Archive for January, 2014

Kenya plans to build massive solar plants. Is it great news for everyone in Kenya?

Monday, January 27th, 2014 by

I heard recently that Kenya has announced plans for major investment in solar power, with the aim to produce as much as 50% of it’s total energy needs from solar by 2016.  The plans involve some $1.2 billion of investment, as reported in the Guardian , which would see the development of nine large solar generating stations.   Even if they achieve only half of their plans it would be an amazing achievement.

It’s fantastic that there are more and more of these major efforts to invest in renewable energy.  As momentum builds, it’s sure to help reduce costs, and build confidence which will attract future investment for renewables.  This can only be great news for global targets for reducing carbon emissions.

These are exciting times, and I am sure few people would argue that more and more solar power plants around the world are anything other than a great thing.

However, there is one thing that I fear remains missing.  Most of Kenya’s population are not connected to the electricity grid.  Many millions live many miles from a grid, and in current projections, it will be decades before most of them are connected.  Mega solar schemes like the one above rarely address this critical issue.  There is a well proven answer to this challenge – min-grids, such as this one pictured.

An off-grid Solar System in Kenya

An off-grid Solar System in Kenya

I blogged about one mini-grid which Practical Action are supporting in Malawi, and there are many such min-grids popping up around Africa.  Unfortunately, although there is widespread recognition that over 50% of future electricity connections should be off-grid, we’re yet to see major investment in off-grid schemes anywhere in the world.  Until we do, then we will continue to see billions of people left without access to modern energy, and held back in their development.

So of course $1.2 billion of investment into mega solar schemes in Kenya is great news.  But $1.2 billion of investment into off-grid solar schemes – now that would be brilliant!

And the Oscar for Best Actress Goes To …

Monday, January 27th, 2014 by

me and woolRavalina! She deserves to be famous. I met her in Peru last September, long before her lead role in Innocent’s ‘Chain of Good’ film, but it was obvious she had star quality. Not only that but she wielded the fastest pair of crochet hooks I’d ever seen!

She told me about her life before Practical Action’s training, living in a one-room hut with no electricity or toilet. Alpacas are her livelihood, but without hot water, she couldn’t get the wool properly clean before hand-spinning it into thread, and it would fetch a lower price.

Her story is compelling – a strong woman in a patriarchal society, being trained in animal husbandry, showing her neighbours how to earn a better living, and being one of the first in her community to have the things we take for granted: a shower, a toilet, a low fuel stove, and electric lights. She’s a role model to her daughters, and an inspiration to women everywhere.

And as she talked, she was turning a ball of the softest wool I’d ever touched into a hat. And I was so impressed that I filmed it!

Now, I’ve never mastered the art of knitting or crochet; my mum, my gran, my long-suffering Home Economics teacher Mrs Wootton … they all tried, and failed, to teach me. But watching Ravalina make that hat – how I wished I’d stuck at it.

I think she misunderstood the gleam of envy in my eyes, as she gave me a ball of alpaca wool to take home. It was a lovely gesture and it’s a pity that (sorry Mrs Wootton) the only use it’s going to get is as a toy for my three cats.  And to point at, in the photograph above.

So, I’m voting Ravalina for best actress. Her football skills in the ‘Chain of Good’ are pretty nifty, but if you want to see sheer genius, click below and just watch her crochet fingers go!

The chain of not good

Monday, January 27th, 2014 by

Got a minute?

Check out what happens if we at Practical Action don’t get to carry on our great work.

(Warning: this film contains naked Peruvians, scary football-playing alpacas and a big explosion)

This brilliant video was created by legendary filmmaker Max Joseph for Innocent who support our work. And yes, we can reveal that it is indeed voiced by actor and funnyman Simon Pegg. See them both pictured below:

Max Joseph and Simon Pegg they made for innocent featuring Practical Action's work in Peru

Max Joseph and Simon Pegg promoting the #chainofgood video

We hope you like it. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Find out more about our work in Peru and the people featured in the video.

Most read blogs of 2013

Monday, January 27th, 2014 by

I’m easing back into the New Year with some blogging because there are so many exciting things to talk about! To inform my writing, I’ve been looking back at our most popular blogs of 2013.

Gosh, it was a good year – so much great stuff going on. If you’re new to Practical Action, read our top ten blogs of 2013 below – they are a good way of finding out about all the fantastic work we’re doing to help around a million people out of poverty each year.

And if you like what we’re doing, why not subscribe to our blog RSS feed so you can receive the latest news and insights from Practical Action?!

In 2013 we had 42,882 visits to our blog site – these are all the different people who read the blog during the year, whether they click just once or visit every day. Of these, 33,541 were unique visitors to our blog site (the number of unduplicated (counted only once) visitors). This is calculated through IP addresses.

They mainly came from the UK and the US and the countries we work in.

This graph below shows the daily traffic to our blog site (the dips are at the weekends).

blog graph

In case you’re wondering, the spike on 19 November (World Toilet Day) was for my blog on ‘the shittiest job in the world‘ about a man we met in Kenya who empties toilets for a living.

The top Practical Action posts of 2013 (calculated by the number of unique visits to that post)

  1. London Underground Flooded – This is about an alternative tube map we created to show the possible effects of climate change on the London underground in 2100 if we don’t tackle climate change. The map went viral, so it’s not surprising that the blog did quite well too!
  2. Building bridges between Britain and Bangladesh – Beautifully written article during some of the worst September storms in decades. It’s a comparison between flooding in the UK and Bangladesh.
  3. Solar powered water pump installed in Kenya – A heartfelt account of 12-year-old Meshack who has suffered greatly because of a lack of clean water.
  4. Flooding in Bangladesh – practical solutions – This features a really innovative video that shows in just two minutes the work that we’re doing to help flooding victims in Bangladesh.
  5. What’s happened to global warming? – In the summer, when we were wondering why we weren’t wearing shorts and t-shirts, our Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction Advisor Colin McQuistan explained why we can’t be sceptical about climate change.
  6. First ‘healthy community’ declared in Nepal –  10,500 children die each year in Nepal from diarrhoeal disease and so this blog by Binaya Shrestha, our Water and Sanitation Project Officer in Nepal, represents a real achievement in our work there.
  7. Dying for a drink in Turkana, Kenya – our Head of Fundraising Matt Wenham went out to Turkana to film our TV advert on solar powered water pumps. What he saw made him think what ‘dying for a drink’ really means.
  8. The need to focus on women and technology – this was written on International Women’s Day and is a fascinating insight into women’s use of technology.
  9. Only nine meals away from anarchy – Written by our CEO Simon Trace, this blog looks at our current global food production system.
  10. The shittiest job in the world –  If you think your job is bad, just read this interview that landed on my desk from our team in Kenya.

Lessons for writing blogs 2014 are to write from the heart, shock, share your knowledge, chuck in the odd list, infographic, video, audio file and don’t be afraid to try new things! We’re open to suggestions for good topics – please let us know in the comments section under this blog.

Can we stop climate change in time?

Monday, January 27th, 2014 by

The science is clear. ‘Business as usual’ will increase global temperatures by at least four degrees – possibly much more. This will have catastrophic impacts on many parts of the world – and especially on the poorest people.

That’s why one of our leading climate scientists, Prof Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre, convened a Radical Emissions Reduction conference at the Royal Society. This was not a climate science conference, the speakers included economists, sociologists, anthropologists, NGO experts, politicians, a French philosopher and an Irish fireman! The conference brought a variety of perspectives to bear on the technical, social and political feasibility of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to avoid catastrophe.

“We are [energy] addicts … [and] shale gas is our methadone.”  Kevin Anderson.

The conference passed no motions and made no declarations but I took away three main messages:

  • It is technically feasible, though it will be very hard, to reduce emissions fast enough.
  • To do so will require the citizens of developed countries to make significant sacrifices.
  • Neither the people nor the leaders of these countries have the will to make the changes needed.

The political radicalism of the conference surprised me. The keynote speaker was Naomi Klein and Green MP Caroline Lucas was on the final panel. In her speech on the first day Naomi said, roughly, ‘I thought I might stir you up by calling for revolution but that’s already happened six times!’ Many speakers stressed the need for major change in politics and behaviour and emphasised the political and ideological roadblocks.

The Good News

The unexpected star of the second day was Neil McCabe, a fireman from Dublin. Six years ago he started a process of general improvement and emissions reduction at his fire station.  In six years he has done 300 actions and created 20 start-ups. He has extended his approach first to the rest of the Dublin Fire Service and then to the whole Council. Inspiring stuff!

Some speakers discussed technologies. Brenda Boardman, for instance, told us that using LED lights would significantly reduce peak electricity demand. Lighting, she said, is about 22% of peak demand (much more than I’d have guessed). Wed may already have reached ‘peak light bulb’. Other speakers discussed low energy technologies for homes and shipping.

Other speakers presented scenarios for the transition to a low-emissions energy system and Dan Staniaszek told us that stopping climate change will have many societal benefits, especially for health.

The necessary changes are technically possible, economically affordable and offer many benefits.

The Bad News

Though we’ve known about the threat of climate change for over twenty years nothing effective has been done. Global emissions continue to rise. “Global recession,” John Barrett told us, “is the only thing shown to reduce global emissions – and that only briefly.” The impacts are serious and increasing precisely known. According to Tyndall Director Corrine Le Quere “Of the one metre Hurricane Sandy storm surge, 20cm was due to global warming”.

The oft-cited 80% reduction by 2050 target may not be enough. John Barrett thinks it should be 97%. Either requires annual reductions in the range 7.5 to 10% in the developed world. Yet almost everyone, and not just mainstream politicians, is in denial about both the scale and pace of the changes needed. Several speakers gave lists of reasons for the inaction and denial but here’s my list:

  1. Vested interests in fossil fuel and growth oppose effective action. The worst are fuel producers, both corporate and national, energy supply companies and automobile and aerospace firms. But they also include manufacturers, retailers, media and governments who benefit from growth, ie. almost all of them.
  2. The dominance of neoliberal ideology. Since 1979 this has conquered the parties of the Left as well as the Right. Neoliberals believe in the magic of the market and that government intervention must make things worse. Naomi Klein criticised North American environmental organisations for using neoliberal arguments, thus strengthening their enemies. Even at this conference, several speakers proposed solutions, such as tradeable quotas, that rely on new markets, yet Clive Spash and Steffen Bohm told the conference that carbon markets had failed.
  3. The near absence of convincing role models for low-carbon living requiring acts of imagination too difficult for most of us.

What is to be done?

The general shape of the needed policies is clear. We need more R&D funding for renewables, energy storage, insulation, energy efficiency and low-carbon farming. We also need much tougher standards for energy efficiency, carbon taxes and selective subsidies, eg for house insulation.

But how, politically, can we get them when government is doing the opposite? The necessary actions follow from the reasons for inaction: We need political reform to reduce corporate power, and we need, as Naomi Klein said, “to shred the neoliberal ideology”. Everyone agreed that the necessary action would not happen without strong public pressure so we need a political movement.

All this is hard but our future requires no less.

Videos of the conference sessions can be found at

David Flint is a retired management consultant, visiting fellow at the Cass Business School, Practical Action supporter and active member of the Green Party.

11238 maasai shepherd

Five ways to work well in Zimbabwe

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014 by
As a Brit in Zimbabwe, what headline would you least like to see during your visit?

As a Brit in Zimbabwe, what headline would you least like to see during your visit?

In December last year I spent nearly two weeks in Zimbabwe accompanying a journalist who was covering some Practical Action projects for the Guardian’s Christmas appeal. It was my first time in a country which could be considered, if not hostile to British journalists, then not entirely welcoming.

As it happened, despite a few niggles (see below), I found the whole trip awe-inspiring and hugely enjoyable and so have come up with five tips to stay happy in Zimbabwe (as a media officer!).

1) Don’t allow the breathtaking scenery to let you forget where you are.

Zimbabwe is a stunningly beautiful country, with a climate to match. Consequently, much of my time travelling between projects was spent ‘ooing and aaring’ at stunning African vistas, which occasionally combined with a beautiful sunset or sunrise which would fill the sky with red and pink light.

Yet another breathtaking Zimbabwean sunset

Yet another breathtaking Zimbabwean sunset

Unfortunately taking photos in public places is not encouraged. And that lack of encouragement turns into downright hostility if you are (a) British and (b) anywhere near a police officer.  So when the vehicle you are in slows down enough for you to take a snap of the stunning landscape, don’t reach for your camera without checking the coast is clear first – the chances are that you are coming to a toll or a police check point and neither are ideal locations for a pretty picture.

2) Know about the latest Premiership stories and fixtures

For reasons well-documented elsewhere, most Zimbabweans make a habit of not talking about politics, their day-to-day hardships or the latest power cuts in public. Instead, they are desperate to escape their day-to-day troubles and talk about different things when they go for a pint with their mates.

And because every bar is adorned with at least one TV screen connected to a South African sports channel pumping out an endless stream of English and Spanish football, thousands of Zimbabweans every week can be found cheering, booing and even bellowing at their favourite (or least favourite) football stars. Unnervingly, it turns out that even a football anorak like myself was lacking when it came to the in depth knowledge possessed by the majority, so brush up before you go for a pint.

3) Prepare to be surprised by how nice the cities are.

Zimbabwe in the minds of most people conjures up images of an impoverished repressive police state, a pervading sense of fear amongst the population and poverty-fuelled crime. But there can be no doubt that the capital city, and the other main settlements in Zim, are very different place to what you might expect from one of the poorest countries in the world. They have wide boulevards, well-kept shopping centres, old colonial-style hotels, cafes and vibrant bars and feel very safe, in direct contrast to a number of other African cities I could name.

Bulawayo: really quite pleasant

Bulawayo: really quite pleasant

Admittedly, much of this can be attributed to the controversial slum clearances that saw the Government knock down thousands of homes built around cities and life in the rural areas, where families are visibly struggling to feed their children, is vastly different. But if you only spent time in Harare 0r Bulawayo, you could easily convince yourself Zimbabwe’s social, political and economic problems had been misreported.

4) Make sure your vehicle is in impeccable condition (and expect a police officer round every corner)

I never ceased to be amazed at the number of police-manned road blocks I encountered in Zimbabwe. The most prolific stretch of road was the 100kms between Bulawayo and the Botswana border, along which we were stopped a staggering eight times and fined once (for not having a wrap-around reflective strip on the back of the truck). It meant a journey  which should have taken just over an hour took us nearly two and left all four of us in the truck quietly seething.

And the very next day I was left cursing my stupidity when I was caught overtaking a truck on a stretch where such a manoeuvre wasn’t allowed. When I was told I was ‘under arrest for failing to obey the laws of the highway’, I won’t lie – my stomach lurched. Fortunately, it turned out that was code for ‘pay a fine of $20 & get on your way’, which I did. After pulling away very slowly.

5) Realise that people might have good reasons for not wanting to talk too openly

While I was in Zimbabwe I met a range of people and spoke to them about how our projects were improving their lives and the lives of the communities in them. Out of work time, I managed to get chatting to lots of people in bars and restaurants.  However, rarely did I feel that I got to know what their lives were really like.

At the time it was a source of frustration, but the reasons for their reticence are numerous and understandable.

Firstly, whenever I visited a project I was accompanied by a Government minder who, although would always be polite, clearly impacted on what people would say about the conditions they were facing every day.

Government official (rear left) listens to agricultural extension worker in Zimbabwe.

Government official (rear left) listens to agricultural extension worker in Zimbabwe.

Secondly, I was British and was gathering stories for a British national newspaper. Every day, newspapers in Zimbabwe carry anti-British stories and rhetoric, and while many Zimbabweans may not believe everything they read in their press, there can be no doubt about the overall message they convey; Britain is bad. It was therefore understandable that many Zimbabweans didn’t want to appear as though they were complaining about their lot to a man who was about to send it to a British newspaper. I heard plenty of stories which suggested this wouldn’t be a good strategy for the average Zimbabwean.

And finally, if a man from a richer country than mine (lets say, Luxembourg, Monaco or Norway) came and asked me if I could describe what life was like before they had started helping my community and what life is like now, I might be a little standoffish Certainly, I wouldn’t start spouting off about everything in my life.

So there it is, Zimbabwe is fascinating. Frustrating sometimes, but always interesting. The people I was lucky enough to spend substantial time with there were inspiring – showing me that despite the hardship the country faces, the opportunities there are endless, especially if you own the TV rights to the Premiership.

Solar features in the Zayed Future Energy Prize and the World Future Energy Summit

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014 by

Well nail biting is a bad habit and it got me nowhere in the end with the Zayed Future Energy Prize, the results of which were announced at a glittering oscar-style ceremony in Abu Dhabi last night.


Practical Action was hugely honoured to be considered as a finalist in this comptetion but the well deserved winners of the NGO category in the end were the Fraunhofer Institute from Germany. With a staff of 1,200, Fraunhofer ISE is the largest solar energy research institute in Europe. The work at the institute ranges from the investigation of scientific and technological fundamentals for solar energy applications, through the development of production technology and prototypes, to the construction of demonstration systems. They have been pioneers in the development of solar technology over many years and I’d like to pass Practical Action’s sincere congratulations on their great success in winning this prestigious award.

World Future Energy Summit
Solar technology has been a major topic at the World Future Energy Summit here in Abu Dhabi this week, with discussions on solar and hybrid mini grids and the challeneges of integrating solar power into national grids. My favourite two snippets from the conference so far were about batteries and renewables in the US – neither of which, on the face of it, look like promising topics for enthusiastic conversations. But, did you know that  Japanese companies are already producing and using massive Sodium Sulphur batteries the size of small houses that can put out 30MW of power for up to 6 hours – useful if you want to smooth out the dips and peaks of electtriciy from a wind farm on a gusty day, or provide a few hours more electricity from a solar array after the sun goes down?

And did you know that, in technical terms, using technology commercially available today, it is perfectly possible to provide 80% of the USA’s total electricity generation requirements from renewables by 2050, whilst balancing supply and demand on an hourly basis over the whole 24 hour period (a recently published report from the US’s National Renewable Energy Lab shows how)?

Food (or rather energy) for thought !

Innocent abroad

Monday, January 20th, 2014 by

I love going to meetings at the innocent drinks’ offices.  Apart the from the funky surroundings (hanging basket chairs, fake grass, table tennis tables in the kitchen) where else do you get given a nice little brown bag at the end of a meeting and told to help yourself to the drinks cabinet.  The temptation is great – all those lovely smoothies, peaches and apricots, mango and passion fruit, and my personal favourite – pineapples, bananas and coconut.

But I’m not writing this to plug the deliciousness of  innocent’s drinks or the virtues of  innocent’s office, many though they are (and by the way, as it says on the side of their drinks’ cartons, anyone can visit their offices if they make an appointment), but to also describe the amazing support they give to organisations like Practical Action.

innocent’s project support in Peru

So this is about innocent abroad – actually innocent foundation abroad – which has supported Practical Action’s work in Peru since 2007 when they funded our project providing water, sanitation and energy to communities in the high Andes, 5,000m above sea level.   These are families living, cooking and sleeping in simple mud walled homes, thatched with straw.  Being so few they are largely forgotten or ignored by local government when it comes to providing basic services.  Water was collected from streams, often contaminated by animal waste and human faeces, (open defecation was the norm) and their only power sources were using kerosene or burning dry dung, their remoteness making it unlikely that the national grid will ever reach them.  With innocent foundation’s support this has all changed.

Water, sanitation and energy

Practical Action, together with the communities, has built eco-san toilets, and as importantly, communities are now aware of the dangers to their health that open defecation brings.  Piped water is available, filtered at household level to reduce the risk of diarrhoea.

   Seňor Santiago's filtered water tap

Seňor Santiago’s filtered water tap

And they have power, harnessing the renewable energies of the sun with small solar panels provided by Practical Action.  This simple technology is enabling these alpaca farmers to increase their alpaca wool production with small electric spinning machines, bringing them increased incomes, enabling them to better support their children’s education and health needs.

Who would have thought that drinking an innocent strawberry and banana smoothie could make such a difference?



Fighting myths and competitions

Sunday, January 19th, 2014 by
Launch of coalition to bolster public support for renewable energy

Launch of coalition to bolster public support for renewable energy

I attended the 4th annual assembly of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Abu Dhabi today. IRENA is a relatively new international organisation seeking to promote and encourage the use of renewable energy technology but it already is a big hitter, with today’s meeting attended by Heads of State and Ministers from 150 countries plus 120 international organisations. Practical Action was there today to join in the launch of an initiative it is a co-founder of that will promote renewable energy to the general public around the world. This much needed initiative will aim to counter some of the myths and untruths that are recycled by the media and others about the supposed inefficicency, costs or dangers of renewables; myths that are holding back investment in this area.

Zayed Future Energy Prize

But that was not the only reason I and a couple of colleagues are here this week. Practical Action has been nominated as one of 3 finalists in the NGO category of the prestigious Zayed Future Energy Prize (see here for more about the competetion and the full list of finalists across all categories).  We are here as the guests of the competition organisers for the awards ceremony tomorrow and to attend the World Future Energy Summit Conference for the following 2 days. Practical Action has been nominated for the prize as a result of its work on energy access over the past 40 or so years and I am sure there will be some nail biting by me tomorrow night as we attend the awards ceremony and hear which one of the 3 finalists is the eventual winner.

5 things to make life better

Thursday, January 16th, 2014 by

aWhat would your life be like without lighting or power? And can you imagine living without a toilet?  This was the reality for Ravalina and her family, who live in the Canchis region of Peru, way up in the Andes, making a living from selling the wool spun from her herd of alpacas.

Being without these basic services, which most of us would regard as essentials, made life pretty tough.  It affected all aspects of her life – work, health and education. 

Supported by innocent foundation

The innocent foundation supported this Practical Action project financially and they have made a great video about our work – take a look at the Chain of Good.

Here are the five things that have made a huge difference to Ravalina’s life.  I certainly couldn’t imagine living without any of them, but this my order of priority for me.  Do you agree?