Archive for November, 2013

Practical Action Afrique de l’Ouest – l’Aventure Commence

Friday, November 29th, 2013 by

C’est toujours un plaisir de sortir de l’avion à Dakar et respirer dans la mer-brise fraîche et douce – un tel contraste au vent chaud et poussiéreux que j’ai laissé à Bamako, plus de 1000 km à l’Est. Au cours des plus de 25 ans que je vie et travaille en Afrique de l’Ouest je me suis rendue à Dakar beaucoup de fois mais cette fois-ci, c’est très différente, sachant que cette courte visite sera ma dernière avant de déménager ici en Janvier 2014 pour ouvrir un nouveau bureau de Practical Action en Afrique de L’Ouest. Practical Action Afrique de l’Ouest

Différente, et un peu intimidant aussi! La région de l’Afrique de l’Ouest est grande. Les 15 Etats membres de la communauté de la CEDEAO seule (voir la carte), couvrent une superficie de 5,1 millions de km2, équivalente à 21 fois la taille du Royaume-Uni. Elle est aussi pleine de contrastes: à partir des bourdonnements des villes portuaires animées de Dakar, Accra, Abidjan, Lomé et Lagos, qui constituent des pôles essentiels pour le commerce régional et la croissance économique; jusqu’aux pays semi-désertiques et enclavés du Mali, du Burkina et du Niger, parmi les moins développés au Monde. Ici, la sécheresse récurrente, aggravée par le récent conflit armé, ont eu comme conséquence environ 10,3 millions de personnes confrontées à des pénuries alimentaires critiques en 2013, dont 4,5 millions d’enfants de moins de 5 ans à haut risque de la malnutrition aiguë.

Donc, lors de mes rencontres à Dakar cette semaine, je parlais à un large éventail de personnes, pour apprendre davantage sur ce que le gouvernement, le secteur privé et les agriculteurs eux-mêmes, sont déjà en train de faire et pour discuter comment Practical Action pourrait soutenir cela, en apportant son mélange unique de connaissances, de compétences et plus de 45 ans d’expérience de l’utilisation de la technologie pour défier la pauvreté dans les pays en développement.

Assata Diarra – une agricultrice Ouest Africaine

Assata Diarra – une agricultrice Ouest Africaine, planteur d’arbres, cultivatrice de légumes et commerçante [Photo credit: Sahel Eco]

Et je pensais à Aissata Diarra qui j’ai rencontré au Mali en Mars 2012, à la veille du coup d’Etat (photo de gauche). Assata est une agricultrice, un planteur d’arbres, une cultivatrice de légumes et une commerçante. Elle utilise son téléphone mobile (accroché autour de son cou) pour aider à vendre ses fruits et légumes et pour rester en contact avec les membres de la famille qui habitent loin.

Practical Action travaillera en Afrique de l’Ouest afin que les agriculteurs comme Assata, peuvent développer des systèmes agricoles plus résilients – mieux à même de résister et de se remettre rapidement de chocs climatiques – et avoir accès à des solutions énergétiques abordables, durables et disponible localement qui leur permettent de se sortir de la pauvreté et améliorer la santé et le bien-être de toute la famille, et en particulier leurs enfants.

Si vous travaillez en Afrique de l’Ouest et seriez intéressé à collaborer avec Practical Action dans les domaines de l’énergie à petite échelle ou l’agriculture, ou d’être sur notre registre des consultants associés, s’il vous plaît écrivez-moi à:

Read this blog post in English

Practical Action West Africa – the journey begins

Friday, November 29th, 2013 by

It’s always a pleasure for me to step off the plane in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and to  breathe in the cool, fresh sea-breeze – such a contrast to the heat and dust I have left behind in Bamako over 1000 km to the east. In more than 25 years spent living and working in West Africa, I have been to Dakar many times, but it feels quite different knowing that this short visit is my last before moving here in January 2014 to open a new West Africa office for Practical Action.West Africa Map

Different, and a bit daunting too! West Africa is big place – the 15 member states of the ECOWAS community alone (see map) cover 5.1 million km2, that’s 21 times the size of UK. It is also full of contrasts; from the busy buzzing, port towns of Dakar, Accra, Abidjan, Lomé and Lagos which are key hubs for regional trade and economic growth, to the semi-desert landlocked countries of Mali, Burkina and Niger, amongst the least developed in the World. Here recurrent drought, compounded by recent armed conflict, have left an estimated 10.3 million people facing food shortages in 2013 with, critically, 4.5 million children under 5 at high risk of acute malnutrition.

So during my meetings in Dakar this week I have been talking to a wide range of people, learning more about what government, the private sector and farmers themselves, are already doing and discussing how Practical Action can support this, bringing its unique blend of knowledge, skills and over 45 years of experience of using technology to challenge poverty in developing countries.

Assata Diarra – West African farmer

Assata Diarra – West African farmer, tree planter, market gardener and trader [Photo credit: Sahel Eco]

And I have been thinking of Assata Diarra who I met in Mali in March 2012, just the day before the coup d’état (photo left). Assata is farmer, a tree planter, a market gardener and a trader. She uses her mobile phone (hung round her neck) to help sell her fruit and vegetables and to keep in touch with family members who live far away.

Practical Action in West Africa will be working to ensure that farmers like Assata, can develop more resilient farming systems – better able to resist and recover quickly from climate shocks – and can have access to affordable locally-sourced sustainable energy solutions enabling them to work their way out of poverty and improve the health and wellbeing of the whole family, and especially their children.

If you are working in West Africa and would be interested to partner with Practical Action on small scale energy or agriculture, or to be on our register of associate consultants, please write to me at:

Spinning with emotion

Thursday, November 28th, 2013 by

Continuing my journey from Bolivia, we arrived back in Cusco, Peru – A city that appears to be a back packer’s paradise.

I have been fortunate to see another number of projects across a very broad spectrum, but one that will stay with me for the rest of my life featured multiple technologies that are benefitting families living in small communities in the high Andes.  At first sight, I didn’t feel terribly comfortable with the sight that presented before me and worried I might get emotional. As a first timer to projects and project sites, no amount of imagination could have prepared me for the reality of the absolute lack of access to basic services that these communities are enduring.  These people have very little, but they do have each other and an understanding of the difficulties their families, friends and neighbours face. They are working together to make life better for themselves and Practical Action is working with them to help them achieve a better standard of living.

Practical Action has provided a number of basic services including toilets, cook stoves, sand bar water filter systems, water harvesting systems, and solar powered energy. These services are transforming the lives for these communities and they couldn’t be more thrilled.

An interesting innovation is the provision of a solar powered spinning machine, which reduces the time taken in spinning Alpaca wool. One machine per community has been installed. The ladies can earn ten times more income through using the machine as opposed to wool spun from the traditional spinning method. The machine also has the ability to spin two ply as well as single ply, allowing for more choice in their sales.  Rivelina, the lady in the photograph is tasked with training the ladies of the community how to use the machine.

spinning wool

The Communities are really appreciative of the support they receive from Practical Action and now have hope for the future. I have seen for myself how charitable donations from generous like-minded people really can make a difference to communities. Thank you to everyone  who has supported this life changing work.




The long and winding road to Apurimac

Thursday, November 28th, 2013 by

The long and winding road to Apurimac

“There’s a line in a famous song, ‘The long and winding road…leads me to your door. ‘   On Tuesday, we travelled down to Apurimac to meet a community that don’t actually have a door – because they don’t have a permanent home.  Their homes consist of shelters made from plastic bags.

The community of Bachaura live high up in the Peruvian Andean Mountains and unfortunately, they are the victims of a landslide that took place in 2011. What remains of their ‘old’ houses beggars belief, huge cracks if they are lucky, half or all the house missing if not.

This is a community living quite literally on the edge, not only in terms of desperate need but also thousands of metres above sea level. They are at the mercy of the elements and experiencing extreme temperatures. In the heat of the day, the plastic houses are roasting them alive and in the extreme cold, they have no way of heating their homes, or keeping warm.  Problems with mining on the other side of the mountain, is only exacerbating the situation; they are desperate and live in fear for their lives and that of their children.

Deisi, one of the ladies who seemed keen to speak up told us that they are increasingly afraid of more landslides and explained that they had tried to re-route the water coming down from the mountain away from their community and makeshift homes. The heat is more intense than ever before and the water levels are rising, increasing the risk of more landslides. The river running through the mountains divides the communities but Deisi is afraid for everyone.

If a landslide wasn’t enough, a drought in 2011, inevitably led to food shortages. The communities improvised by making soups with the leaves from the trees, collecting and cooking algae from the river, eating the fruit of the cactus plants and bugs from the bamboo – using the resources they had available to them. They also set up an exchange scheme with other communities across the river. However, this in itself has highlighted problems as the Elder of the community was keen to tell us.

“Diseases are staring here, worms and ants that are eating our crops”. He went on to say that in previous days, good practices were passed down from generation to generation. His father and forefathers used to read the sun and the stars, as well as the weather to know if it was going to be a fruitful year. “This is all gone now; this knowledge has been forgotten by the new generation”.

There is a huge amount of work to do with this community and Practical Action is involved in the first phase of a project – that of collating the old knowledge and cataloguing it for generations to come. Looking at seed recovery and seed knowledge, so that for generations to come they can adapt to the changing climate and not go short of food.

Deisi is part of that younger generation, who at the age of 25 has three children depending on her.  What she wants most of all is support to rebuild their homes away from danger, so that she can live without fear.  I sincerely hope that one day, she will get that wish and that the long and winding road will indeed lead to her door.



What’s cooking in India?

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013 by

India clean cookstove forumYesterday I attended a workshop in Delhi, on clean household cooking in India – the first of its kind – attended by a range of organisations and hosted by the Minister of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), Dr Farooq Abdullah.  It has been estimated that, so far, around 35 million improved cook stoves, or chulhas as they’re locally know, are being used.  This sounds like a lot, but when you consider it’s taken more than 30 years, and there are more than 166 million households in India that rely on wood to meet their cooking needs, there is still a lot of work to do.  As one attendee pointed out “there is Coca-Cola in every village in India but not improved cook stoves, so why is this?”

More efficient cook stoves on display

More efficient cook stoves on display

One presentation highlighted how an Indian woman, Kalibati, currently pays more than R100 (about £1) per month on medication for a respiratory problem caused by her inefficient cook stove, which is almost as much as she pays for her child’s education.  However she feels she has no choice and continues to use her stove as cannot afford LPG or kerosene.  It has also been recently estimated that more than a million people in India die of emissions from household cooking so the problem is huge.

New innovative biomass cook stoves and cooking solutions, such as Practical Action’s smoke hood, are being developed to overcome the problems, as well as new ways of distributing and marketing them.  The workshop generated a huge amount of excitement and energy to find ways of overcoming these significant barriers.  What was most heartening was the open acknowledgement by the Minister that no one organisation or institution can solve the problem themselves, but if everyone can work together, including government institutions, NGOs, such as Practical Action, and private sector companies there is hope for the future and people like Kalibati.

Are we nearly there yet?

Monday, November 25th, 2013 by

“Are we nearly there yet?” is a thought that has cropped up in my mind on a couple of occasions these last few days as we journey around Bolivia and up into the Andes, to see some of the great work Practical Action is doing for the communities living there.  I could never have imagined the enormity of the landscape and the time it takes to get anywhere, either through distance, traffic or altitude.

The majestic mountains and the never ending plateaus, interspersed with the odd farm, perhaps a couple of houses, or small village is a sight to behold. Women in traditional Bolivian dress, shepherding their sheep, llamas or cows, could be straight out of a story book. But life for these communities is far from easy. I have been fortunate to see for myself four very different projects that are making a difference to these communities.

A Centre of Technology and Innovation is underway in the Jesús de Machaca Municipality, for the rearing and breeding of Alpacas for meat, leather, wool and textiles. The project will benefit 163 families and make a significant difference to both their wellbeing and incomes. The Centre will sustain and promote rural activities of the Kamayocs through information materials and communications. On our visit, the ground had been ring fenced with a solar powered electric fence. Corrals’ had been dug with the appropriate drainage and water systems were in the process of being installed. Some 140 animals were already in residence, jumping about in the Andean sunshine. The communities of the municipality could not be happier with the work in progress and gave us the warmest welcome imaginable, which included a presentation from the Mayor of the Municipality.

Quinoa processing is a project that has reached completion of its first stage – a short project of a mere 9 months that has turned around the processing of Quinoa and other grains. The communities are now able to produce popcorn, bars and cookies from the Quinoa and are selling them at local Fayres around the municipality. Berta, one of the ladies involved in the goods production, told us what a difference the project and the opportunity has made to her life, she is now able to contribute to the family income – something she is immensely proud of. The second stage of this valuable work will look at securing contracts with schools to supply Quinoa bars for healthy breakfasts.

A Milk Transformation Centre has literally transformed the lives of a women’s cooperative in Colquencha Municipality. Following support from Practical Action, partner Sowawi and the help of the Municipality of Colquencha, they decided they could do more than just receive milk, and are now successfully producing cheese and yoghurt, building up a profitable dairy business. Sebberine, the lady who over sees the production of the dairy products told me she is happier now as she has an income, she is able to go to La Paz and can afford a little extra for her family. However, the wonderful news Sebberine shared with our party was that she, along with her ladies, known as the Sartawi Sayari Foundation had that week, been certified, meaning they have the passport to be able to sell their products legally.

Elena is a lady who is happier than ever as her family participated in a project that has transformed her life and that of her family. She told me how her neighbours were jealous of her now! Elena and her family, and other families have benefitted from wells, drinking fountains and shelters. Elena has also benefited from water harvesting irrigation system, allowing her to grow vegetables to support her family and to sell on. Practical Action, worked with the families and the Municipality.

So, “Are we nearly there yet? For Elena, Sebberine and Berta, yes we are, but for the rest of the Andean communities and those living in poverty elsewhere in the world, no, we still have a way to go.

Shocking truth about bullying of refuse workers

Friday, November 22nd, 2013 by

They live in shame and fear. They’re treated as social outcasts and have to bear verbal and sometimes physical abuse from residents. These refuse workers are even refused access onto buses.

I’m talking about refuse workers in Kathmandu, Nepal…more specifically, waste pickers. Picking through stinking garbage dumps, they recover recyclable materials from waste thrown out by offices and homes.

Only around 17% of urban households  have their trash collected by waste collectors. After collection, trash accumulates in piles on vacant land or is dumped in the nearest river. It is creating a serious health and environmental hazard for all Nepalese.

Despite their contribution to society and the planet by removing and recycling nearly 1,500 tons of waste every week, waste pickers in Nepal are seen as the lowest of the low, treated like rubbish because they work with rubbish.

Today, at the end of anti-bullying week, they are fighting to be recognised as recycling entrepreneurs fighting against climate change by reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

12-year-old Chadari Pudah has been attacked by other children because she is a waste picker.

“When I get back home from waste picking, I clean myself – people make fun of you if you are dirty or smelly. Other kids shout ‘khaate’ (garbage child or worse). I say ‘please don’t call us khaate, we are like you’ but they don’t listen and when we ask them to stop they would hit us.”


Amrit Malakar has received abuse for the 20 years he has been working as a waste picker in Kathmandu.

“People in our surrounding area shout abuse at us when we go waste picking. They stop us and accuse us of stealing.”

waste picker man in Nepal

After a 10-hour day at the rubbish dump, 15-year old Sunil Kumar and his 13-year-old brother Syeed walk 20 kilometres to the scrap dealer to sell the items they collect. Then they have to walk 20 kilometres back home because they couldn’t get on a bus.

“The bus drivers won’t allow us on because they think we’re dirty. When it rains the walk home is horrible. We get soaked and cold and our shoes would be soaked through. People ignore us or are rude to us and they would say ‘get away from me’.”

waste picker boys in Nepal

It’s not all bad news though. Practical Action is supporting waste pickers in Kathmandu with training to improve literacy, improve their skills and prevent them being ripped off, financial help to enable them to send their children to school, helping them get health insurance and forming co-operatives to ensure they get good a good price for their goods.

We’ve launched media campaigns to raise awareness of the role of waste workers, change people’s attitudes and gain their respect and recognition for the work they do.

Public service announcements are being broadcast on TV channels and public transport systems, hoarding boards are being placed around Kathmandu and there are newspaper articles, flyers, posters and street dramas publicising the message.

Informal waste workers are also being issued with identity cards as recognised workers in solid waste management.

Waste picker Lalu Podar, who has been supported through Practical Action’s work, said:

“Now, I proudly say “I am a waste picker”. I am recognised in my role and the contribution I make in the solid waste management sector. People’s perception towards us in our community has slightly changed after the different behaviour change campaigns Practical Action conducted. Nowadays the public call us “Dai” and “Bhai” (brother). I will proudly continue working as a waste picker.” 

Please take action and help give people like Chadari, Amrit, Sunil and Syeeda a voice and a better quality of life through a new appeal Practical Action have launched called ‘Safer Cities’. It is being backed by the UK government who will match fund donations pound for pound, helping us to do more vital work to improve the lives of poor and vulnerable people living in slum communities.  This means that if you can give us £20 the Government will also give us £20, making your donation go even further!

The shittiest job in the world?

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013 by

If you think your job is bad, just read this interview that landed on my desk today from our team in Kenya. It is of a man who empties toilets for a living.

More than 2.5 billion people live without sanitation. Open sewers overflowing with rubbish and human waste run through the centre of urban slums.

Practical Action is working in a slum in Nakuru. There are toilets there – just not as we know them. They are basically just pits which are used by 240 people every day. They fill up quickly!

Imagine having a toilet that you can’t flush and you just keep going and going?! That’s the smell. It’s hard to bear.

There’s only one way these toilets can get emptied

Nakuru Kenya urban slum sanitation toilet

“We have to pull out human waste from pit latrines…with our bare hands.” Anthony, waste cleaner, Nakuru, Kenya

People like Anthony have to empty the toilets – many of them with their bare hands. He has suffered abuse and discrimination as a result of doing the job. People in his community shun him and won’t go anywhere near him.

This is his story:

“We work on the pit latrines, where we use exhausters (pipes through which waste material is emitted) to pull out the human waste. The exhauster sucks out the lighter, biodegradable material. However, there are pieces of cloth, diapers and sanitary pads that cannot be removed using the exhaust pipe. They block the pipes and really slow us down. It forces us to go down into the latrine and pull out the human waste with our bare hands.

“Initially we always did this work with our bare hands and feet. The maggots and filth scared us. We were resented by the very people who created the mess but because the job was so filthy, nobody wanted to associate with us, so we worked at night like thieves.

“The money is not enough to take care of school fees, household needs, rent and all our other needs.”

Practical Action is working in Nakuru to improve the quality of life for slum communities of 190,000 people, by providing access to safe, hygenic toilets and hand washing facilities. And we’re working with Anthony and other pit emptiers to improve their health, enable them to provide an essential service to their community and raise their status.

This World Toilet Day I’m counting my blessings that I have such a fantastic job and if you are too please consider helping people like Anthony and his community to get access to better sanitation, improve their health and restore their dignity.

Please take action and help people access sanitation through a new appeal Practical Action have launched called ‘Safer Cities’. It is being backed by the UK government who will match fund donations pound for pound, helping us to do more vital work to improve the lives of poor and vulnerable people living in slum communities.  This means that if you can give us £20 the Government will also give us £20, making your donation go even further!

International Development Secretary Justine Greening said: By matching pound for pound all public donations to this appeal, we will help Practical Action provide safe drinking water and basic sanitation to over four thousand people living in slums in Bangladesh and Nepal. As well as day-to-day health benefits, this will reduce the spread of potentially deadly water-borne diseases that follow regular seasonal flooding. Better hygiene isn’t just vital to save lives, it means people can focus on earning money and taking care of their families.”

Shit matters – World Toilet Day

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013 by

Today is World Toilet day.

Every day, several times (I hope) each one of us goes to the loo. We in the rich world take sewage systems that not only function but are pretty invisible and don’t smell for granted. But it hasn’t always been this way;

In London in the 1860s terrible smells from the Thames caused the government to develop new sewerage systems which in turn dramatically improved health – death rates per 1,000 dropping from 24 in 1870 to 19 in 1890.

And then there was Florence Nightingale fresh air, soap and water reduced the death rate of hospitalised soldiers in the Crimea from 42% to 2.2% in 4 months.

But why the history lesson? Well today is World Toilet Day and shit matters!

Sanitation remains one of the biggest development challenges – it’s just something we don’t like to think or talk about. Im told by collegues in fundraising that appeals for clean water get a good response whereas appeals to help people get access to sanitation often receive less interest – people prefer not to think about crap and pee! But thinking about it and taking action is vital. Practical Action - Kibera

According to WHO 37% of the developing world’s population – 2.5 billion people don’t have access to decent sanitation facilities. In urban slums lack of access to household sanitation is a particular issue for women. For some social norms about women not been seen to defecate in the open keep then confined until the hours of darkness, leading to medical problems and much greater risk of being attacked. For women and particularly young girls as they start to menstruate no access to loos can mean no school and embarrassment.

You will of course have heard of flying toilets – plastic bags people crap in and then fling as far as possible often pretending it wasn’t them and/or caring who the bag hits or where it lands.

Transmission of waterborne diseases such as cholera are exacerbated by environmental pollution and low levels of personal hygiene. In Zimbabwe an inspirational cholera nurse described the disease as eating or drinking a stool – not a good thought!

This is technology injustice. We’ve known about the advantages of sanitation for more than 100 years yet many millions of people don’t have access.

Practical Action are delivering big WASH (water supply, sanitation and hygiene) programmes and we are ambitious to do more. For example in Kenya we plan in our current strategy to directly improve the water and sanitation access of 850,000 people. We will work in the slums of 10 cities and towns on things like the construction of loos, hand washing facilities and showers, latrine emptying, etc.

Shit matters and is personal – I can’t imagine life without my loo, when I’ve had to for short periods on visits overseas without access to a toilet I’ve crossed my legs, felt embarrassed by bushes and thanked God for even the most basic latrine. We have to be prepared to talk about sanitation as it’s too easy to pretend shit really doesn’t happen. We can’t end shit we can make sure it’s well taken care of!

Mobile phone or toilet: what would you choose?

Friday, November 15th, 2013 by

As World Toilet Day approaches, I’ve been thinking about a rather shocking statistic: More people have access to a mobile phone than a toilet.

More people have access to a mobile phone than a toilet.

Out of the world’s estimated 7 billion people, 6 billion have access to mobile phones. Yet only 4.5 billion people have access to working toilets.

It’s a tragic irony that people can access information about proper sanitation on their phones – and yet they can’t actually access the basic necessity and dignity of a toilet.

I read this other shocking statistic today: Of the 2.5 billion who don’t have proper sanitation, a shocking 1.1 billion defecate in the open. The faeces produced every day by these 1.1 billion people could fill a football stadium.

1.1 billion people defecate in the open. The faeces produced every day by them could fill a football stadium.

These people have no private place to defecate and urinate; they use bushes, ditches, railway tracks, or simply a plastic bag.

I’ve walked through urban slums where streams of sewage run past children playing bare foot in the street.

children playing in sewage filled streets in slums

Those poor community sanitary conditions are a major cause of diarrhoea and other waterborne diseases among children. On top of that, diarrhoea is a leading cause of child deaths in countries without access to clean or hygienic facilities.

The situation could get worse due to increasing urbanisation. People are moving to cities in developing countries to seek a better life. But many find themselves living in slums and adding to the horrendous conditions.

After using the toilet before I went to bed last night, I asked my husband: “If you had to choose between a mobile phone and a toilet, what would you choose?”

“A toilet,” he said without a moment of hesitation. “The quality of life by having access to a toilet is greater than the lifestyle benefits a mobile phone offers.”

What would you choose?

You could choose to help people access sanitation through a new appeal Practical Action have launched called ‘Safer Cities’. It is being backed by the UK government who will match fund donations pound for pound, helping us to do more vital work to improve the lives of poor and vulnerable people living in slum communities.
International Development Secretary Justine Greening said: By matching pound for pound all public donations to this appeal, we will help Practical Action provide safe drinking water and basic sanitation to over four thousand people living in slums in Bangladesh and Nepal. As well as day-to-day health benefits, this will reduce the spread of potentially deadly water-borne diseases that follow regular seasonal flooding. Better hygiene isn’t just vital to save lives, it means people can focus on earning money and taking care of their families.”