wishes will of course require huge commitment and continued effort by all stakeholders over the long haul. There are no quick fixes. But we know that we can defeat hunger by investing in: interventions that improve food production, marketing and the market systems, and their supply chains that in the long term will empower them to produce more and earn an income that can be used to cater for basic healthcare, education to ensure food security in the future.2 Comments » | Add your comment
Food is a basic human need. Yet for many people across the world, this basic human need is not that easy to come by.
Putting food on the table is a struggle for small scale farmers and pastoralists with little income or natural resources. It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it, that the very people who grow food or rear livestock for food are those that go hungry? Why? Lack of agricultural knowledge and investment, little access to credit, little access to markets, growing competition for land and price volatility.
What is more, where the climate is changing year on year, there are no spare resources to adjust or adapt practices in order to reduce the impacts of droughts, floods and other extreme weather events.
I was recently in Mandera, north western Kenya, where I came face-to-face with the terrible reality of drought, and the devastating impact it’s having on families and children.
People hadn’t eaten for days, yet when asked what they needed, not one person said they needed food. In fact, any food aid they received went to their livestock. What they needed was rain so they could grow their crops and feed their livestock.
So it was good to see Practical Action working with agricultural communities to cope with drought by helping to develop drought resistant crops, protect livestock and conserve precious water.
High up in the Andes in Peru, the temperature can drop to as low as -35 degrees centigrade and there is practically no vegetation. Practical Action works with communities to grow food that will survive these harsh conditions.
And in flood prone places like Bangladesh where it’s impossible to grow crops, Practical Action has developed a technology to allow farmers to grow food on flooded land.
We work with entire market systems, often focusing on helping poor farmers and producers to build their abilities to engage with people they do business with and get better deals for themselves and their communities.
Investing in farmers and pastoralists like this ensures not only can they put food on the table but they can also earn more money – working themselves out of poverty.
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At the British Science Association’s festival on Tuesday we launched our brand new Global CREST Challenges as new project ideas for students taking part in the CREST award scheme.
In her introductory speech at the STEM in Education evening Katherine Mathieson , Head of Education at the British Science Association introduced Practical Action as one of their key new partners. She said our CREST awards added a new dimension to the CREST award scheme that she was confident would be popular with schools throughout the UK.
CREST awards are given to students who do in depth project work with the support of a mentor on an area they are interested in. Our resources give them ideas for projects relating to science and technology in the developing world. Project areas are divided into five themes
Projects can involve up to 70 hours of work so this is a really high level of engagement for students. To support them we are pointing them towards Practical Answers’ technical briefs, technical information provided by Practical Action to real engineers working in developing countries around the world. Representatives of other organsiations were also impressed with our new resources.
”Part of what we are about is developing partnerships between research scientists and people in developing countries. I really like the idea of work of this nature being developed at a schools level”
David Dickinson, Director SciDev.Net
Please do take a look at our awards and promote to any schools you may have links with.
One third of the world’s food goes to waste!
I am shocked by this statistic from a newly published report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). 1.3 billion tons of food produced for human consumption is wasted each year. Hugh amounts of effort and resources just thrown away. It’s obscene! This energy, resource, this food, is vitally needed.
The FAO estimate that on average each of us in the rich countries of Europe and the USA wastes between 95 and 115 Kgs a year. That’s upwards of 15 stone a year. I had to check the calculation from kg to stones thinking it’s more than lots of people weigh – can’t be right – but it is.
The World Health Organisation estimates that poor malnutrition is associated with 50% of deaths amongst children. While other figures from UNICEF show that a quarter of all children under 5 in the developing world are malnourished which in turn causes the death of 5.6 million children under 5 each year.
Its this contrast which is obscene.
Even in developing countries there is food waste of on average between 6 and 11 kg per person. The reasons for this waste in the developing world include ‘technical limitations in harvesting techniques, storage and cooling facilities in difficult climatic conditions, infrastructure, packaging and marketing systems’.
I could say so much about Practical Actions work on for example zeer pot clay fridges, improving links with markets, etc. But in reading the report (and having just finished reading it I am still shocked) the feeling I’m left with most strongly is the injustice. We in the rich world have the food, we have the technology; in the developing world hungry people don’t have food and they don’t even have the technology they vitally need to protect the meagre supplies they have. This is technology injustice. We must reduce waste but we must also work to help people access the technology they need to protect their vital supplies of food.
To read the full report go to http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/ags/publications/GFL_web.pdf2 Comments » | Add your comment