Archive for December, 2013

Things that make you go ‘grrrr’

Thursday, December 5th, 2013 by

I have now been in Zimbabwe for a week, most of which has been a whirlwind of hectic activity, helping a local journalist cover our work for the Guardian Christmas appeal.

The trip hasn’t been easy. Zimbabwe has a pretty good transport infrastructure, but we have wasted hours at the dozens of police checkpoints which are dotted at regular intervals throughout the country.

My presence also attracted interest from Government representatives wherever I went, and we wasted more hours waiting for them to accompany us on field visits. Once they joined us even more time was spent in preliminary meetings with local officials, massively limiting the time we had to talk to the people we are actually there to help.



And when we finally did get talking, there was a palpable sense of unease, a raised eyebrow or a failure to answer the question when I asked how things are now compared to before Practical Action got involved with the community.

Throughout the week, I’ve not been able to quite shake off the feeling that getting to the real truth, and the real people we need to help, is a challenge I’ve not quite conquered.

Nevertheless, I have been proud to work for Practical Action. Like many others before me, I was taken with our micro-hydro project in Chipendeke. Just imagining the dozen or so volunteers carrying hundreds of bags of cement and assorted heavy and awkward gear up the mountainside makes me wince, but it also puts into perspective just how important access to electricity is for people who haven’t got it. The fact we have a dozen or so similar projects running throughout southern Africa should be a massive source of pride to everyone associated with Practical Action.

Keya Tshuma’s drought-hit farm right on the Botswana border

Keya Tshuma’s drought-hit farm right on the Botswana border

Our work helping hundreds of people make more from their smallholdings via our podcasts also impressed as did our ridiculously simple but clever way of water conservation in Keya Tshuma’s drought-hit farm right on the Botswana border. Following our advice he and his wife have dug 6,000 15cm by 15cm holes and filled them with manure before planting maize seeds. In this way, what little rain falls is kept for longer and his maize has a chance of growing. “I didn’t know about this before,” he said. “Without Practical Action coming to me I would have been in great trouble this year.”

It was the sort of comment that makes all the hassle worthwhile.

The Himalayan Hood

Thursday, December 5th, 2013 by

This weekend I visited a remote village in the north-west of Nepal, called Arushwanra, located in Gorkha district just below the Himalayan peaks.  Its location is breathtakingly beautiful but life is hard and made worse by reliance on locally collected firewood.  This fuel is collected for free from the surrounding areas, and burned in traditional stoves within small, enclosed homes, leading to very high levels of household air pollution.  Practical Action, together with Bosch Siemens (BSH), has been piloting a new appropriate technology project – the installation of smoke hoods – which reduce smoke emissions within each household by over 80%, dramatically improving people’s lives.

Jamila with HoodI met Jamila, who recently purchased a hood through the assistance of the local cooperative-managed rolling fund Practical Action helped establish. She is very happy with the results.  She now uses much less wood than she used to (more than 30% less), her home is much cleaner, particularly the walls, and cooking is much quicker (by up to 50%).  Most importantly her health is much improved – she no longer has eye irritations, problems breathing and headaches.  She can continue to dry meat and other foods above the stove, as the smoke exits through the hood, a traditional practice in these areas.

She still has one cooking problem – sometimes cats enter her kitchen while she’s in her fields and steal her drying food.  She’s suggested the development of a shutter in front of the hood to stop this happening – an idea that’s being investigated by the hood producer. Out of the 32 houses in the village, 22 have already installed smoke hoods, and are all so happy with the results that the other 10 households are now on a waiting list once the rolling funds are available.

I entered one house in the adjacent village of Dhanubanse which did not have a hood installed, just to see the difference, and almost as soon as the stove had been lit the kitchen filled with smoke.  My eyes started to water and my throat to itch.  The owner, Dhunraj, said he’s used to the smoke, but the difference in air quality compared to the houses with smoke hoods installed was enormous.


Lastly, I visited the house of Nabiha, whose daughter is the only female stove producer in the area. She currently uses 2 main types of stoves, a wood stove with a smoke hood and a cooker which runs on liquid petroleum gas (LPG).  She uses the LPG mainly to prepare meals that need to be made quickly, particularly for meals in the morning and for tea when guests come.  However she still uses her wood stove and hood for most meals and prefers it to cooking with LPG.  She says the LPG canisters are difficult to transport and very expensive, and she finds the wood stove and smoke hood easy to use and more affordable.

I had heard a lot about this project before visiting but seeing the hoods working in practice really made me appreciate what a huge difference this relatively simple technology can make to people’s lives in this remote district of Nepal.

Tell us what you think – you could win an Acer tablet!

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013 by

When a fancy new tech toy comes out, we have to have it. Ok, we may resist for a while – telling ourselves that the tech we have is enough. But we inevitably give in.

This year, the hottest tech gadgets on our Christmas wish lists include eReaders, smartphones, games consoles and tablets (you could win a tablet in a Practical Action prize draw…keep reading for details).

win a tablet, win an Acer tablet, Acer Iconia W3, gadgets, technology in the third world

But what about the technologies we use every day without giving them a second thought? How many times have you turned on a light and said, “Wow! Electricity is amazing!” Probably never, because we take it for granted. What about watches, phones, aeroplanes, credit cards, the internet or television? How would you fare without them?

While we have access to all this incredible technology that provides us with many of life’s luxuries, people in the developing world don’t have access to technology to meet their most basic needs.

1.6 billion people have no access to electricity, 1.3 billion no access to safe water, 2.6 billion have no adequate sanitation and 1 billion people are undernourished.

Helen lives in Nakuru and shares a toilet with 12 other families, lack of sanitation in Kenya, improved sanitation, improved toilets, slums

“When it rains, the waste flows all over the place. My children step in the filthy water and bring it back into our home.” Helen, Nakuru

Helen and her four children live in a slum in Nakuru where they share two pit toilets with 12 other families. When it rains heavily, the toilets flood and the filth in them floats up. It covers the streets and runs right up to their doorstep.

“It offends me that my children have to come into contact with this. It makes them very ill. They have bowel problems, diarrhoea and they vomit and cough a lot.”

Technology justice

We think it’s an injustice that innovation is aimed at meeting consumer wants instead of humanity’s needs. We think it’s wrong that more money is spent on finding a cure for male baldness than tackling some of the world’s biggest killers like hunger related diseases, diarrhoeal diseases caused by poor sanitation and unsafe water and respiratory diseases caused by the toxic smoke from indoor fires.

Practical Action wants to change this. We’re a charity that uses technology to help some of the world’s poorest people out of poverty. We want technology justice for people like Helen.

Does it make you think?

So to help spread the word, we launched an innovativevote for your favourite video campaign based on crowdsourcing – asking videographers to create a short video exposing the gap between access to technology in rich countries and the developing world.

We were inundated by entries and after making a short list of six videos we’re now asking the public to vote for their favourite.

Why? Because we want to know what people find compelling – what really ‘makes people think’.

With a better understanding of what people care about, and how they want to hear about it, we can communicate Practical Action’s issues in a better, sharper way.

Win an Acer Iconia W3 tablet

To thank people for giving us their feedback, we’re giving them the chance to win some ‘high tech’ in the form of an Acer Iconia W3, the world’s first 8-inch Windows tablet donated to the charity by Acer and some video editing software donated by Corel. These will make Christmas presents for some lucky winners!

We hope the videos will make you think…or even better, make you do more than think – make you act. How? By sharing the campaign and donating so we can help more people fight poverty with technology.

Beat the Flood challenge … a primary teacher promoting global learning in science

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013 by

In the past few weeks, I’ve been visiting schools who are delivering Practical Action’s new Beat the Flood Challenge in exciting ways.

My first visit was to Mugginton Church of England Primary School, Derbyshire, where science coordinator Christine Hunnicliffe ran the challenge as global theme day with her class of 22 pupils, aged 8-11.

Firstly, Christine organised the class into mixed age groups of four children before she introduced the starter activities. They looked at a range of photos of people whose lives had been affected by flooding and placed them on a map of the world and discussed what it would be like to live in an area that flooded a lot.

The children were then shown a map of Watu Island and learnt about the community that they were to be part of for their challenge. They learnt about the terrain and risk of flooding to the island community before thinking about the most appropriate location to develop their flood-proof houses on the island.

‘We are going to build our house half-way up the mountain away from the river, but not on the top where it might be too windy’ (Year 6 pupil)

Using STEM skills to develop solutions

After a break and a fire alarm test, Christine introduced the material testing activities, to test the absorbency and strength of modelling materials to help the children select the most appropriate materials for their house designs and models. It was great to see how the children used their test results later to decide which materials would be more and less suitable for their homes.

Materials testing

‘The materials need to be strong and water-resistant – to make strong houses for our community’. 

Learning from others

Following their tests and discussion around results, the children spent time learning about features of flood-proof homes developed by Practical Action in Bangladesh. They feature on the Beat the Flood poster.

Designing and modelling

Based on their learning around materials and the needs of their community, the children developed their designs and models using the modelling materials that represented building materials.

There was such a buzz in the classroom as the children worked in team to develop their homes. I found it fascinating that without exception all of the groups developed additional features such as zip wires, barriers around their homes, high places of safety, each demonstrating their wider understanding of flooding contexts and human needs.

I’ve learnt that bamboo isn’t very absorbent – so we’ve used it a lot to make our house. It’s the best house I’ve ever made!’

Sadly for me, the models needed to dry before the children carried out Beat the Flood test, where they placed their models in water trays and squirt them with water…but Christine reported that they loved it!

If you feel as inspired as I did after visiting Muggington and you want to run your own Beat the Flood challenge as part of your formal Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths teaching or in STEM clubs or curriculum enrichment day, the material needed to run the challenge are free to download at

The challenge is also being offered as a competition for key stages 2 and 3, which has prizes of £250 for winning schools and £25 vouchers for students. The deadline for entering pupils’ designs and photos of their models is 30th April 2014. Competition details.

Beat the Flood is the first of a series of material to integrate global learning into STEM subjects. The project is funded by the European Union.

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