Archive for January, 2013

“Roasted, toasted, fried and grilled”

Monday, January 28th, 2013 by

No, this isn’t a recipe index, but a warning about the effects of climate change.

” …..unless action was taken to combat global warming, the next generation would be “roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.”

Not a pleasant prospect  – and this prediction comes, not from an environmentalist but from the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, at the meeting of world financial leaders at the swish Swiss ski resort, Davos.

It is quoted in a fascinating fantasy debate in the Guardian  between John Maynard Keynes, Milton Friedman, Karl Marx and our very own Fritz Schumacher, founder of Practical Action.

I have a very low level of understanding of economics – despite the best efforts of my economics student daughter to explain the basics.  But even I can grasp the essential point that if we carry on emitting carbon at the rate we are we will destroy the very basis on which our economic wellbeing depends – the earth itself and people, lots of people will suffer.

The global downturn has had the effect of reducing carbon emissions for many nations simply because industry is not making as much, which seems like a golden opportunity to reform our energy supply.

Small scale wind power scheme in Peru

1.3 billion people in the world lack access to any form of modern energy and 2.7 billion still cook over open fires using biomass.  While in the developed world  energy companies invest in environmentally damaging  ‘fracking’.  Reducing our carbon emissions and redirecting   investment to renewable energy for people with no energy would stimulate growth in the developing world, pulling millions out of poverty without destroying the planet  – surely a win-win situation.

It doesn’t sound so hard, does it?


Climate change wake-up call

Thursday, January 24th, 2013 by

“The threat of climate change is real and we’re seeing its effects now.” If Practical Action had a pound every time a news story said that, we’d be able to able to help a lot more people who are hit hardest by the devastating impact of climate change.

So what’s new?

The UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon says one of his top hopes for 2013 is to reach a new agreement on climate change.

He said this in an interview before heading to the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, saying he plans to take the opportunity of being with 2,500 government, business and civil society leaders to exchange frank views on the issue.

“Climate change is fast happening – much, much faster than one would have expected,” he said. “Climate and ecosystems are under growing strain.”

A UNEP assessment says the world is on course for 4°C warming by the end of the century if the global community fails to act. And a recent report commissioned by the World Bank says this will trigger a cascade of cataclysmic changes that include extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks and a sea-level rise affecting hundreds of millions of people.

But will this stimulate action? Despite previous compelling scientific evidence, there has been little action on climate change.

What will it take for people to open up their eyes to the reality of climate change?

The latest situation

2012 was one of the 10th warmest years on record and the 36th consecutive year since 1976 that the yearly global temperature was above the 1960-1990 average, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Climate change has shrunk Andean glaciers between 30 and 50% since the 1970s and could melt many of them away altogether in coming years, according to a study published on Tuesday in the journal Cryosphere.

Australian meteorologists had to add a new colour to its weather maps to denote an off-the-charts high temperature of 54 degrees Celsius. This was after a climate change enduced record-breaking heat wave hit the country and set off hundreds of bush fires.

Kate Mackenzie from the Financial Times wrote an article entitled ‘Australia wrestles with climate change’ which included the following quote:

“We were sitting there looking at the fires and Dad turned to me and said: ‘There might be something in this climate change thing that everyone’s talking about.’ It doesn’t get to 42 degrees in Hobart very often.”

Does it take first-hand experience for people to act?

Practical Action experiences the impact it has on some of the world’s poorest people every day. And in 2013 we expect to see more poor people affected by climate change.

We believe that as the climate changes, poverty and hunger is likely to increase. Many people in developing countries rely on agriculture for their livelihood, and increasingly erratic weather patterns mean that crops will fail.

Progress on tackling preventable diseases will be severely threatened by climate change as people become more vulnerable due to the spread of disease.

Access to clean water will also be threatened as our climate changes. The lack of access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation is a major cause of ill health and life threatening disease in developing countries.

Yet we see that for many people – businesses, governments and the general public, although it is a concern, it’s not high on their agenda.

Practical Action believes it  should be, because climate change will also affect our children, our grandchildren and our great grandchildren. Take a look at this tube map – is shows how a lot of London will be under water by the end of the century.

We can all make a difference by taking personal responsibility to cut our emissions.

Here are some top tips on how you can help to tackle climate change:

  1. Work out your carbon footprint
  2. Reduce it by 10% in a year
  3. Offset your remaining carbon emissions
  4. Raise the issue of climate change and poverty reduction with your councillor/MP/MEP
  5. Support Stop Climate Chaos and Climate Week from 4-10 March
  6. Support Practical Action’s #adaptnow campaign to help millions of people facing the effects of climate change in Bangladesh

But according to this research these lists don’t go down well with people because they want to leave all the lights on because it made the house feel welcoming. People want to fill the kettle to the top in case someone else wanted a cup of tea. People want to heat the whole house and keep the fridge well-stocked in case her visitors drop in.

So what can make a difference to how we feel and talk about climate change? Apparently, the existence of a ‘safe space’ where feelings can be explored, dilemmas examined and people’s creativity engaged.

Feel free to use this as a safe space and use the comments to tell us your feelings. We’d be really interested to know.

Are too few development workers interested in the power of technology?

Monday, January 21st, 2013 by

Teaching Improved Stove Manufacturing Techniques in RwandaAs many people who read blogs from me and other people involved with Practical Action, we have a particular focus on technology, and how it can help to solve some of the world’s poverty issues. We have some great projects helping millions of people around the world to get access to electricity through small scale technologies like micro-hydro power schemes; manufacture improved stoves (like the one on the left); to access agricultural extension information through pod-casting; to grow food in flood zones with floating gardens; and to turn sewage and kitchen waste into fertiliser & cooking gas. I could go on but I won’t.


We believe that technology has the power to help millions of people to escape poverty, but today 90% of the world’s investment on new technologies is spent helping to fulfil the desires of middle class consumers, who want the latest app, or a slimmer smart phone. Not on the needs of the 2 billion people without access to sanitation, or the 2.7 billion without access to modern energy.
We’re currently recruiting for a Policy Adviser who can help us to make this point to more and more people. To technology companies, to academic institutions and government officials. We’d like to work with others to build a movement for change. We know it will take time, but we’re convinced that by working with others, we can make a much bigger difference than by working on our own. Filling this position with the right person will be a good start.

We actually tried to recruit once before. In the first round, we decided not to hire anyone, but I was struck then by the fact that so few of the applicants had any experience of development. It made me wonder whether there are too few agencies like us who are working to harness the potential of technology.

This makes me only more enthusiastic to try to get someone into the post, and to help us share our views, and experiences with more people than we currently do.

If of course there is anyone who reads this, and would like to apply here is the link,  I’d love to hear from you.


Return to sender – address unknown

Thursday, January 17th, 2013 by

Return to Sender – address unknown

As the Elvis Presley song goes.   Despite email, for most of us the idea of not having a physical address to give someone is unthinkable and it would be almost impossible to function – how would you get a passport, how would you open a bank account?

I’m a bit of a serial house mover, probably around eight houses in the last 30 years, not counting friends’ spare rooms, rented accommodation, etc. I love the whole process of house hunting, moving in, planning the decoration, spending contemplative evenings with the radio and paint brush, and then just when it’s all tickety boo, I find myself cruising the estate agents’ websites, checking out what ‘doer uppers’ are out there. This all comes at a price of course, letting people know that you’ve moved and then the irritation when an important piece of correspondence goes awry. But I have to remind myself, at least I have an address. 

A completed cluster village

Back in 2009, I visited Bangladesh, to see Practical Action’s ‘Disappearing Lands’ project in Gaibandha, where we were working with communities forced by their poverty to live on  land at the edge of the rivers, land not wanted by anyone else because of the increasingly regular and severe flooding following monsoon which shifted the soil.  As a result, each monsoon left them vulnerable to loss of crops, livestock, homes, and sometimes their lives. With Practical Action’s support, cluster villages were constructed on soil platforms built by the communities, raising their homes above the flood line. These cluster villages provide housing, gardens, schools, clinics and emergency shelters for livestock for when the monsoon season arrives. One of the cluster villages I visited had just been completed, but already gardens were fenced, crops planted, and people were busy setting up craft businesses to earn additional income. Amongst this busy, thriving community, I met a grandmother, standing in the doorway of her new house. She wanted to share with me her delight in her new home. That I completely understood! But what surprised me was her great excitement and immense pride in having an address. I just hadn’t thought about it before. For her, having an address meant that she existed, she lived somewhere permanently, she could tell someone exactly where she lived that day, where she would be next year, and hopefully for the rest of her life. Having an address gave her kudos.

I’m visiting Bangladesh again in a couple of weeks with a great Foundation, Z Zurich Foundation, which has supported our project, ‘Vulnerability to Resilience (V2R)’, for almost five years, continuing our work with communities in flood prone areas.  I’m looking forward to seeing many of the ideas from our Gaibandha project helping others to finally have an address.

Smoke – the killer in the kitchen

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013 by

How many people do you think die each year from household air pollution – basically, killer kitchen smoke?

Until recently we’ve been using figures from the World Health Organisation which varied between 1.3 million and 1.6 million people each year. A huge number – which meant that killer smoke was, for example, responsible for more deaths than malaria.

But new figures published in The Lancet say this figure is a dramatic underestimate and 4 million people die each year! We’ve been checking the figures out as, while we knew from talking to WHO that theirs was probably an underestimate, these new figures seem so massive!

I’ve just been sent an explanation of the new figure from Kirk Smith, Professor of Environmental Health at The University of California and a world expert on air pollution. And it seems that from his perspective they are pretty accurate!

Four million people die each year as a result of household air pollution.

But there are solutions.

Last week we organised a webinar to present Practical Action and Bosch Siemens experience of working together on smoke hoods in Nepal. The smoke hoods are fantastic, reducing household air pollution (HAP) by up to 81%. Moreover, within the communities where we have piloted the work is now sustainable with local people now making the smoke hoods and revolving loan funds. We’re now looking for more funds to role this incredibly important work out.

The webinar was mainly attended by experts and people working on household air pollution projects so I avoided asking questions and let the experts have the time. One thing I did want to know, so I asked Liz Bates (who works on the project) later, was what she meant when she said that when asked about the burden of collecting cooking fuel, the women surveyed in the villages said exhaustion, hunger and fear of slipping on rocks or down the ravine. It was the number of women saying hunger that I thought I understood but wasn’t sure. Liz replied:

“The women in Gatlang (Rasuwa) with whom we were working live very close to having insufficient food, and the loads that they carry are really heavy… I tried to lift one off the floor, and if you recall, I am neither petite nor weak… I could not even get it off the floor – which they found hilarious. I think the amount of energy that is expended in carrying these huge loads, often climbing, and for several hours means that ‘energy in’ is below ‘energy out’ and they are suffering from hunger – rather than just hungry – by the time they return. I was fairly shocked when I found this was one of the top issues.”

Somehow this touched me even more than the 4 million people who die each year – women living with hunger – you can feel for.

Practical Action is committed to working on smoke hoods, on clean energy access, on improved cook stoves etc. to reduce deaths and end hunger.

The most frustrating thing for me is that a smoke hood is basically a new type of chimney, we have great designs for clean cook stoves, modern energy access for all is achievable – it’s great but this isn’t rocket science. Yet somehow, because of technology injustice, the number of people relying on solid fuel as their main cooking fuel has remained roughly stable for the last decade. That’s more people cooking this way than at any previous time in history.

This is a problem with a simple solution – lets solve it!

Pick ‘n’ Mix Learning

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013 by

Who can forget standing in Woolies… plastic scoop in hand… wondering which of the sweets to add to our bag?

This grand old tradition of picking your favorite sweets and paying by weight has spilled over into every facet of our lives from pick ‘n’ mix school menus to pick ‘n’ mix medical cover. Now, in this digital age, we expect even more choice (think multi-channel shopping, multi-plex cinemas and flexible learning)…. we want variety, in any order and any combination…and whenever we want them. Practical Action Consulting (PAC) has also been working hard to create wonderful multi-experiences to learn on and offline about our market-based approaches.

Click ‘n’ Mix

Currently PAC is testing an online learning option in our inclusive markets methodology ‘Participatory Market Systems Development’ (PMSD) to complement face to face training. This focuses on the skills to perform ‘live’ tasks relating to our ten-step PMSD  Roadmap …via training and mentoring that is no longer bound by space or time.

Adult learners need to see an almost immediate application for new knowledge and have this information readily available. Digital learning not only frees learners from the traditional training environment – it gives them ‘unbundled’ choices for the delivery of instruction. We are able to break things up into more manageable and digestible pieces at reasonable costs.

The thing about loose sweets is that not only can customers select their favorite ones but they often buy more than they came for. So maybe we can ultimately sell more of our flavors or brands than we intend…

Quality and rich pickings

This is not really about the changing application of technology, it’s what is being ‘unbundled’ that counts. Simply streaming a lecture or sharing digital documents or performing online tests isn’t enough. New kinds of instruction need shaping… we need more variety of awesome quality sweets in our huge party bag.

Choice and freedom of consumption

So here is what we are trying… training is offered firstly via a series of webinars… sure, we make presentations and share web content (think nostalgic and retro sweets such as Bon Bons, Pear Drops and Wine Gums) but we also make full use of chat spaces, interactive whiteboards and combine platforms such as MindMeister and Google Docs to ensure a richer sweeter experience (think fizzy Dracula Teeth and Sour Dummies).

We also harness an online education management system – to streamline interpersonal dialogue, mentor and monitor. We offer online tests but also share resources that capture the voices and evidence of PMSD in our work as well as facilitating discussions and posting homework…all from a single location.

Having it your way

Our virtual confectionery should be coupled with face to face instruction. It’s supposed to complement not replace traditional approaches. Embracing online learning as part of our pick ‘n’ mix mega bag gives us more flexible and cost effective ways to influence more practitioners with our inclusive markets-based approaches and tools.

Fish without Refrigeration

Monday, January 14th, 2013 by

On the 9th November 2012, I was part of a market mapping workshop with Kokkilai lagoon fishers. The discussion was geared towards post-harvest handling technologies for the fish. Everybody’s concern was the inadequate supply of ice due to poor transportation facilities. The whole situation reminded me of some community-invented technologies that I came across three years ago in Sri Lanka and India.

A lack of ice supply was a major issue faced by the lagoon fisheries sub-sector in the post-conflict scenario in Sri Lanka. This was largely due to the inadequate production of ice coupled with poor transportation facilities. As a coping strategy, fishers had invented a simple technology. I first noticed this in Periya Kalapu Lagoon of Eastern province, Sri Lanka. As the following photograph shows, it is a box made of galvanized mesh. Once fish were caught, they were kept in the mesh box and placed in lagoon water. The box was tied to a pole planted on the landing site. The fish were kept in these boxes until traders or villagers came to buy them. When I talked to a few of them, I found that they preferred to purchase live fish. Otherwise, by the time the ice arrived, the fish would have been rotten. 

The next case I found among the head loaders in Chilika lagoon of Orissa state, India.The word ‘head loaders’ means, the people, in particular women, who carry fish on their head to nearby markets or consumers.  The role of women in fish marketing is very significant in Chilika lagoon. Getting ice to some fish landing centers around the lagoon is out of the question, because the access roads to the landing centers are so narrow and run between the houses, so only a motor bike can barely go through.

When fish are caught, they are kept in different containers filled with lagoon water. Head loaders carry them to nearby markets and sell live fish. As I gather, this is still the practice in some areas around the Chilika lagoon. The following photograph shows one of the head loaders selling fish packed in a lagoon-water filled container.

The resourcefulness of proactive fisher communities could have been the drive that led to this creativity. In community development, have we done enough thinking on the potential creativity of the communities, I wonder?

Organic Farming in Nigeria

Friday, January 11th, 2013 by

Practical Answers was recently asked by the Ralphseedway Foundation about organic manure production and the tested evidence for its use in agriculture for farming communities in Nigeria.

Practical Action has successfully used various types or organic composting in various locations, and this is especially useful to farmers who can’t afford more commercial forms of fertilizer, but we would like to get some for scientific evidence as well as the anecdotal feedback that comes through project work.

Does anyone have clear scientific evidence that will help farmers in Nigeria?

Going to work on an egg

Friday, January 11th, 2013 by

To find out how a very small project can show so much meaning about the real values of rural poor people, which make them happy and give meaning to their lives, read about the day I made a visit which made that day exceptional.

My visit to Silkyay village in the rural area of Kassala was a routine field visit like many others but my encounter with a woman called Nafisa changed that visit into an inspirational lesson.

Nafisa is involved in Practical Action’s “chicken for eggs” project.  This aims to enhance nutrition and provide income for poor households.  She has 20 hens in her small, clean den, and managed and cleaned this den every day, until she began producing 20 eggs per day.  Some of these she consumes and the rest she sells. The day I met Nafisa happiness overwhelmed her and joyfully she told me that now she has work, and she owns something, she has control of her life.

In the beginning she faced difficulties marketing her produce in her village, because people weren’t used to eating eggs.  The varieties of food they ate were very limited –  mainly porridge and milk and this culture led them to refuse anything unfamiliar and prevented them from having a healthy and diversified diet.

Nafisa started introducing the egg as a main meal in her own house, as breakfast for her children before school.  Then she began an awareness campaign about the nutritional value of eggs.  Gradually the skeptical village changed to be less hesitant. In a short period the whole village began to depend on eggs for breakfast.  Nafisa proudly stated that now she alone cannot supply the increasing demand and has other five women working in this project.

Nafisa said that now she feels appreciated by her family and community, and she is happy about the simple tangible change her project introduced to the life of the people in the village. The happiness of Nafisa and her pride at her achievement taught me that helping women to access and control  resources, is the right approach for justice and for improving the status of women and mothers in our communities. Productive work gives women a proud feeling of ownership and control of their resources as Nafisa reflected as she enthused about her hens.

The change happened when people began buying eggs after being convinced of their nutritional value.  This taught me the meaning and practicality of such small activities when they relate to people’s real needs.

Before concluding this story, I would like to tell you about my own experience when I bought some eggs from Nafisa and cooked them myself.  I learned something else important – that the home-produced egg from this village is a natural egg, free of chemicals and is tastier and more beneficial than the ones we purchase from markets which are produced by companies using chemicals and hormone injections.

How inspiring are these small works when powered by a strong will and the strength of women like Nafisa!

Half the world’s foods ‘wasted’ yet 870 million people go to bed hungry

Thursday, January 10th, 2013 by

Half the world’s food goes to waste – so says a report from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.

Yet masses of people in the UK and around the world are hungry. In the UK more than 200,000 people will use food banks this year. In the developing world 870 million people don’t have enough to eat and go to bed hungry.

What’s going wrong?

Some blame must fall on us as consumers – being seduced by BOGOF offers, or the lure of the ‘reduced about to reach sell by date’ products – we’re just buying too much of things we don’t then eat. It’s also about supermarkets – turning down wonky carrots so they are left in the field to rot – 30% of vegetables in the UK are not harvested because of their physical appearance. It’s also about overlong supply chains, sell buy dates that don’t mean anything – on malt vinegar for example.

The biggest difference between the developed and developing world is that here – in the UK – we have a choice we choose through our buying behavious and the supermarkets – interpreting our demands – to allow huge amounts of food to go to waste. We can dramatically reduce the £12 billion worth of food wasted in the UK – thats £480 per family.  In the developing world poor people dont have a choice.

In the developing world food is wasted as after harvest it can’t be stored and rots – people have no fridges and no way of storing or preserving they often also have no way of getting products to market and even if they do because they are selling in a glut no one  wants to buy.

The issue is not just waste – the injustice – the technology injustice is that there is so much we can do to solve this problem and the technologies people need exist.
Practical Action works with small scale farmers in the developing world to grow more food and preserve the food that’s grown – from pumpkin storage in Bangladesh to drying and pickling vegetables in Sudan. Thousands of clever, practical, simple solutions that work.

In the UK there’s loads to go at – simpler supply chains, accepting sometimes supermarket shelves will be empty, not buying foo d that we all throw away.

So my practical solution for all of us today – buy less food, grow some yourself (it’s great- you could even learn to make jams!), and if you save money and you can afford to give it to a charity you support help people struggling across the world or in the time of austerity Britain in the UK.

People struggle to grow food – I’ve met women in Sudan who have walked many miles to find water for their family and their crops – if you are doing that imagine the heartbreak when your family goes hungry and your food rots.

End food waste and end hunger – wouldn’t it be great If we could do both.

Support Practical Action – this report made me once again think its a great thing to do!