Archive for October, 2012

Practical Answers for an ‘Austerity Christmas’

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012 by

In these straitened times, many of us are planning a more low key Christmas this year.  The good news is that recent research has discovered that what most people want from this festival is to “spend Christmas reconnecting with the things and people that matter most to them.”   Early planning is vital where thrift is concerned and while  Christmas is a time for fun and indulgence,  it doesn’t have to cost huge amounts of money.

I was surprised to discover how helpful Practical Action could be in providing ideas for gifts to make myself!  Practical Answers, our online database of technical information, has a wealth of information on all sorts of foodstuffs.  Browsing through the section on food processing, I was inspired by the possibilities.  I think I might make some elegantly labeled jars of green mango or lime pickle or perhaps some lime marmalade?

If I’m feeling more adventurous I might try smoking some salmoncuring bacon or making some snacks like banana chips.   I even found some tips for designing my packaging and labels.  There’s plenty of rather more complicated guidance for those with carpentry skills (definitely not me) who would like to build  a woodworking bench or a simple solar drier to preserve next year’s surplus produce from your garden or allotment?   I think I might play it safe and stick with something simpler like making some candles, always popular gifts.  Why not give some of these a go yourself?  Do let us know how you get on.

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

All this information has, of course, been compiled primarily for the benefit of people in developing countries, and  quantities are often for small scale commercial enterprise.   I thought I might try making pineapple jam, but will have to do some maths first as 158 kg of pineapples might be rather too many!

Have a browse through the list of technical information online to get an idea of the wealth of knowledge that Practical Action has amassed over 44 years.    The website has information on more than 200 different technologies.  And it is practical information that is helping people all over the developing world to develop skills and to launch enterprises that will lift their families out of poverty.

More than 1.5 million information sheets were downloaded last year and Practical Action staff worldwide responded to 9,700 individual enquiries on technical subjects.   This is the  practical application of  EF Schumacher’s philosophy: “The best aid to give is intellectual aid, a gift of useful knowledge. A gift of knowledge is infinitely preferable to a gift of material things.”

I’m hoping this Christmas will be a chance for my family to focus on these simple pleasures rather than spending large amounts on ‘must have’ presents. Putting my time and effort into making gifts for my loved ones will, I’m certain, be time well spent.  Now how about a glass of banana beer?

Chair’s Circle Nepal Project Visit

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012 by

On 30th October, some of our long-standing supporters have booked onto a Nepal project visit, to see our work in action. We are going to show them what a huge difference Practical Action is making, and help them to inspire their friends, families and colleagues.  Come and check this blog regularly for their trip updates, pictures, diaries and videos.

November 1st Kathmandu • Improving living conditions for urban waste-pickers

November 2nd Kamadhenu • Gravity Goods Ropeways and Tuins to transport people, goods and livestock between elevated remote rural villages

November 3rd Chainpur, Bachhauli • Cattle resource centre • Grass Cultivation project • Dalit-focussed programme • Community library visit

November 4th Devghat, Sharadanagar, Nawalparasi • Urban scheme to improve water quality and sanitation • Early warning system for floods • Community meetings

November 5th Gorkha, Tanahun • Milk chilling centre • Farmers’ co-operative

November 6th Pokhara • Disaster Preparedness in Pokhara

November 7th Kathmandu • Meet Practical Action Nepal team

Showing that Green is Working

Friday, October 19th, 2012 by

Yesterday we had the unique opportunity of representing Practical Action in a political stunt organised by the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition. To capture the attention of the UK government we gathered with 250 people from various eco-minded organisations outside the Treasury in London to recreate the famous “Labour isn’t working” poster from 1979. The aim of the campaign was to show key politicians that the green economy is working with one third of economic growth coming from the it.

The twist on the campaign was that “Green is working”. Everyone involved wore green hard hats and spread this message through social media and twitter using the hash tag #greenisworking. This created wide scale impact and helped the stunt to trend in the top 3 twitter conversations yesterday. The event even brought out celebrity dragon Deborah Meaden, who joined the queue, stuck on a hard hat and showed her support toward a more green economy.

Green is Working

It was great to collaborate with a number of individuals and organisations who share the same environmental views and value the prevention of climate change to the extent that we do. By supporting a green economy in the UK, the impact of climate change can be reduced here and also benefit poor communities around the world. This is especially important for Practical Action’s work since climate change is a cross-cutting theme through our four main areas of focus, energy, water and sanitation, food and agriculture and especially disaster risk reduction.

As interns and first time campaigners, the experience opened our ideas to scope of support for green initiatives and we were thrilled to be the voice of Practical Action. We can only hope that it will influence politicians as much as the original influenced the public back in 1979.

Right now it’s so important to keep the “green is working” message current and on politician’s minds. Help us by spreading this message and tweeting with us (@PracticalAction), using the hash tag #greenisworking.

Emily & Nick

See what Helen Taylor from Ecotricity and others taking part in the stunt had to say…

Click here to read the Guardian’s article on the stunt.

A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be…

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012 by

Building fishing crafts in post-tsunami Sri Lanka

This article is based on the work of Practical Action in post-tsunami rehabilitation in Sri Lanka during 2005 and 2006. I happened to share the experience of rebuilding fishing crafts (canoes/small boats) in post tsunami rehabilitation with a group of students from Japan. So, I thought it is worth sharing the same in a blog too.

The tsunami waves hit Sri Lanka on 26th December 2004, decimating coastal fishing communities. They were not only affected by loss of lives or substantial damage to their homes, but also to fishing crafts and gear. The estimations showed that one third of affected households were fisher communities. Some districts saw a far higher number; as an example in Jaffna district (Northern coast of Sri Lanka) the figure was close to 90%. A total of 4,870 fisher families were reported dead while 136 were reported missing.

The immediate steps taken to restore the fisheries sector were rebuilding and repairing fishing gear and crafts. This turned out to be a complex task, because of the wide variety of fishing crafts and gear used around the island of Sri Lanka. Well-meaning organizations, along with the Government felt that the best course of action would be to replace and distribute fishing crafts and gear for the affected communities. However, in the rush to provide help, there was actually a lack of coordination and even some competition to provide these replacements.  At some point, statistics showed that the replaced fishing crafts outnumbered the pre-tsunami statistics. Some thought that fish stocks would be over-exploited in no time, with the increasing number of fishing boats and to avoid this, the Government tried to control the process of replacement.

However, the other side of the coin was totally different. The fishing community started complaining about the new boats, because they claimed that they could not be used for fishing. With mounting complaints the statistics began to show that about 30% of the replaced fishing boats were unseaworthy, thus unsuitable for fishing.

Practical Action then started to work with the fishing communities to help them build seaworthy craft. We found that people from each area had their own specific likes and dislikes on the types of crafts required. Fishers traditionally know how their fishing crafts should be built, to suit local conditions  in the sea or lagoons and their usual fishing habits and technologies.

Therefore, replacing and repairing fishing crafts required the participation of the people fishing to make sure their requirements were met.  Practical Action used a participatory approach in which the participation of the fishing communities and district fisheries extension under the Department of Fisheries was central to the rebuilding process.

Participatory approaches to rebuilding fishing crafts ensured the inclusion of the communities’ needs, likes, specifications and dislikes on the types of fishing crafts they required.  This, at the end of the day, led to the production of seaworthy, location specific fishing crafts that could be used for the right purpose.

The photographs show how some distributed fishing crafts, considered unseaworthy were abandoned and used for other purposes NOT for fishing


Reflections on my visit to Bangladesh

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012 by

I arrived home from 17 days in Bangladesh at 9.30 pm last night.

It was a brilliant trip, great to see Practical Action on the ground, the positive impacts our work is having on the lives of some of the poorest people in the world, to speak with our effective, and often inspirational, staff and to hear about how our knowledge sharing work is taking the benefits of our work to many millions more. The multiplier effect – leveraging every ounce of benefit from our work to the benefit of poor communities.

We do a great job and we should be proud.

But as I try and capture my impressions I am also left with the sense of so much need. The expressionless faces of the girl textile workers plodding into factories, the beggars some with obviously drugged babies, the people living in make shift tents by the side of the road – the black plastic covering ripped by rain and storms. Conversations about extremely high malnutrition in children –the figure quoted was nearly 50% – and the already felt impacts if climate change.

Together – Communities, Practical Action, and our supporters – we are doing great things – helping people make a living, get enough food to eat, access clean water, decent sanitation – but we also have to be humble and say we are not doing enough.

That’s not to down play our vital work but returning home to my healthy family, my safe home, my brilliant job the contrast is extreme.

While in Bangladesh we had a meeting where the Dhaka based team sought to share Practical Action’s learning with others and to learn from other NGOs. Care, Action Aid, IRRI (International Rice Research Institute), World Fish Centre etc. were there.

One guy who came to the meeting was A. Atiq Rahman – he was amazing, inspirational. Look him up on Google and you get a sense of how fortunate we were to have him there. Brilliant that he is a friend of Practical Action. He spoke of how in the late 70s we believed we could change the world and now with the impact and wisdom of age we look for smaller steps. Of how those small steps are vital but not enough – we still need to change the world but no longer have confidence in how. Politics being by the nature of democratic terms of office, the art of language not action and short not long term views.

Practical Action believes that we have to change the world. We believe 100% that the work we are doing to make people’s lives better is vital but we also believe that we need to find a way to deliver technology justice.

My reflection on my visit to Bangladesh is that change is complex but can happen. What’s great about Practical Action is our work but also our vision, our values and inspiration.

Schumacher in Small is Beautiful – to paraphrase said – we need to act to protect our world, to find meaning and a quality of life more fulfilling than consumerism, to find a new way of doing development – and when asked who should lead he said – each and every one of us whether rich or poor, young or old powerful or powerless – to talk about the future is only useful if it leads to action now.

My overall reflection on my visit to Bangladesh is to echo Schumacher !

The Great Peruvian Bake Off!

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012 by

If, like me, you’re filled with excitement at the thought of tonight’s final of The Great British Bake Off, I think you’ll enjoy this story of how the fortunes of Peruvian baker Luz Marina Cusci Cáceres have been transformed, with a little help from Practical Action.

It is a Thursday morning in September 2012, and visitors are gradually arriving at a huge food festival that is a highlight for many Peruvians. Within a few hours, the place will be packed with hungry diners and long queues will form at the myriad food stalls.  There is no respite for Luz Marina Cusi Cáceres, who has just returned to her stall after she has run out of stock. Her stall is to be found among the organic producers section, where delicious home-grown Peruvian goods are sold.

Peruvian baker Luz Marina Cusci Cáceres

Peruvian baker Luz Marina Cusci Cáceres

But what is so special about Luz Marina?  And what does her story have to do with Practical Action?

Several years ago Luz Marina participated in Practical Action’s project ‘Development of productive uses of electricity in the Cusco region’. During her participation in this project, she developed her baking knowledge, and learnt how to bake traditional kiwicha [a traditional Peruvian cereal] biscuits in a more efficient manner.

Luz Marina used to make kiwicha products by hand until Practical Action came to her town, San Salvador, and worked with the community to introduce a variety of electricity-generating technologies such as solar panels.

“We knew nothing about electrified machinery before, but with the help of Practical Action engineers we began using kitchen appliances, like the electric whisk, which need electricity to operate.”

Luz Marina began to use an electric whisk

Electricity enabled Luz Marina to use an electric whisk

Luz Marina had always sold kiwicha, but she did not do anything to the raw kiwicha to add real value to it. An Italian woman in the town who knew how to make biscuits shared her baking skills with Luz Marina.

“She taught me that I could sell biscuits made out of kiwicha, which would fetch higher prices at market than raw kiwicha products.”

Once Luz Marina learnt how to bake the biscuits, rumours of her delicious culinary treats spread across town, and people started asking for more.

“People would eat them and then buy them.  So I kept making the biscuits better, and although there is still room for improvement, I am now a much better baker than I was before. In 2009 I decided to start a baking business with three of my friends who also cook with kiwicha. It is very helpful to work as a group; we have a lot of confidence, we know each other, and we are united.” 

Luz Marina's improved kiwicha biscuits

Luz Marina’s improved kiwicha biscuits

The real turning point came when Luz Marina met a customer named Hugo. He was so impressed by the biscuits and the commitment of Luz Marina and her friends he helped the bakers to obtain the official hygiene certification they needed in order to sell their products in larger markets.

“Now we sell our biscuits in Ayacucho and San Gerónimo.  We have to stock the stalls with 1000 packets every two weeks! What would we do without electricity? We use an electric whisk to make our biscuits. It saves us time and means we can make better quality biscuits that sell in their thousands! We still need more encouragement from the council though – it would help if they advertised and promoted our products.”

In addition to the biscuits, Luz Marina and the bakers are now selling kiwicha-based pastries and honey. At the bustling food festival these have been hugely popular.

“We have sold 6000 packets of biscuits in three days! I am very grateful to Practical Action – without electricity we could not have made a productive or profitable living from baking. The electricity has transformed our baking. And baking has changed our lives”. 

"Electricity has transformed our baking. And baking has changed our lives”.

“Electricity has transformed our baking. And baking has changed our lives”.

Global Handwashing Day in Kenya

Monday, October 15th, 2012 by

What difference we made? I asked our team members and partners in Nakuru, where we are leading this with the Ministry of Public Health. They said that traditionally it used to be a high level meeting, when politicians and senior government officials come and deliver speeches. We have taken this day to the lowest income areas and involved the community. Brought new methods, technologies and approaches. It fits very well with our sanitation programme in Nakuru. We saw a very high turnout of people and a good media coverage.

If you are a farmer living on the edge in Bangladesh the last thing you need is a…

Sunday, October 14th, 2012 by

If you are a farmer living on the edge in Bangladesh the last thing you need is a… to be targeted by fraudsters!

Pesticides – whatever we think of their use – cost money that poor farmers can’t afford. They save and invest  believing their crops will improve boosting the income of their families. They work and hope for a life that is better.

In Bangladesh farmers are being targeted by fraudsters. They fake major pesticide brands and offer the products at a ‘discount’ to rural, often ill-informed consumers. The pesticides are at best useless at worse dangerous to crops, soil feriility and health. The results are failed crops, massively increased hunger and poverty. On top of this the fake pesticides are having a measureable impact on health with trends in colon cancer and kidney disease showing sharp increases in rural Bangladesh which Independent newspaper suggests is as a direct result of the contamination.

Practical Action is working with farmers in a different way looking at low cost, agro-ecological or low input agriculture that can yield improvements. I’ve already talked about one very tiny idea shared – sticks positioned regularly spaced in paddy (rice) fields which encourages insect eating birds. Another – again one of the simplest technologies ever – was string! We have been teaching farmers to use a grid system when planting. The results are saved seed costs and because the spacing is improved better growing crops so more food for families and produce to sell.

Beyond this we’ve been working with seed companies to ensure that when farmers are purchasing seed or other inputs they come direct from the company – with a discount guaranteeing quality, reducing price and helping farmers escape the clutches of dangerous fraudsters. And providing a communal marketing service for farmers (who own the rural service centre that co-ordinates – think an un-plastered tiny office with no front wall (if you don’t have a wall you don’t need a door) with a garage sized training room attached. When I was there about 25 people were crammed in to learn.  It reminded me of teh early days of teh cooperative movement in the UK.

My second week in Bangladesh has been all about our ‘how to’ information service Practical Answers. Stories like this one show how vital it is for small farmers to have a source of information they can trust if they are to have a chance to build a better life . It’s not very sexy, it is very effective – knowledge you trust, training you can put into practice and simple affordable solutions can change lives.

And stop them being ruined!

Interviewing Duncan Green

Friday, October 12th, 2012 by

Last week, I took a trip down to Oxford to interview Duncan Green, Oxfam director, blogger and author of the uplifting book, From Poverty to Power.

The book, which is published by Practical Action Publishing, taps into Duncan’s wealth of real-life examples of what has and hasn’t worked, to argue that motivated people working with a democratic government should drive international development, rather than looking at our traditional charity models.

I have to confess, I travelled down to Oxford with a degree of trepidation, spending much of it wondering how I, with less than six months experience working in development, could possibly carry off an interview with one of the most influential development thinkers around.

Fortunately, Duncan is not only an optimist who offers a vision of how poverty can be beaten, he is also highly engaging. During the interview he offered his personal views on Technology Justice, Schumacher’s economics, geo-engineering and the controversial subject of enabling economic development while being mindful of climate change.

You can watch Duncan’s full interview, first with me and then with Toby Milner, managing director of Practical Action Publishing by clicking on the links below:

Flooding in Bangladesh – practical solutions

Friday, October 12th, 2012 by

Here in the UK we’ve probably had the biggest rainfall in years. There have been regular news stories about floods affecting people, houses and roads (apart from the hosepipe ban debacle), and it’s all very inconvenient, and for some, costly.

But imagine living in Bangladesh where nearly a quarter of the country is regularly flooded and at times 50% of the country is underwater. Where people’s livelihoods are swept away in the monsoon season – and others become stranded for months on end. In June this year 100 people died and 250,000 were marooned. Life during the monsoon season in Bangladesh is more than inconvenient. That’s why Practical Action is working with some of the poorest communities to help them prevent the devastation caused by flooding and the unpredictability of the rainy season caused by climate change.

I recently visited some of Practical Action’s work in Bangladesh. Here’s my video blog about what I saw.

Help to us to carry on helping those affected by flooding in Bangladesh: take our Nightrider challenge and tell your friends.

Read more about floodproof housing and floating gardens