Archive for June, 2013

What’s cooking in the stoves sector?

Friday, June 28th, 2013 by

“We have reached a tipping point” – so says Radha Muthiah, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. What she means is that stoves and cooking are finally on the radar, attracting some big players, and for the first time investors are taking African markets seriously. Certainly, the support of people like Julia Roberts, Gisele Bunchen and Hilary Clinton has given the sector a certain glamour in recent years.

I’ve just spent a couple of days representing Practical Action at the Bonn International Cooking Energy Forum, and my observation is that the sector is changing in some really fundamental ways. Multinational companies are getting involved like Philips Africa, and Envirofit India. Social entrepreneurs have exciting plans – with the likes of BurnManufacturing planning to produce 14,000 stoves a month from a new purpose-built factory in Nairobi. Where it used to be NGOs who led the way designing innovative products to meet the needs of poor consumers, now that is increasingly being done by the private sector.  With the right product, everyone seemed bullish. The problem does not seem to be one of selling stoves.

20826The role of NGOs is likely to have to change to one of market facilitator, and capacity builder, for example in supporting small enterprises so their products can meet new standards, and to help them be in a position to apply successfully for financing. There will be a continuing need for gathering evidence and raising awareness. While huge amounts are spent all over the world on campaigns to combat malaria and HIV/AIDS, and despite being the world’s 4th biggest killer and the cause of 4 million deaths a year, still only tiny amounts are spent on raising awareness about the dangers of smoke from household cooking fires.

Two questions are still troubling me:

  1. Is it enough? The challenges are enormous and no-one has yet ‘cracked it’ to create a really vibrant, growing cook stoves market. We are reaching millions, perhaps even 10s of millions, but not the 100s of millions that need to be reached every year.
  2. Will the rural poor who don’t have any sort of stove and who don’t pay anything for their fuel be reached?


What’s happened to global warming?

Thursday, June 27th, 2013 by

June is almost over and like me, I’m sure you are waiting for summer.  Winter doesn’t seem that long ago and with the passing of the northern solstice and the celebrations at Stonehenge, summer has begun but not with a blaze of sunshine more an overcast whimper.  So what has happened to Global Warming, this massive problem that we were warned against (or rather promised) by climate scientists and widely reported in the media? Why aren’t we all out in our shorts enjoying the sunshine?  Unfortunately this scepticism has also reached senior government.  On June 7th during the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Any Questions’[1], the UK Secretary of State for the Environment, the Right Honourable Owen Paterson said “ the climate has not changed – the temperature has not changed in the last seventeen years”. Well, it certainly hasn’t changed in the UK I hear you say!  This may be true if you look at temperature, but is climate change only about rising temperatures?  This is the problem with the phrase ‘Global Warming’, the expectation that it’s going to get hotter.

What we know is that human activities: the combustion of fossil fuels, land use change and deforestation are releasing carbon dioxide and other gases that are changing the composition of the atmosphere.  These gases have no effect on the sunlight as it enters the atmosphere, but they are good at capturing the heat energy of the reflected sunlight, therefore the atmosphere is heated as less energy is lost to space. So although the amount of energy entering the atmosphere remains fairly constant (see sunspot activity below), more energy is being retained in the atmosphere as the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases increase.  This increasing atmospheric energy is affecting everything.  What we noticed first was the increase in temperature with a number of record hot years widely reported by the media in the 1990’s, apparently reaching a peak in the late nineties as recalled by the minister above. However, the hottest global year on record is the 12 month period from June 2009 to May 2010.  So globally temperatures have continued to rise despite the fact that here in the UK, this may not seem to be the case.

Blog 5_2[2]

Moreover it’s not just the atmosphere that has warmed, but also the oceans.  Oceans due to their global coverage, size and heat storage capacity are a much better indicator of global temperatures change.  Ocean temperatures have steadily risen regardless of El Nino or sunspot activity that can affect atmospheric temperatures in the short term as the diagram below indicates.

Blog 5_3[3]

So regardless of the fluctuations that have been experienced in the historic past and the error of judging climate change on a seventeen year timeframe, climate scientists are 97% certain[4] that the earth’s climate is changing and the window for action to avoid dangerous climate change is rapidly closing.  What is needed is drastic action to stabilise the climate, which demands the return of climate change to the political agenda alongside economic health and energy security.

It’s important to look at climate change as part of our future wellbeing and not isolated as idealised local warming.  With human activity changing natural cycles, it’s not just temperature that will rise but with more energy in the atmosphere other things will change.  We can expect weather conditions to become more unpredictable and for weather events to become more severe. So it’s not just warmer summers and hazy blue skies, but also more drought, more hosepipe bans, more unseasonal flooding, more extreme winters and more climate induced natural disasters not only in the UK but around the world, with the poorest and those living in the most vulnerable locations the hardest hit.  The future looks bleak, not just for the environment, but for us all if politicians don’t wake up soon! Perhaps it’s time to pick up pen and paper and write to Mr. Paterson?


[4] 97% of climate papers (13,950 peer reviewed papers published 1991-2012) stating a position on human caused global warming agree global warming is happening and we are the cause.

A bus on Air

Monday, June 24th, 2013 by

First, I always dreamed to build an aircraft and fly, but that hasn’t yet come true, anyhow I love all aviation issues.

On Friday 14th June I was watching a live TV show, the first launch of Airbus350, made of composite of light carbon-fibre and a light fuselage. I was very happy to see this innovation and initiative of 20% more fuel efficient. When the aircraft took off, all the attendees applauded and clapped, as did I.

How is this news linked with Practical Action, an organization that works with the poor people around the world? It does in fact have a strong relation. Here is the story, I’m quoting from
“It is widely acknowledged that man-made emissions of greenhouse gases, predominately from the consumption of carbon-based fossil fuels, are causing major changes to the planet’s climate. Aviation emissions differ in that they have a greater climate impact than the same emissions made at ground level at ground.” Emissions from aircraft flying at cruising altitudes (8 to 13 km) affect atmospheric composition in a height region where there might be significant climate impact through changes in the chemical and physical processes that have climate change consequences. Future emissions from aircraft are expected to increase much more rapidly than emissions in general, with global aviation annual growth currently estimated between 4 to 5%. Therefore, not only will the overall impact of aircraft emissions increase, but also the importance relative to the total climate impact. In order for carbon credit offsetting to be credible, the calculation of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from flights requires a special approach”

Therefore, fuel efficiency differences can be explained largely by differences in aircraft operations. Here are the factors that determine the fuel saving and reduction:
1. Higher passengers load, contributes to fuel reduction.
2. Fuel carried in aircraft (extra load).
3. Fuel efficient aircraft engines used.
4. Engine-wise: regional jets are 10%-60% less efficient than turboprop.
5. Body-wise: regional aircraft are 40%-60% less efficient than narrow, large body.

Since these emissions are still there and those form aviation flights are more harmful, Practical Action, in responding to these issues, is committed to reduce its GHG footprint in its daily operation around the world, this year our Sudan office has emitted a total of 262.3 tons of carbon during the period April 2012 to March 2013 (93% of its target for that period).” I am proud to be a part of Practical Action.

Killer kerosene

Friday, June 21st, 2013 by

A million deaths each year are attributable to the kerosene lamp. I had no idea just how dangerous a simple lighting device could be!  But, as a mother, I quickly learned that the close proximity of children and a naked flame makes a recipe for disaster.

Kerosene lamps are widely used for lighting in rural Africa and Asia where electricity is unavailable or too costly.  Rudimentary lamps are often unstable and easily knocked over, especially in confined spaces and house building materials are often very flammable. In addition kerosene fumes cause respiratory diseases and the colourless liquid, often sold in reused soft drink bottles, results in yet another hazard – accidentally drinking kerosene is the primary cause of child poisoning in the developing world.

Studying with solar lampOne simple solution to this problem is solar lighting and there are now a number of entrepreneurial companies distributing low cost, durable solar lamps in Africa.  These enable students to study in the evening and families to cook and eat their evening meal without risk.  Not only are these lamps safe but the energy to operate them is free, sustainable and readily available in Africa.

At this week’s Ashden Awards, winners Solar Aid and Azuri were praised for the innovative distribution and payment methods.  This ensures that their products are both affordable and widely available – even in remote areas.

These organisations are helping to make great strides in the journey towards our aim of Sustainable Energy for All.

My reflection of Supporters’ day!

Thursday, June 20th, 2013 by

The hustle and bustle of last minute checks, then calm descends as the clock ticks round and the first supporter arrives. Yes, I’m talking about our annual Supporters’ day. A day we show our appreciation to some ofthose who are helping make a difference to the lives of the huge number of people, for whom each day is a constant struggle.

Floating Garden

This year’s theme was all about ‘Connecting’ and from the opening introduction to the closing address our supporters definitely embraced the theme of the day. This was highlighted in the ‘Inspiring innovation’ workshop as I watched the look on the faces of some people who realised that working in teams, they would be making a floating garden.  One lady turning to her husband with hope in her voice said “we don’t have to make anything do we”, then both looking to me for reassurance just to have it dashed when I replied “it’s a show and tell – I hope you have a Blue Peter badge”. But twenty minutes later everyone really embraced the task as was evident by a room full of excited, and I must add very competitive voices, as each team tested the strength of their floating garden. Well done to all the teams who successfully achieved the task.

Throughout the day we also received many testimonials from supporters:

One lady decided last minute to come and said “I’ve never been before but I’ve really enjoyed it and will definitely come again. I love the fact you get to hear about the work from the Country Director’s, but you also have the opportunity to talk to them direct – amazing”.

Anne from Brighton said “A number of years ago I worked for a French organisation that did similar work to Practical Action, which is why I support you. You are not a quick fix organisation”

There were also stories of the extraordinary effort our supporters go to in order to arrive at the venue on time – like Peter from the valleys of South Wales who stayed in a guest house so he could catch his train to Paddington in good time. He was particularly interested and inspired by our renewable energy projects.

Watt Bike

Other highlights include Margaret playing the DRTV advert; Stephen Watson talking about our new strategy; Barney and Simon’s workshop on ‘changing the world’ and Amy pedalling on the road to nowhere trying to entice more victims to try the ‘Watt bike’. These are just a fraction of the activities and presentations throughout the day, which are far too many to mention.

As supporters go into the closing address the frantic job of dismantling exhibitions, repacking equipment, and loading onto the van begins. So I’d like to acknowledge Julie and Michaela who worked tirelessly on the logistics of the day to make it happen, and to all the other participants and helpers behind that supported them.

The day is over and some very contented supporters make their way home – another successful event over for another year.

I’ve been to quite a few supporter days in my 20 years at Practical Action but I’m still amazed by the enthusiasm, passion, dedication, and generosity of our supporters – they definitely are the best.


Global Dimension in Engineering Education

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013 by

6192European award for best practice on integration of Sustainable Human Development into technology / engineering education

About the Global Dimension in Engineering Education project

Global Dimension in Engineering Education, a cross-cutting initiative placing development education into technology studies is a EuropeAid project which aims to stimulate the introduction of education for development in European Universities. This project will impact positively on the attitudinal values and skills of students in relation to sustainable human development (SHD). This is being dealt with by integrating SHD as a cross-cutting issue in teaching activities through a two-fold strategy. Its first objective is to improve the competences of academics to enable them to introduce SHD into the curricula and facilitating the engagement of both staff and students in academic initiatives related to SHD.

Objective of the award

There is little doubt about the role that higher education may play in efforts to promote and achieve sustainable human development. One challenge is a shortage of academics actively engaged in promoting measures related to SHD in teaching activities. The objective of this award is to identify current best practice for the integration of sustainable human development in technology/engineering education. The award is part of a wider European project looking at improving the integration of human development issues into technology studies/engineering education.


There will be 3 awards of €3.000 (before taxes). The tax will depend on each individual situation. The awarded person must be the main author of the work.

Your submission

Your submission will outline how sustainable human development has been integrated into the applicants teaching. The applicant’s works will be of a theoretical or applied character and can be, but not limited to, one of the following types:

  • Innovative methods for integrated SHD into the curriculum
  • Converting existing experiences in development education into technology /engineering studies.
  • Making materials for the integration of SHD available to the Academic Community.
  • Innovative methods for the support and supervision of a PhD Thesis, Master Thesis, Bachelor Thesis, or equivalent.


  • The main applicant must hold an academic post at a European University (for example if the work is the supervision of a thesis, Master Thesis it is the academic supervisor that should apply).
  •  A team can also participate: in this case the principle applicant must be an academic at a University.
  • All the participants accept the conditions of the award and the publication of the awarded works.
  •  The teachers or researchers included in the Organizing Committee, Academic Committee or in the Global Dimension in Engineering Eduction project may not participate in the award.
  • The deadline is July 18th 2013.


  • Modality one: Individual applicant or small teams with one principle applicant (for example within a department)
  • Modality two: Institutional application (university), (only one proposal per institution is accepted)

Documents to be presented

The candidates will fulfil an on line application form available on: 

The on line application form will include:

  • Summary of the work (maximum 5 pages).
  • Any other relevant documents related to the work: paper, book, PhD thesis, Master Thesis
  • A short CV of the principle applicant (maximum 2 pages).
  • Covering letter.
  • Letter of reference from the university (in the case of Institutional award modality).

Evaluation criteria
The Academic Committee will select the best three works based on the previous evaluation of one NGO and one University institution, based on the following criteria:

  • Quality of the work, including coherence and sustainability.
  • Impact of the work on the academic activities of the European Universities. A high number of students and teachers in the institutions will be a merit for this criterion.
  • Innovation of the work, including novel educational aspects.

Organizing and Academic Committees
This award is organized by the Global Dimension EuropeAid project. The institutions involved in this project are:

Universities: Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC), Universidad Politécnica de Valencia (UPV), Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM), Loughborough University, Università degil Studi di Trento (UNITN).

NGOs: ONGAWA, Ingeniería para el Desarrollo Humano (Engineering for Human Development), Practical Action, Engineers Without Borders (EWB-UK), Training Centre for International Cooperation (TCIC).

The Academic committee is made up of one member from each one of the institutions (Universities and NGOs) that participate in this project. These members have experience in education for development in Technological / Engineering Universities.

Contact information

Please, contact with any questions regarding this award.

‘Leave No One Behind’ – Appropriate Investment In Agriculture

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013 by

The past week has seen heated debate over the future of investment in agriculture. At the heart of the mudslinging lies the question ‘what can the New Alliance for Security and Nutrition really offer Africa?’ As detailed in my last blog the New Alliance certainly has big aims – lifting 50 million people out of poverty no less. To do this the New Alliance is advocating partnership with the private sector, new technologies and investment. However, critics of this new development power house are drawing less than flattering comparisons between the actions of the alliance and the land grabbing/colonial ambitions of 19th century western powers. For those with little faith in alliances between government and the private sector the New Alliance brings unjustified risk to smallholder farmers and the environment generally. They fear it will lead to a decline in water resources, soil fertility, biodiversity and access by the rural poor to the natural resources on which they depend. Each camp insists that they are right and are asking or demanding that the other withdraw. Listening to the debate, there appears to be no compromise or middle ground.

Without a more constructive discussion we will simply get more of the same, with neither side listening to the other. Opportunities for investment and expansion of large-scale external input based agriculture will inevitably continue to be explored, particularly in high-potential areas. Policy makers and governments will continue to plan for agricultural growth as a strategy for food security and development. Donor supported, and encouraged, private sector based agriculture programmes will continue – the private sector window of the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme (GAFSP), the New Alliance, etc. Multinational private sector seed suppliers will have an ever increasing market share with protected rights. There will be a continued decline in the use of local seeds and of biodiversity.

So where does that leave us?

The tension currently lies in the contrasting responses to a genuine problem that is recognised by both sides: How to achieve food security at all levels – of rural households, of the growing urban poor population, nationally and globally. The argument is between commercial and external input oriented approaches, versus farmer owned agro-ecological approaches that see agriculture as more than business. Both approaches exist in practice. Both can quote success stories and have advocates. Both have momentum.

Both narratives claim to include smallholders and provide the needed food security and nutrition benefits. All the buzz words are there – women farmers, adaptation to climate change, livelihoods, income, jobs, achieving scale. With our experience to date I find the claims to be quite wondrous – like the miracle cure medicines of the past.

And whilst it would be possible to continue with the status quo for now, the current situation is not without dangers. There is, for example, evidence that government backed external input intensive, large-scale agriculture will have a damaging impact on smallholder opportunities, the sustainability of the food system and the physical environment

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are likely to ask that “none are left behind” and call for the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030. Experience has shown that this is a tall order – a very challenging task. We should not treat it glibly and make over ambitious assumptions – like trickle down poverty reduction coming from agricultural growth and increased production by agri-business.

Appropriate Technology

As a technology based organisation Practical Action recognises that there can be diverse approaches to solving this problem, each with its own risks and merits and situations where it would be most appropriate, or not.

Practical Action believes that an understanding of  ‘Appropriate Technology’ and  ‘Technology Justice’ can provide a constructive way forward that will also include and address the needs of small-scale farmers, the rural poor and people living in fragile environments.

The objective is to achieve appropriate technology for choice, market systems that provide opportunities for small-scale farmers and the poor and a means of achieving scale, and the capacity for all farmers to adapt to climate change and develop resilient livelihoods.

Farmers trialing adaptation in Zimbabwe.

Farmers trialing adaptation in Zimbabwe

A range of methods for achieving these objectives exists – i.e. to facilitate appropriate technology and development processes and achieve technology justice. Applications include:

–          Facilitating innovation systems that build the capacity of farmers to adapt to change, such as fluctuating food prices and other markets, climate change and increasing variability, and to increase resilience to disasters

–          Participatory Market Systems Development (PMSD) to facilitate pro-poor markets – to help small-scale farmers and other value chain stakeholders make markers work for the poor.

With understanding and empowerment, appropriate technology can provide sustainable benefits for smallholders, the rural poor and people dependent on the natural resources in low potential areas. With appropriate technology, small-scale farmers can make a substantial contribution to national food security and nutrition. They can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, and rural urban migration need not be exacerbated by rural poverty.

Our objective should be the appropriate development of rural areas, including marginal areas, so that all people living in rural areas are able to look after themselves, have the opportunity to improve their livelihoods – in or out of agriculture. It not only makes sense, but it is our moral obligation, to assist small-scale producers maximise their contribution to national food systems – for their benefit, as well as for others.

I believe in Science but please dont be dull @The Royal Society

Monday, June 17th, 2013 by

The Royal Society describes itself as ‘a Fellowship of the world’s most eminent scientists and is the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence’. So going to a RS event ‘The post-2015 development agenda: what do civil society and policymakers want from science?’ I was looking forward to hearing the contribution science can make to poverty reduction and a sustainable world.

I have to say I was disappointed. My take away from the meeting was that science believes it can offer the scientific methodology to development. Not sure that’s so great. Let me explain why.

The week before I had met someone from a very large UK based charity who spoke of applying randomize control methodologies to a project in Africa (the scientific methodology?). One village got lots of ‘things’ and support, the other village got nothing (moreover other charities were discouraged from going to help as they would have ‘ruined the control’). All villagers were interviewed every 2 weeks – families were short on time as making a living was so hard but willing to help as they understood their experience may help others. 36 interviews per family. At the end of the 18 month trial period the stuff the charity did was a proven success but the mega donor had moved on. Lots of good will was lost (between the community and the charity) and the charity felt bad for treating people like guinea pigs!

Sorry to be so vague but I promised not to give her identity away.

In the real world influence is quite complicated. Development on the other hand is quite clear – it has to start with people. It’s about solidarity, relationships, working together, vision. It’s also about doing things that work.

Science too has lots to offer if it also starts with people – I expected to hear about innovation, sharing ideas, open source technology, medical breakthrough, etc. I also anticipated learning more about the most recent scientific response to climate change – which the post 2015 working group – jointly chaired by David Cameron accepts is happening and that 4 degree warming is a likely outcome – disastrous for many poor communities.

Come on scientists don’t be dull. Have vision – help change the world!

Ps I love the topics in the Royal Society Summer Exhibition – not sure why no one talked about any of them.

changing the world – meeting by meeting

Monday, June 10th, 2013 by

Each year for one week our international directors come together to reflect on the year just gone and plan for the future, today was the first day of our 2013 meeting.

We celebrated approval from the government of Bangladesh for our call centre which should reach more than 50,000 poor farmers (it’s a standard rate call –as opposed to a number of very premium help lines – and mobiles are now wide spread in Bangladesh), our first ever funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and most importantly, directly helping over 700,000 people in the first year of our new strategy.

We also looked at issues – the most predominant being the political turbulence in the countries where we work – the split into two countries in Sudan, the elections in Kenya which thankfully passed without major violence, and the upcoming elections in Zimbabwe. Funding is also an issue with many big donors now looking for private sector organisations – PWC, KPMG etc. now run big development projects – great for project management but sometimes less great for closeness to the poor people themselves.

What struck me most today, however, was the commitment and passion for poverty reduction of the people I work with. Being with a group of people who want to make a practical and substantial difference and who have the expertise and skills to do it is inspirational.

Week long meetings are not my thing but being with a great group of ‘experts’ is always a joy.

NOW is the time for Smallholder farmers

Friday, June 7th, 2013 by

I am really pleased to see the UK Government and G8 focus on food and agriculture and to be invited by DFID to consult on the initiative. This focus is needed to strengthen the resilience and productivity of all farmers to meet the food and nutrition needs of themselves and the growing population.

I am anxious about what the DFID event (Promoting African Agriculture – The New Alliance for Security and Nutrition) will bring.

Vegetable garden in Zimbabwe

Vegetable garden in Zimbabwe

  • Will it motivate investment in sustainable agriculture at all levels – smallholder farmers to large-scale agri-business?
  • Will it enable smallholders to invest and grow their agricultural livelihoods, or will it just benefit the multinationals and big business?

Smallholders are key to success
You may ask, why the preoccupation with smallholder farmers? Simple:

  • They produce food where it is needed.
  • They depend on the natural environment for their food and income.
  • They have the potential to significantly increase their production and livelihoods using existing affordable and environmentally sound technologies – i.e. tried and tested ‘appropriate technologies’
  • They can, and should be, a major pillar of sustainable agricultural growth and global food security.

In Africa smallholder farmers tend to comprise a very important part of the national food production system and economy in most countries. Transformation of smallholder farming should be an important part of the solution to providing food security and improved nutrition.

Responsible Governments
Governments are responsible for creating an enabling environment for all agri-business. Care should be taken to not increase the vulnerability of smallholders through ‘quick fix’ reforms designed to incentivise large-scale private sector investment – such as new policy, rules and systems that affect access to land, seed supply, biodiversity and the intellectual property rights. The enabling environment needs to protect and promote the ability of smallholders to develop and improve their farming through innovation and experimentation – a vital mechanism for step-wise adaptation to climate change.

The UK and G8 should meet their commitments
I think the UK and G8 should meet their commitment to spend 0.7% GNI on aid and this should include support for public expenditure within nationally owned agricultural investment plans. These plans should include:

  • Support for smallholder farmers for whom ‘low external input’ farming systems can produce significant improvements in food and income security.
  • Development of local markets and programmes to support smallholders and agri-business engagement with the markets.
  • Support and finance to help communities to adapt to climate change.

So here’s hoping for some realistic commitments to support smallholder farming as part of the solution to food security, nutrition and sustainable economic growth in Africa.

Can the UK, G8, African Governments and private sector work together to promote diverse and dynamic rural economies which enable smallholders to adapt to climate change and generate viable livelihoods from their farming? What do you think?