Archive for July, 2012

Smoke the killer in the Kitchen

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012 by

I’ve just opened my copy of our magazine Small World which has an article about smoke reducing stoves. Agnes Ngari from Kenya tells her story – she starts

“My husband died 5 years ago of pneumonia, It was so hard for me to be on my own with the children. I have been a labourer all my life, working on the rice plantations next to my home. I don’t know how I survived before because I hardly made any money….

I didn’t realise how bad the smoke was. Our eyes would stream constantly and there were so many problems with our lungs….”

This is a positive story of how Agnes has turned her life around making and selling fuel efficient, lower smoke stoves as part of a women’s cooperative helped by Practical Action.

But as I read the story I found myself shouting at the page (I do talk to books and computers!) ’Smoke killed your husband and you don’t know it!’

I may be wrong but Smoke – officially known as indoor air pollution – increases the susceptibility to pneumonia. Most often that’s in children –pneumonia kills more children under 5 than any other disease – killing a child every 20 seconds. In adults it causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) which puts people at greater risk of developing pneumonia creating a downward spiral of repeated lung infections and further decline in lung function – sometimes until people die.

Writing this I’m reminder of an argument I’ve had for years with a more academic colleague who says that smoke doesn’t kill anyone – pneumonia, COPD, lung cancer, etc. kills people, smoke just makes it much more likely you will die as a result of one of these diseases. I always counter with ‘then tobacco smoke doesn’t kill you’ – which she agrees it doesn’t – it’s the lung cancer that gets you every time.

Thankfully I’m not an academic – smoke in the kitchen has been estimated as the equivalent of smoking 2 packets of cigarettes a day – very bad for adults, appalling for children. Smoke is the killer in the kitchen. And sad to say I suspect it claimed Agnes’s husband.

Let’s help protect Agnes’s children.

Hope and love and unity and perseverance and people

Monday, July 30th, 2012 by

I am not a cynic by nature. Yet something about the London 2012 Olympics has unearthed a curmudgeonly Ella Jolly who I never knew existed.

The knowledge that £9 billion of taxpayers’ money has been spent on the Olympics – at the expense of other public spending – while usually austere politicians feebly reassure the British people that putting London on the world stage will ultimately be ‘good for growth’, fills me with fury.

Each time I walk through Euston station in London, which is plastered with McDonalds adverts screaming hollowly “We all make the games”, I feel so outraged that this sporting event is sponsored by a multinational corporation whose insatiability contributes to the obesity epidemic across the western world.

And although communities across Britain participated in the monumental Olympic torch relay, the Games themselves still feel so London-centric. Walking round Oxford Street this weekend, the Olympics were omnipresent – in all shop windows, billboards, tube announcements. Back in sleepy Warwickshire that heady excitement seems a little distant.

So as I settled down last week to watch the Opening Ceremony on Friday evening, I was fully anticipating feelings of cynicism or anger or embarrassment or disappointment.

Instead, my own heart surprised me, and I felt moved, entertained, humbled, and full of joy.

I do not have a patriotic bone in my body – last year’s Royal Wedding and this year’s Jubilee Celebrations left me feeling strangely numb – yet the Great Britain that Danny Boyle, the director of the ceremony, presented to the world, was a Great Britain that felt like mine.

It rejoiced in the rural and the urban, the simplicity of a bygone pastoral age and the connectedness of our own digital era, and crucially, it made heroes of normal everyday British people – the performers were all volunteers. It hailed all the wonders of Britain – the NHS; our rich literary heritage from Shakespeare and Milton to J.K. Rowling and J.M. Barrie; our incredibly diverse music: David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Arctic Monkeys, Dizzee Rascal; that singularly British sense of humour, and the power of youth and hope.

It celebrated love, with Paul McCartney singing “and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”, and unity, with Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the internet) tweeting live “this is for everyone”. Love and unity.

And as the competing Olympic athletes processed round the stadium, I felt so proud to see representatives  from Kenya, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Peru – countries where Practical Action endeavours to work in partnership with some of the poorest people to make their lives a little better. I am sure that those athletes have had to persevere against the odds to secure a place in London 2012.

In a Practical Action blog last week, my colleague Mansoor posed the question “do the Olympics and our efforts to fight global poverty have a relationship?” and anticipated an Opening Ceremony about oneness and our diverse unity. Mansoor was correct I think. The ceremony was indeed about unity and diversity. And it was also somehow – amazingly – both uniquely British, and cosmically human. I think that’s why I loved it.

That feeling of cosmic humanity is absolutely fundamental in our efforts to fight global poverty.

All too often development is considered an academic pursuit, with the people living in poverty all too often anonymous beneficiaries. For me, development is not academic. It is personal. It is about people. And they are living, feeling, thinking human beings with their own stories. And I don’t think we can ever afford to forget that development is, ultimately, about people.

Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony not only made me glad to British, it made me glad to be human. And it made me believe. It made me believe in hope and love and unity and perseverance and people. And I think in order to fight global poverty we all need to believe.

Local solutions to local problems

Monday, July 30th, 2012 by
Gwanda community meeting

Gwanda community meeting

The Secretary General of the FAO came to Harare today. According to the papers his most important message was that Zimbabwe should be seeking local solutions to local problems.

This echoes a meeting I had with the FAO just a couple of days back. FAO are excited about our podcasting work. They are currently funding the creation of a post-harvest handbook for farmers and extension workers in the local Nbele language. Now we are talking about breaking down that manual into audio chunks – podcasts – which can be played to the local communities.

Our meeting got exciting as I started to think about the Practical Answers website becoming a repository for podcasts in local languages from throughout the Southern African region. Part of our project is to capture the local knowledge – in danger of being lost as older generations die out. If we could harness the power of all our partner NGOs to capture this knowledge – upload it and then share it we could reach hundreds of thousands of people. To make the project sustainable we could even create a subscription service where NGOs and others contribute to the costs of the service but the information is made freely available to the people who need it.

 We’ll see how this one develops but it’s another sign of how powerful our knowledge sharing service already is, but also what the potential for further growth is.

Batman – The fight for appropriate technology

Friday, July 27th, 2012 by

Dragged by my 16 year old to see Batman (needed a driver for her and her friends) I was surprisingly taken with the story if not the violence.

Batman faces a dilemma – he’s invented a fusion generator possibly the greatest source of renewable energy the world will ever know. But it could also be the world’s greatest bomb.

At the start of the film the generator has been mothballed for 3 years – by the end (spoiler alert) it’s been destroyed.

It was a story about what is and is not appropriate technology.

Fritz Schumacher talked about Small is Beautiful – not because he hated big technology but because he thought we were obsessed by it and ignoring the huge potential of small scale, local and decentralised. I would argue that while the definition of small may have changed we are still obsessed with new, ignoring traditional and proven technologies. Vital technologies for poverty reduction.

So in the next Batman and Robin – I hope to see Batman fighting for decentralised, renewable, sustainable energy technologies for poverty reduction.

He and James Bond can truly save the world!!

Ps the last James Bond film Quantum of Solace was about Technology Justice and how that is worked through in relation to water – or maybe I have a warped perspective!

Improved cooking stoves – an issue of perception?

Friday, July 27th, 2012 by

When I was a child, all households in my village (including my parents’) used three stone cook stoves. The vast majority still cook the same way now.

I left home at 17 and came back home many years later. The first wrong thing I saw (according to my perception) was the smoke coming out from my mum’s kitchen.

I was already an engineer and was working on small scale renewable energies. Although I wasn’t working on stoves at that time, I was aware of the harmful effects of smoke and the excessive fuel consumption of three stone stoves. I also had read about improved stoves and had seen designs being spread out in different parts of the world in developing countries.

The same day I arrived home, I asked my mother to change her three stone stove for an efficient and clean one that I would bring and install in her kitchen. I explained the benefits of the new stove, which from my point of view were great.

I told her they use less fuel and have lower smoke emissions which meant less of her time for fuel collection and better health. She listened patiently to my proposal and explanation of the benefits and replied: “Like the one of your aunt Maria? No thank you son.” She said she hadn’t seen such benefits. “Your aunty spends the same amount of time collecting fuels, and as for the smoke, I don’t see much wrong with it”. She gave me examples of large families all with smoky kitchens and said she had never seen a child dying from smoke inhalation, and the doctor or nurse had never told her that it could happen.

I started to think that sometimes one expects other people with other backgrounds to have the same perception as we have. I asked myself why she had a such a firm perception regarding clean stoves with “no benefits” or perhaps too little, too simple benefits compared to the big sacrifice she had to make to change her three stone stove for another one that she does not like and she does not like it for many good reasons from her point of view.

Now that I had become an advocate of energy access for the poor and I knew how important is for the poor to have clean and efficient cooking stoves, I asked myself why I was unable to convince my mother at that time. I asked myself whether other people had experienced similar situation where the perception of the potential users are very strong and they stick to their traditional three stone stoves. And what do they do to persuade these sorts of users to change their minds?

I would also like to add that poor people like the majority who use three stone stoves, generally lack information about many important issues. People living in isolated rural areas do not have access to information, they hardly listen to the radio, do not watch TV and most cannot dream to access to internet. Therefore, their perception is based on their own experience.

With that short personal story and introduction, I would like to ask other practitioners and advocates of energy access for the poor to share your thoughts about how to overcome this issue of strong perception of the poor in rural areas of no benefits or not enough benefits.

Consider that those using three stone stoves perceive many good qualities of a three stone stove: they find that the three stone stove is very simple; it costs no money; it is versatile – with a three stone stove the user can use as many pots as she/he wants and users do not need to carry their stove if they move from one to another place – they can quickly have a new one. These people have not seen or have not perceived the harmful effects of smoke and even the doctors or nurses who very occasionally talk to them have not told them anything about the harmful effects of smoke. Could you suggest how to overcome those issues of perception?

Living with drought in Mandera

Thursday, July 26th, 2012 by

It has been 12 months since Northern Kenya, and Mandera County in particular, saw one of the worst droughts in 60 years.

Thanks to your support, Practical Action was able to help thousands of poor people cope with the drought. But we need your help more than ever to ensure that the region doesn’t slip back into crisis when the next drought occurs.


Mandera County has an area of over 25,000 square kilometres of dry land and a population of 1,025,000 people. Most of these people are pastoralists who depend on their livestock to survive.

As we were already working in this area we expanded our services to help those most at risk.

Impact of the 2011 drought

Due to the failure of the rains from October to December 2010, water sources dried up and pastures diminished. Many livestock died as a result and their owners were unable to sustain their livelihoods and feed their families.

Inadequate and inappropriate economic, social and political preparedness strategies and ineffective early warning systems left pastoralists more vulnerable to the effects of drought. Interventions only begin when the drought impacts have reached emergency levels and the biggest casualty is usually the livestock and their poor owners.

What Practical Action did and how we did it

With the onset of the drought, Practical Action, with support from The Brooke and The Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad (SPANA) launched an emergency programme of work to minimize the losses of pastoralist livestock and donkeys.

We set up a feeding and vaccination programme for sheep and goats.

Donkey health service drives were provided to reduce worm infestations and treat opportunistic diseases that would have weakened donkeys or led them to early deaths.

We trained donkey owners and handlers to take care of their working animals to ensure no donkey died from thirst and overworking and distributed hay and feed to over 5,000 donkeys.

9,000 litres of diesel was provided to seven boreholes to support extension work on animal welfare at watering points. Crucially, water was also provided for villages located far away from water points. Four water troughs were rehabilitated, cracks repaired and piping done to connect it to a permanent water source.

Together with SPANA, we launched a media campaign to highlight the plight of livestock and their poor owners at the time when governments, aid agencies and international communities were concentrating their efforts on refugees. You can see the coverage here. Following this coverage, the UK government pledged an additional £4 million to support livestock in the region.

Without our urgent intervention and the intervention by others, the drought ravaging the region at that time could have got a lot worse.

What is the situation now?

Mandera County received some good short rains between October and December 2011. However, the long rains expected between March and May this year were below the normal level. A total of 54.4 mm of rainfall was recorded at Mandera meteorological station, compared to the normal rains of 100 to 150 mm. The pasture condition is normal but dry.

The condition of livestock is fair to good. However, this is expected to deteriorate as pastures dry up and water sources diminish over the summer, which will increase stress on the animals before the onset of the short rains in October to November 2012.

There is also low calving among cattle and camel due to the low conception rate during the last year’s drought. As a result, there is not much milk from camels and cattle.

What do we need to do as we look ahead?

Droughts are cyclical – they will return to the region. During every drought nearly 80% of Mandera’s population slide into an emergency situation –  losing livestock which lead to hunger, malnutrition and even death. That is why we need your help to support our work, so we can:

  •  Provide fuel subsidy for motorized water pumps running boreholes so these pumps can run 24/7 while poor pastoralists are unable to contribute to its running costs as a result of their animals losing value or dying. Support should also come in form of fast moving spare parts and expertise for water pump repairs.
  •  Introduce water/pasture saving, treatment and conservation technologies
  •  Maintain livestock food aid and animal health services to cushion the poor livestock owners from shocks that would diminish their livestock during drought.
  •  Initiate long term recovery activities such as de-silting and repairing strategic water sources, vaccinating and de-worming livestock to make them better able to stand adverse conditions, and supporting fodder producers with fuel subsidy and irrigation technologies.
  •  Advise pastoral communities to use reserve grazing land if available or to sell their livestock well before the water and pasture situation becomes critical.
  •  Rehabilitate degraded rangeland to eventually improve pasture availability.
  •  Facilitate animal health services and emergency livestock feed services along the livestock routes running between common border areas with Ethiopia and Somalia. This will help reduce economically important trans-boundary livestock diseases during the period of huge livestock influx between porous borders.
  •  Lobby for the suspension of taxes and service fees levied on livestock sellers during the emergency period to help in emergency off-take.

Please help us to continue to support these vulnerable people in Kenya.

Does Olympics and our efforts have a relationship?

Thursday, July 26th, 2012 by

The British summer finally arrived and London is busy and colourful.

The Olympics are very visible – they are everywhere. The more I am thinking about this, the more I admire its details.

It is a time when 203 countries come together, represented by more than 10,000 athletes, and forget their differences.

To me, this year’s Olympics says a lot about our oneness or may be I am feeling this more.

Firstly, the Olympic Park and the infrastructure improvements took place in East of London – a relatively deprived area of London. Despite some challenges, people are happy about this.

Secondly, the opening ceremony is directed by Danny Boyle, the director of the well known film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ about slums dwellers. We are expecting that the opening will have a core message on oneness – our diverse unity.

Many organisations are supporting Olympics, but what is more inspiring is this feeling that in London that ‘we need to make it a success’. We are the host. I was in London yesterday and this feeling is everywhere and in everyone. An amazing number of volunteers, 70, 000 are giving their time for these games. The actual applications may be five times more than this. You could estimate the financial, love and happiness values of their times.

Working in international development, we positively feel the message of Olympics more deeply. The message of our oneness, the importance of our love, the value of our respect to each other. The importance of thinking beyond ourselves – the 70,000 volunteers. This is about together make it happen. I always wish that all these values could be replicated and used for our efforts to reduce global poverty. Wishing all the best to the 2012 Olympics and to those who regularly work on the values of unity and oneness. In this one world.

ICT outreach in Zimbabwe

Thursday, July 26th, 2012 by

Gwanda knowledge nodeThe Ministry of ICT in Zimbabwe have three digital programmes. They want to encourage e-government (improving their own webistes etc.), e-learning (equipping schools) and they are interested in setting up Community Information Centres, where people can gain one stop access to a whole heap of services and information. It is this last initiative which Practical Action is interested in partnering with.

Fibre is a relatively recent arrival in Zimbabwe – previous the only connection to the internet was via satellite and microwave links. In the last couple of years two new companies have brought the internet through fibre cable – and now all the major roads seem to have a recently completed trench at the side deomnstrating the progress of the fibre cable to different towns.

The idea of the Ministry is to use a handful of public buildings (possibly Post Offices) to host these community information centres. Our contribution would be to create a technical information point for our Practical Answers service where people could view our technical briefs, ask questions of trained staff, view “how to” videos and listen to podcasts.

Working with the government in Zimbabwe is of course fraught with challenges – nothing in Zimbabwe is apolitical. But equally you can’t build any kind of communications infrastructure without government endorsement. So as we go forwards we will need to ensure that whatever partnership we come to, our independence is assured.

In praise of inspirational mothers

Monday, July 23rd, 2012 by

My mother, Helen, is an inspiration to me. She left school aged 16 and went straight into a responsible full-time secretarial job at a local engineering firm. Aged 21, she moved to Italy for some adventure. She made friends and a life – and can still speak Italian fluently. After she returned to the UK, and met and married my father, she embarked on motherhood. Aged 35, she had four energetic children all under the age of seven. I look back on my childhood, and remember my beautiful but boisterous brothers, and marvel at how she kept her sanity. She then went back to college to study, and finally embarked on a degree in English Literature – while still being a committed and dedicated mother and wife, and working at a local school. I struggled to focus on my degree even when I was 18 and totally free, and it was the only thing I had to think about. The fact my Mum did hers, and graduated with a 2:1 from one of the best universities in the country, is still completely remarkable to me. Her unfaltering sense of calm, and enduring belief that everything will be ok in the end – you will survive the very worst of life: heartbreak, illness, bereavement – is an inspiration to me.

But I know many people feel like this about their Mum. The bond between mother and child is the most unique, the most unshakeable love.

Today I am writing up many more of the stories I collected while visiting our work in Sudan. And what strikes me is how passionately the people with whom we work feel about Practical Action. Over and over again, I listened to stories from people who have clung on to life in the face of poverty, famine and war. The words they have for Practical Action are profoundly moving, and go beyond the clichéd (although still wonderful) “Practical Action changed my life”:

“Practical Action is like a mother to us – we see ourselves as the children of Practical Action.”

“I thank Practical Action. You know how to save people.”

“Practical Action thinks about the whole picture – our animals, our land, our food. Our community thanks Practical Action, the words “Practical Action” are never far from our minds!”

“Practical Action solves problems. It is the only organisation that actually looks at us as people. We are no longer alone.”

“I could not have done it without…Practical Action. Practical Action is a mother, a teacher, a saviour.”

I love the fact that people are so eager to speak about Practical Action in this way. And what is particularly compelling to me is that suggestion that “Practical Action is like a mother”.

Why do people say this?

Well firstly, I think it is testament to just how wonderful our project workers are. They are loyal, hardworking and compassionate people.

Secondly, I believe that the phrase “Practical Action is like a mother” illustrates our unique approach to development. Like the best mothers, Practical Action seeks to raise confident, caring, fulfilled, independent offspring. If children cannot live happily beyond their mothers, then something has gone wrong. Similarly, if people cannot move successfully to a future beyond Practical Action’s development projects, then something hasn’t quite worked.

In Sudan what was perhaps most impressive to me was the sense that Practical Action empowers whole communities. Our work might start with technology, but that’s all it is – the starting point. The end point is leaving communities in a state where they are capable of making their own development dreams a reality.

Or as someone else said:

“We will know what to do long after Practical Action leaves. I am very happy and proud. I am hoping that one day we will be able to do for other poor people in Sudan what Practical Action has done for us.”

...and an inspirational mother and daughter in Darfur

...and an inspirational mother and daughter in Darfur

ella jolly and mother

With my inspirational mother...

Podcasts for Poverty

Friday, July 20th, 2012 by

We travelled for a day and a half to reach Ntepe – a ward in Gwanda district, south western Zimababwe. A crowd of 50 – mainly women greeted us beneath the spreading arms of a huge, but dead,Gwanda livelihoods podcast tree. Around us the earth was completely parched and there was red dust in the air as the winter wind was picking up.

I was travelling, with the Permanent Secretary of the Zimbabwean Ministry of ICT and a number of our key local partners – to witness for myself the podcasting work that Practical Action is delivering there.

Podcasting is effectively a way of communicating with people who have no access to the internet, no access to mobile phones, no TV and no radio. We use it to share information with remote and vulnerable people around agricultural techniques and issues of water and water conservation.

Local knowledge workers charge their MP3 players and are given new materials through our local partners who operate from the nearest market town (Gwanda) some 70 km away. They take the new messages out to community meetings where they play them. Unlike traditional extension services – where the Ministry of Agriculture employee comes, delivers a lecture, and then goes, the podcast and MP3 is left in the community, so anyone who missed it or wants to listen again can do so.

The most effective thing about the podcasts is that they are recorded in local languages and dialects. This means that unlike many knowledge materials – they really do reach the last mile. One of the women told me that what she liked best was that she could trust the podcast – it was accurate where, she suspected the men from the Ministry did not always tell the truth!