Archive for August, 2012

A Meal I’ll Never Forget

Sunday, August 26th, 2012 by

“Eat your dinner”


“Yes, you can’t let that go to waste”


“There’s a child in Africa who would love that”

We’ve all heard the cliche of how British children must finish their dinner because there’s a child in Africa who would love it. Well I now know this to be true as I’ve met that child and his name is Federico.

I have been in Kisumu for the past few days, travelling around the city with some of my Practical Action colleagues seeing Practical Action’s work on the ground. It has been a humbling, inspiring and frankly exhausting few days. At lunch time today we had seen everything that we had planned and all that was left was to grab a bite to eat and then head to the airport (I’m writing this from the departures lounge).

My hosts suggested that we go do to Lake Victoria to have a traditional dish of talapia and ugali. The meal was a great experience that I will never forget, not only because it was the first time I’ve eaten a fish dinner without cutlery. The four of us shared two large fish and two wedges of ugali (a Kenyan staple of maize flour and water, imagine solidified wall paper paste and you’re about there). The others laughed at me as I got to grips of eating using my fingers, but I soon got the hang of it and had a great meal.

We sat back and compared what was left of our once meaty fish. It was declared that myself and Noah had outdone Loice and Francis, but truth be told there wasn’t much left on either fish. We’d all had a great meal. What happened next really took me by surprise. A young man, perhaps in his early teens came to the table, as though a waiter, although it was soon clear he was not a member of staff. HIs clothes were scruffy and he had a black plastic bag in his hand. He picked up each dish with the remains of our meals and scooped them into his plastic bag before placing them back on the table. I was completely shocked, I had never seen anything like this happen before. The boy said his thanks and left beaming before turning around a shouting “God Bless You!”.

I checked with Francis that he was indeed planning on picking the bones of our left overs to make sure I hadn’t completely miss-read the situation. When Francis confirmed this I felt I needed to chat to the boy. I jumped up from my seat and found the boy outside the next restaurant along. His English was perfectly good and we had a brief chat. I learnt that he lived in Kisumu city centre with four other young boys. He came down to the restaurants each day to see what he could salvage and would take it back to his friends so the five of them could eat together. I told him that had I known, I would have left more.

I don’t know what the moral of the story really is. I don’t want anyone to go away from this thinking they should eat every scrap put in front of them, I don’t think that will help anyone except for belt manufacturers. Perhaps it’s the quantity of food we put on out plates in the first place that needs to change. I’ll close this blog with a quote that’s been running around my head the entire time I’ve been in Kenya.

“Live simply, so that others may simply live”

Street Parties and Water

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012 by

Back in June I went to a party, a very good party. There was a BBQ, beer, a band, games and lots of cake. It was a street party in the street I grew up in celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. I’m led to believe it took a fair amount of planning to organise such an event. A budget needed to be set, a price for tickets and the whole street needed to be invited, the list goes on. So a group of parents from my old street set up a party committee. I think they had 3 or 4 meetings in the run up to the party and exchanged chains of emails. Someone was appointed to be in charge of the money, someone else was sourcing the BBQ and others were in charge of booking a band. The group of 15 people in the committee did all this in preparation to ensure the party was a huge success. Leaflets were put through peoples doors and requests for tickets came flooding in, this was going to be a good old fashioned British Street Party.

I’m glad to say the day was a huge success, over 100 people turned up and the threatening bad weather stayed away, so we had fun dancing into the evening. The success of the day was all down to this group of 15 people, they had taken it upon themselves to ensure that everyone had the chance to celebrate this historic occasion together. Well done all.

I was in a meeting this morning discussing a very similar project… similar in some ways, but a stark contrast in others. Like the party committee about 15 members of a community had come together to take charge, take responsibility for the good of a community of over 100 people. But the responsibility wasn’t to do with throwing a cracking party. No, it was far more basic and certainly more important. Although, I hear you ask, what could be more important than celebrating Her Maj’s 60 years on the throne… Water.

The committee had come together to ensure their urban community had a clean, safe water supply that they paid a fair price for. Through DMM (Delegated Management Model) this group of individuals had stepped up to take responsibility for the water supply representing over 100 water users. Because they had stepped up and were taking responsibility for the water supply they were able to negotiate the price of the water to the end user to half what it was before. The water was pumped from the mains supply to a master meter, here it was split off to four medium meters before separating again to individual meters. Once past the master meter the water is the responsibility of the committee. With the support of Practical Action the committee has taken responsibility for the water for the good of their entire neighbourshood.

Although the party committee put on a great spread, the water committee is the winner in my eyes.

Let’s hear from the YIMBYs

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012 by

At a recent meeting I heard from a group of Wiltshire climate change activists who were very angry about their local council’s recent decision to effectively ban wind turbines in the county (on health and safety grounds, in case a blade shears off and hits someone)

The Council seems to have been lobbied by some loud and persuasive NIMBYs. Opposition to wind farms in the UK is very vocal; amongst politicians, the media and celebrities and we don’t often hear from wind energy supporters. I was struck that the group I was listening to weren’t saying “Not in my back yard” and are actually very keen to see a wind farm in their back yards. They were, in fact, YIMBYs (saying “yes in my back yard”  – and I was very proud of myself for inventing a new word). As it turns out, I hadn’t – there are YIMBY movements in Sweden and North America – but, even so, in the renewable energy debate we only seem to hear from some very noisy NIMBYs. We certainly don’t hear from millions of communities in Africa, Latin America and southern Asia who have no access to energy.

Small scale wind power scheme in Peru

YIMBYs in Peru

Wiltshire County Council’s health & saftety concerns would seem ludicrous to the communities we work with at Practical Action. These communities  would see a wind turbine in their backyard (or a solar panel on their roof) as a real opportunity to get the energy they need to work their way out of poverty. They are definitely YIMBYs . In fact, if you could make an acronym out of it, wind turbines are “Essential  In Millions of  Back Yards”.

So, I propose that the #YIMBYs of the world must unite, if you are in Wiltshire, Kenya, Peru or Nepal make your voice heard for sustainable energy for local people.

Changing the Green Climate Fund

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012 by

Mahatma Gandi once famously said “Be the change you want to see in the world”. However, for most of us the reality is that we find change difficult. Whether it’s changing jobs, moving home or far more challenging issues like dealing with redundancy, divorce or illness, change is rarely easy.

When it comes to countries dealing with change, just like the rest of us they don’t find it easy but some are better prepared than others. Last week the UK based risk analysts Maplecroft published a Natural Hazards Risk Atlas looking at how different countries deal with climate related changes such as flooding and tropical cyclones.

The atlas found that countries like Japan, USA, China, Taiwan and Mexico had the highest risk to natural disasters but they also had the potential to recover the most quickly due to their economic strength, strong governance, building regulations and disaster preparedness. In contrast the emerging economies of South East Asia including Bangladesh, the Philippines, Myanmar, India and Vietnam were at the most risk overall because their economies and infrastructure were the least able to recover from natural shocks.

“High exposure to natural hazards in these countries are compounded by a lack of resilience to combat the effects of a disaster should one emerge,” said Helen Hodge, Head of Maps and Indices at Maplecroft. “Given the exposure of key financial and manufacturing centres, the occurrence of a major event would be likely to have significant impacts on the total economic output of these countries, as well as foreign business.”

Importantly the report goes on to conclude that these events ‘could exacerbate social unrest, food insecurity, corruption and ultimately could lead to political risk’. These are the indirect and too often hidden effects of climate change and why it’s essential that even during a global recession governments put climate change firmly back on the political agenda.

Practical Action has been working with flooding victims in Bangladesh for over a decade. During this time we have learnt many lessons about what does and doesn’t work, lessons which we believe governments could find useful in climate adaptation. That’s why we have organised a European speaker tour in November with Nazmul Chowdhury, who manages our major DFID sponsored project in the country called Pathways from Poverty. It is also why we have organised an event at the climate change talks in Qatar on Wednesday 28 November called “Learning the lessons from flooding in climate adaptation”.

One of the major global mechanisms for tackling climate change is the Green Climate Fund which channels money from developed to developing countries. The Fund has been set up to “provide support to developing countries to limit or reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the impacts of climate change”.

After months of haggling over nominations to the board, the first meeting of the fund will finally take place in Geneva, Switzerland from 23 to 25 August. The fund has a target to raise $100billion by 2020 but so far only about $30 billion has been pledged and just $11 billion raised. Much more progress will be needed at the climate talks in Qatar if we are not to see natural disasters becoming financial ones across many emerging economies in South East Asia.

We got the GOLD!!

Monday, August 20th, 2012 by

I know the Olympics are over but last Friday I felt like we had won the gold medal!

We found out that that we had been successful in securing funding from the EC for a three year project.    Practical Action will be managing the project with partners in Cyprus (CARDET), Poland (CCE) and Italy ( Oxfam Italia) as well as Engineers without Borders ( EWB) and the Centre for Science Education (CSE) in the UK.

Our project Technology challenging poverty: Make the link  will focus around integrating issues around technology justice into  science and design and technology education.

Students at both primary and secondary school will ‘make the link’ between:

  • science and technology and global poverty reduction
  • their own behaviour and the impact on the developing world

We are really exciting about what we will be able to achieve with this funding.  It will enable us to not only produce a fantastic new range of support material for teachers  but also include teacher training and a real opportunity to shape the policy and practice of science and D & T teaching within a large number of schools throughout Europe.

Watch this space!!


Kilimanjaro: Summit Night

Sunday, August 19th, 2012 by

In our briefing before our summit attempt, Isaac told us that although the trek was six days, we only had one chance. I still hadn’t been too affected by the altitude; others had been being sick and endured piercing headaches. The main thing I had noticed before this point was that everything took so much effort; I never knew that drinking a single mouthful of water would cause me to lose my breath. So the thought of climbing a further 1400m seemed pretty impossible.

We were woken up at 10:30pm and it was already pretty cold outside and pitch black. We would be returning to the same camp, so there was no need to pack up. There wasn’t very much to pack up as I was wearing almost everything I had brought up the mountain. We had been warned that the temperature could get as low as minus 25C. We had some tea and biscuits, donned our head torches and lined up ready to go. We would be walking in single file for the next 9 hours, taking a two or three minute break every hour or so. We were told we were only allowed to take 1.5 litres of water with us due to weight and that it would cool us down too much if we had more than a sip.

The first few hours seemed to pass quickly and we were well on our way. Although others were already being affected by the altitude, it hadn’t hit me too badly… yet. At 1:30am, it reared its ugly head as I passed 5000m AMSL. That’s three miles vertically above sea level – no wonder it hurt. It started with stomach cramps and a searing headache, then shortly afterwards exhaustion began to set in. At the third break of the evening I couldn’t sit up and just lay on the mountain for three minutes, I took some paracetamol, ibuprofen and an energy tablet, which meant that I could get off the floor and face the next hour at least.

The pace had slowed to a crawl now, and each time the person in front of me stopped I leant on my poles and closed my eyes. I would fall asleep momentarily each time this happened. It’s fair to saw this was a pretty low point for me and it would only get worse. To add to the headaches, cramps, exhaustion and temporary narcolepsy I had a new challenge to deal with… I had started hallucinating and I would later find out I wasn’t the only one. At first I started seeing people that weren’t there, they were in my periphery and when I looked directly at them they soon disappeared. I then started stepping over rocks that weren’t actually there which was particularly unhelpful. And strangest of all, I looked up the mountain and about 20 metres ahead of me I saw a cotton wool like cloud about 20 feet wide resting on the surface of the mountain. The strange thing was that I then heard someone behind me talking about the cloud. It took me several seconds to realise that neither the cloud or the conversation existed.

At this point, I really didn’t think I’d be able to get to the top, but at about 3:30am whilst we had a couple of minutes rest one of the team said they had run out battery on the iPod, so I asked if I could use their headphones (I had my phone so I could call my mum from the top, but no headphones). He obliged and so I spent the next few hours listening to stand-up comedy, which distracted me from the silence. There was no conversation anymore, everyone just plodded on, one small step after another. I would also spend the next few hours longing for sunrise to arrive, partly to see sunrise from 5500m but mainly because I hoped it would take the edge off the cold.

The sun did arrive at about 6:30 and I’ve never been so happy to see it. We were still about 50m shy of Stella Point (5739m) when dawn broke and it would take us a further half hour to climb those 50m. Once there we could see the crater and it was the first time we could see the peak. We had a short celebration and break. Spirits had lifted and it couldn’t have felt more different from an hour before. I felt like making it to Uhuru Peak was a certainty now, whereas a few hours ago I wasn’t certain of anything at all.

The views as we walked around the rim of the crater were amazing. Looking to my right, I looked deep into the crater below, and to my left was a huge glacier. Then finally, looking straight ahead I saw the sign that we had been aiming for stating we had reached Uhuru Peak, 5895m AMSL. Walking up to the sign, it didn’t quite seem real that we’d made it. 30 out of our group of 32 made it to the summit, which is a pretty astonishing achievement, and a testament to our brilliant guides. I felt gutted for the two how hadn’t made it to the top and spoke to them both as soon as I made it back to camp. One girl was too ill to attempt the summit night trek, so had stayed in her tent and the other had made it to 5200m and turned around after fainting six times, clearly the right decision and one she did not regret in the slightest. At the top the 30 of us along with our guides hugged congratulated each other, took in our achievement and posed for a photo or two.

I had joked on the way up that, as far as I was concerned the trek ended at the top and that I wasn’t thinking passed reaching the summit. I would soon learn that, that wasn’t the case and in many ways going down was as much of a challenge, but that I will save for another day.

If you want to see a few more of my snaps from the trek, then you can see them here, any comments welcome.

Kilimanjaro: Not a walk in the park

Sunday, August 19th, 2012 by

Just over a week ago I wrote a blog as I was preparing for a once in a lifetime adventure (and as you read on you’ll learn why it will certainly be a once in a lifetime adventure). I was preparing for a trip to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro, packing my bags and scaring myself by reading up on altitude sickness. I got off the mountain two days ago and still haven’t recovered, I’ve just gone for a walk round the block of my hotel in Nairobi to try and loosen off. Stairs are still a big issue. Back in the comfort of my hotel room I shall give you a short account of my Kilimanjaro challenge.

On Saturday morning, we landed in Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi and were loaded onto a couple of buses as we transferred down to Arusha. The journey would be about six hours including crossing the border at Namanga. There was a sense of nervousness when a huge mountain came into view after we crossed the border. This feeling was heightened when our driver pointed out that was only Mount Meru which stands 1330 metres shorter than Kilimanjaro. We arrived at our hotel in Arusha late afternoon and had a briefing from our two Lead Guides, Isaac and Eli (pronounced Ellie). All briefings were only ever for the following day so that we did not get overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge ahead of us. We prepped our kit, ensuring we had everything we needed, enjoyed dinner round the corner before an early night.

Day 1
The day would start with more travelling: along with our team of guides and porters we piled into a couple of buses for the three hour drive to Machame Gate. We signed in at the gate and got the necessary pre-departure team photo. At this point we didn’t feel too much like a team, but we would gel into one very quickly. Machame Gate is 1800m AMSL (Above Mean Sea Level), so we would START our walk nearly 500m higher than the highest point in Britain.

Our first day’s trekking would see us climb 1300m through rainforest, many of the group saw monkeys but I was never in the right place at the right time. We would camp at Machame Camp, still within the forest, and enjoyed a meal prepared by our skilled chefs. It had been a long day and I felt particularly stiff after a total of about 20 hours traveling before the walk, so I was very happy to bed down on my particularly comfortable sleeping mat.

Day 2
We were woken up at 6:20, so that we could get a good early start on the day. Even though we were over 3000m AMSL it would still get warm within a few hours, so an early start was essential. After the almost claustrophobic feeling of the rainforest, the views to be seen on day two were awe inspiring. We moved above the tree line fairly early in the morning and  so we had brilliant views above the African Savanna. We would camp at Shira Camp, the coldest camp of the trip as there was no shelter at all. This did give me the opportunity to get a photo of the camp under the stars as people wandered about with head torches on.

Day 3
One of the biggest challenges of climbing Kilimanjaro is dealing with the altitude. I usually wake up at about 50m AMSL in Warwickshire, on day three I woke up at 3850m AMSL and would pass Lava Tower at 4600m AMSL. To acclimatise to the altitude, you climb high and sleep low. So although we would climb 750m by lunch time, we’d then descend 650m after lunch to camp at the base of Barranco Wall. Although we knew it was all part of the plan, it was quite depressing walking so far downhill when we were climbing a mountain. When we made it to camp, it was very clear to see what the next morning had in store for us as we were camped at the base of the intimidating Barranco Wall. As the sun went down our attentions turned from The Wall to one of the many brilliant sunsets from the trek. This trip is the first time I’ve been able to experience a sunset from above the clouds.

Day 4
Throughout the trek we had a huge support team of guides, chefs and porters who made the whole thing possible. Some porters carried our main backpacks (on their heads) and others carried the communal kit, such as tents, cooking equipment and even toilets. This feat was made all the more impressive as they left camp after us, overtook us and arrived the next camp before us. They were astonishing. Climbing Kilimanjaro would simply not be possible without them.

We woke up at 6am to ensure we were able to be trekking by 7am. We had to start so early so that we could have got over Barranco Wall before the porters (both ours and those from other expeditions) needed to pass us. It certainly was quite a scramble with intimidating drops meant you had to stay so close to the rock, wandering towards the edge just wasn’t an option. I’ve highlighted the exact route we took.

The day would continue with more ascents and descents finishing mid-afternoon at Barrafu Camp (4600m AMSL). We had a very early dinner before bedding down for some much needed sleep at 5pm.

Knowing what was ahead of me, it was surprising that I slept beautifully.

To be continued…

There is a light that never goes out

Friday, August 17th, 2012 by

Watching Mo Farah sprint to a glorious second gold medal in the 5000m race last Saturday night, I felt overwhelmed by a sense of awe.

I had read a newspaper interview earlier that day with Mo’s elder brother, Faisal Farah, who lives in Somaliland (a self-proclaimed independent state which remains unrecognized internationally), and works on his farm nestled deep in the African savannah. Although I knew the basic details of Mo Farah’s life – Somali-born, lived in the UK since childhood and hugely philanthropic – the interview with his brother was an inspiration.

Mo was born in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu. Although his father was a businessman, and his family lived a life of relative middle-class comfort, the political chaos soon saw Somalia hurtle into a brutal civil war lasting over 20 years. Mo’s family, who originated from Somaliland, were forced to flee back to that region. And once there, they lived in an IDP camp.

When I was in Sudan I interviewed several people who had lived for many years in IDP camps – places for ‘internally displaced persons’. An ‘internally displaced person’ is someone who flees their home, but not their country. Someone who crosses borders to escape becomes a refugee. But whether you’re an IDP or refugee, life is difficult. The camps are places of little dignity – so many people squeezed into tiny tents – and there is no way of making a sustainable living, so you survive on hand-outs from aid agencies.

Imagine that – Mo Farah, double gold medal winning Olympic athlete – spent his early childhood in a refugee camp in the middle of a warring country. There would have been no water, no decent toilets, no proper houses, no schools, limited medical help. And he’s somehow gone from that – from hell – to record-breaking sporting achievement and worldwide adulation.

I can’t stop picturing all the millions of little children around the world who are currently living in hell. Maybe they are trapped in the blood bath that is Syria, or dying of hunger in the Sahel. Think of all the future Mo Farahs among them. Think of who they could be, of the lives they could have.

I hope against hope that, like Mo Farah, all those children someday have the opportunity to move on to a brighter life – to a life where existence is more than simply a battle to survive and keep body and soul together, but where you can fulfil every little bit of your potential, follow every dream you have, light all of your hopes.

End note: This day last year I was in Kenya. I’d spent two weeks visiting Practical Action’s work across the country and was getting ready to go home. I woke up on the morning of my final day in Nairobi hugely excited about my last field trip, to the library and community centre built by Practical Action in Kibera, the huge sprawling mass of a slum just outside the city centre. And then I discovered – via Facebook – that my grandfather, Michael, who had suffered from Alzheimer’s for many years, had died. Michael was a man who spent his life playing and watching sport, in awe of athletic achievement. I know he would have loved Mo Farah. He was a reluctant hoper – but a hoper nonetheless. We need more of them. So this one is for my Grandad.


Our survey said…

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012 by

Teachers who use Practical Action's Resources

We recently carried out a survey to find out how teachers use on-line resources and what they think of our resources in particular.  We were thrilled that over 400 teachers took part.  Thank you so much if you were one of them.

We found out really useful information that will help us work out more accurately how many students our material reaches and how it shapes students attitudes towards global poverty and subsequent behaviour.

…for example

14% of teachers share resources through social media

On average a teacher will share a resource with 53 students

23 % of teachers said our resources often increased students understanding of the role of technology in reducing poverty

35% of teachers said our resources often led to students leading a more sustainable lifestyle, a further 60% saying it they did ‘sometimes’

We also found out that once they know about us they become strong supporters, visiting our site on on average once a month

What was most heart warming was all the quotes from teachers saying how much they value our material.

‘ ..flexible yet detailed, simple to access and adapt with enough information that you can write a lesson plan in a few minutes using the information available.  I frequently use Practical Action’s resources when being observed. Topical, up to date and best of all the students love them!

‘When using the tomato challenge students were surprised to see how technology can really help the poor.’

There is often an ‘aha’ moment when students make a connections between theoretical subject specific knowledge, a real work example and how it works for good’

‘..using the resource Moja Island I received an ‘outstanding’ observation’

We also asked teachers if they would be willing and able to introduce the concept of technology justice – the right of every one to have access to the technologies they need to live a life they value, without harming others now or in the future – into their teaching.   To our delight a whopping 65% said they would definitely or be quite likely to do so.   As Practical Action begins a movement towards technology justice we take this as a really good sign and will begin including it in our future educational material.

Spare a thought for those countries who didn’t win an Olympic medal

Monday, August 13th, 2012 by

What was your favourite moment from the London 2012 Olympics? Usain Saint Leo “Lightning” Bolt winning the 100 metres? Mo Farah winning double gold in the 5000 and 10,000 metres as the audience in the Olympic park erupted? For me it was teenage poster boy Tom Daley winning his bronze medal in the 10 metre diving competition and later paying a really moving tribute to his late father who died of brain cancer last year. As Clare Balding said ‘if anyone deserves a medal at these Olympics, its Tom’.

But whatever your favourite moment was, spare a thought for all those countries who didn’t win a medal at London 2012. Of the 204 countries who took part in the games, 118 countries or over half will be going home empty handed. There will be no post London 2012 party or national homecoming celebration for them.

Of these the largest nation by population size is Bangladesh. With over 152 million people Bangladesh is the eighth most populous country in the world but it has never even had an athlete qualify for the Olympics, let alone got a medal.  The five person team who represented the country at London 2012 all did so courtesy of Olympics wildcards.

Why has a country the size of Bangladesh never qualified or won a medal at the Olympics? Some commentators have blamed the country’s obsession with cricket as a reason because it is not included in the Olympics. The good news for Bangladesh is that cricket could feature at the 2020 games. However, with the team currently ranked nine in the world it still seems like a long shot for a medal.

The real reason of course is that Bangladesh is chronically poor with nearly half of the country’s children not having enough food to eat. So while Bangladesh didn’t feature in the medals table, it was one of the countries singled out in the Hunger Summit which took place at 10 Downing Street on the same day as the Olympics closing ceremony. It brought together a range of Olympians including Mo Farah and the legendary sports stars Pele and Haile Gebrselassie who in an open letter to the Prime Minister David Cameron urged him to tackle child malnutrition when Britain heads up the presidency of the G8 next year.

One of the causes of child poverty in Bangladesh is the fact that a large proportion of the country is low-lying and is therefore at high risk to flooding, extreme weather events which are occurring with increasing frequency due to climate change.  At the end of June unprecedented rains resulted in over one hundred people being killed and over a quarter of a million losing their homes. You can see the effect of this flooding and some of the ways we are helping people there rebuild their lives and homes in this new Practical Action video.

“While people around the planet have been enjoying and competing in these Games, there`s another world where children don`t have enough to eat and never get the start in life they deserve,” the Prime Minister said at the summit. “We`ve a responsibility to tackle this.”

When it comes to securing an Olympic legacy, tackling malnutrition is easily worthy of a silver medal. But to be awarded a gold the Prime Minister also needs to tackle the causes of many of the extreme weather events which have devastated countries like Bangladesh and left so many children hungry and without a home. He has a golden opportunity to begin to do this at the United Nations climate talks in Doha this December.