Archive for July, 2010

Toilets and Zeer pots at the Small Is festival

Friday, July 30th, 2010 by

I was definitely the newbie at the Small Is  Festival last year.  I had started working for  Practical Action just four days before the big event and had no idea what to expect.  It turned out to be a great insight as to what my life as a member of staff here would be like.  A really good balance of hard work, fun and a realisation of how passionate the people who work here are about their work . …..and then there’s the toilets!

The festival’s  ‘facilities’ included some toilets which were the same as those built as part of  Practical Action’s  projects around the world.  I couldn’t bring myself to use one at the time.  However, having spent some time in Nepal earlier this year I now appreciate how much effective toilets can make a real contribution to improving the lives of families living in developing countries. So maybe this year I’ll give them a go!

Of course this year I will be more actively involved and am really looking forward to it.  As the education manager I will also be manning (now why can’t you say womaning?!) a stand with a potters wheel for any children or adults who wants to have a go. You could try making a pot similar to those used to make zeer pots in Sudan, which are simple fridges made out of clay and sand.  We will even let you decorate your pot and take it home as a memento of the festival  🙂

Of course if you want to find out more about our education work in the UK please do come and have a chat with us and/or have a look at our resources

To find out more about the festival and buy tickets to come along go to the Small Is website

It’s all about tea.

Thursday, July 29th, 2010 by

I’m the work experience boy – that is my rank, my position in the office hierarchy, I am on the bottom rung of the ladder.  OK, I knew this when I came; I’m 19, only half way through my degree and have no experience.  The very fact that I’ve been permitted to write this blog is a testament to Practical Action, who could have just stuck me in a corner confronted with the grinding drudgery of administrative work, a reality for which I was fully prepared.  Yet there is one work experience cliché that I cannot escape – making the tea…

I don’t drink tea or coffee, a combination of habit, allergies and taste, and so have to be gently (or not so), and frequently reminded of my obligation to the greater good of the office.  However, at the Small Is… Festival the beverage duties will, mercifully, be out of my hands.

No one will go thirsty over the weekend, that is one thing we can be sure of, even if we can’t rely on the late summer heavens remaining tight-lipped.  GreenT will be concocting caffeine-based creations, including herbal and Irish variants.  There will be a well-stocked bar of local ales and more to make the evenings fly by.  And finally I hear rumour of bike-generated smoothie makers for the strong of thigh (see one in action).

To parch those palates expect many an opportunity to dance whether it be to a ceilidh or to Zambian drumming and, of course, prepare to gorge yourselves at the themed feasts – African, South Asian and Latin American.

The weekend is a celebration (see previous post), and we intend to make it just that!

Guest blog…

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010 by

In this guest post Katee Hui, who’s the Social site editor at Green Thing, shares some great energy ideas.

Green Thing is a not-for-profit public service that inspires people to lead a greener life. With the help of brilliant videos and inspiring stories from creative people and community members around the world, Green Thing focuses on seven things you can do – and enjoy doing.

One Green Thing Action is Plugging out. Those chargers and speakers that you’ve left on needlessly, that light on in the other room, those machines on standby. While they look harmless enough, they’re sucking your household power supply like needy greedy babies and are costing untold tonnes of C02.

This week Green Thing has come across two fabulous new inventions that can help people plug out- anywhere!

First, meet Greenlight Planet’s SunKing.

SunKing is a solar-powered lantern that boasts 16 hours of energy, after only a single day’s charge. That’s a lot! Fitted with photovoltaic panels and a water-sealed lamp, the SunKing is durable and reliable, as it has industrial strength panels that can gain charge even when it’s cloudy.

So long kerosene, see you later wood. No offense, but you’ve been replaced by a brilliantly bright and affordable solar lamp.

SoOcket is another brilliant example of how a little creativity can go a long way.

This football is actually a portable energy generator, cleverly disguised, but for a reason. In order to produce electricity, a mechanism exists inside the ball that forces a magnet through a coil that induces an electrical current, and thus making energy. Then, you can plug in any standard fixture to the socket that is built into the ball. Imagine: young people spending an hour kicking around football to then head home, plug in a lamp to provide light while doing homework at no cost- to the household or the environment.

SoOcket co-founders, Jessica Lin, Jessica Matthews, Julia Silverman, and Hemali Thakkar, who all spent time in Africa, will definitely feel the benefit of the buzz from the World Cup.

Something as small as a light could make a world of difference in how people live their lives and what impact this has on the earth. Cleverly designed inventions like SoOcket and the Sun King are great examples of creativity versus Climate Change, the kind of stuff that Green Thing loves.

minus 24 (and counting)

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010 by

Tonight, as families in the high Andes go to sleep, temperatures will plummet, to as low as -24c.

But they can’t turn up the heating, switch on the electric blanket or boil the kettle for a hot water bottle.

Here, communities live without access to basic services. As the climate in the Andes is changing, families are genuinely having to fight for survival.

This extreme and unprecedented cold has forced the Peruvian government to declare a state of emergency in 16 Peruvian states.

And, as ever, it’s the poorest and most remote communities that are being hit hardest. In the Andes families lives depend on their alpacas, but the deaths of herds will undoubtedly plunge whole communities into a desperate situation.

Practical Action is working with families here to help them adapt: through better access to energy, water and farming techniques.

With support from the European Commission, the Innocent Foundation and other donors we know we are making a difference through simple, small-scale technologies.

But it’s going to require much bigger and bolder commitment, at international level, to help ensure that climate change can be contained and so that the proud mountain people of the high Andes have a future.

Helen Marsh


Who needs a $35 laptop?

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010 by

When rumours of a $100 laptop circulated back in 2005 great excitement was generated.   Yet if we now measure success against the targets that were set, the endevour has fallen short in a number of key respects.   When Nicolas Negroponte revealed the idea in January 2005 he estimated that 150 million would be shipped by 2007.   By the end of 2009 Kraemer et al (2009)  reported that only a few hundred thousand had been shipped at a cost of $199 each.

Previous commentaries by Practical Action have documented a number of more serious shortfalls in the concept of the one laptop per child.   In brief these are:

  • Top down technology development that has largely ignored inputs from local people.
  • Hardware led with the promise of software later.   This is problematic in the area of education where usage will be dependant on good material being available and on teachers having the skills to embrace the new technology.
  • The business model is not sustainable.   A large amount of resources are being allocated to fund devices with limited lifetimes (say 5 years) with no funds for replacement.

So how does a $35 laptop announced this week in India address these issues?   The lower cost is certainly good news.   The device will be running open source software…further good news.   Importantly for the update of the device in developing countries the battery will be rechargable via solar power.   The touch screen technology will also help in making the device more intuitive.  Does it have a voice interface, allowing local languages, I wonder?

However, there remains some concern about the availability of software, local language materials, and skilled teachers.   But let’s be clear…the initiative comes from India…so there is credit due for the development of a technology to fulfil local needs.   It is also at a price point that compares with a mobile phone…and we know how quicly mobile phones have been adopted by poor people.

What is Small Is…?

Monday, July 26th, 2010 by

The Small Is… Festival (as a quick glance at the website will tell you) is a celebration of the ideas and philosophy of EF Schumacher, Practical Action’s founder and inspiration.  Practical Action is not the only organisation to have emanated from Schumacher’s ‘Small Is Beautiful’, count the Schumacher Institute and Society too.  But what has made his philosophy so enduring, persuasive and, most of all, effective in the developing world?

Like many, he was critical of the status quo of capitalism, the relentless pursuit of material goods and the view of consumption as the eternal band aid.  What sets his writing apart, however, is how concise and compelling it is to read.  For an economics tome, it is remarkably readable; it is a page-turning thriller compared to the slow-burning epic of Marx’s Capital.

“In the excitement over the unfolding of his scientific and technical powers, modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man.”  (p.207)  His text cut straight to the heart of the problem.  Yet many have got to this stage and stumbled when confronted with the next hurdle – a practicable solution…

Schumacher’s proposition was the notion of ‘Intermediate Technology’ for developing societies.  Instead of vast, expensive, highly technological schemes, whose benefits often flowed to those already wealthy rather than indigenous populations, intermediate technology concerns basic technology which makes a real difference  to people’s everyday lives.  It is here that his real legacy lies, in the effectiveness of this pragmatic, sensitive approach to development.

And so it is this approach that the Small Is… Festival will bring people together to celebrate.  The weekend will be replete with stimulating speakers continuing the advocation of Small Is… principles, hands-on workshops to give anyone the opportunity to experience Intermediate Technology and opportunities to discuss and network with other groups similarly inspired by Schumacher’s work.

It seems to me that Schumacher’s contribution is well worth celebrating!

Small Is… Beautiful

Markets and more….

Monday, July 26th, 2010 by

My three months spent as an intern with Practical Action – working with the Markets and Livelihoods team  – have gone quickly, as expected, but there has still been plenty enough time to learn a lot and meet many interesting people. 

I came here without much of a clue on market systems, but with a long-held desire to know more about them, because of their overwhelming impact on life today.  My previous work had been developing biochar technology, which ground to a halt when someone realised that the numbers weren’t adding up – a rather unfortunate personal lesson in the power of market systems.

Learning about value chains here at Practical Action has been the breath of fresh air that I needed to move beyond the business section of the newspaper that didn’t really interest me, yet felt I had to read to know about markets.  I still retain a healthy respect, or suspicion of them, but the fantastic work that I have been learning about has confirmed for me that markets offer so much more than income to producers, when facilitated in the right way.

What next?  I would like to continue building on my understanding of markets within the context of agriculture and climate change. Given the current employment situation, this may have to be rather more home-based than I would like, but I will leave Practical Action a more focused and determined individual.  I will also leave with much larger calf muscles – a legacy of the daily commute from Leamington!!

Small is……

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010 by

So hello there, my names Louis and I’m volunteering for a couple of weeks here at Practical Action.  I’m going to be communicating the progress and promoting the greatness of the forthcoming Small Is… Festival – returning for a sequel after a triumphant first year.

I only arrived yesterday with a hazy (at best) idea of what the festival was.  But already in the two days I’ve spent getting up to speed and I can see the first few cracks in the chrysalis of what will eventually be the fully flourished butterfly of the Small Is… Festival 2010.

The most exciting news to come out of today is addition of the name Andrew Simms to the roster!   He is a fantastic progressive thinker who looks beyond the strait jacketed view of mainstream economics and provides genuine sustainable solutions to the holes that we dig ourselves.

Another exciting development, which is equally, if not more, exciting for me on a personal level, is the presence of Adam Hart-Davis on the day.  Watching ‘What the Romans/Victorians etc Did For Us’  is an enduring memory of my childhood, and taught me a lot of fascinating details skimmed over by narrow history syllabi.  His enthusiasm for invention and technologies was inspiring to me then and I’m sure he’ll be even more effervescent in the flesh!

To keep update on what’s happening at the festival check out the Small is website, which over the next few weeks will become increasingly more fleshed out and enticing:  .

Small Is… GO

The Return of the Killer Hobs!

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010 by

When my daughter was young she had a book in which a bright yellow toilet came to life and started terrorising people – quite mad and not too suitable! I was thinking that here at Practical Action we should create a book or maybe a video about a killer cooker that preys on people who are poor and vulnerable. The return of the Killer Hob?

Killer cookers or rather killer kitchen smoke is not a joking matter but it is one we try desperately hard to get people to be interested in and do something about.

Kitchen smoke kills 1.6 million people each year mainly mums and their children. I heard recently that in Madagascar World Health Organisation figures show that 12,000 people die each year as a result of indoor air pollution (kitchen smoke) and of then 10,000 are children under 5.

As a mum I find these figures heartbreaking.

Practical Action has spent years  trying to raise awareness of the issue – you have probably heard me say most of this before before. I don’t mind, I am proud in some ways that I keep saying the same thing – it’s so important – and we still struggle to get people to recognise the issue let alone deal with it.

We have had some successes – in Nepal helping thousands of families change the way they vent their homes and the stoves they use – dramatically reducing the lingering smoke. In Kenya working on stoves and smoke hoods (a posh name for chimneys too me!) so helping families escape the disease and possible death.

The technology isn’t very grand, it’s not even very different but it is absolutely vital.

But to make the difference the world needs to see we need other people to work with us. It was great yesterday to see the issue getting a space in the Guardian Online.

Great that other people are starting to talk about smoke too.

Anyone think the Killer Hob book is a good idea?


Schumacher continues to inspire students

Friday, July 16th, 2010 by

I want to share with you a snippet from a keynote speech at a conference I attended yesterday at Southbank University, delivered by Professor David Hicks from Bath University. As part of his speech ‘Educating for optimism and hope in troubled times’ he talked about the importance of enabling students to envisage a positive or as he put it , a ‘preferred’ future.

Having worked with a large number of students he concluded that the type of future they wanted was not one where a successful economy would be measured by increasing economic growth, but rather on whether it improved the quality of life for all whilst recognising and respecting the finiteness of our planet. ‘This concept’ he said, ‘is in line with new initiatives put forward by the New Economics Foundation and outlined in Tim Jackson’s book ‘Prosperity without Growth’ which mirrors Schumacher’s book from the 1970’s’.

I Hope that like me you will be delighted that students in UK schools are embracing Schumacher’s philosophy as a potential solution to the problems we face today and giving them hope for the future.

The conference, entitled ‘Education of Hope’ was organised by the UK Initial Teacher Education network for Education Sustainable Development/Global Citizenship.