Archive for September, 2010

START a garden party to make a difference

Monday, September 27th, 2010 by

On September 8th 2010, HRH the Prince of Wales opened up his private gardens to the public in what set out to be a modern day recreation of the Great Exhibition of 1823. With an overriding theme of sustainability, START: A Garden Party To Make A Difference embarked on its 12-day carnival in the heart of London.

Practical Action sought the opportunity to engage with the thousands of sustainable minds and carnival goers, launching an awareness campaign on energy ‘Make the Call: Energy for All’. Right now, half the world’s population have no access to modern energy. Without action, just as many people will be ‘powerless’ in two decades time. It’s an outrage that Practical Action is determined to tackle by urging world leaders to ‘make the call: energy for all’.

The Practical Action stand ran a simple yet effective journey with a vibrant traffic light colour theme, visitors were taken on a short journey about the world’s energy access crisis, what Practical Action is doing about it, and what together we can achieve in the future.

Visitors were then given the chance to support the campaign by making a short video. We had some fantastic people going on camera for us including TV’s George Clarke and Robert Llewellyn.

As well as having our fantastic exhibition stand at START, we were also invited to host a display at the IBM Sustainability Summit at Lancaster House, London from the 8th until the 18th September. This was a real coup as the Summit was spearheaded by our Patron, HRH The Prince of Wales, and organised as the major IBM conference of the year. Just in case you don’t know much about IBM they employ 400,000 people worldwide, have annual sales of over $100 billion (US) and are the second most powerful global brand in the world after Coca Cola!

The summit brought together key leaders in UK business, government and academics with the aim of identifying the challenges ahead, how to overcome them and exploring opportunities to lead business towards a sustainable future.

Practical Action gained significant coverage throughout the summit with CEO Simon Trace being one of the key speakers on the ‘Energy’ day.

And if that wasn’t enough….?

We’re all avid renewable energy enthusiasts at Practical Action and in true green form we jumped at the chance to hop on our bikes and go power someone’s stand! Thankfully the lovely people at Waitrose thought it was rather clever and they let us run wild and switch their mains electricity power to pedal power! It took two bikes and two hamburger-fuelled Practical Action riders to generate enough power to turn on the stand but we did it! And what’s more, we caught the whole thing on film!

I’d just like to thank everyone from Practical Action who helped out with the project, the office has been set a light from the success of the event and we have some amazing developments in the pipeline so watch this space! I would also like to thank everyone who visited our stand and supported our campaign. It’s your support that enables us to do what we do.

See you all next year!

What access to energy means to one little girl

Monday, September 27th, 2010 by

When I visited Zimbabwe, the different community representatives I met may have varied in age to the extreme but their views on why energy is vital remained very similar – apart from the man who jokingly said that having a hair salon would make his wife more beautiful!

Energy is vital for poverty reduction and fundamental for community development. Even the children recognise this, as illustrated beautifully in just one of the entries from a school essay competition in a village where we are working.

See what access to energy means to Patience Medeline from Zimbabwe

Bicycles for a better future

Monday, September 27th, 2010 by

The bicycle has played an important part in the history of transport as a low cost, low carbon and easy to use and maintain innovation. This two-wheeled masterpiece has been the crux of many a new invention. One is the use of ‘pedal power’ to create energy, which has proved a useful tool in the advancement of some simple eco friendly technologies.

2010 marks the 25th anniversary of the Sinclair C5 battery-assisted tricycle. You may recall that the novel C5 was the first of its kind as an eco-friendly form of personal transport. The then futuristically styled vehicle had pedals for extra assistance up hills, was steered by a handlebar beneath the driver’s knees and reached a top speed of 15mph; maybe not the safest form of transport but certainly an innovative one at the time.

Practical Action draws on the creation of energy using simple technologies in its everyday work on projects all over the developing world, helping communities with no access to modern energy.

The team illustrated this at Prince Charles’s ‘Start’ garden party event at Clarence House this month, re-instating the bicycle as a representation of both eco friendly transport and energy generator. The team cleverly demonstrated the use of ‘pedal power’ to create energy and thus powered the Waitrose stand solely using the bikes and a spot of good old elbow grease.

Practical Action’s employment of the trusty bicycle extends across the developing world. Working with communities in the varying degrees of terrain in Nepal , the challenge was to help villagers in finding a way of transporting their sick loved ones to the nearest doctor whenever necessary. With bikes being people’s only form of transport, the question was how these could be adapted to work in an appropriate way so people were able to receive the medical care they need.

Practical Action adapted the bicycle trailers they had helped villagers to build in order to transport their produce to market, and turned them into bicycle ambulances, transporting the sick to the nearest health centre in order to receive the care they would previously have been unable to access.

This is just another illustration of how simple technologies such as the bicycle can be tailored to have an endless supply of uses for the people who have no alternative. This is something that Practical Action does so well, small and simple yet so huge in impact.

World Food Day

Monday, September 27th, 2010 by

“Feeding people is easy” says Colin Tudge in his eponymous book – so why do we live with the scourge of hunger?

There is currently enough food in the world but greed limits access. Now, nearly one billion people go to bed hungry each night while both the livelihoods of small-scale farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk who provide food for most of the world’s peoples, and the environment upon which they depend are being trashed. Enough food is available today but is not distributed equitably. More could be made available for the world’s growing population but only if we embrace localised, ecological production methods – our current lurch into industrial food is unsustainable. We need a radical change in our food system, one that prioritises people’s need for food produced sustainably and as locally as possible. World Food Day, on 16th October, provides an annual reminder of this scourge and our obligations to change the system.

From bottom to top we need change…

Practical Action has worked for many decades with poor communities that are adapting technologies such as compost making, floating gardens and different forms of rainwater harvesting to secure their food supplies. We engage with movements of small-scale food providers, such as La Via Campesina, the global peasant farmers movement, in their call for food sovereignty – increasing control of localized food systems. And we join them in lobbies of governments and international agencies to call for the radical changes needed.

We have the opportunity to promote a better food system. Since the 2007/8 speculation driven global food price crisis and the riots in 30 countries that sparked a rapid response from many fearful governments, food and agriculture have been at the top of the political and news agenda. There are many proposals, meetings, conferences, programmes that are meant to find solutions… but will they?

In September, Governments met in New York to wring their hands over their abject failure to move towards realising the Millennium Development Goals – one of which is to halve hunger.

In October, they meet in Rome to set in motion a new system for governing global food and agriculture so that hunger is eliminated, rural livelihoods secured and the agricultural environment restored, but vested interests will undermine this.

Later, they meet in Nagoya, Japan to lament their failure to halt biodiversity losses yet if they ensured the necessary changes in food and farming towards more ecological and biodiverse production that would reverse these losses and keep biodiversity alive on-farm.

And in December, they meet in Cancun to stem climate change; little will be agreed, yet millions of the world’s small-scale food providers have climate-friendly solutions that will be ignored. While global governance is needed, at present it is not delivering: shadowy corporations, more interested in capturing markets and ecosystems to fuel profits, keep the solutions at bay.

With the heightened popular interest in food, now is the time to take action, contesting the inaction of governments and unreservedly promoting the diverse and productive food system driven by millions of small-scale producers that we know will deliver – food sovereignty. Following in the footsteps of our prescient founder EF Schumacher, who called for a multiplicity of local solutions proliferating into an unstoppable movement for change, Practical Action is committed to help realise this

Small is beautiful

Monday, September 27th, 2010 by

Whilst flicking through yesterday’s copy of The Observer Magazine, I came across a concise viewpoint on ‘ideas for modern living: scale’. In it, Andrew Simms, economist and founder of The New Economics Foundation (and fresh from speaking at Practical Action’s very own Small Is… Festival!), examines the concept of small-scale living. His starting point is a quotation from economist Leopold Kohr, who wrote: “Wherever something is wrong, something is too big.” Simms’ column is a fascinating snippet of thinking around human-scale economics, and well worth a read:

Small was…

Friday, September 24th, 2010 by

Small was… the first weekend of September for the second year in a row, and I was really pleased with how it went. 

The festival just seemed to have evolved in a really good way from last year’s experiment, with more exhibitors, more participants (over 500 across the weekend), more debates, more workshop areas (now expanded to the Orchard as well), and more camping areas – but still I think a very friendly and interactive feeling for participants.  The Tin Workshop in the middle of the field provided a great airy covered space for all kinds of hands-on activities running all through the day, complementing the scheduled workshops which remained hugely popular, as well as providing more for kids.   I think the green tea tent also brought a more “festivally” vibe to the event as well as providing a nice place to chill between sessions (those light up balloons at night were amazing too!).  The “local world food” from the veggie table was a star turn again I thought, and the spicy Indian Chai from the Magic Pan a real treat throughout the day.  It was great to have contributions from some great speakers again and Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation was a highlight in many feedback forms, as well as the very touching and inspiring opening session on Schumacher from Adam Hart-Davis, Peter Segger, Schumacher’s grandson Sebastian Wood and Margaret Gardner. 

Considering the torrential rain on Monday night I think we really dodged a bullet with the weather which was really exceptional Friday night and Saturday, and even a bit of rain on the Sunday around lunchtime didn’t dampen spirits and cleared to give a lovely sunny end to the weekend – it was obviously meant to be!  I felt the Saturday night entertainment went off well again (although I may be biased as I was in one of the bands…), with Luke Concannon doing a great set, the ceilidh a hit and the 20 piece Indian band an amazing apparition that came from nowhere and melted back without trace into the night after rocking the main tent!  It’s too hard to pick things out though because it’s the whole that really works or doesn’t.  There were too many lovely contributions to cover here in these scant words…

There are always things to improve though – I was disappointed about the PA not turning up in time for the open mic on the Friday night although with a lovely bar, starry sky, campfire and acoustic music – hopefully people didn’t mind too much.  There were some challenges with getting the sound levels right with music from Green Tea during sessions which is nice if you’re not in sessions but annoying if you are.  Similarly, the cycle powered DJ stage was great but again sound levels were tough as it was too close to Green Tea and the workshops in the day, so I don’t feel we got the best of it (although the pedal cinema was a great night time innovation!).  Some other logistical points like more water around the site will be picked up for next year.

The feedback we got over the weekend and since has really been wonderful to receive.  Really makes it feel worth it when people say how they feel the interactions and learning they were able to have at the festival has really inspired them and lifted their spirits.  It would be good to hear about things taken forward from the festival, partnerships created etc and I really hope there are some of these also.  We’re very keen to hear back from people with their feedback on this year and their ideas for next.  Mail to with anything.  We’ll also try to get feedback and comments going on the website and/or the Facebook page in the coming weeks.

The Small is… Festival remains primarily a space for people to fill with their creativity and engagement, whether that’s as a helper, speaker, organiser, participant, stallholder, craftsperson, musician, chef or potter.  My heartfelt thanks and love to all those who filled it so well this year.

Face up to four degrees …

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010 by

So …

  • Why ‘four degrees’?
  • Why ‘face up’?
  • Why now?

Because the world’s poorest families can’t wait, so neither should we.

We’re approaching a year since the Copenhagen climate talks. Remember them? The hype, the hopes, the expectations – all crushed by the failure of world leaders to make a real, lasting commitment to challenge climate change.

For many it was too difficult to agree on emission cuts and adaptation measures, too tricky to decisively change behaviour and too uncomfortable to accept that we in the West have a moral obligation to help fix a problem that we caused.

And so, here we are, with heads of state, including Mr Cameron, refusing to accept the consequences of their inaction – an average 4c temperature rise by the end of the century and disaster for the families on the front line of climate change.

Perhaps that’s fine? More years of indecision, more lives needlessly put at risk through the Western world’s failure to make ambitious, audacious commitments to change.

Or perhaps not.

Isn’t it time that Mr Cameron and his colleagues ‘faced up to four degrees’, and recognised the reality of their inaction?

If you think so, then you need to use your head in the fight against climate change and join thousands of others calling on Mr Cameron to ‘face up to four degrees’ – before it’s too late.



From the ‘Millennium Development Goal’ (MDG) summit in New York

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010 by

The MDGs and the current MDG summit in New York have received mixed press in the UK during the past week.  A series of articles in the Independent on Monday summed things up.  Some experts were quoted as suggesting that the importance of aid is exaggerated or that the MDGs measure the wrong things and should be scrapped.  But others, such as economist Jeffrey Sachs -one of the original architects of the MDGs – continue to insist they remain important and that it’s the developed world’s government’s failure to move quickly enough towards the pledge of 0.7% of GDP for international assistance that’s the problem. 

Personally I think the MDGs broadly represent a sensible set of initial goals for actions on poverty reduction.  I also think that it’s pretty amazing that the political will was created 15 years ago to get 189 countries signed up to them. And I like the idea that, having agreed them they are not then forgotten but that, at this summit, progress against them is being reviewed, forcing governments to face up to the fact that, although we have made progress in some areas, for Africa in particular, there is a lot left to do. 

One issue that never made it into the original MDG definitions and targets was the issue of energy poverty in the developing world.  Access to clean and modern sources of energy are pre-requisites for achieving all of the MDG’s, so it is disappointing that this has never been recognised within the targets.  Currently 1.4 billion people in the world still have no access to electricity and 2.7 billion (almost half the world’s population) still cook over open fires.  Apart from the physical burden this imposes in terms of fuel collection, the wasted time, and the environmental burden of the inefficient burning of wood as fuel, there is a huge, but unrecognised, burden on health arising from this situation.  1.4 million people (mostly women and children) die each year from the effects of inhaling smoke from traditional cooking stoves in the home; that’s 50% more than the number who die from malaria each year!

So while much of the press comment and public debate on the MDG summit remains mixed or cynical, I was very pleased to be invited by UNDP to a dinner yesterday at which the UN Secretary General lent his weight to the call for establishing a new target for universal energy access by 2030 and raising the possibility that 2012 will be declared the UN year for ending energy poverty.  There has been a clear effort by UN officials to squeeze the energy issue into as many debates as possible across the summit. I attended a side event hosted by the Danish Government today, at which the President of Liberia, the Prime Minister of Tanzania, the Prime Minister of Denmark and the President of the African Development Bank, amongst others spoke.  The event was supposed to be a debate around the relationship between economic growth and the achievement of the MDG’s, but even there a number of references were made to the fact that ‘adequate, reliable and equitable access to energy’ has to be a priority if the MDG’s are to be met.

Better still, yesterday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the US government has put its weight (and $50 million) behind a new ‘Global alliance for clean cooking stoves’ which aims to ensure that 100 million homes adopt clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020. I’ll be finishing off my stay in New York by attending a launch event for this alliance, and seeing how Practical Action might itself become involved, tomorrow evening.

There’s a lot left to do to ensure that the MDG’s are achieved, and no-one should underestimate the change that’s necessary to create the momentum needed to finish the job. But I will leave New York on Thursday night feeling that one part of the change necessary – the recognition of the critical role energy access plays in fighting poverty – is beginning to get due recognition; something Practical Action has been fighting for for a long time.

So much to do, not enough time…

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010 by

One of the biggest challenges during my half-marathon training has actually been the sheer length of time that this activity necessitates. Although I am often in need of a good burst of exercise after a long day at my desk, I don’t usually want to hit the streets running. A dance class followed by an hour of yoga would suit me just fine. By the time I start my run, it’s usually close to half past six – and by then I am distinctly faint because my lunchtime soup feels so very long ago.

Last night I ran for 57 minutes, covering a distance of 6 miles exactly. I seem to be slowing down from my original pace of an 8 minute mile – perhaps my achy body has realised that there is absolutely no point speeding through the first mile when so many follow it. I had thought that I wasn’t too concerned about my time on the day of the race, but the prospect of running for over 2 hours now fills me with slight terror. At the moment I only seem able to run 30 minutes comfortably, followed by a 2-3 minute jog which prepares me for the next long slog. Can I really do this on the day though? Can you fast-walk (for that, essentially, is what my jog is) a marathon?!

Anyway yesterday, after an hour of running and a good 15 minutes of stretching and warming down, it was nearly 8pm by the time I arrived home. I realised I had been out of the house for approximately 12 hours. This seemed like an endless stretch of time. I thought back to something which I read recently and to which I alluded vaguely in my first training post: the fact that for some women across Africa and Asia, the walk to collect water can take an entire day – the equivalent of my 12 hours spent working and running and enjoying a pot of tea with my Mum and baking cakes for the ‘small and beautiful’ cake sale in the office to raise funds for the half-marathon. I can’t imagine one activity consuming all of these hours – my run of 6 miles lasting a mere 57 minutes seemed long enough.

Practical Action works with some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities across the world to ensure that finding safe water no longer takes all day. I recently read about a Practical Action project which installs communal water points across villages in Kenya. £1000 can purchase all the materials necessary to build a communal water point, which will then provide clean water to hundreds of people. I like the idea that the £1000 I raise (if I achieve it!) could potentially save not only people’s time, but in some small way, give life too. Not having to spend hours walking for water means that women can instead use their days to grow crops, or children have time to attend school.

 If you like this idea too, then perhaps you might consider helping me to reach that golden £1000! Please click here if so. Thank you!

 PS – any half-marathon tips?! Feel free to email me on

Smoke: the killer in the kitchen

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010 by

Seven years ago Practical Action published a report, Smoke: the Killer in the Kitchen. It aimed to bring to the world’s attention a forgotten killer – indoor air pollution. Smoke from cooking fires and solid-fuel stoves kills millions every year, more than malaria, and yet little was known about it – and even less was done.

For many years Practical Action have worked with communities to find simple, affordable solutions to this problem, improving health and saving lives. In Kenya and Nepal we helped to develop smoke hoods to carry the deadly smoke away from women and children. In Sudan improved stoves and cleaner fuel helped families avoid many of the dangers of cooking on open fires.

But, important as these practical projects are, on their own they can’t eradicate a worldwide problem. A key element of Practical Action’s approach is “impact at scale”. Our projects can make life better for a few thousand people, but if the approach and technologies that we promote are taken up and replicated by other organisations and governments, we really can change life for millions.

This week Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, announced a major initiative to address indoor air pollution – the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. It aims to provide 100 million clean-burning stoves to villages in Africa, Asia and South America by 2020.

Sometimes, when you’re faced with a killer that kills millions every year, it’s not hard to feel daunted – to wonder, what real impact can we have with our few projects.

But every now and then, like today, you realise that persistence pays off, that eventually the message gets through – and that thanks to the work of Practical Action and other organisations who have been campaigning and promoting such solutions for many years, change can happen.