Archive for February, 2012

Power to the people?

Monday, February 27th, 2012 by

I have always thought of electricity pylons as giants walking across the land. I am not sure I have ever thought where they are going, just that they look like they have a sense of purpose.

Visiting a rural charcoal producer in Bondo district, western Kenya, made me think again about where these metal giants were off to. They walk through rural Kenya, but they do not stop there. They are striding along to towns and cities where people who can afford to pay for grid electricity access welcome them home.

Households in the countryside sit underneath electricity lines, but they do not benefit from them, relying instead on charcoal for cooking their food, and candles or kerosene for lighting.

Another thought struck me, though, as I stared up at this powerline: Is this energy access? And if so, for who? When it comes to collecting data, the terms ‘access to energy’ or ‘energy access’ are hard to pin down, and there is not one single definition. A government employee may pass through this village and, seeing the electricity lines, record them as having ‘access to energy’- the connection is possible, but, given the costs involved for these households, certainly not probable.

This is the main issue with using supply side data- you can count all the available pylons and the megawatts of electricity running through them until the cows come home, but if people can’t access it, then it’s just numbers really, isn’t it?

With the Poor people’s energy outlook reports 2010 and 2012, Practical Action has proposed a way of measuring energy access from the other perspective. They look at whether someone actually has a light source, and if so, the quality of that source. They measure what people really cook on, and how they keep their food cool. All of this can build up a more genuine picture of how poor people use energy, rather than if they have the potential to do so.

Half of humanity, 3 billion people, cook on traditional fuels every day, and their energy needs are not going to be met through connections to the grid any time soon.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Practical Action has shown for over four decades that off-grid sustainable solutions are possible to provide households with an energy supply.

However, we can’t do it alone. That’s why we campaign for Energy for All by 2030 with a broad network of civil society organisations. Why we have released the Poor people’s energy outlook report 2012. Why we have asked all of you to Make Your Point.

So what are you waiting for? Join us.

Food… as if people and the planet mattered

Monday, February 27th, 2012 by

In the mists of the Kenyan highlands where tea bushes cling to steep slopes, women farmers provide good food for their families and communities with a surplus for the market. In the county of Kiambu, women, taking a lead from their late and beloved leader Wangari Maathai , the recently deceased Nobel Laureate environmentalist, in whose honour they planted a tree of remembrance, keep their diverse, productive and nutritious fields bursting with many food plants, bushes and trees. Their soils, enriched by the manure of their cows, goats and poultry, exude fertility. Their fields harvesting rain supplemented by water from wells provide a cornucopia of grain, fruit and vegetables. This is the central core of their food web extended by exchanges with neighbours and nearby communities and family members in town, with some food sold and purchased in the local market.

The good news is that this is the majority food system – not giant supermarkets chained to industrial commodity production that is destroying livelihoods, local markets and the environment. Most food in the world – more than 70% – is grown, harvested and consumed locally.

It is provided usually by women who are small-scale food producers – farmers, livestock keepers, fishers, urban gardeners and others – much of it, like the Kenyan farmers I visited, produced without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These inventive and skilful people know how to produce good, healthy food for their families, communities and, especially local, markets. They can secure our future food if their production systems can be supported and protected and if they are decisively involved in setting priorities for resource use, research, extension, investment and markets – a message that needs to be broadcast to decision makers who are gathering throughout the coming year to determine the priorities for food production and nutrition , responses to climate change and the governance of the planet’s environment .

Food production practices need to recycle nutrients and protect natural resources rather than rely on fossil fuel dependent inputs that undermine long term productivity. These practices of small-scale farmers and livestock keepers enable them to develop resilient and biodiverse seeds and livestock breeds adapted to the local environment which, when used more widely, have been shown to increase overall yields in degraded systems by 50-200% . These are the practices developed and nurtured by small-scale food providers like the women of Kiambu. They and the many hundreds of millions of other small-scale food providers, including farmers, pastoralists, artisanal fishers and urban gardeners, on whom we depend for our food, need to have decisive input into setting priorities for resource use, research, extension, investment and markets, if sustained increases in food production are to be achieved.

Achieving this requires convincing decision makers at all levels that small-scale food providers are the guardians of our food system. Decision makers are often driven by the mantra that food production must increase dramatically to fulfil the needs of the billion who are currently malnourished and sustain 9 billion people by 2050 and to do so on limited land and water resources while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on increasingly scarce fossil fuels. Therefore they are erroneously persuaded to back ‘ sustainable intensification of industrial production as a priority.

What those who make decisions about our food system need to understand is that there is enough food in the world for everybody and much more could be readily provided using the existing skills of small-scale food providers. It is poverty that causes hunger not lack of production. In order to make the food system less dysfunctional, a more systemic change in production and power relations is required, with more equitable distribution of food produced as locally as possible.

The food system needs to be securely based on small-scale ecological practices, which have higher productivity in the long term, as confirmed by the groundbreaking international agriculture assessment, IAASTD , to which Practical Action contributed significantly. The needed increase in production will not be achieved, equitably and sustainably, if food production continues to depend on resource depleting technologies that are promoted by global agribusinesses for universal application. Specific attention, research and action needs to be paid to the resilient forms of production, practised by small-scale food providers, that work with nature to raise productivity while restoring degraded resources.

Yet these small-scale providers of the world’s food are under massive threat from the avarice of agribusiness corporations that are intent on capturing their markets, livelihoods and resources. Over many years, however, their organisations, especially our ally La Via Campesina , have shown how these threats can be mitigated and what changes in policy are necessary to secure future food supplies – all summarised in their food sovereignty policy framework .

The food sovereignty approach to providing good, local food in ecologically and socially sustainable ways is the type of proposal that Schumacher would have supported, as new economics foundation fellow, Andrew Simms , said in an interview published in the Summer 2011 issue of Practical Action’s newsletter Small World :

“The food sovereignty movement, for example, is an ideal manifestation of everything Schumacher believed in. It is a model of how you would apply Schumacher’s notions of subsidiarity and appropriateness of scale to the food system. Food sovereignty, with its focus on local food needs and making sure these are compatible with local ecosystems, is a living vehicle of the ideas and insights of Schumacher.”

We support this approach, as summarised in our policy narrative , which shows how Practical Action’s values – justice, sustainability, diversity, democracy, and empowerment – describe the fundamental components that need to be in place to realise our vision of an equitable food system. These values allow us to analyse systematically the current state of global and local food systems, establishing the extent to which they contribute to the realisation of this vision.

In the same way, we can better understand how it is that the food and agriculture system is failing. By identifying where it is that the food system falls short of these values, it becomes possible to ascertain the changes that are necessary at all levels if we are to move closer to the vision of world in which the right of people to sufficient food and to food sovereignty is realised in ways that also protect the environment on which we all depend.

We are committed to realising this vision – to develop a food system as if people and the planet mattered – a system that emulates the good work of the women of Kiambu.

Patrick Mulvany, Senior Policy Adviser to Practical Action,
Kiambu, Kenya


This is an extended version of an article published in Practical Action’s newsletter Small World , Issue number 53, Spring 2012

See tribute to Wangari Maathai

See ‘Who will feed us?’

See website of the Civil Society Mechanism of the UN Committee on World Food Security

See paper on the links between climate change and agriculture

See Civil Society joint statement on the key agricultural issues to be considered at the Rio+20 conference

See Report of Oliver De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Agro-ecology and the Right to Food , which reveals that small-scale sustainable farming would even double food production within five to 10 years in places where most hungry people on the planet live.

See reflection on the Beddington Foresight Report on global food and farming

IAASTD, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, is the groundbreaking international scientific assessment to which Practical Action contributed significantly. Practical Action was one of the six NGO members of the governing bureau of the assessment which reported in 2008. See and for details

Even in the 1970s Schumacher had already declared that “present-day industrial society everywhere shows this evil characteristic of incessantly stimulating greed, envy, and avarice.” See: Modern Industry in the Light of the Gospel , b y E. F. Schumacher

See the website of the International Farmers’ Movement

See UK Food Group publication Securing Future Food: towards ecological food provision

See the Synthesis Report of the Nyéléni 2007: Forum for Food Sovereignty

See full interview with Andrew Simms of the new economics foundation

See Practical Action’s policy narrative on Food and Agriculture

The future of design and Technology in the balance…

Friday, February 24th, 2012 by

In the recent report ‘The Framework for the National Curriculum’ produced by a panel for the National Curriculum review, it was recommended that D&T and Citizenship should be removed from the National Curriculum and form part of the Basic Curriculum.

At Practical Action we believe down grading the position of these subjects will lead to fragmented delivery of essential subject knowledge and skills.

Without a formal programme of study for these subjects, we cannot ensure that bigger picture thinking, including sustainability and global issues are delivered an entitlement for all pupils within a basic curriculum.

View our response to the panel’s recommendations.

If you agree with us that D&T should remain in the National Curriculum please send your response by email to the DfE Review Team at
before the end of February.

Proud to be ODF

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012 by

If you’re squeamish about poo, look away now! Open defecation is not something people in the developed world have to think about. But for many of the poorest people living in developing countries, open defecation is not an unusual sight – 1.1 billion people defecate in the open.

The health implications are huge. More than 2 million children die each year from diarrhoea and millions more suffer poor health as a result of poor sanitation.

Over the last three years, Practical Action has been working with communities in Nepal addressing problems to improve sanitation and health. An important part of this project has been to help communities become Open Defecation Free (ODF).

Nepal’s Sanitation Plan has a comprehensive list of points, to be met by a community, to achieve ODF status:

• Proper use of toilets with access to water;
• Hand washing with soap or cleaning agent at critical times(before eating, feeding children, cooking and serving food, after use of toilet
• Safe handling and treatment of drinking water
• Maintenance of personal hygiene (regular nail cutting, bathing, cloth washing, tooth brushing);
• Proper solid and liquid waste management (Availability of bins/pits to collect/dispose solid waste) in and out of the home;
• All households should have toilet and hand washing facilities such as soap, washing platform;
• Availability of brush or brooms or cleaning agent, etc. at the toilet;
• Covering food and water;
• Regular cleaning of rooms, yards, and household compound;
• Availability of managed animal shed and covered waste water pit
• Availability of improved cooking stove/bio‐gas and improved kitchen management;
• All public institutions should have users‐friendly clean, hygienic toilets with hand washing and proper waste management facilities;
• Social map showing toilet; and community committee message/slogan for healthy community

I recently joined a group comprising media persons and other stake holders including local government officials to Sharadanagar, an emerging Village Development Committee to see if Sharadanagar met the criteria to be declared an ODF community or not.

As soon as we reached the venue I jumped off the bus and started scouring Sharadanagar hoping to find waste. But I had never seen such a clean community. All the houses were clean, small or big, thatched or brick. Each and every house had a toilet, not just a toilet but every house had a clean kitchen with kitchen racks and clean dishwashing areas. I had no idea what it takes for a community to be declared an ODF until I saw the list which each and every visitor was keen on checking.

The list is pretty long but at the end of the tour the visitors agreed that Sharadanagar indeed meets all the criteria. I certainly agreed and I know that in no time Sharadanagar will be declared ODF. This is a huge step forward and a source of pride to the whole community.

Providing better health services for waste workers

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012 by

Large numbers of people in the developing world rely on other people’s waste to make a living. In the Kathmandu valley of Nepal nearly 15,000 people work as waste pickers and 800 more deal in scrap. These are the poorest of the poor, many are women and they suffer discrimination through social exclusion, religious segregation and political marginalisation. Often they have started this work as children and their lack of education, poor health care and low status leaves them vulnerable with few opportunities to improve their lives.

One of Practical Action’s projects in this area aims to improve the living conditions of these workers and to secure them better social protection. One of the initiatives of this project was a health camp in Sundarighat in the Lalitpur District of Nepal, to raise awareness of health and hygiene issues and to provide general health check-ups.

There was a worrying start to the event for Dr. Bishnu Acharya and his assisting staff nurse as initially very few workers came along and those that did were reluctant to share their health problems. One of the health team noticed a group of women chatting by themselves, so she joined their group and started sharing her own experience of pregnancy. Slowly the women opened up and began to tell their own stories and soon they were persuaded to agree to an antenatal check-up and were given information on nutrition and hygiene.

From then on, everything went smoothly and more and more workers arrived. Many of the women also wanted the doctor to check their children and were enquiring about vaccinations. Each person was helped to complete a health questionnaire and it was a relief to learn that none of the waste workers suffered from major illnesses. The most common health problem encountered was worms. Dr. Acharya emphasised the need of deworming each and every patient. A couple of women had high blood pressure and were advised to consume less salt and fried foods.

Practical Action’s team has put together a check list of what should be provided when running such health days:

1. A comprehensive list of available over the counter medicines
2. Plenty of deworming medicine
3. Vitamin supplements (especially Vitamin B complex) as many of the expectant mothers lack a balanced diet
4. Rehydration salts
5. Contraceptive advice and condoms
6. All free government vaccinations, including polio, for newborns and children

The success of the day ensured that it will be repeated and on the next occasion it will be organised in collaboration with government local health staff. Information to be provided will include a health and hygiene video and government illustrated booklets on safe sex and contraception and basic health issues.

The medical staff learned a great deal about communicating with people who have little experience of health services. They are now better able to put people at ease so as to extract the patient’s medical history, which is vital for a correct diagnosis and treatment.

Now that’s razor sharp!

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012 by

I’m lucky enough to be in Kisumu, Kenya at the moment for some PISCES project meetings (more on that in later posts). Today we went to a small town called Bondo to do some research on the charcoal markets and the challenges involved in producing this vital energy source sustainably.

We met a feisty group of young women who sell charcoal in the town market. During the rainy season, it is harder to make charcoal and transport it to town, so these women can struggle to buy any off the transporters and sell it for profit.

In order to combat this, as well as some of the other ups and downs that go with being self-employed, they have set up the Charcoal Sellers Bondo, a 17 member collective of men and women who transport and sell charcoal in the town. If someone doesn’t have any cash due to a sudden shortfall, then the rest of the group can help out, and they hope to put some money into a storage facility so that they can store charcoal in the dry season and sell it in leaner times.

It’s not rocket science, but helping to organise markets more effectively is so essential to their incomes, and something we work on at Practical Action. We left the ladies with a joke about the fact that many of them are unmarried or divorced, so they look after their charcoal better in the absence of a man- we all agreed the charcoal was probably better behaved anyway!

Just as we were about to head out of town, we saw a touch of genius. A gentleman riding a bike, but rather than heading down the street, he was stationary, and using the mechanical power to spin a stone that he was using to sharpen knives. Judging by this photo, you can see he was a bit of a poser, but I would be more than smug with myself if I had cornered that market. What a simple, brilliant use of an everyday technology.

What a brilliant day. Thanks Bondo!

The importance of energy

Thursday, February 9th, 2012 by

During my research with the PISCES programme in Kenya I investigated the benefits of biofuels for development, and difficulties and politics associated with it.

Working with such a controversial topic, I have learnt that the challenge for development is not only about providing energy, but also about developing knowledge and facilitating policies that ensure technologies will benefit those who need it most. I have seen, for example, how farmers can gain an income and a fuel for lighting from their jatropha plantations, or how ethanol is changing the lives of women that can now cook with a clean, affordable fuel:  I have learnt that energy is about livelihoods, possibilities and freedom.

Hanna produces jathopa oil on her farm in eastern Kenya

The Kenyan experience demonstrated the importance of energy, reaffirmed by the UN declaration of 2012 as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All’.  Energy affects all aspects of life and development: livelihoods, access to water, agricultural productivity, health, population levels, education, and gender-related issues. Considering that wood smoke is a cause of 1.5 million deaths a year is enough to realise these strong links. Moreover, the estimation that 900 million people will not have access to electricity by 2030, helps understanding how energy access is also linked with inequality.

Energy goes through all our development work, affecting people from their participation in markets to reconstruction efforts. Thinking about energy in this holistic way places energy access as one of the main challenges for development. Providing energy is not only about delivering appropriate technologies, but understanding needs and facilitating long lasting solutions that can boost development and growth in those places in the world that need it most. Practical Action’s work on energy and the Poor people’s energy outlook 2012 constitute big steps towards a sustainable energy future.

A handbook for building resilience

Thursday, February 9th, 2012 by

Promoting resilience is a growing area of interest in development. The UK Government’s Humanitarian Policy ‘Saving Lives, Preventing Suffering and Building Resilience’, puts resilience at the heart of their approach. Building on this, DFID have committed to embedding resilience building in all of its country programmes by 2015 and integrating resilience into all of their work on climate change and conflict prevention.  

So what is resilience?

Practical Action sees resilience as the ability of a system, community or society to resist, absorb, cope with and recover from shocks and stresses. A resilient community is one in which people can manage risk and recover from shocks such as floods, droughts and violent conflict. It also means people have the ability to adapt to long term trends such as climate change in a timely and efficient manner without undermining their wellbeing.

So how do we achieve resilience?

How to operationalise concepts of resilience is a challenge for many organisations. Practical Action has developed an approach called From Vulnerability to Resilience (V2R). This is a framework that analyses the causes of vulnerability and how disaster risk reduction, climate change impacts, governance and livelihoods interact and affect resilient outcomes.

The handbook

This new handbook is aimed at practitioners who seek examples of how the V2R framework can be used in practice, based on examples from Nepal. It offers a step process, workbooks and tools.  It includes guidance on how to include long-term trends in programming with a focus on climate change.  

It is essential that organisations working on poverty reduction take into account the impact of climate change on the communities and sectors where they are working. In so doing, they will be better able to support community members and government officials to adapt to the adverse effects and take advantage of any opportunities presented. This requires a detailed analysis of the impacts of climate change at the local level in order to build adaptive capacity to withstand both sudden shocks and incremental changes in the climate. Participatory tools have been updated for use of uncovering community perceptions of changes, alongside identifying historical climate data.

Download it here.

Sustainability or quick fix?

Monday, February 6th, 2012 by

Temporary restrictions to energy supply, nationally or internationally are a frequent occurrence. I can recall energy shortages caused by striking miners in the 1970s, the OPEC embargo of 1973, the Iran/Iraq war in 1980, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and last year’s Fukushima nuclear reactor shutdown in Japan to name just a few.

Renewable technologies use freely available resources such as wind, water and sunshine and are not dependent on the fluctuating world price of carbon intensive fossil fuels. It seems an obvious solution to focus our investment on these.

But the prevailing wisdom amongst developed countries is that quick fix high tech ‘geo-engineering’ solutions will solve the problem of global warming.

There is a history of environmental disasters associated with meddling with our planet’s ecosystems in unproven ways. Cane toads were introduced to the sugar plantations of Queensland, Australia in 1935 to control a pest called cane beetles. Over the years, with no natural predators, these toads have become a much greater pest than the original beetle. wind turbine nepal The Nile perch was introduced into Africa’s Lake Victoria for food and sport fishing. It has already eaten its way through 200 native fish species, and is still going. I could go on….

Developed countries already make too many demands on the resources of our fragile planet while a third of humanity lacks access to modern energy. We should surely be concentrating our scarce resources on improving this situation rather than lavishing time, money and scientific expertise on unproven vanity projects. Practical Action has a wealth of experience to show that small scale renewable energy drives development.

2012 is the UN year of sustainable energy for all – we must ensure that is exactly what is does.

Ecological sanitation for sustainable sanitation

Saturday, February 4th, 2012 by

2.6 billion people in the world do not have access to improved sanitation facilities. Most of them are from South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

In the race of accessing the facilities, a lot of pit latrines or improved pit latrine have been constructed behind they are cheaper ,thus easy to promote in low income areas. However, there remains a high potential risk of contaminating the ground water which is source of drinking water for millions.

Practical Action Nepal is therefore promoting ecological sanitation (ECOSAN) toilets in its EC supported project, Strengthening Water, Air, Sanitation and Hygiene Treasuring Health (SWASHTHA). The project is taking place in 21 communities targeting urban poor of four municipalities (Bharatpur, Butwal, Gulariya and Tikapur) in Nepal. The primary objectives of promoting ECOSAN toilets are:

1. Reducing the health risks related to sanitation, contaminated water and waste

2. Improving the quality of surface and groundwater

3. Improving soil fertility

4. Optimising the management of nutrients and water resources

The collection system of ECOSAN toilet is different with the other conventional and modern flush cistern toilet. In this toilet, faeces and urine is collected separately.

Ecosan toilet with different collection areas for urine and faeces

Urine collection tank

Nutrients in the urine are easily assimilated by plants and vegetables. However, the urine is diluted by adding water so it doesn’t burn the vegetation.

Using diluted urine to provide nutrients to crops

Similarly, faeces contains nutrients but there is a high risk of the presence of pathogens. Therefore, faeces can not be used directly as urine. Elimination of harmful pathogens in the faeces can be achieved by dehydration. That is why the importance of diverting the urine is dominant here. The entire process of dehydration of faeces takes about six months to one year. Then it can be used as compost.

It was believed traditionally that faeces has more nutrient value. However, the analysis of urine and faeces reveals that urine has significantly more nutrients than faeces. Urine is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and can be used in agriculture as well as horticulture. The amount of urine collected from one person during one day is sufficient to fertilize one square metre of land. Urine collected from 30 persons for one year is sufficient to fertilize one hectare of land.

Description Unit Urine Faeces
Volume Litre per person per day 1.4 0.15
Nitrogen Gram per person per day 11 1.5
Phosphorus Gram per person per day 1 0.5
Volume Litre per person per year 500 56

Advantages of ECOSAN:

1.It requires less water than in the flush cistern toilet, where flushing is necessary after each urination and defecation.

2.It does not contribute to pollution. Both urine and human faeces are collected safely. It pollutes neither surface water nor ground water.

3.Separately collected urine and human faeces can be used as natural fertilizer. These natural fertilizers can be easily assimilated by the plants.

4.Improvement of health due to safe and hygienic sanitation.

There are a few limitations in promoting ECOSAN, however:

1.Users need to be aware how to use ECOSAN toilets. Faeces needs to be kept dry as far as possible.

2.People have to handle faeces. Therefore, people need to be educated that faeces is not waste but is a useful resource. Further, people need to be aware of using the compost of faeces and the proper use of urine.

3.The faeces compost needs to be handled carefully for health reasons.

4.There is a cultural barrier in terms of handling human waste

Material cost of an ECOSAN Toilet up to plinth level or pan level is about 8000 rupees (£64). The structure of the toilet can be built with locally available materials like bamboo, wood, boulders, mud etc.