Archive for May, 2011

Phones overtake radio in ownership by the poor

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011 by

LirneASIA have just published a report based on survey data in South Asia which concludes that more people at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) own a phone than a radio.   So the traditional channel of knowledge sharing with the poor has now been overtaken by the phone.   Interestingly, most respondents had never heard or used the Internet.   What is the implication for our knowledge sharing work?

Clearly we need to use a multi-channel approach.   Information in local voices that might have been broadcast or podcast now needs to be supplemented with the mobile phone.   This will increase the reach of our knowledge in both scale and geography.   My hope is that we can work with the m:labs network to develop the mobile channel to our knowledge that currently resides in Practical Answers.

How can M-apps be demand led rather than supply push?

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011 by

There is some skepticism about how mobile apps can really reach poor people.   After all surely it is the market that decides what apps are developed and that essentially is a supply push approach.  Also, as noted by some earlier commentators on this blog…many people do not have smartphones.   This second concern is most easily dismissed: the end user may only need a phone capable of SMS messaging services.   The newly launched m-farm service in Kenya relies on this “lowest common denominator” approach: the whole system uses web sites, smartphones, and SMS but the interface with farmers in the field is with SMS.

The first concern is more serious.   How can we enable m-app development to be demand led?   This is the conversation I have been having here in Helsinki with the leaders of the m:labs for east and southern africa.   My suggestion is that workshops of stakeholders be convened.   At such workshops there would be poor communities, computer software experts, NGO’s, and scientists.   The focus of workshops would be on problems and how solutions might be designed.   The potential business models would also be considered at this early stage.   In this way we may have the opportunity to enable the development of m-apps to genuinely deliver benefits to poor people.

What is the role of innovation in development?

Monday, May 30th, 2011 by

“I have a dream that next year productivity will grow by 3%”.   If this had been Martin Luther King’s dream then he would not have been remembered.   So, began a talk by Pekka Himanen who challenged the norm of development narrative resting on the back of economic growth.   He suggested a need for promoting a more dignified life.   How can we have more inclusive growth?

Finland provides a model that has delivered growth but also greater social inclusion for the people.   Home to such innovation as Linux, Nokia, and “Angry Birds”, Finland invests 4% of GDP in research and development – more than twice the average of developed nations.  How is this done?     “Success is moving from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”

Why is Kenya an Innovation Hub?

Monday, May 30th, 2011 by

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.

Global Innovation and the Poor

Monday, May 30th, 2011 by

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.

Friday, May 27th, 2011 by

Earlier this week the Global Development section of the Guardian Online started an interesting debate around how you measure development (see Talkpoint: How would you measure development progress). A number of suggestions were made by various respondents. The problem is that there is no single answer to the question. Health care, freedom of choice, equality and happiness, some of the individual candidates for indicators suggested, are all important indicators of development.

In Practical Action we believe the concpet of wellbeing is useful here. A number of academic studies of how people themselves define well-being, whether they are carried out in rich or in poor countries, conclude that well-being has two components;

The first is a material component. People want their material needs satisfied – food, shelter, access to basic services such as water and energy, education and health, and an income to pay for all of this.

The same research shows that the second component that contributes to a sense of well-being is a relational one. The sense of well-being comes from more than just having one’s basic material needs met. It requires also a sense that you have a degree of control and power over your own life, that you can be a part of decisions that have a major impact on the way you live, that you can live in dignity, that you have the respect of your fellow citizens, and that you can live in peace with your neighbours.

A set of indicators that covers both people’s material and relational well being probably stands more of a chance of showing development progress than any single indicator.

Reducing poverty – is there an app for that?

Thursday, May 26th, 2011 by

Mobile phone apps have transformed our lives. There are more than 300,000 apps available today and they do just about everything from helping you get to places to balancing your budget.

But as I watched teams on The Apprentice create some pretty pointless apps the other week, I wondered how we could harness the potential of apps to do something far more useful…like transforming the lives of poor people across the world!

I recently stumbled across “M-Farm”, a Kenyan initiative that aims to give rural farmers a fairer deal when selling their produce. It gives real-time market prices for crops and matches up farmers with buyers, cutting out costly brokers and middle-men. Some Kenyan farmers report that their profits have risen by half since subscribing to M-Farm.

Here’s another one: iCow, a voice-based mobile app that allows farmers to track the fertility stages of their cows in an effort to better manage breeding periods as well as monitor cow nutrition leading up to the calving day. Winner of last year’s Apps 4 Africa contest, an effort to encourage local developers to build apps to improve life quality in Africa, iCow uses a series of voice prompts and text messages to update farmers during the course of the yearly cow cycle.

Now imagine if we could create a ‘suite of apps’ that would provide people a kit that contains everything needed to successfully operate specific businesses appropriate to their area?

I could go on but I’m going to save it for the next Geek Club meetup on Wednesday 1st June because ‘How can mobile phone apps reduce poverty?’ is the topic of the month.

So,if you’re not familiar with the Geek Club, it’s an online monthly meetup to discuss different topics related to technology and how we can use it to transform the lives of poor people across the world. Come and join the conversation…we’re interested to hear your ideas!

Conferences ‘R’ Us

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011 by

June and July is a busy time for conferences and we are going to be at three this year so please do come along and see us.  We are always interested in meeting teachers who have used our resources and hearing how you got on.  We will have lots of free posters to give away and details of new resources to inspire you. We are also really receptive to new ideas, so if you have an idea for a resource that would really support your teaching and think we are the people to produce it please come and tell us about it.

 13th JunePrimary Science Annual conference at the National Science Learning Centre.

The conference will give primary school teachers the chance to try out a range of creative and cross curricular approaches to science.  All teachers from maintained schools on this conference will be eligible for an ENTHUSE Award  of £356 to cover their costs plus a small amount of money to help implement their ideas back in the classroom.

 ‘A wonderful day full of ideas, suggestions and activities to do with children and colleagues. I feel totally inspired’

Conference participant 2010

 Go to   To find out more

 7-8th July National Technicians’ Science Conference at the National Science Learning Centre
Technicians play a huge role in supporting science teachers. This conference is a must for technicians CPD. We will be there to tell them all about the great resources we can offer.  

To find out more go to

8-9th July The D&T Association Education and International Research Conference 2011  Keele University
This year’s conference includes Ellen MacArthur as a keynote speaker ,15 practical interactive workshops and a series of research presentations, from which delegates can select their own programme.  We will be there with Think Global.


To find out more go to

Halted by the bell

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011 by

By a delicious irony, the centenary debate at Portcullis House in London last Wednesday was halted by a division bell in the localism bill.  MPs Martin Horwood and Alan Whitehead were talking about EF Schumacher’s influence on them and the relevance of his ideas to today’s economic crisis.  Both men dashed from the room to vote in the House of Commons, bringing the debate to a rather sudden conclusion.  The upside was that it left  more time to share ideas and memories with each other.

Martin Horwood MP

Martin Horwood MP

Practical Action organised this celebration with the Schumacher family to mark this year’s centenary – Fritz Schumacher would have been 100 on 16th August 2011.  More than 100 people, including family members, old colleagues and recent Schumacher converts gathered to discuss his contribution and to promote his ideas for addressing some of the problems we face today.

George McRobie

Schumacher's colleague, George McRobie

Schumacher set up the Intermediate Technology Development Group in 1966 which later became Practical Action and many other organisations including the Soil Association were inspired by his ideas.  Barbara Wood, his eldest daughter, spoke warmly about her father and Schumacher quotes were flying thick and fast in the room.

We have come a long way since Small is Beautiful was published to wide acclaim. The coalition government’s localism bill, for all its faults, shows just how far, with even David Cameron being inspired by Small is Beautiful!  There’s still a long way to go and we’d like to encourage you to share Schumacher’s ideas more widely – you can find out more on the centenary website.  We’ll be holding more events around the country this year, why not  join us at one or organise your own?

Lollipops for cows

Monday, May 23rd, 2011 by

A locally appropriate, low cost answer to cattle malnutrition …

Cow licking a mineral bloc, Chitwan, Nepal

1. Take 1 kilogram of that red mud that’s at the back of the homestead;

2. Dry it out in the sun for a couple of days and pound into a powder;

3. Roast 10 egg shells (just the shells – eat the contents youself with your family), pound into a powder and add it to the red dirt;

4. Mix this with around 1 kilogram of regular salt, the stuff you can buy at the shop a few doors down;

5. Add 1/2 a kilogram of flour to bind the mixture;

6. Finally pour in some water as required until the mixture holds together and can be shaped into blocks. Shape them into donut shapes (making sure you leave a hole in the middle of the block);

7. Leave to dry for a week in the shade, then another week in the sun until hard;

A local breed cow using a mineral block in Chitwan, Nepal

8. Use the hole in the middle to string the block up in your cow-shed. Make sure that your cow can reach the block at a stretch, but not easily. String up one of these blocks for each of your cows.

That’s how you make a Nepali Khanij Dikka, a mineral block. It’ll cost you around 30 Nepali Rupees (22 – 28 pence) to make a block that weighs 2.5 kilograms. That cost comes from 14 – 16 Rupees for the salt and 13 – 15 Rupees for the flour. Obviously the red mud is free, and you’re probably eating eggs so those shells are a free by-product. Each block will last one cow for about a month.

Your cows will natural lick the mineral block when inclined, taking in iron from the red earth, calcium and phosphorus from the egg shells, and iodine, sodium and chlorine from the salt. These are all essential minerals necessary for the good health of your cows and so that your cows produce a good quantity of milk that is high in fat!

Thanks to Prakash Poudel, Dairy and Livestock Specialist on the Market Access for Smallholder Farmers (MASF) project, for providing all the technical input for this post!

P.S. Read my recent blog about why Practical Action Nepal is working in the dairy sector and what it is doing to help farmers improve the nutrition of their cows so that they can produce milk of appropriate quality and in large enough quantities to attract commercial buyers.

Some 'improved' breed cows in a model cow-shed