Archive for September, 2013

Energy: transforming lives

Friday, September 13th, 2013 by

There are still more than 1.3 billion people living without access to any form of electricity, and 2.7 billion people cooking on open fires, exposing themselves and their families to potentially deadly smoke fumes.

At Practical Action are working directly with communities to develop renewable energy technologies using natural resources such as water, wind, sun and waste, which are available even in the remotest communities. Our approach is to achieve total energy for all.

If you would like to find out more about how we are helping provide energy access to poor people why not download our energy leaflet and energy poster

A third of all food goes to waste – shocking! Lets do something about it!

Thursday, September 12th, 2013 by

Today a new report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted annually, costing in terms of the world economy $750 billion and adding – just from the wasted food – 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. And then there’s the real impact – on people!

That’s a third of all food going to waste! Shocking!

Yet masses of people in the UK and around the world are hungry. In the UK this year more than 500,000 people will turn to food banks to feed their families. 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 behaviours 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 – that’s £480 per family. In the developing world poor people don’t 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. kenya-drought-walk-90.jpg

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

Beat the Flood…our new STEM challenge and competition

Thursday, September 12th, 2013 by

Practical Action Beat the Flood launch

Beat the Flood….a new exciting challenge and competition for key stages 2-3 (ages 8-14yrs)

We’re just back from the buzz of the British Science Festival at Newcastle where we launched our new STEM challenge Beat the Flood.

At the launch, the challenge seemed to resonate with many teachers who felt their pupils would connect with the issue of flooding from their own experiences of extreme weather and flooding in the NE of the UK in the past few years.

The starter activity linked to the challenge provides opportunities for pupils to make the link between increased flooding in Europe and other parts of the world, then enables pupils to explore some of the science and technologies used to help people prepare for flooding around the globe.

The pupils are then challenged to design and make a model of a home that withstands the effects of flooding, before testing their models by standing them in water and squirting with a hose pipe!

The real life context and hands-on nature of the challenge means that pupils have the excitement of working in teams to develop a solution to a genuine problem faced by thousands of people.

‘If you squidge the plastercine together more to make a base for the house, the water won’t get through as much as when we used bricks’ Yr 8 pupil Redmoor High School

Beat the flood trialling flood

Beat the flood competition
For your chance to win £250 for your school and prizes for pupils – just enter your pupils’ designs and photo of their model.
To download materials and find out more about the competition go to

Saving alpacas from the snow

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013 by

DSCN0444[1]As if it isn`t tough enough being an alpaca farmer in the high plains of Peru, last week 15 cm of snow blanketed the land. It killed thousands of alpacas, which are vital for smallholder farmers, who sell the wool. They don´t make much money, but it´s enough for food, clothes, and schooling for their children.

We drove for two hours over bumpy tracks, many miles from the nearest town, to meet a group of these farmers. They are used to harsh conditions, with scarce water and poor grazing land, but the heavy snow had added an extra burden.

We talked to Victor Hancco, who is 46, has 5 children, and lives in a small two room house, made of mud and straw bricks, with a corrugated iron roof.

Victor has been trained by Practical Action in irrigation, animal care, and wool classification. He uses this knowledge to tend his own herd of 150 alpacas, and shares his skills with neighbouring farmers.

He said that the snow fell over two days, and then froze hard, down to minus 20 degrees. The alpacas became weak as they couldn’t graze through the icy snow. Eight of his animals died in just a few days, mostly the kids. For a farmer with such a small herd, that represents a huge loss. Alpacas have a gestation period of almost a year, so it will take a long time to build up the numbers again.

The people suffered too – some roofs collapsed with the weight of the snow. The only source of fuel is alpaca dung, and there was only enough for cooking, not for heating homes too. Victor said that they all just put on all the clothes they had, and some came down with pneumonia.

But it could have been much, much worse. Victor used his training to tend the weak alpacas, providing medicine and basic animal care for cold conditions. He visited his neighbours too, and worked with them, to save their herds. He said he felt very proud that his skills made such a difference.

As I listened, I was incredibly proud of Victor and of hearing him say,

“I really value working in partnership with Practical Action – my new knowledge has helped me strengthen my community, especially in these times of climate emergency.”

Without Victor, and the training he received from Practical Action, many more alpacas would have died, especially the vulnerable young kids. It would have taken years for them to recover, financially. Victor is a local hero and if we can train more people like him, then when the next heavy snows come, more alpacas can be saved.

Power from Poo in Peru

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013 by

DSCN0420[1]Ilario Soto, aged 60, was happy to be proved wrong when his son encouraged him to make a Practical Action bio digester which turns animal waste into methane.

We met him in Sijuana and he showed us a long poly tunnel, filled with cow poo, which produces methane, and ends up powering his stove and shower. He told us,

“I didn’t believe in the project, but my son brought the materials, and we got trained by Practical Action, and I built it. I reckon anyone can do it.”

He showed us the stove, which boils a litre of water in 6 minutes. As well as providing gas there is, of course, the other end product – a nice, big pile of animal poo – which he uses to fertilise his crops.

Ilario is just one of the amazing people we met in the Allimpaq project, which trains local farmers in basic services for life.

Lots of the technology seemed to involve poo, and several members of this Chair’s Circle trip, myself included, tested the ecosan loo and pronounced it fit for purpose.

The waste from this loo is also used for crop fertilisation so we are proud to have made a material contribution to Practical Action’s field work in Peru.

Climb every mountain to measure mudslide risk

Sunday, September 8th, 2013 by
Me and the mudslide measuring equipment

Me and the mudslide measuring equipment

This Chair’s Circle visit to Peru is going from one disaster to another.

After seeing how communities prepared for earthquakes in Lima yesterday, we moved to mudslides in the Cusco region where the small, rural town of zurite is facing terrible dangers. Heavy rains have weakened the structure of the hills above. In 2010, a whole chunk of mountain sheared off after a hard deluge, and tore a new river, complete with boulders, through the heart of Zurite. Buildings were damaged beyond repair, and it’s a miracle no-one died.

I climbed up to see Practical Action’s early warning system, installed recently. It’s a perfect combination of simple technology and cutting edge computer design. A video monitors any increase in ground cracks, sensors pick up movement in the soil, and all the data is analysed in situ before being automatically relayed to the town’s environmental department. This means people can be evacuated to safe places in good time when the ground starts to slide down the mountain face towards their homes.

Zurite’s residents won’t be caught unawares again. We are acting now to reduce the loss of life and livelihood when the next heavy rains come, and as I reflect on our visit, tending my achy knees and blistered feet, I think that’s a great use of time, effort, and money.

Market stall holder in Lima to the rescue

Saturday, September 7th, 2013 by

As I stood in the bustling little market in Villa El Salvadore, a district of Lima, I was scared. Villa El Salvadore is an unplanned, informal urban sprawl, home to some of the city’s poorest people, and the whole district sits on a huge natural sandpit, in one of the most earthquake prone places on earth.

Project manager Illair Aguilar showed us how Practical Action is helping to reduce the terrible risks of living and working here. As we stood in the market, surrounded by colourful food, clothes, and the smell of good cooking, she pointed out the evacuation signs, and told us about the emergency procedures, set up by stall- holders, with our support and encouragement. We met Marciel Lanasca and his toddler son Messi. Marciel sells cooked chicken, and he said,

“Before, we were all afraid of earthquakes – we know how deadly they can be. Now, we are prepared. We practice evacuation drills, we know what to do, we are prepared. It makes me feel confident!”

Meeting Marciel made me feel more confident too. Before we talked together, all I had kept thinking about, every time I looked at the sand under my feet, was those terrible documentaries that show the effect of earth tremors on sand. I couldn’t stop wondering what on earth I would do to survive if one came now. But Marciel and his fellow stall holders would know what to do. I was safer than I thought.

Sharing examples of how small scale farmers can respond to climate change in Zimbabwe

Saturday, September 7th, 2013 by

Just reading a report from our climate change team, as part of the report they are looking back on some past work. Really liked this example of maximising our impact through working together with others to share knowledge and help poor farmers. Training others in the methodologies and technologies we know work with poor farmers. Brill too how leaning from the project in Zimbabwe has been taken forward in Tanzania.

Vegetable garden in Zimbabwe

Vegetable garden in Zimbabwe

Mainstreaming Climate Change Adaptation in Zimbabwe’s Agricultural Extension System

Between September 2011 and December 2012, Practical Action Southern Africa, in partnership with the University of Reading, were engaged in a project to integrate climate change adaptation in the Department of Agriculture, Technical and Extension Services (AGRITEX). This was achieved primarily through raising awareness of climate change and it’s related impacts to all AGRITEX staff, and training front-line extension staff to enable them to provide appropriate support that improves the capabilities of smallholder farmers to cope with and adapt to climate variability and change. Funded by the Nuffield Foundation Africa Programme the project directly benefited the agriculture extension system in Zimbabwe, and indirectly benefited many small holder farmers, who as a result of interventions and being well informed, began adopting climate smart agricultural practices and other livelihood options.

This project was also catalytic in terms of spurring activity within Government departments, with some, such as the Meteorological Services Departments, modifying their practices. Furthermore, approaches and concepts developed and implemented by the project team, were adopted and implemented by other organisations in subsequent pilot projects. Amongst others, Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) subsequently funded a two year project in Dodoma district in Tanzania, which directly applied the approach developed in Zimbabwe, and UNDP provided funding to expand the Nuffield funded project.

Snow storms spark emergency response in Peru

Thursday, September 5th, 2013 by

Practical Action is working with other agencies in an emergency response following the massive snow storms that have devastated the lives of the poor farmers we work with in Peru.

Climate change is causing colder weather in the Andean mountains of Peru, making it difficult for the vulnerable farming communities living there to survive

The emergency situation in the Andes, Peru

Temperatures in the Andean mountains this week plunged to their lowest levels in decades, killing tens of thousands of animals, including alpacas that they depend on to survive. Thousands of homes have been destroyed and crops have been ruined. Around 100,000 people living in the vulnerable mountain communities have been affected.

Practical Action has several projects in these areas and the people we are working with are being affected. You can find out more information on these projects in Peru here.

What Practical Action are doing to respond to the emergency

Practical Action Latin America Director Alfonso Carrasco said: “During the last couple of weeks people and animals in the highlands of Peru have been suffering a disaster situation due to extreme cold and totally unusual big snowfalls. Thousands of people have been affected. Practical Action is member of the group of emergency attention that is commanded by the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO), and this group becomes automatically  installed when a disaster strikes. All agencies involved are sending ECHO a report of the damages, and a quick plan to try to attend the emergency.”

Regional and central governments and the Disaster Risk Management Secretary have already helped people in areas they can access by providing blankets, clothing, shelter, food, bales of hay for cattle, blankets, beds, mattresses, medicines and clothing.

Practical Action is co-ordinating with a network of Kamayoqs (para-vets) that we have trained, to help channel aid to more remote areas.

We are also helping to intervene directly in the affected areas of Cusco, Puno and Apurimac that we work in. This is what Practical Action’s priorities are for emergency care and rehabilitation:

Helping farmers and livestock owners recover

  • Providing technical assistance for livelihood recovery
  • Forage storage and handling to ensure animals get the food they need
  • Providing drugs to control animal epidemics in affected communities
  • Providing shifting cultivation seeds to help recover supply of crops

Improving housing conditions and water service

  • Providing technical assistance for homes and schools
  • Reinforcing homes affected by the snow
  • Building community shelters to ensure the affected communities have a roof over their heads
  • Rehabilitating water systems and community water sources
  • Providing safe water in affected communities

Coordination and institutional technical support

  • Supporting and advising the emergency operations centres
  • Providing technical assistance in damage assessment and needs analysis
  • Training for local and community teams for the proper handling of the emergency
  • Installing risk management disaster working groups and civil defense platforms, for a timely emergency response
  • Coordinating and deploying Kamayoqs to isolated areas to distribute aid
  • Coordinating with DIPECHO partners and other institutions to coordinate intervention strategies
  • Supporting students and academics in technical and social assistance

Winter in the Andes, which runs from May to September, is tough already for vulnerable farming communities – temperatures drop to minus 20 degrees.

Daniel Rodriguez, Practical Action’s Director of Programmes in Peru, said: “It’s impossible to adequately describe the environment in which they live. High in the Andean mountains, some 4,000 feet above sea level, the cold is brutal. The land is barren, capable of producing little more than potatoes. Homes are made of mud with no basic services. Families struggle daily to make enough money from selling the wool from their alpacas. The commitment these families make to their alpaca livelihoods under such difficult circumstances is moving.”

He has written a heart-warming blog about a lady called Gabriela, the only child of eight to survive in the Peruvian Andes.

Alpaca farmer in Peru, trained as a para-vet

The “Friaje” of recent winters – a phenomenon of intense cold never experienced so extremely before – is challenging highland communities’ abilities to survive. It’s suspected that the extreme weather had been triggered by climate change. These weather emergencies are going to be repeated year after year and we need to support these vulnerable communities to cope with climate change to survive.

Peru trip with chair’s circle

Monday, September 2nd, 2013 by


On Thursday, a group of supporters from Practical Action’s Chair’s Circle will travel on a self-funded tour of our work in Peru and Bolivia.

On the road are – Clive Quick, Emily Crowe, Laurence Taylor, Judy Mallaber, Crispian Collins, Warwick Franklin, and me, Kate Mulkern. I hope to update this blog with where we are, who we meet, and what we see. One thing I know already – it’s going to be an amazing experience for us all.