Archive for October, 2011

Kilns in Kandy Could be Cleaner!

Monday, October 31st, 2011 by

I have just got back from a really interesting 2 weeks in Sri Lanka where I got a snapshot into the experiences of small- and large-scale businesses who use bioenergy efficiently and sustainably. And also some not so efficiently…

The lush green surroundings of Kandy have given way to a quarried valley and air misty with smoke. It catches your breath as you climb out of the car, and gets right into your nose and lungs. This is Digana, about 15km from Kandy, Sri Lanka, where a number of small, family-run limekilns line the valley.

Upali, a jovial 65-year old, has lived here all his life, and his father ran this operation before him. Fifty metres behind Upali’s house, a shirtless man steadily piles up lumps of limestone that have been blown off the rock face by dynamite. It is late in the afternoon but still hot, and this is certainly backbreaking and dangerous work.

Once broken down into smaller lumps the limestone is put through a grinder, then taken over to the kilns. Standing about 3 metres high, the limestone is fed into the top along with large lumps of wood that are burned to provide the heat. It takes two days for the limestone to pass from the top to the bottom of the kiln, which requires a continuous stream of energy. This process is essential to prepare the limestone to be used in cement mix. It is also used as a basic whitewash for walls, and is mixed with the Arica nut and chewed as a mild narcotic.

The process is hugely inefficient, and produces thick smoke from the wood, explaining the town’s air quality. Alongside the terrible health effects of breathing smoke like this on a daily basis, it is also not good for business. The wood cannot be sourced locally, and just one log costs around $0.6. Burning methods such as this account for deforestation on a wide scale, and the returns are slim, with Upali earning just $0.25 per KG of limestone produced.

The challenge presented here is complex. Upali learnt this trade from his Father, and not much has changed about this process in the 65-years he has been living here. Adapting mind sets to newer, more efficient ways of doing things requires a sensitive approach that may take some time, and local buy-in is essential.

Another huge barrier is the cost. Installing a modern kiln would be far more efficient, but the initial price is high. Without funding avenues such as microfinance loans and reasonable repayments, people such as Upali simply don’t have the savings to make the investment.

Read more about Practical Action’s work to tackle energy poverty here: Upali is exactly who could benefit from increased knowledge, skills, financing and political commitment to energy, so that he can access clean, efficient and sustainable energy that will benefit both his health and his pocket. I was in Sri Lanka as part of the PISCES project, which is generating new research on sustainable and affordable bioenergy use, and is working to influence policy change in East Africa and South Asia, visit

Energy enterprises equal energy access

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011 by

The Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog published an article by Simon Trace, the CEO of UK-based charity Practical Action, titled “Power can challenge poverty – and that makes universal energy access a must.” The article celebrates the current focus on achieving universal, sustainable access to energy in the world’s poorest regions, while pointing out that it is long overdue and an absolute necessity in lifting people and communities out of poverty.

Mr. Trace trumpets locally-focused, small-scale initiatives as being the vehicles for change. “We need a new narrative, one that argues for direct investment in energy services for the poor as a way of stimulating development,” he writes.

E+Co has pursued a strategy of direct investment in small and medium energy enterprises for 17 years. We have supported over 200 entrepreneurs with services and capital, who in turn have provided 8 million people worldwide with access to modern energy services.

A man in El Salvador tending solar panels created by SEESA, an enterprise that E+Co invests in.

After being invited to participate in UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s High Level Group on Sustainable Energy for All last month, I am heartened to see these issues moving to the forefront of the global political agenda—the United Nations has declared 2012 to be the Year of Sustainable Energy for All, and civil society and the private sector are rallying behind the movement. We now need to channel these good sentiments into large-scale, cooperative action that recognizes and challenges the current barriers to enabling energy access.

I attended a meeting on “Energy for All, Financing Access for the Poor,” in Oslo, Norway recently, at which some of these issues were addressed. Speakers and participants repeatedly expressed that there are an insufficient number of sustainable and scalable enterprises that can translate financing into the provision of energy goods and services to the poor.  The discourse identified two major barriers: the limited pipeline of investment-ready enterprises and the relative absence of seed capital to catalyze enterprises for energy service delivery. E+Co’s experience highlights avenues through which these barriers can be tackled.

To address the pipeline issue, E+Co is partnering with leaders in technology, business and innovation to develop an online learning platform to replicate our enterprise development services model on a much larger scale, allowing us to support more entrepreneurs and power more communities. The platform will integrate the knowledge and lessons learned from our hundreds of investments to date to create dozens of country and technology-specific training programs readily accessible to entrepreneurs all over the world.  These entrepreneurs will engage with a global network of mentors, suppliers and investors to create investment-ready business plans. Their businesses will bring modern energy to the doorsteps of the energy poor in a way that is economically and environmentally sustainable.!/EandCoEnergy

That ‘eureka’ moment

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 by

Potato harvest, West Belka, Bangladesh

On a recent holiday in Sicily I visited the tomb of Archimedes, engineer and inventor of the 3rd century BC – famous for his ‘eureka’ moment.  Born in the rich and powerful city of Syracuse, he benefited from the financial support of its ruler Hiero II.

He was considered the greatest mathematician of the ancient world and was responsible for many important discoveries.  The Archimedes screw is still extensively used throughout the world as a method of raising water.

His home city of Syracuse was at war with Rome and under siege for two years with the result that Archimedes was obliged to devote a great deal of his time to the design of the machinery of war.  He proved remarkably good at this.  But imagine what he might have achieved if his work had been devoted to inventions for human good rather than human destruction.

In our sophisticated modern world we still devote a disproportionate amount of our budgets and great scientific minds to the pursuit of war.  The technologies in which we invest most in the developed world are designed either to provide us with an even greater level of comfort and ease than we already enjoy or to destroy our enemies.  And we expend vast sums in the destruction of our beautiful planet.  Only a small proportion of our enormous wealth is devoted to finding solutions to the basic needs of more than a billion people in the world who live in poverty.

This is a great injustice and one which Practical Action is determined to address. Providing clean, sustainable energy systems, more easily accessible water supplies and better sanitation give poor men and women the opportunity to live healthier and more rewarding lives.   Surely that’s worth fighting for?

World Food Day – tinned or fresh?

Monday, October 17th, 2011 by


As we marked World Food Day yesterday – there was a certain ironic discussion going on in our house – what to send our9 year old son into school with for the harvest assembly this week?

My dilemma – to reach to the back of the food cupboard to find a tin (as requested by the school!) or something fresh from the garden….squash, beetroot or plums?

Well I’ll leave that dilemma for you to speculate…but if you’re looking this week to do something in your school assembly around harvest, then do look at our new Food and Sustainability part of our Schools website.

It’s packed with activities for teachers and has links to examples of inspirational food producers stories around the world.

Good luck and any suggestions of what to send welcome…


Celebrating World Food Sovereignty Day

Sunday, October 16th, 2011 by

2011 Blog Action Day on 16 October – World Food Day – is, naturally, themed around food

Dateline: Thika, Kenya

As the cicadas chirp, the frogs croak and the October full moon bathes
the flame trees of Thika, I’m celebrating the successes of our ally
PELUM Kenya on a balmy evening with friends from 3 continents who have
gathered to defend agricultural biodiversity and food sovereignty. We have
been finding ways of strengthening the knowledge systems of small-scale
food producers, mostly women, who provide most of the food for Africans
and, indeed, as they do for many in the rest of the world, including Europe.

Recently, at the Nyeleni Europe 2011 forum for food sovereignty we committed to
rename 16 October as World Food Sovereignty Day. There are many related
events in the UK over Sept and Oct that are celebrating the realisation of food
sovereignty worldwide. It started with the UK Food Group conference, on 27
Sept “The Food Producers” with speakers from African, UK and International
farmers’ movements.

On 18 Oct the APPG agroecology and War on Want are urging people to
join the food sovereignty revolution.

It encourages us, as we were urged at the Small is… festival last month in our lively Sunday morning session on ‘food’, to: Be inspired; Be energised; Challenge, resist, and dismantle those who destroy local food production; Champion the knowledge and skills, the technologies of the small-scale food providers who feed the world; Defend their position internationally, including in the discussions about land grabbing, agricultural investment, food speculation, nutrition, governance and more, which are being discussed this coming week in Rome at the UN’s Committee on world Food Security (CFS) at which I will be representing the organisation.

We do this in our policy work on food and agriculture and our
public awareness projects such as EuropAfrica: towards food sovereignty.

Join us in alliances that support the  social movements of these small-scale
food providers who will our secure future food.

Celebrate 16 October by calling for Food Sovereignty now!


Leasing land for food

Sunday, October 16th, 2011 by

2011 Blog Action Day on 16 October – World Food Day – is, naturally, themed around food

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.

A women land leasing group (Jhumka Land Leasing Group) sharing their experiences in mid-west Nepal

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.

Time to act to alleviate food insecurity

Sunday, October 16th, 2011 by

2011 Blog Action Day on 16 October – World Food Day – is, naturally, themed around food

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.

Investing in agriculture to alleviate hunger

Sunday, October 16th, 2011 by

2011 Blog Action Day on 16 October – World Food Day – is, naturally, themed around food


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.

Mothers queue for hours at Mandera District Hospital to get food

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.


Jargon busting! How do you communicate research?

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011 by

For development practitioners, words and phrases like ‘value chains’, ‘bioenergy’, ‘gender and equity’ roll off the tongue, but for a lot of us it is not always clear what is meant by them. As I discussed in my last blog post, one of the challenges of working on the PISCES project is trying to reach (and interest) wider audiences when you are dealing with jargon.

One of the themes of the PISCES project is to ‘strengthen capacity’, which is really about working with individuals or groups to build their skills and knowledge in bioenergy (energy from biomass: think wood and charcoal). Through our partners at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Dar es Salaam, Masters and PhD students research a number of technical and social issues relating to bioenergy. You might call this ‘Training tomorrow’s bioenergy leaders’.

In early August I spent a few days up in rainy Edinburgh listening to some fantastic student presentations on PISCES and PISCES-related project. Their Powerpoint presentations, with some audio attached, can be viewed here. Whilst these are excellent presentations, I am always aware that these might not be the best way to engage people who don’t know a lot about the topic.

I don’t know about you, but with an arts and social science background, Powerpoint does not scream ACCESSIBLE to me! So I also worked with a smaller number of students to create some digital slideshows and podcasts. Below is one I made with Alannah Delahunty, and her research on ‘Gender in the Charcoal Value Chain in Western Kenya’.

Take a look at the 5-minute slideshow and let me know what you think: is this a good way of introducing people to a topic? Have you learnt anything new?

For more in-depth publications from PISCES and our international research on bioenergy, visit

This also ties in with Practical Action’s work on market mapping.

Wangari Maathai – an inspiration

Saturday, October 8th, 2011 by

“We have a special responsibility to the ecosystem of this planet. In making sure that other species survive we will be ensuring the survival of our own.” Wangari Maathai

Our beloved sister Wangari Maathai, whose last journey I am observing in Nairobi as I write this, is making her last journey from the St Luke’s funeral home via Uhuru Park (which she saved from Moi’s clutches – he wanted to build a vast 62 storey office and retail complex on the park adorned by a large statue of Moi) to Karioko crematorium, carried in her coffin of bamboo and water hyacinth.

She was an amazing woman, who I had the privilege to meet several times in London and Kenya, where she invited me to her home and we planted trees with local women. As I said in the UK Food Group conference, she was a tower of strength, the only person to successfully challenge Moi who lived in fear of her. She saved forests, campaigned for poor women, political prisoners and activists in Kenya. She campaigned ardently against extra judicial killings by agents of the State.

Her work transformed the environmental movement not just in Kenya but globally. In 1984 she received the Right Livelihood Award (most recently given to our ally GRAIN and from then on honours were piled on her including the Nobel Peace prize – the first for an African woman and the first for an environmentalist.

The Kenya staff, and especially country director, Grace Mukasa, told me that they see the work of the Green Belt Movement as exemplary of the style of campaigns in broad alliances that we should also be engaged in.

The State Funeral was hugely hypocritical with, mercifully short, speeches by representatives of the same institutions that spurned, beat, bullied and imprisoned her; the President recognised her achievements but made no commitments to continue her work.

The only touching moment was when her little granddaughter helped plant a tree in her memory.

The struggle continues, as many commentators have been saying – each person committing to plant trees, one for every year of her 71 years of life – and defending the interests, livelihoods and commons of the people, especially women.

Wangari Maathai was an inspiration to many of us who work at Practical Action and we should all do our utmost to take forward her great work.