Blogs tagged as new technology

  • Technologies for bringing back roofs over the heads of earthquake victims

    Rabindra Bahadur Singh

    March 23rd, 2017

    Simple technologies can bring down the cost of house construction and enable the poor earthquake victims build their houses within their means.

    Chhabilal Acharya’s house reduced to a pile of rubbles in less than a minute when the powerful earthquake stuck his village in Laharepauwa Rasuwa on 25th April 2015. His poultry farm, his major source of income, wasn’t spared either. Acharya (62) and his daughter narrowly escaped from the collapsing house.

    Chhabilal explaining how he escaped from the collapsing house

    Chhabilal explaining how he escaped from the collapsing house

    He had built the house in 1995.

    “I gave up even the smallest indulgences in life to save money for the house,“ he said.

    It took him five years to save money for the house as his job at Lagtang National Park would pay very nominal.

    He has been living in a temporary shelter since the earthquake. With his poultry farm gone, his family is scarping by on his meagre pension of $101 a month.

    Government of Nepal has decided to provide $2778 grant to affected households for building house in three instalments. The house should be compliant to the government approved designs to secure the grant. Chhabilal has received the first tranche ($ 500) of the grant. However, he is yet to start building the house.

    “The money is not enough even to prepare ground for foundation and I have no other means to supplement the grant“ he mentioned.

    Chhabilal inside his temporary shelter

    Chhabilal inside his temporary shelter

    Building simple 3-room brick masonry house costs more than $5000 in his village. Stone masonry buildings are equally expensive as the stones are not available locally.

    Chhabilal is planning to take loan from a local money lender by mortgaging all his land at half the value to top on the grant.

    Banks don’t accept farm land in the village as collateral. Hence, for people like Chhabilal who don’t have any other fixed assets, the local money lenders are the only resort for the loan. The money lenders rip them off with the exorbitant interest rate.

    “If my son does well in life, he will be able to pay the loan and release the land,“ Chhabilal said with misty eyes. He knows he may never get the land back as his son is just 16 years old now.

    Two hundred and forty two households in Laharepuawa lost their houses in the devastating earthquake. Only 11 households who are well to do or have family members abroad have built their houses so far. Rest are facing the impossible choice, roof over the head or the land that feed them, like Chhabilal.

    However, simple technologies can save them from this predicament and help them rebuild their house within their means.

    Cement Stabilised Earth Block (CSEB) is one of such simple technologies. It is a very good alternative to bricks. It can be prepared from a simple mixture of local soil, sand and cement (10%). It costs almost three times less than the brick. Besides, it requires less labour and cement mortar to build a house with CSEB. And, it provides better earthquake resistance as the blocks are interlocking. A CSEB compacting machine costs around $ 7000 including installation and all the accessories. The machine can produce up to 450 blocks per day. The pictures below shows the CSEB production at Kalikasthan, Rasuwa. The enterprise was set up with the support of Practical Action.IMG_1508

    IMG_1511

    Another technology which can save cost is a simple stone cutting machine. It can reduce cost of through stones and corner stones, which are mandatory inthe government, approved stone masonry buildings, by 2 to 3 times. A labour can prepare maximum 6 corner/through stones in a day manually whereas as the machine can produce up to 200 pieces of corner stones.

    A simple one story house requires more than 150 corners/through stones, which approximately costs $300, if prepared manually. However, with the machine, the cost can be reduced to $100. The stone cutting machine costs only about $1200.

    Stone cutting Machine set up with the help of Practical Action at Bhorle Rasuwa

    Stone cutting machine set up with the help of Practical Action at Bhorle, Rasuwa

    Practical Action has been promoting the technologies in Nuwakot and Rasuwa districts through a DFID funded project in a small scale.

    It is an irony that better-off households are better poised to receive the government housing grant as they can fully comply with the government standards. Poor households, who are solely dependent on the grant, are at the risk of losing it as the grant is not enough to build government design compliant house. The technologies can avert the risk by reducing the cost of building house.

    Likewise, the technologies can  provide alternative livelihood opportunities to the people in the earthquake affected districts as they can be promoted as the local enterprises. Hence, larger diffusion of such technologies is across the earthquake affected  districts is important not only for accelerating reconstruction but also improving livelihood.

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  • Can Climate Information Services be mapped? 

    Colin McQuistan

    February 2nd, 2017

    “This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather”.  Groundhog day 1993

    Practical Action has been approached by a consortia of partners to explore the issue of Climate Information Services in West Africa. We have been posed the question “Is it possible to map the Climate Information Services system in the region and would mapping help to make the system work better for rain fed marginalised farmers?” This is partly to respond to the challenge of why despite investment in rolling out modern forecasting systems on the continent, farmers especially small holder farmers fail to benefit from these investments? Why is crop productivity still lagging behind other regions and why is food and nutritional security still highly susceptible to seasonal and shorter term weather events?

    We are interested in mapping the CIS system for both long range forecasts of the season ahead as well as shorter duration forecast of the week or day ahead.  These forecasts must consider and accurately reflect weather, climate variability and must also anticipate the uncertainty surrounding the consequences of climate change for the region.

    Weather, climate variability and climate change

    Weather, climate variability and climate change

    Accurate seasonal forecasts can help farmers make the right crop choice for the subsequent growing season, for example if the predictions are for a wetter or dryer season then the farmer can adjust the seed they purchase to grow crops best suited to the expected conditions. By contrast accurate weekly and daily weather forecasts can enable farmers to choose the right husbandry activities for the crop at that particular moment in time. For example advance warning of heavy rain may prompt a farmer to speed up harvest to prevent storm damage to a standing crop or perhaps for a herder to find safe high ground prior to heavy rains leading to flash flooding.

    However in both cases there are a number of issues that need to be considered to make the forecast practical. These include;

    Believable, currently many farmers have zero or limited access to climate information services and have for generations relied on traditional knowledge systems.  These include observational information on the behaviour of species, timing of events or observation of atmospheric conditions.  It is vital that modern climate information services respect these indigenous approaches and compliment or reinforce these messages. Over time as reliability increases farmers can make a shift in trust and belief, but even in the developed world many farmers still look to local signs to interpret the outcome or as back up to the information provided by the climate information service for their locality.

    Actionable, the farmer needs to be able to make a change based on the information they receive.  For a farmer to switch crops based on a seasonal forecast they will need access to those alternative crops, not just access to seeds but also the activities that support these crops, such as technical knowledge, extension services and other supporting services. If the information cannot be acted upon by the farmer with the resources they have to hand it is next to useless.

    Understandable, providing blanket forecasts will not be useful if they cannot relate the forecast information to their individual situation. As we move down to finer scales weather forecasts become less reliable and it is therefore vital that CIS delivery is tailored to what we know about local conditions. We are all aware of the anomalies in the landscape and these are usually best known by local people. So tailoring the forecast to the local conditions will be vital.  Related to this is the need to make forecasts practicable to the diversity of users in the area. Forecasts need to explain the application of what the information means for different farming systems. The forecast may predict favourable condition for certain crops or livestock species but may herald warnings for others, so tailoring the advice to specific cropping recommendations will make the climate service more user friendly.

    Rough outline of what a Climate Information Service system might look like

    Rough outline of what a Climate Information Service system might look like

    We have started to elaborate a participatory mapping approach which builds on the success of our Participatory Markets Systems Development (PMSD) approach. This has been adapted to map not a value chain but to focus on the transmission of climate services from information sources to information recipients. We will aim to map the transmission of information across the system as it is converted from one form of information to another and turned into action through different service providers.  Crucial to the success of this approach will be the need to make it bottom up and as participatory as possible.

    There are plenty of other issues that we will consider as this project develops. For example the use of SMS messaging and other types of Information Communication Technologies to disseminate climate information.  However, one of the most important aspects that we are hoping the system approach will help us understand is the role and potential for feedback loops. Established Climate Information Service systems work because they are reliable and trustworthy. This is only possible if regular experiential learning and feedback takes place between the end users and the CIS system components. We are excited to be a part of this project, but recognise that there is a lot still to learn about climate information services and what makes them tick.

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  • Technology Justice

    Lubna Taha

    December 23rd, 2013

    The word “technology” means many things to each of us. Who does not want to use mobiles or the internet to smooth her/his life and get the information required quickly?

    As we enjoy this life changing technology in towns, there are poor people in rural areas lacking all of these technological benefits. Those people do not even know about such technologies.

    ICT4D (Information Communication Technology for Development) is nowadays established in most western universities because of the important role that ICTs can play in the field of development and humanitarian aid.

    Picture1Within Practical Action many ICT projects have taken place to benefit of poor communities, such as the energy portal website in Practical Action Peru that allows access to Practical Action offices globally and the transfers knowledge to rural communities. Also the mobile real-time application introduced by Practical Action Kenya that uses smart phones to monitor what is actually happening in the field day by day.

    In Practical Action Sudan we contributed to information management software (IWG project) which assists in decision making on programmatic and geographical interventions across the Sudan. The project maps areas in Sudan covered by UN agencies, national and international NGOS, to identify interventions, gaps and facilitate sectoral programming.

    In addition Practical Action Sudan with the cooperation of experts and telecommunication companies planned the distribution of agriculture and pastoralism techniques to beneficiaries through mobile phones.

    We now have to decide – is it part of the government’s responsibility to handle technology justice and convince the commercial sector to contribute more to enhancing the lives of poor communities?  Or is it the responsibility of INGOs to convince governments at a strategic level to play a serious role in benefiting poor communities?

    I believe it is the responsibility of every one of us trying to push for technology justice throughout Sudan, especially in the rural areas that deserve better chances and choices of technology.

    This will offer the chance of giving a new generation a better way of life.

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  • Whatever happened to the hydrogen economy?

    Neil Philip Noble

    February 19th, 2013

    One of the questions that was asked the other day was whatever happened to the hydrogen economy?
    It was a popular subject about a decade ago when it was thought that we would all be powering industry with hydrogen energy but things seemed to have gone very quiet since then. The problem is that the infrastructure change will be huge; it will take lots of money and time to achieve so here we are still waiting. So are there things that we can do now that will work and provide us with clean and convenient energy?
    Is locally produced hydrogen on demand a realistic alternative to massive infrastructure development for industrialised economies or could this technology be used for developing economies? Some people are promising this new technology will sidestep some of the difficulties faced by other hydrogen technology. Will innovations such as this make clean energy accessible to everyone on the planet?
    Innovation in the energy sector is abundant at the moment but many of these developments are still in the research stage and are some way from becoming used on a large scale. Which technology will win out and make a real impact on a significant scale is hard to tell at this stage.
    One of the technologies that is under development, as reported in New Scientist & at EPFL, at the moment is turning solar energy directly into hydrogen without first generating an electrical current using rust as one of the main components. It seems like a strange approach when we are constantly trying to eliminate rust from technologies but a thin layer of iron oxide could be just the thing to generate hydrogen directly from sunlight in a more effective way than the traditional photovoltaic cell and electrical cathode.
    Can these technologies be applied to less developed regions of the world? Well, it is too early to tell as they have not been proven in any situation. However we move ahead the demand for energy is on the increase, it enables people to have a better quality of life.
    It seems that future energy options are going to be more divers and generally more complicated than they are now.
    I was looking at some of these options while editing the book A Handbook of Small-scale Energy Technologies  which looks at the more established technologies such as micro hydro and solar thermal technologies. These approaches have been have been tried and tested and can be implemented now with predictable results.
    Of course, each technology needs to fit the particular circumstances but a little analysis of any situation will determine what is required. For many the hydrogen economy is a distant future but energy access is much closer.

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  • Social media and development – opportunity or threat?

    Simon Trace

    November 16th, 2012

    On Tuesday this week I attended a conference in London sponsored by DFID, the Omidyar Network (set up by the founder of the on line shopping empire eBay) and WIRED magazine. The topic of the conference was the use of new communications technology (social media, mobile phones and the web) to promote open government, transparency, participation and development. It was a high profile conference with a video message form the UK Prime Minister and a speech by the new UK Secretary of State for Development Justine Greening. More information on the conference itself can be found at www.openup12.org or on twitter at #OpenUp12 . DFID is clearly interested in this area and used the occasion to announce a new $50m fund created together with USAID and SIDA called Making All Voices Count to support the development of web and mobile technologies in developing countries that can empower citizens.

    At the conference there were some interesting examples of social media being used to promote transparency. The Ushahidi platform which was initially developed after the violence of the 2008 Kenyan elections was one. It allows individuals to post information by SMS, MMS or via the web about election irregularities, intimidation, violence etc. to create a real time map of problems that is available on line and which can be used to force government to take action. Ushadhidi has since been used in the Ugandan and Congo elections and in various disasters including the Haitian earthquake. The Ushadhidi platform (and another simpler version called crowdmap which can be set up and used in a few minutes) are open source and can be downloaded and used for free and have the potential to be used for non-emergency situations as well where you want large numbers of people to contribute to information that could be displayed on a map (for example – latest market prices for tomatoes at different town centres or the location of broken water points or villages without electricity connections).  There was also an interesting presentation on the use of Facebook and Twitter in Nigeria to co-ordinate political protest.

    One thing that struck me during the many presentations and discussions was that, just as in the real work, in the digital world there are many technology injustices. For example, depending on whose statistics you believe, in Africa, out of a population of over 1 billion people, somewhere between 400 and 750 million people have access to a mobile phone. But the cost of use, the level of connectivity, and the availability of electricity to recharge phones means that 90% of those people use less than 1 MB of data a month (in comparison the average data consumption in Europe and the US is between 150 and 400MB per person per month). This means most people are not really able to use the technology to access and exchange information beyond the most basic level.

    It also means that when we are talking about a new wave of political engagment through the use of social media, be it during  the “Arab Spring” or the co-ordination of political protests in Nigeria, we are talking essentially about political engagment by a relatively small ‘middle class’ urban group, who has the connectivity and who can afford the telephone bills.  There is a danger, as one participant of the conference noted during a question, that we overestimate the power of social media to change the balance of power and give voice to the marginsalised. Its use (at least at the moment) is just as likely to  simply accrue more power and voice to those who already have it.

    There is also a digital technology gender injustice to contend with as 300 million more men than women have access to mobile phones world-wide.

    Practical Action is certainly not Luddite in its approach to new technology. Around the world we are increasingly using social media and the web in our programme work, most obviously in Practical Answers, where we see the use of the web and  YouTube videos in Latin America to provide information to farmers, podcasting in Peru, Zimbabwe and Nepal to get recordings out beyond the reach of the internet, SMS messaging for agricultural help lines in Nepal and Bangladesh, and mobile phone networks being used to provide advanced warning of floods in Nepal.

    But we need to remeber that social media technology alone is no panecea and cannot, without other parallel action, overcome the more fundamental causes of poverty. You can’t join a twitter protest campaign if you live in a place that has no electricity to charge your phone!

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  • Can the capabilities approach help us frame technology injustice?

    If you think this question is only of “academic interest” then read on.   At the Human Development and Capability Association conference in Den Haag, The Netherlands I put this question before a group of donors, practitioners, and academics.   I wanted to start a conversation about how we can move away from the traditional ways of thinking about development and economies.   How do we address the twin issues of sustainability and inter-generational equity?

    Sen[i] writes about social injustice and challenges much of the conventional approach to economics with his emphasis on well-being and capabilities.

    Practical Action has had a focus on the use of technology to challenge poverty for the past 40 years, inspired by the vision of the economist Schumacher[ii] and based on the notion of intermediate technology.   Currently Practical Action is considering how it can best use the idea of technology justice to form a campaign and movement for change.   How can the capabilities approach help us to frame technology injustice?

    Here are four practical advantages of using a capabilities approach to frame (and/or communicate) the idea of technology justice:

    1. It would allow us to challenge the assumptions of economic growth as a driver for human development.
    2. We could identify unanticipated outcomes (both positive and negative) of our interventions.
    3. It is a values based approach that promotes transparency.
    4. By using a process based approach we can learn about injustice that results from the negative impact of technologies.

    Overall a capabilities approach is normative which fits in with the notion of developing a movement against technology injustices in the world.   Let’s keep the conversation going…


    [i] Sen, A. (2009) The Idea of Justice, Allen Lane: London.

    [ii] Scumacher, E.F. (1973) Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, Abacus Press: London.

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  • Why is Kenya an Innovation Hub?

    Knowledge and resources…is the answer being given at the Global Forum on Innovation.   At the i-hub in Nairobi people were given mobile phones and created amongst other things m-farm.   A sisal rope machine was developed in East Africa by a local person who is now been given some capacity building to develop his innovation to scale.  

    Is this an example of technology justice?   This raises the issue of who might drive technology justice.  Is there a role for intermediary organisations?   The i-hub and m:lab in Kenya are places where innovation happens…where people can be exposed to non-traditional environments that positively encourages new things.

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  • Global Innovation and the Poor

    The World Bank Group is this week hosting the fourth global forum on innovation in Helsinki.   It is attended by over 600 people from 90 countries.   The discussion at the donor meeting was around the successes and challenges of using ICT to facilitate innovation.   The climate innovation centres were recounted as a key to promoting local innovation.   Practical Action in Kenya has participated in workshops with the first climate innovation centre in Nairobi.  

    Such linkages to local groups is essential to a sustainable approach without which we often have seen a failure of appropriate technology to reach poor people.   Indeed one of the key challenges of innovating with ICTs is to ensure that we don’t increase poverty by creating yet another technology elite.  So it is vital to have inclusive dialogues and to capture the innate innovative capability of local people to solve their own problems.

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  • Chinese robots building development

    Margaret Gardner

    May 3rd, 2011

    I have just read an inspiring article on BBC News about a Chinese farmer who for decades was ridiculed by his neighbours for his obsession with building robots out of bits of broken farm machinery and other material he had to hand.  Then he entered and won a competition for entrepreneurs, got backing for his business and now employs 50 people making custom build robots. His neighbours are impressed.

    I loved the story because its great example of how ingenuity can be found everywhere, people have dreams they want to make their lives better and for some people at least all they lack is opportunity.

    The people Practical Action works with are keen to work for a better future for themselves and their families.  Often new ideas come from the communities sometimes from Practical Action – simple ideas can make a huge difference – zeer pot fridges, low smoke cook stoves, gravity ropeways cutting trecherous journeys from hours to a few minutes and a particular favourite technology of mine, hibiscus pickers (a simple way to protect the value of your crop).  Like the robot man in China we too see lives transformed.

    Let’s celebrate ingenuity!

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  • Gadgets old and new unite old and young

    What do robots, 3D gaming, BBC computers, podcasting, zeer pots and cooking stoves have in common?   Judging by the evidence, albeit anecdotal, at the gadget show live in Birmingham today the answer is there is something about technology that either interests you or it doesn’t.   This doesn’t depend on the age of the technology or the person.   Technology is of interest to a wide group of people, albeit that most were “dads and lads”.  It became clear that a person’s interest in gadgets also gave them insights into the challenges and opportunities posed by introducing technologies into developing countries.   My pre-show scepticism appeared to be unfounded…it was a really worthwhile day: from a personal point of view in terms of the rich conversations I had; and from a professional point of view in terms of the contacts I made.   This is ample demonstration that an organisation like Practical Action sometimes needs to take well judged risks in order to reach audiences that have hitherto appeared uninterested, or unaware of our work.

    Our special 3D glasses were a big hit with kids and all agreed that they gave a 3D view without the aid of electricity – an interesting juxtaposition with the nVidia stand across the aisle where people had to wear special (hi-tech) glasses to see the screen in 3D.   The cooking stove was a big hit with visitors from Nigeria and neighbouring Cameroon amongst others.   All were deeply touched by the health hazards from smoke in the home.   The humble mp3 player coupled with a solar charger captured many people’s imagination.   Most people guessed the function of the zeer pot and instantly appreciated the way in which such technologies could be adopted locally.   Those interested in camping wanted a solar lantern for their tent.

    The show was the start of a conversation with a group of people who are fascinated by technology.   Many visitors wanted to take the short questionnaire to determine what kind of geek they are: social, work, collector or uber – if you are interested in joining the geek club more information can be found by following the link.   We need to continue that conversation to ensure that all of humanity can have a choice about the technology they use.   Please join us in that conversation…

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