Archive for January, 2012

Making markets work for the poor

Monday, January 30th, 2012 by

I returned from a visit to our Nepal programme last week and so thought I’d use my next couple of blogs to provide some news from there.

Woman selling milk to a collection centre in Nepal

In a previous blog I have talked about our work with dairy farmers in Nepal – helping small farmers increase milk yields through improved animal health and nutrition. In Nepal there is, in theory, a huge opportunity for small farmers to earn income from milk sales as there is a national ‘milk deficit’ with very large quantities of both fresh and powdered milk being imported from India to meet the demand of urban centres.

For increased yields of milk to lead to higher incomes for farmers however, improved technology and technical knowledge is only part of the changes that have to occur. The technical side of ensuring access to improved feedstock, the services of vets, cooling facilities to allow milk from lots of small farms to be bulked up and stored until collection by dairy processors etc is all very important. But often there are other problems in the way market chains work which can prevent small producers from realising the potential value of their produce. That is why Practical Action works not just on the technology but also on making markets work for poor people.

I saw an example of the latter on my first day in Kathmandu, when I attended a seminar on barriers to small holder farmers’ engagement in the dairy market, hosted by Practical Action. It was held under the auspicies of a Practical Action dairy project (funded by UK AID) and was part of the process of bringing key market actors from across the dairy market chain together to discuss policy blockages to further expansion of smallholder dairy production. The seminar was attended by about 100 people including small farmers, private sector dairy processors and government officials. The latter included the Minister for Agriculture, the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Agriculture and the Director General of the Livestock Department of the Ministry of Agriculture. A representative of the UK’s Department for International Develoment was also present as a speaker.

The workshop was good evidence of our Nepal office’s convening power, in this case bringing together and facilitating discussion amongst the whole range of different players that make up the dairy market chain in Nepal. The first part of the morning included speeches by the main guests and a key note speech identifying some of the main problems in the dairy market chain today that hamper dairy businesses from operating efficently and which prevent small farmers from obtaining the best value for their milk. The principle problems listed were: limitations on the ability to improve the quality of livestock (because of an embargo on cross border cattle movement from India and very limited artificial insemination facilities), limited access to credit for small holder farmers, and the depressing effect on supply of the price fixing system used by the Government’s Dairy Development Board.

The meeting went on to 4pm in the afternoon, 3 hours after its due closure time, because of the intense interest of the participants in the discussion. One outcome was that government officials agreed to look into the possibility of an official visit to India to, amongst other things, hold discussions on cross border cattle movement.

This sort of meeting is part of a participatory market mapping and facilitation process that Practical Action has developed over the past few years to help all actors in a market chain better understand how a market works and what could be done differently to improve the value to all participants but, in particular, to make markets work for the poor. For more information see our website at:

Poor Peoples Energy Outlook – making friends and influencing people

Friday, January 27th, 2012 by

Earlier in the week I went to the launch of the Poor Peoples Energy Outlook. The report’s produced by Practical Action and the launch was hosted by DFID in their offices in London. I sat next to people from The World Bank, talked to a guy from GIZ (German government), said hello to friends from IBM and chatted to some people from Oxford University.
You get a sense of the gathering.
What struck me was the high regard in which Practical Action’s held and the breath of our energy work. Plus our real efforts to try and make a difference in the world – even if it means moving outside of our comfort zone – in my case talking with posh people! Ill confess to being much more at home chatting with villagers or project workers.
The question some of our supporters may ask is ‘why bother’. The reality is that the UN have launched 2012 as the year of Sustainable Energy for All and at Rio +20 in June the Secretary General will make a call to see this happen. We want to see this succeed but we also want it to build on the lessons we take from our work (it seems silly to have to learn them all over again and a waste of vital development effort) – for example
• The importance of working together with people rather than imposing solutions or dumping kit
• Thinking of energy in a holistic way – for cooking, lighting, clinics, hospitals, powering businesses
• That much as energy is vital – without it sustained poverty reduction is a hundred times more difficult – it isn’t enough on its own you need to think about business, helping people skill up, education and so on
• The vital role small scale renewable solutions can play
• The importance of appropriate finance systems – and for the most vulnerable clever subsidies – so decent energy can be affordable to all

Creating energy access will be one of the great challenges of this century, as we face the reality of climate change there is the opportunity for transformative leadership and transformative energy supply.
But as much as Practical Action can ‘play with the big guys’ our heart and overwhelming focus remains in our projects and with the people in the communities where we work.
“I used to spend all day looking for firewood and cleaning pots and pans. Those days are now gone! Now it’s cheap and easy to cook rice, lentils and vegetables for my seven people family, When my neighbours saw that I had more time for other chores, they decided to install their own biogas plant too!” Mahesh, Nepal
Let’s hope the Secretary Generals call is heeded for Mahesh’s neighbours in Nepal and poor communities around the world.

UK needs scientific research into agroecology – not GM

Thursday, January 26th, 2012 by

The greatest challenge facing agricultural scientists is how to work with farmers producing more ecological and healthier food – not GM, argues Patrick Mulvany, Senior Policy Adviser, Practical Action and Chair, UK Food Group

At the start of 2012 we should be energised by the news that BASF, the German chemical and seeds giant, has decided to pull out of genetically modified plant development in Europe. This is testament to the effectiveness of public pressure and “ another nail in the coffin for genetically modified foods in Europe ,” as Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth said.

But beyond successes in GM skirmishes, we should remind ourselves why we should be optimistic about the defence of the food system which feeds most people in the world, and thus be clearer about the research policies and practices needed to enhance it.

  •   The dominant food systems in the world are local, small-scale and organic food webs, not giant supermarkets chained to industrial commodity production that is destroying livelihoods, local markets and the environment. 70 per cent of the global population eats local food grown and harvested mainly by small-scale farmers, gardeners, livestock keepers and artisanal fishers – and they do this mostly without recourse to proprietary chemicals and seeds.
  •   There is a rising tide of support, backed by the International Agriculture Assessment ( IAASTD), for more ecological, environmentally-friendly and health-enhancing approaches to food production that will enhance agricultural biodiversity, soils, water and climate. It’s matched by an equally strong rejection of corporate control over, and speculation in, food, production and landgrabs.
  •   European and international debates on the food system are raising awareness and increasing pressure for political accountability in: changing Europe’s CAP Common Agriculture Policy); enforcing global environmental governance at Rio+20 and the climate change and biodiversity conventions; defining a Global Strategic Framework for securing future food by the renewed UN Committee for World Food Security ; and resetting priorities for global agricultural research at GCARD2012 (Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development).
  •   The International Peasant Farmers’ Movement, La Vía Campesina, and related social movements, which represent the views of the world’s small-scale food providers, have a well-developed policy framework, Food Sovereignty. This would secure future food if their more ecological production systems can be supported and protected and if they are decisively involved in setting priorities for resource use, investment, markets and agricultural research, development and production.

                 They know what needs doing and how to do it.

Yet, it seems the research establishment, in hock to Big Agriculture, is blind to these needs and opportunities. The Financial Times reporting on the BASF decision to relocate its GM research to the USA quoted a senior researcher in biosciences, Professor Jonathan Jones from the Sainsbury Lab in Norwich as saying: “ The psychological damage is that it will tell the next young people who might want to go into plant science that they can’t bring anything exciting to market… and it also discourages government support if [GM technology] is not going to be deployed in Europe.”

He may be correct with his second point if UK government priorities are still wedded to promoting GM technologies – perhaps some neo-colonial dream in which the UK fixes a new world order that will secure commodity supplies from other countries using their cheaper labour and our (proprietary) technologies and knowledge.

But ‘ psychological damage of young people’ ? Isn’t this more likely to be the result of the ‘cognitive dissonance’ caused by such an extreme mis-match between what is needed to feed the world and what they are being asked to do by Big Science?

Today, there can be no greater scientific challenge in the food system than how to shift it towards a more ecological and healthier form of production and consumption that can be controlled locally. These systems are more productive per area of land or drop of water – and more sustainable, carbon neutral, biodiverse, resilient and locally determined – than industrial commodity production. Science should embrace the challenge.

A new generation of agricultural scientists could be encouraged, building on the example of many pioneers, to work with knowledgeable small-scale food providers to enable that shift to take place. Using improved tools for analysing biological, economic, legal and social systems they could enrich understanding, enhance local knowledge and practice and strengthen local communities’ and social movements’ control over the use of their common resources for securing localised food systems.

Big Agriculture and Big Science won’t like this – it won’t enrich corporate coffers – but the majority will.

We should build on the energy generated by the food sovereignty movement that calls for public support and better governance to transform the food system.

Now is the time to keep up the momentum and to gather enthusiastic young people into democratically controlled agricultural research, development and production systems fit to realise food sovereignty.

Also posted on the Ecologist, 25th January 2012

Global skills essential for a global economy

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012 by

¾ of businesses think we are in danger of being left behind by emerging countries unless young people learn to think more globally

That was one of the main findings of The Global Skills Gap, a report  by the British Council and Think global in December last year.  The report also found that 93% of businesses think it is important for schools to help young people develop the ability to think globally.

 Practical Action’s education work supports that need for students to be more globally aware and able to identify with global issues.  Our activities promote awareness and understanding of issues such as climate change , the importance of energy access,  and technology justice (Where technology is used for the benefit of all, ensuring poor people have simple, affordable and sustainable technology to improve their lives)

Students whose education has included a good global perspective have already been shown to go onto lead more sustainable lifestyles  and are more likely to be supportive of the work we and likeminded organisations do.  The fact that this report shows they are also potentially more employable adds weight to the value of our work to the students themselves and to society as a whole.

‘’what global companies look for are people who we think can take a global perspective.  Students are well placed to do this if they have opportunities to widen their cultural perspective’’

Sonja Stockton, Director, PricewaterhouseCoopers



Making water safe

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012 by

Globally, a significant proportion of disease is due to unsafe drinking water. This accumulates further in absence of better sanitation and hygiene.

In 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that almost one tenth of the global disease burden could be prevented by improving water supply, sanitation, hygiene and management of water resources. The same report said that 10.6 per cent of deaths in Nepal are WSH (water, sanitation and hygiene) related. It also reported that 14,700 people die each year due to preventable diarrhoeal disease.

Although the Department of Water Supply and Sewerage claimed that 80 per cent of total households in Nepal have access to improved drinking water (DWSS 2010), water quality is a major challenge. As more than 50 per cent of the population defecate in open spaces, drinking water contamination is a common issue.

Water is a major medium for faecal oral transmission, causing millions of deaths globally and thousands in Nepal.

A water safety plan is a tool that ensures the delivery of safe drinking water from its catchments to consumers (“in Nepali Mul Dekhi Mukh samma”).

Water Safety Plans (WSPs) has been taken as a new concept and tool for managing risk in assuring water quality in water systems from source to the consumers. WSPs offer the most cost-effective and protective means of consistently assuring a supply of safe drinking water. WSPs operate through ‘catchment to consumers’ risk management approaches based on sound science and supported by appropriate monitoring. It can be applied across a wide range of situations from household solutions to community water supply schemes to large water supply utilities. WSPs identify the possible hazards in a water supply system with the level of risk, how it can be controlled and the actions required for hazard control.

For further information on our work in Nepal on safe water, sanitation and hygiene, go to

Everything was in the dark

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012 by

Yesterday’s launch of the Poor People’s Energy Outlook 2012 began with Stephen O’Brien, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, briefly describing his journey to Ghana. He explained that when the sun went down, “everything was in the dark”.

His objective is clear; we need to ‘help the poor in developing countries work their way out of poverty’. What Practical Action’s report will do is deepen our understanding of how energy access can do this. His statement that the UK government will be held accountable if progression does not materialise, should be sufficient in believing this campaign will make things happen.

When Mr. O’Brien left, Grace Mukasa, East Africa Regional Director for Practical Action, detailed the importance of energy access. This proved to me just how important some of the projects Philips Lighting have been involved in which have brought lighting to otherwise ‘dark’ places. The effect this has on the community and enterprise and profound.

Simon Trace, CEO of Practical Action, then explained that the definitions and models we have today regarding energy access are not good enough and far from realistic. And this is also what the report hopes to achieve.

‘When there’s a will there’s a way’.

Finally, the ongoing Malawi project was illustrated, which is examining exactly how we can supply an energy access eco system at national level and help move from a project approach to a system basis. And this is where sustainability is really achieved. But first, we need to fully understand a countries policies & regulations, the flows of finance and the gaps and opportunities. From there we can progress.

The wind of change – decentralised energy system in remote village, Nepal

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012 by

“Our children now even do their homework in the evening and we do our household chores” – “we do not have difficulties moving around the village in the night with provision of the street light” – “we now have televisions in our village – this has improved our access to information and children can enjoy the entertainment programmes”.

A view of the wind-solar hybrid system in Hurhure Dada

These are some quotes of our beneficiaries in Hurhure Dada, Nawalparsi – West Nepal where I recently visited. This village was declared as a Renewable Energy Village by Practical Action and provided various energy options to the villagers. The Dada top of the hill is a windy hill – Practical Action captured all year wind data of the Dada and installed five small scale wind turbines together with some solar PVs with support of Livelihood Forestry Programme of the DFID. The system provided solar lantern charging facility to the villagers. Earlier the villagers were depending on kerosene wick lamp for lighting which was unsafe and hazardous for health. Now, the village has 24 hour dedicated grid electricity supply covering 46 households from the wind-solar hybrid system. The windy Dada now has two 5 kW turbines and 2 kWp solar panels, which is first of its kind in Nepal. Although I was in remote village the 24 hours electricity supply made me happy since Kathmandu the capital of the country is under huge power cut (14 hours) in a day. This follow up project was implemented by the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC) of the government of Nepal with technical assistance of Practical Action and financial assistance of the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

With facilitation of Practical Action the villagers are organised and establishing a cooperative to run this renewable energy system sustainably. The user group has already identified two individuals as operators who are currently under on-the-job training. The enthusiastic villagers are planning further to use the electricity for the productive end use during the off load time. This demonstrates the success of decentralised energy system and possibility of community managed wind and solar power harnessing in Nepal.

Does the call for responsible capitalism include responsible technology?

Friday, January 20th, 2012 by

Unless you have been on a different planet this week you cannot have escaped the rhetoric around responsible capitalism.   If you don’t know what this means try “googling” “responsible capitalism”; I have just tried that and found over 13 million hits, many of them within the last 24 hours.  So certainly we have a public relations success.   Still wondering what the term really means?

The core idea appears to be that fairness matters.   In other words inequalities in society such as high salaries and the bonus culture amongst failing non-profitable banks is being recognised as challenging most people’s concept of fair.   High on the political agenda in the UK is the rhetoric around making markets work for all.   Basic notions of “justice” in most people’s minds is based on equal treatment of people.   Indeed thinkers like Sen go further and claim justice is about what is reasonable.   He further argues against parochialism, saying that we must adress global injustice.

For those who care about equity in the wider world these are exciting times.   But the debate needs to be broader than the somewhat narrow economic definitions of markets and capitalism.   Injustice is something we can come together and fight against.   One of the less obvious sources of injustice in the global society is the way access to technologies is limited.   Among the key questions we need to ask are:

  • How do we address technology injustice?
  • What is a reasonable and fair access to technologies such as clean water and sanitation?
  • How can we deliver access to energy services to more than 1 billion people who lack them by 2020?

Let us know what you think about the technology injustices that are current in our global society.   Join in the conversation…remember we can only change the world one conversation at a time.


Farmer to farmer knowledge sharing

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012 by

The mission of Practical Answers is to contribute to the improvement of livelihoods, by providing knowledge services and facilitating sharing of technical knowledge relevant to development processes and poverty eradication.

Based on this mission, Practical Answers in Nepal, in partnership with READ Nepal, has been working with communities to establish knowledge nodes – places where people can get information, such as a room in a village that has an internet connection.

There are more than half a dozen ways of providing technical information people, particularly to the poor communities who can use such information and knowledge to improve their livelihoods.

Farmer to farmer knowledge sharing is one such model. People who are skilled and trained through Practical Action’s projects respond people who contact Practical Answers with an enquiry. The limitation is that only enquiries related to the training will be responded through the farmers to farmers model. However, there are other responding models such as interactions between community and experts, animal health camp, radio programme, linking the enquiries with related government agencies in district and local level to respond the broader enquiries.

Market Access for Smallholder Farmers (MASF) is a project Practical Action has been implementing in four districts of Nepal.

Nirmala Bogiti and Shanti Parajuli have been trained through the MASF project in basic animal management, fodder/forage management and they have participated in workshops on livestock health.

In the process of collecting enquiries through Practical Answers in Chitwan and Nawalparasi we found some of the communities wanted to know how they can keep their livestock healthy, for example, how they can prepare balanced diet.

Based on the enquiries, knowledge nodes organised a- farmer to farmer knowledge sharing practical interaction in a few communities to test how effective this model would be to implement in other communities.

Nirmala and Shanti shared their knowledge and taught Practical Answers enquirers how they can prepare mineral blocks using local resources, what the ingredients are and what the benefits are for the livestock to keep them healthy.


The model was very effective as enquirers directly ask many more questions related with dairy farming with the trained and skilled farmers like Nirmala and Shanti. Nirmala and Shanti are among the successful farmers of the MASF project who have significantly increased their income through dairy farming. While they shared their experience and stories on how they became successful farmers, they inspired the enquirers who asked for information on dairy farming and also received practical information from them.

The knowledge sharing process doesn’t end here. While farmers received knowledge from leader farmers, they apply it for themselves and pass on to other farmers  who are in need for such knowledge. While Karnakhar Acharya from Nawalparasi received practical knowledge to prepare mineral block from Nirmala then he has been supporting other farmers in his communities who ask him about the mineral block.

2012 – A sparky year for your students?

Monday, January 16th, 2012 by

If one of your new year’s resolutions is to introduce new ideas into your lessons, then you might want to link into a big issue that might spark your students interest.

As many of your students will have new electrical gadgets over the Xmas period, spare a thought for the 1.4 billion people worldwide have no access to electricity and 2.5 billion still rely on collecting fuels like firewood for cooking and heating.

2012 is the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, so Practical Action will be focusing more of its efforts internationally to improve energy access to many communities who we work with.

We want to share our stories with as many people as possible – so please have a look at our range of  Sustainable Energy activities with your primary and secondary students, ranging from Moja Island a renewable energy activity to a hands-on Windpower challenge.

Think Global have developed a great site which shares education materials for teachers from other organisations working on the International Year of Sustainable Energy.

Wind power in Sri Lanka; children in Sri Lanka show their delight with wind power