Archive for April, 2012

Girls needed for Clean Energy jobs

Friday, April 27th, 2012 by

”We need All of humanity not half of it to work on the clean energy revolution”

That’s the opinion of David Sandalow from the U.S. Department of Energy at the Women, Innovation and the Clean Energy Future reception held yesterday at Lancaster house, as part of the Clean Energy Ministerial.

Whilst there are some incredible women working in the clean  energy sector, such as Juliet Davenport, CEO of  Good Energy, these role models are few and far between.   Lack of understanding amongst young women of the opportunities available as well as a lack of women in middle management positions taking that next step up were discussed as the main reasons.

Yet it was felt by both the  women and men present that women do bring  a different perspective to the sector so should be encouraged to be a bigger part of it.

So please do encourage your female students to find out more about this interesting work that is key to our future.

To see how  members of Practical Action who work on clean energy and other technologies for the developing world got their dream jobs please visit our careers page for a poster and case studies.

Prayers for rain

Thursday, April 26th, 2012 by

I crave sunshine. I think it comes from being born just after Midsummer. I feel at my happiest when sitting in dappled sunlight, underneath the promise of a cloudless blue sky.

So the last three weeks of constant rain, and the forecast of the wettest and coldest May for many years, fill me with melancholy.

Yet in spite of the current weather, we are in a time of drought, and counties up and down the UK face hosepipe bans until the end of this year at least.

It’s strange to be in drought during a time of so much rain. I was in Kenya during the drought in the Horn of Africa last summer. It was the worst that the region had witnessed for 60 years. The red flesh of the earth was barren, the empty river beds like bloodless veins. Cattle carcasses littered the horizon, and the wind carried the pungent smell of death.

One woman I met told me that she prayed for rain every single day, a prayer for rain to comfort the earth, to bring food and hope and life.

So today – even though the rain makes me crave tea and hobnobs and an old film and bed – I am remembering that woman, and her prayers for rain. I am reminding myself to be grateful for it.

There’s another drought this year in the African Sahel, which comprises Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and northern Senegal. A toxic combination of low rainfall, high food prices, entrenched poverty and regional conflict means that 13 million people are at risk of malnutrition and starvation.

Those 13 million mums, dads, children and grandparents are probably praying for rain too.

We are so lucky we don’t have to.

Unlike some larger NGOS, Practical Action is not an aid agency, and we do not deliver emergency relief. Instead, we believe passionately that it is only through long-term development work using appropriate technology that poor and vulnerable communities can become more resilient, and the desperate tragedy of drought and famine can be avoided. You can support our work here.

Sustainable energy – a great conversation

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012 by

Today Practical Action, together with One and Christian Aid, organised what’s called a “civil society consultation” on UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative.

We had four members of the High Level Group, three members of the Technical Panel and about 50 representatives from charities, social enterprises, etc all working on energy access in the developing world.

Great conversation.

Helen Clark who runs UNDP kind of took the party line. She affirmed the Action Report they launched yesterday, given out to us today, but stated that we shouldn’t overstate the role of the private sector and should hold them to account. She also made the point that the key thing was implementation and this would happen in country.

Bunker Roy of Barefoot College and another member of the High Level Group came next. He held the report away from him, and for the first time ever I saw someone literally turn up their nose. He rubbished it! No real civil society engagement, incomprehensible to all but a few technocrats, top down, sustainability considered only in terms of business finance not impact, no thought of how parachuted in solutions would be maintained in the long term, no real mention or consideration as to the role of women and so on.

Andrew Steer from the World Bank, the third member of the High Level Group, navigated a route between the two previous speakers. I’d summarise what he said as: This is not ideal but if you trash it there is no hope of progress, we need to accept that this was a genuine initiative from the Secretary General, who himself grew up without electricity and go forward from here.

While the frankness was brilliant, on reflection it was quite unsettling. I’m not left with the feeling that we, as civil society trying to hold people to account, have a position to respond to that’s owned and supported.Is this final or just a first draft that we can all critique? I’d understood it was meant to be final.

What is clear is the need for much more engagement with communities who will be impacted and/or benefit from the initiative. Engagement too with Southern governments. And better communication – writing that people can understand and a timetabled process that’s transparent.

For me, it’s also about old lessons that need to be re-learned or remembered. Development must start with people. Sustainability is not just about finance. It’s about community support, ways of working that help things work for the long term. It’s about people having a say in things that affect them and a choice. It’s about our environment.

Forty years ago Fritz Schumacher called for a new form of development, development that started with people and technology because people matter.

Sustainable Energy for All is a great initiative. It is, I believe, genuinely motivated. As it goes forward it needs to listen to the lessons of good development.

Margaret Gardner
Marketing & Communications Director

Energy lies at the heart – Clean Energy Ministerial

Monday, April 23rd, 2012 by

 I’ve just put up a blog railing at poor communicators –  now my team have come back to me and said I need to include some figures – without them people can’t get an idea of the scale of the problem.  Always happy to be critiqued – don’t … if you can’t take it etc.

One in every 5 people on our planet lives without electricity. Nearly 3 billion people use wood, charcoal or dung to cook.  According to the UN fumes from these cook stoves damage health and kill nearly two million people every year. I’ve also heard it said that 85% of those who die are under 5. 

95% of the people who lack energy and/or cook on deadly cook stoves are in sub-Saharan Africa or developing Asia.

Scientists warn that if we continue on our current energy path our world could warm by on average 4 degrees this century – maybe more. Poor people will be hit first and hardest.

We can continue along this path – we can gamble with our planet and push even more people  into poverty.

Or we can do something different – we can commit to tackling climate change, we can commit to sustainable energy for all – we can commit to technology justice.

The Clean Energy Ministerial is important. Lets encourage our politicians to give a lead.

Clean Energy Ministerial 3

Monday, April 23rd, 2012 by

Clean Energy Ministerial 3 – I wonder if I could have found a title that would engaged people less.

20 countries, world changing decisions, the future of our planet and routes out of poverty – but they say

More than 20 countries will gather for this meeting. They will ‘discuss progress made by the Clean Energy Ministerial’s 11 clean energy initiatives, explore ways to enhance collaboration between participating governments, and develop strategies to drive public-private engagement to support clean energy deployment.’. There will be side events too ‘CEM3 will feature side events presented by the Multilateral Working Group on Solar and Wind Energy Technologies (MWGSW) and the Clean Energy Education & Empowerment (C3E) Women’s initiative.’

I’m not going. I haven’t been invited even to the one for women!

I’m not really cynical; I am frustrated that something so important is communicated so badly.

I’ve seen the impacts of climate change on the people we work with – often some of the poorest in the world. I’ve seen the hope that energy access can bring to communities – people able to power medical centres, schools, the basic equipment they need to do their jobs. Lives free from the deadly smoke produced by cook stoves burning twigs, dung and even plastics.

Getting the right energy is vital to our planet and to poverty reduction – don’t let jargon, the desire of politicians and their media types to say nothing in case they get just one word wrong put you off – this is The issue – we as citizens need to engage.

As Wolfie would say ‘Power to the people!’

Justice for the have nots

Monday, April 23rd, 2012 by

When I am not working at Practical Action’s headquarters in rural Warwickshire, I spend my time with my friends in Notting Hill in London. Yesterday, after a yoga class and a cup of coffee, I walked home, along Ledbury Road, one of Notting Hill’s most famous thoroughfares. It was a glorious springy sunshiney morning, much longed for after two weeks of seemingly endless rain. Towards one end of the road are huge white Victorian villas, with spring blossoms veiling the balconies and graceful Greek columns framing impressive porches. As the road progresses, the white elegance fades into brown dinginess. The other end of the road is home to council estate flats: small and drab. I smile at two little girls hopscotching in a yard that’s around 10 foot by 10 foot.

One of London’s greatest qualities is its diversity, yet all I could see during my walk along Ledbury Road was the injustice of the ‘haves and the have nots’.  This phrase – ‘the haves and the have nots’ was one I heard lots during my trip to Practical Action’s work in Kenya in August 2011.

While travelling to a project in the informal settlements outside Kisumu city in western Kenya, my colleagues pointed out the narrow road which divided the ‘have nots’ from the ‘haves’. All that separated the people without life’s essentials: food, water, sanitation, shelter, energy, health care, education, a livelihood, from the people who had them, was a mere dirt track.

Walking along Ledbury Road yesterday was a useful reminder that sometimes the physical distance between those who have enough and those who don’t is negligible. But bridging that gap can seem an insurmountable task.

Technology Justice is one movement that is needed to help with this challenge. At Practical Action, we envisage a world where there is a balance between meeting the practical needs of people with less, while satiating the technological appetites of those with more. A world where all people, regardless of geography or wealth, can choose and use the technologies that will help them to live the life they value, without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same. A just, fair and equitable world, with a smaller gap between the people who have lots and those who have less. Technology Justice isn’t really about technology, it’s about people – and doing what is right.

Sanitation is off-track

Friday, April 20th, 2012 by

Recent UN meeting declares sanitation as the most-off track MDG. The following link has more details.
Global sanitation target under threat

Lack of access to improved sanitation is an obvious example of technology in-justice. Global effort is needed to build the sector and address the issue.

Low cost toilet promotion

Monday, April 16th, 2012 by

Still more than 50 per cent of people in Nepal defecate in the open.

When asked why they hadn’t built a toilet, people blamed financial constraints.

That is because people think only about costly cemented toilet blocks – even though their houses are built using straw, timber and mud. People think they need a corrugated galvanized iron roof for a toilet, even though they are living under hay roofs. They are not aware of low cost options for toilets.

Normally, the cost of simple toilet up to pan level or sub structure is around NPR 3,000 (£23). Actually, the part which increases toilet cost, discouraging poor people towards building toilet, is types of costly structures. That is why when working with communities to improve sanitation, Practical Action promote a ‘7 B’ approach while constructing low cost toilets. 7 B stands for the 7 different toilet structures that can be built with locally available materials:












Bag (Jute or plastic bags)











Bush (Hay)






















Boulders (stone masonry)






















Blend (mixture of two or more materials)











The core concept of reducing the cost is the use of locally available resources, including material and human resource. It also ensures ownership, sustainability and easy promotion. The other main concept is to ensure people get into the habit of using the toilet. Improving the condition of toilet then comes in the second phase.

Among the 7B options, normally bricks, blocks and boulders are more expensive. However, it is not always true. First class brick is not required for building toilets; it can be built with second class or even built with brick bats. Blocks with higher cement sand ratio can be used for making toilets cheaper. Also, if boulders are locally available, it can also be a cheaper option.

You can find more information about the work we do in Nepal here and on water and sanitation here.

Sometimes we need to remember why we’re here

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012 by

In the day-to-day minutiae of working life it’s easy to get hung up on the bad stuff:

The stresses of multiple deadlines. Or the pressures of huge fundraising targets. Exasperations with organisational bureaucracy, which exists everywhere, in spite of the efficiency of your processes and procedures. Or anxieties about re-structure, as experienced by Practical Action’s UK staff for the last eight months.

But last week a very wise colleague reminded me:

“Just remember – everything you do here is for the people of Bangladesh. Or Kenya. Or Peru. Sudan. Sri Lanka. Zimbabwe. Nepal. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re trying. The people are the only reason.”

Her words were like a bell tolling me back from encroaching negativity to a place of clarity. I looked at the photos beside my desk and once more started to marvel at Practical Action’s work around the world:

The dreamlike magic of a floating garden which allows the poorest families in Bangladesh to grow enough food to eat and sell all year round, even during the floods.

The simple genius of a solar powered water pump that harnesses the energy of a resource which exists in abundance in Kenya – the sunshine – to produce one which does not – clean water.

The quirky innovation of an eco-san loo which gives farmers in the mountains of Peru decent sanitation AND a means of preserving dry human waste to make good quality compost for their crops.

No matter how frustrating my day is, I do feel very blessed that I can go home safe in the knowledge that I spent my time trying my best to make life better for someone in need of a helping hand. That everything I do here is “for the people of Bangladesh. Or Kenya. Or Peru. Sudan. Sri Lanka. Zimbabwe. Nepal.

I repeated my colleague’s words to a friend this weekend and he warned me that I risked sounding holier-than-thou. I don’t feel pious or saintly, and I certainly hope I don’t sound like that. I just think that sometimes it’s important – perhaps even essential – to remember why we’re here.

What is water worth?

Thursday, April 5th, 2012 by

It rained all day here in Warwickshire yesterday, but one of the top stories on the news was the hosepipe ban in the south and east of England. We take an instant supply of clean water for granted, because most of the time we have more than enough rain in the UK. How would we feel if we had to carry every drop into our homes ourselves? I for one would think twice before taking a bath!

In the Mukuru settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, residents pay more than 5 times as much for water as we do in the UK – and they don’t have the luxury of a piped supply into the home. Water has to be collected in containers from a communal tap – often some distance away. And, in times of scarcity, water prices inevitably rocket. In many rural areas of Africa, women and children walk for miles to collect water from wells.

In the UK we struggle to reduce our use of water and government water saving advice mainly covers non essential activity such as washing the car and watering the garden.

In contrast, according to this article, Kashmiri children resort to shaving their heads when water is short so that their hair doesn’t appear unkempt. I can’t see this being a popular piece of government advice here!

Practical Action has innovative ways of helping people gain access to clean water. By developing a partnership between local people and the utility company, improved access to clean water has been achieved for many thousands in the Mukuru settlement. Restricting our supply may help us to appreciate just how good (and comparatively cheap) our water is and encourage us to do a bit more to help the 1.3 billion people who lack access to safe water.