Archive for February, 2013

People are important and we should care

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013 by

I was meant to go to Nepal last night. I’m going this evening instead, delayed because the M40 was closed as someone threatened and then, I’m told, did jump from a motorway bridge.

It’s very easy to get wrapped up in your own little world; it’s frustrating that I missed my flight, annoying that my work plans in Nepal will have to be rescheduled. But the real sadness is that someone thought for hours about taking their life, they hesitated and eventually they jumped.

So now I’m at my desk with an opportunity to catch up withal those emails and news reports that I’ve meant to read but haven’t yet got round to. This article from the Huffington Post reminded me again of the need to start with people

Numbers are important in development assistance, we need to know that the money we spend is used effectively but Martin makes a good point it shouldn’t be numbers at the heart of development it should be people.

Its what we believe at Practical Action and how we work but even so sometimes things bring it home to you even more

Energy: out of sight and out of mind?

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013 by

Too often people in developed countries like the UK who have access to energy all the time don’t give it a second thought. We flick a switch and the light comes in. We push a button and our cooker comes on. We turn a dial and our heating comes on.  But in developing countries lack of access to energy keeps billions of people in poverty.

It is estimated that 1.3 billion people are still without any form of electricity and 2.7 billion people still cook over open fires. That’s the equivalent of the whole of the Chinese and Indian populations combined.

People like Mrs Sanchez, 27, a mother of four young children who runs one of only a handful of stores in Yanacancha Baja, an isolated village nestled in the highlands of northern Peru. Until the installation of a micro-hydro plant by Practical Action four years ago, candles, kerosene and firewood were Beatriz’s primary source of energy for light and cooking.  Since the installation of the village’s hydroelectric plant, she has transformed her business, as well as the quality of life for her young family. ‘We used to close up at six o’clock’ Mrs Sanchez said. ‘There was no point staying open later because no one would walk around after nightfall. Now with the new streetlights people come and go until much later and we regularly stay open until eight, sometimes nine.’

Mrs Sanchez business and life has been transformed by energy. But billions of people aren’t so lucky.

To support the launch of our Poor Peoples Energy Outlook 2013 report we want to show all the ways that people in developed countries are reliant on energy and how it can transform the lives of people in developing countries. That’s why we need your help.

To highlight the crucial role that energy plays in all our lives we want to create a mosaic picture of the Earth from space composed of ‘energy enables pictures’ sent in by you.

Here’s an example of a mosaic picture…











And this image we want to use to create our energy enables Earth mosaic picture.

Have a look at our energy enables website for inspiration.  Here you’ll find pictures of everything from making a cup of tea in the UK to solar panels in the Sudan.

We’ve also had some really wacky pictures sent in. Look out for the man riding a bike connected to a smoothie making machine and the dog which can send emails while their owner is down the pub!

So please send us your pictures by uploading them via Twitter using the hash tag #EnergyEnables or send them direct to

Every picture will be used and we’ll send you a link to the finished Earth mosaic.

No Waste to Waste

Thursday, February 21st, 2013 by

I am at the Kibera DC’s grounds and all I see are men and women wearing white branded T-shirts with EEP, Practical Action and ETC logos. It is a beehive of activities. Women are busy lighting up jikos (stove) and men are preparing the truck fitted with a public address system ready for a briquette end-user promotional roadshow in Nairobi.

As a team player, I check with the zangalewa troupe, an entertainment group using art to communicate information about the technology in a simple and clear manner. They dramatize the production process, the selling and use of the technology. The young men, disguised as old men, have a unique costume. A costume that speaks volumes of what they are about to do; educate as they entertain.

With everything ready, the entourage starts making its way into the infamous Kibera informal settlement. The men behind the public address systems call on the locals to gather and learn about briquetting technology, an alternative eco-friendly renewable energy option for the poor in society. The route is clear with stops at various points in the settlement.

At every point the truck would stop, our team would usher locals to come and witness the ‘magical’ cooking technology. They demonstrated to the crowds, using lit jikos, and asked them to confirm the advantages of the technology and its appropriateness to their environment. A technique I found interesting to check whether individuals in the crowds were following them was the use of members from the crowd to summarize the benefits and appropriateness of the technology. A few Tshirts, caps and fliers on the technology were given to those that demonstrated an understanding of how the technology works. Others were given a packet of briquettes to test the efficiency of the technology. Fliers on the technology with contact information of all the briquette entrepreneurs in their area were also distributed. This was to promote their business.

According to Emmanuel Cyoy, the briquette commercialization project Officer, “the end-user promotional roadshow in Nairobi targets to create awareness among the locals on the availability, affordability and appropriateness of briquette technology as an alternative energy source for poor. The technology uses wastes from the environment to produce the renewable energy source.”
My interaction with the entrepreneurs gave me an opportunity to have a feel of what their profits are from selling briquettes. Meet Isaiah Maobe one of the entrepreneurs. He has been in the business since the project started and acts as a mentor to upcoming briquette entrepreneurs. He says the promotional event is an opportunity to expand his market reach for briquettes. He says he chose to join other entrepreneurs on the truck to market himself as well as his business. And true to his objective, at each stop, he sold a portion of his briquettes.

“I have not only sold a few bags of briquettes today but have orders to be delivered this week worth KES 12,000”, he explained.

Maobe is not the only one who has benefitted from the sale of quality briquettes. Josephine Ngumba, a trained journalist, is also a beneficiary of the project. “After the numerous trainings on the production processes and business development systems, my business has tremendously improved for the better. I now produce quality briquettes that I sell mainly to institutions. I now have orders to supply more than a tonne of briquettes to a number of renown institutions including hospitals in Nairobi. Business is good. Such events have not only helped me sell more.”

The Nairobi event follows a similar promotional event held last week in Nakuru. It was a success, thanks to the project team members and all who supported it. Special thanks go to our development partners Energy and Environment Partnership Programme with Southern and Eastern Africa, a programme funded by the governments of Finland, Austria, United Kingdom and hosted by the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA).

My camel milk experience

Thursday, February 21st, 2013 by

Recently I have realised that I have a powerful urge to visit my toilet. I am so attracted to it not only because of the advantages I get from the weight reduction process, but because I am also getting a lot of inspiration from the occasional visit. So when I was in Mandera recently, the urge appeared in its subtle demeanour; even if it took me days to finally get to one comfortable secluded patio next to a crowded street.

I was not going to get my inspiration nonetheless. Actually I really needed to get to it because I was in trouble. I had done what everybody in their right minds was never allowed to do – drink raw camel milk. But it was not supposed to go this way, right? I mean everybody takes a glass and they live to speak words of wisdom not on their death beds like I was seeing my body leading me to but amongst other men. What did I do wrong? Whose goat did I steal to be bewitched?

The events following this particular visit to the loo needed to be outlined singularly and expounded in my head to see what went wrong. And with my mouth dry in dehydration (hey, I was losing a lot of water from the processes), I started to count the trusses on the roof of my seclusion.

“I never washed my hands,” I began. “In the hurry to complete all the activities I had during the morning and evenings I just dug my miniature paws into the food plate.” Why? Am I not the one telling communities to clean up before and after daily activities?

In addition, I had found out earlier in the day, the guy who kindly gave me my calabash – that one that is causing my belly and cells to be flaccid – had found washing the udder and teats of the camel a waste of time. “We do not want to spend a lot of time milking because the animal would get jittery and start to make noise awaking everyone in the morning.” Moreover, all milking is done out in the open. So think flies; think brucellosis. Think my death-wish – and not that the milking has anything to do with my punishing outstretching in C-fashion.

The last time the calabash with a chip just next to my point of contact with my lips was ever washed was sometimes between when it left its branches and its trimming, before it became my cup to my bending; sometimes in the 4thcentury. And no sieving was done, if at all, an old work hijab was used to dry-scrub and off dust.

So the visions of old saliva filled cloths so reused until it is not clear whether the colour was as a result of dirt or the original dye that has seen better days, came to my head. When Dhahabu, my translator, untied the teats during the milking, she placed these pieces on the camel’s back!

Normally, the exposed teats are dry and to wet them she applied saliva on to her fingers, spreading evenly on the teat massaging it slowly until milk poured. She sprinkled a little on to her hand to check its colour. She told us that this helped her find out if there was any sign of a disease. There being no negative signs, she sucked it in to her mouth. This also, she said, helped her ensure that the milk was in good taste. Everything in order, I got my calabash fill. I guess that tells the story of my whole destiny.

However, this was before I went to Mandera to have a feel of what goes on in the lives of the common residents. When I was taken through the whole process by the project team, I realised that the project dubbed “Camel Milk Project” also known as ‘Pastoralist Women challenging drought and chronic food insecurity through dairy production and marketing,’ funded by Practical Action’s Track Record budget had been working with communities to change their attitudes towards good hygiene practice. It trained the milk producers on proper milk production process which in turn has increased the income of the milk producers in Mandera. The team has raised awareness on hygienic practices and implemented innovative activities and interventions with milk producing communities. This is envisaged meeting the demand for milk in the town and make a way to expand to reach many other regions within Mandera County.

Video: Camel milk now a ‘white gold’ in Mandera

Soon, no more flying toilets

Thursday, February 21st, 2013 by

I gazed at the toddlers giggling playfully as their mothers bathed them, one squatted without a thought to relieve herself. I marveled at their innocence, and how happiness is self-generated from within despite our circumstances. Their water had been warmed under the midday sun. The narrow corridor on which they stood was covered with polythene bags of all shapes and colors. One could only hope that the polythene bags were not flying toilets in their previous lives.

The residents of the plot often suffered from water borne disease that reduced on their productivity. The residents of this plot in the Kaptembwo low income settlement in Nakuru have had to contend with the filth that surrounds them, simply because they are not able to pay more than the Kshs1,800/= rent required of them here. In this particular plot, the 15 household members share two toilets, there is no bathroom. However, last month, the rains were rather heavy and one of the toilets just collapsed. The plot owner was now dragging his feet about putting up another one because the costs are exorbitant and the soils in the area are unstable.

A Comic Relief funded partnership between Practical Action and Umande Trust is implementing a Community Led Total Sanitation Project with modifications to suit the urban setting. The project aims to eliminate Open Defecation and change the residents’ attitudes towards improved hygiene practices. Through this project, the landlord is beginning to see changes within his plot. The residents have attended a couple of hygiene training and are now more eager to maintain cleanliness. He looks forward to the credit facilities that have been organized through this project to construct a modern ablution block complete with two bathrooms!

By Aileen Ogolla

Whatever happened to the hydrogen economy?

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 by

One of the questions that was asked the other day was whatever happened to the hydrogen economy?
It was a popular subject about a decade ago when it was thought that we would all be powering industry with hydrogen energy but things seemed to have gone very quiet since then. The problem is that the infrastructure change will be huge; it will take lots of money and time to achieve so here we are still waiting. So are there things that we can do now that will work and provide us with clean and convenient energy?
Is locally produced hydrogen on demand a realistic alternative to massive infrastructure development for industrialised economies or could this technology be used for developing economies? Some people are promising this new technology will sidestep some of the difficulties faced by other hydrogen technology. Will innovations such as this make clean energy accessible to everyone on the planet?
Innovation in the energy sector is abundant at the moment but many of these developments are still in the research stage and are some way from becoming used on a large scale. Which technology will win out and make a real impact on a significant scale is hard to tell at this stage.
One of the technologies that is under development, as reported in New Scientist & at EPFL, at the moment is turning solar energy directly into hydrogen without first generating an electrical current using rust as one of the main components. It seems like a strange approach when we are constantly trying to eliminate rust from technologies but a thin layer of iron oxide could be just the thing to generate hydrogen directly from sunlight in a more effective way than the traditional photovoltaic cell and electrical cathode.
Can these technologies be applied to less developed regions of the world? Well, it is too early to tell as they have not been proven in any situation. However we move ahead the demand for energy is on the increase, it enables people to have a better quality of life.
It seems that future energy options are going to be more divers and generally more complicated than they are now.
I was looking at some of these options while editing the book A Handbook of Small-scale Energy Technologies  which looks at the more established technologies such as micro hydro and solar thermal technologies. These approaches have been have been tried and tested and can be implemented now with predictable results.
Of course, each technology needs to fit the particular circumstances but a little analysis of any situation will determine what is required. For many the hydrogen economy is a distant future but energy access is much closer.

What makes a good blog?

Thursday, February 14th, 2013 by

I was told a couple of weeks ago by communication staff here at Practical Action that I needed to have more of a ‘blog personality’ – as the director responsible for communications, amongst other things, I didn’t take that very well!

Three weeks later, over breakfast this morning, I decided to read some of my back blogs. I have to admit that my blog personality is committed but moderate, caring, occasionally gently humorous. What they may be getting at is that in reality I am passionate, feisty, committed, enthusiastic and well up for an opportunity to shout about Practical Actions work.

I blame my English teacher at secondary school! One day when she’d had enough of me talking at the back of the class she laid into me with a fierce critique of my writing describing it as gothic and overblown! Wuthering Heights was my favourite book at the time so you can see my inspiration. Ever since then my writing has mellowed! I don’t like being shouted at and 30 years on I’m still trying to please her.

I’m telling you this for two reasons – firstly to get your advice – do you think I should be more cutting, passionate, critical, political – or what in my blogs – good to hear. If you challenge me to write in a certain style I am sure I will give it a go.

Secondly because it’s so important to realise that what kids learn at school stays with them often for the whole of their life.

This is why I am so pleased to tell you that Practical Action has just been awarded funding from the EC to help school kids (or should I call them students) learn about Technology Justice. What makes science fair, what are the global issues where technology plays a role, how can technology be used to tackle poverty in the developing world. It’s a fantastic opportunity to help kids learn and to build a society here in Europe that cares about people, poverty reduction and about technology justice.

What’s inspirational is how keen students are to think about technology justice – Have a look at some of the materials we’ve produced so far – they love this!

And I do realise this is another gentle blog – at the end of a long and very busy day being mellow comes naturally.

Building relationships – the key to improved services

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013 by

For the residents of Sakubva in Mutare, living with heaps of uncollected waste at illegal dumping points had become the norm. These sites had become a health time bomb, exposing the residents to outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and dysentery.

“We were faced with a serious health hazard and despite our calls to the Council for the implementation of efficient waste management services, the situation was not improving”, said Llyod Chikonzo, a resident in Sakubva.

Llyod Chikonzo’s dilemma is similar to that of many others throughout Zimbabwe who have been sidelined in local authorities’ planning processes for years. This has resulted in poor service delivery including erratic water supplies, failing waste management, poorly maintained roads, chronic sewerage blockages and unresolved tenure issues.

But Practical Action’s People Up project has made these problems history by promoting community participation in urban planning . 

Community based planning empowers communities, especially vulnerable socio-economic groups and their leaders, to participate actively in development interventions that affect their lives.  This participatory system engages poor and vulnerable urban and peri-urban communities to improve the quality of their plans and services and to influence resource allocation.  It also increases the participation of poor urban residents in the governance of basic municipal services.   Through their influence on resource allocation this project aims to ensure that communities will have access to support and extension services required for improved crop and livestock production. 

“It feels great to be consulted when there is development which needs to happen in your ward, long back there were no consultations like this and we never saw progress”, said Mrs. Mary Maphosa of ward 3 in Epworth.

 “We had never been consulted by council when it comes to development in our area. Approaching the local board was such a daunting task. The coming of the project has helped us a great deal. There is now dialogue between us and the local board”.

“As a result of the CBP process, we have, as a community, developed ward plans in our various wards. These plans have our priorities which we then take to the local authority for consideration. As a result, one of the priorities of opening up access roads was taken up by the local board and we now have roads that were opened up in our ward”, said George Goremusandu a resident of ward 1 in Epworth.

According to Sam Chaikosa from the Civic Forum on Housing, all the ward plans developed by the Epworth residents have been incorporated into the strategic plan for Epworth.

“This process has empowered the communities to be drivers of the development initiatives. It’s a process which has brought dialogue between the local authority and the residents. The priorities and the aspirations of the Epworth community are now encompassed in the local board’s plans”, said Chaikosa.

While local authorities in Zimbabwe still face challenges in delivering services to citizens, the People Up project, which is funded by the European Union, has aptly demonstrated how the transition from top-down to bottom-up approaches in planning equips communities with the skills to understand and participate in the municipal planning process. 

The project has successfully tested a framework for promoting partnerships between local authorities, residents and private sector initiatives for the delivery of infrastructure services in under – served low income urban settlements.  The successes and lessons generated will provide an opportunity for replication and scaling up, not only in other local authorities areas in Zimbabwe, but in the Southern Africa region as a whole.

The crucial role of women in global agriculture

Friday, February 8th, 2013 by

“Women farmers produce more than half of all food worldwide and currently account for 43 percent of the global agricultural labour force.”  – UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

An earlier blog highlighted the potential of smallholder producers as part of the solution to the food crisis facing the planet. A crisis that is exacerbated by inaction to reach a global deal to tackle climate change and dwindling support going to agriculture in developing countries, in spite of some ambitious but as yet unmet pledges. The IF campaign highlights this conundrum, “that we have the capacity to eliminate hunger from the face of the earth in our lifetime, we only need the will.” (John F. Kennedy, 1963)

Changes in global climate are leading to less predictable weather patterns with increasing failure of planting season rains blamed for recurrent famines in impoverished rural areas. Around the world over 500 million people live in vulnerable rural communities, with smallholder farmers, and pastoralists supplying food to almost 2 billion of the poorest people on the planet. Supporting these small-scale producers to reach their full potential is one of the simplest strategies that could transform global food systems overnight.

Woman watering her vegetables. The women’s group organised together and fenced off an area of common land and dug two wells by hand. These wells supply sufficient water for each woman to cultivate a small vegetable plot to supply her family with important nutrition, especially during the dry season when vegetable prices in the nearby market are too high.

Such a transformation of the role of smallholders in the global agricultural system would also deliver significant benefits to rural women; a critical area where gains are needed most. Smallholder agriculture is critically dependent on the input of women, especially for largely unrecognised labour, starkly contrasted with higher profile male dominated activities. The recent FAO study acknowledged that women comprise at least 50% of the labour force in most of Africa and Asia, with their agricultural duties undertaken alongside existing household and child care duties. By closing the gender gap in smallholder farming, crop productivity will increase, local food and nutritional security will be improved and the increase in the income of women will deliver far reaching social benefits. Women interviewed as part of Oxfam’s Researching Women’s Collective Action project regularly responded that they gain a sense of freedom from their own income, allowing them to prioritise family nutrition and even send their children to school.

To support women producers will require considerable investment, but this must be quality investment reaching the most needy. Collective approaches offer opportunities to reach scale and can empower women to participate as part of an initiative in a way that defuses social tensions with husbands and fathers, who might see their roles threatened. The Oxfam “women’s collective action” research programme, has identified some of the key challenges to women’s engagement including; access to formal groups, being overlooked by extension services and the need to provide the support women require and in a way that works for women.

By mobilising the latent potential of women smallholder farmers to transform global agriculture, global food security could be improved overnight. For example by providing equal access to existing resources and opportunities – could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 100 to 150 million people. Such a transformation could go a long way to feeding the estimated 325 million hungry people on the planet and at the same time enable millions of smallholder producers to feed their families and escape poverty.

Women’s group in Mali part of the Oxfam project meeting to discuss adaptation options. Women’s community group is an important space to discuss solutions to the challenge of climate change.

This BLOG is based on work undertaken while Colin worked for Oxfam and was originally published on their Policy and Practice website.

Findus Lasagne, horsemeat and value for money

Friday, February 8th, 2013 by

Value for Money

Government donors love it! We all agree that it’s important but what in reality does it mean? How do you measure it and how do you avoid the pitfalls? We’re exploring what value for money means for Practical Action. Two articles in the news today made me think.

The first was horse meat – Findus Beef Lasagne made unknowingly with 100% horse meat. I bought one – I’m almost ashamed to say – as it was on special offer at Tesco’s at £1. Bargain! I thought but I didn’t even know what I was buying I was seduced into purchasing by a perception of value.

My fundamental error was to take a simplistic approach to value. Cheap and best value are not in any way the same.

Take Practical Actions work on water points. Our work is often not the cheapest – there I’ve said it! But the reasons are simple, we don’t build water points and then cross our fingers hoping they keep working, or if they do break down go in and build a new one. We believe in working with people so they have ownership, they know how to repair and therefore the benefits continue over a longer period of time. We explore local manufacture so that all the parts are accessible and available. It fits with our philosophy of sustainable solutions. Ultimately we believe it’s the best value.

The second article I read was about German energy supply – I never realised but they have legislation that promotes renewable, decentralised energy through heavily subsidised and encouraged feed in tariffs. They also have some of the most expensive electricity costs in the world. They take this approach because they believe it’s important, it fits with their view of how people should behave and the article seemed to suggest because ultimately they believe this is the way the world will go – and when it does German engineering will again be ahead of the game. It’s a gamble but somehow German government and business taking a long term view on the future of energy technology seems visionary rather than stupid.

Changing the world takes vision. Ending poverty will require major change. Sometimes this will be big picture innovative thinking – the results being seen over the long term. The article on German energy was looking forward to 2050. A short term value for money approach would struggle to incorporate such thinking.

I like the increased emphasis on value for money in development. It’s vital that we don’t squander rather we get the best value for the money we have available for development. But it should be one lens through which we view development work. It ties in for me with Fritz Schumacher’s call to take a new approach to development – one that is severely practical – after all he started life in Germany too. But it needs to be balanced by another principle Fritz always emphasised – good development starts with people. And of course Schumacher wanted to change the world with a different approach to economics because people matter.