Archive for April, 2014

Making time for Live Below the Line

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014 by

The first two days of my Live Below the Line challenge are almost done, and its looking like the week will be divided into ‘Chickpea Monday and Tuesday’ and Lentils to the End of the Week’. I’ve become a great fan of homemade falafels: much better than shop bought. 

The big problem is time. Luckily I can be pretty flexible about working from home and in theory I live close enough to work to dash home, cook, eat and get back to work, but life is not so simple – work and freshly preparing every meal is a challenge. Still, homemade falafel will leave a culinary legacy beyond the five days.

Live below the line cup of lentilsSo the second half of the week is going to be three days of prepared lentil-based dishes. I even have dedicated implements (well, a cup).

Dhal, soup and casserole are all bubbling away. Everything will be prepared and ready for rapid warming through. I’m slightly concerned I will be sick of lentils before I even start to eat them but I do have flapjacks to fall back on.

live below the line dhal, soup and casserole

Caffeine deficiency 

no coffee on live below the lineThe biggest challenge, though, isn’t food-related. Its not even calorie-related. Its coffee. I struggle to function without an early morning and mid afternoon espresso. I’ve worked it out, a small espresso requires 14 grammes of coffee. It works out at 19.25p per cup. Its simply too expensive!

So, I’m looking forward to a Saturday morning coffee and maybe a croissant and maybe a…. I’ll stop there. I am acutely aware that for me this is finite. It’s not for a very significant proportion of the world’s population.

Time can be oppressive, there is not enough of it, we are trapped by the immediacy of deadlines or stressed by the juggling of commitments. Or it stretches too far in front of us, with little hope of anything better, only the worry of future stresses and shocks.

Practical Action are doing amazing work to help people build resilient livelihoods and vibrant communities. People have been incredibly generous so far. I’ve had to raise my fundraising target several times. There is still time though –

Getting ready to Live Below the Line

Saturday, April 26th, 2014 by

I’ve just completed a very convoluted shop for my Live Below the Line challenge. It takes a lot longer and requires a lot more thought to shop for two for £10 than it does to stick a ‘normal’ weekly shop on a debit card.

James live below the line1Geographically, our diet would probably be located east of the Mediterranean and in North India. I suppose I could have gone Scottish and spent five days mashing, boiling and (mainly) frying potatoes, but variety is the spice of life (although limiting ourselves to cumin means that even the spice is lacking in much variety).

Not being a great fan of porridge I am especially looking forward to making flapjacks (thanks Gemma Hume for the recipe).

Live Below the Line flapjacks recipe

Evening meals are going to be various combinations of beans, tomatoes, onions and spices. Flatbread and rice for sides.

There are two tricky issues to overcome. One is lunch at work. It’ll have to be soup I guess.

The second is that extremely bad timing means we have a friend coming to stay next week. Big apologies to Gabriella Carrozza for involving you in our fundraising ‘diet’ without even asking. Its meant to be a holiday! I promise to provide supplementary sustenance.

So, tomorrow flapjack making and binge eating. Then, Below the Line…..

You can still take part or donate to me or to my wife, Barbara.

My Live Below the Line shop

Friday, April 25th, 2014 by

Today I shopped for my Live Below the Line challenge, which starts on Monday. I spent just under £5 on food, which has to last me for five days.

But it was not as bad as I thought! I had some ideas and checked them out yesterday on  You put in your postcode and the item you want to research, e.g. pasta. It then tells you which local supermarket has the best deal and quotes the price.  In my case, it was mostly ASDA. Even Waitrose was good for some products e.g. lemon juice 28p.

Live Below the Line shop

Here is a picture of what I bought. Some items are only viable if you buy a large packet e.g. porridge in kilo bags, whereas I’ll only eat 40g rams per day.  So a lot of the dry goods you see will be eaten after Living Below the Line.

So what is my strategy?  The idea is to do various combinations of the ingredients I’ve bought and keep a calculation so that I stay under £1 per day.  Basic sample menu so far:

Breakfast – porridge 3p per portion  (1kg bag 75p)

Lunch – a lentil salad flavoured with onion, lemon juice, olive oil, chillies, a bit of carrot – 20p

Dinner – pasta with spiced up tomato sauce 30p, half a can of pineapple 22p, total 52p

Day total 75p.  Phew! There is some room for manoeuvre … a treat maybe?

I found bananas for 11p each, so that’s a possibility.

You can still take part – just sign up to the Live Below the Line challenge here.  And if anyone wants to sponsor me, please do.

Learning about climate change from trees

Friday, April 25th, 2014 by

I love trees and we are all well aware of how important they are for the health of our planet.  So yesterday, I was fascinated to meet a dendrochronologist for the first time.  Dr Aster Gebrekirstos is a scientist at Erlanger University and the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi and is a specialist at interpreting climate fluctuations of the past through tree rings.

WP_20140423_009Dr Gebrekirstos was one of two inspiring winners of the AfriCAN climate research award, which promotes the role of women in climate change research in Africa.

Her research involves measuring the spaces between the rings of trees (cut down after they are dead) which indicate the amount of growth each year.  These show narrower rings relating to periods of drought.  Analysis of oxygen isotopes in trees shows their different reaction to carbon when under stress.

 It is vital that we are able to make informed decisions in our efforts at adaptation and mitigation of climate change.  Currently there is little data available relating to historic climate fluctuations in Africa, but the efforts of Dr Gebrekirstos will play a key role in supplying this valuable information.

baobab treeThis research will enable tree species that are most resilient to climate change to be identified and to ensure that the right trees are planted in the right place.  This is just one of the many aspects of Climate Smart Agriculture addressed by this week’s AfriCAN climate/FANRPAN conference in Pretoria.

Living Below the Line – an easy decision

Friday, April 25th, 2014 by

From Monday for five days I will be living on £1 per day in support of Practical Action. As a trustee and a firm believer in empowering people through access to appropriate technology and innovation, the gesture of support, and associated fundraising was an easy decision.

At the back of my mind I recognise the slightly arbitrary nature of £1 (or $1.50) per day as a definition of extreme poverty, and the fact that five days is a gesture that can’t possibly capture the long-term, cumulative grind of poverty. What it does do though is make the abstract nature of very small ($1.50 per day) and very large (1 billion people undernourished in 2009) numbers real.

It reminds me of the poverty of restriction, of limiting of options and lack of choice. I generally don’t give much thought to food. I worry a bit about what is ethical, what might make me fat, and what is healthy but its hardly a preoccupation. I only think about food if a supermarket aisle or menu is directly in front of me.

james eating

Thinking about my £5 food budget has forced me to sit down and make choices and trade-offs. I’ve had to plan and think and become preoccupied. It reminds me of the perpetual planning needed to navigate poverty.

Relative wealth insulates us from having to make decisions, and when we do have to do so it can insulate us from the implications of those decisions. One of the reasons I am raising money for Practical Action is exactly their concern with sustainability, justice and unequal development. You can engage with and support their endeavours by Living Below the Line too, or even by sponsoring me.

Poverty, carbon and Sudan

Thursday, April 24th, 2014 by

If you were to rank countries in terms of their carbon emissions, where do you think Britain and Sudan would come?

The answer is we would come 10th and Sudan (including both Sudan and South Sudan) would come 91st. In the UK we produce  8.5 tonnes of carbon per person, Sudan just 0.3. I was therefore shocked when I read some of the comments readers left about a Guardian article on our work in Sudan, written by our own Mary Gallagher. The article talked about women, our LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas) clean cooking project in Darfur and how we are using carbon financing to help scale it up.

Some readers questioned whether the work is environmentally friendly – others, much more worrying to me, whether in a carbon constrained world these women should be allowed to use up precious carbon – or should be forced through lack of other options to continue to use wood as fuel.

I visited this project in 2009 when the work on LPG was just starting.  I am tempted to write THIS IS DARFUR and ask you to imagine what it was like. In reality there was very little water and for poor people little food. The conflict meant that every time a woman left her village she faced the threat of attack. Due to deforestation there were few trees and women had to walk huge distances to collect firewood.

One woman I spoke with talked about the pain in her neck of carrying heavy burdens  and then placed her hands over her heart and talked about the pain she felt there too (literally not figuratively). Beyond the drudgery, the possibility of assault and rape there were also issues with burning precious wood. Basically the smoke from the cooking fires can kill you –4 million people a year die as a result of indoor air pollution. You die from cancer, from chronic pulmonary disease, etc.  Young children (carried on their mums back or kept inside for safety) are particularly vulnerable.

I care hugely about climate change but if I was to suggest who should make sacrifices to protect our planet. I wouldn’t start with these women.

As the project progressed, word of its impact spread from woman to woman. The stoves also started to appeal to women who were just unable to collect fire wood and so were burning charcoal. Practical Action realised that there were opportunities for different forms of financing. As I said before, working for Practical Action, I wouldn’t say that these women have no right to use up some carbon – when we in richer nations use so much. But carbon financing offered a great opportunity to reach out to more women and to help them and their families. Because of positive benefits for the environment – cooking with charcoal uses twice as much carbon as cooking with LPG and the move away from wood fuel allows for the possibility of the forests starting to recover and because of the strength and determination of the women the project is flourishing.

Reading the comments on The Guardian website, I remembered the women I met, I was also very aware that I drive a car and have a gas cooker. I wondered about the carbon usage of those people who had commented negatively – how many times the carbon usage of a woman in Darfur?

But above all as I wrote in my comment on The Guardian website – in a very sad week in the news  I wanted above all to encourage people to rejoice – we have so little good news in our world – this truly is a positive story.

If you would like to know more , hear one persons story, get a sense of how we are scaling up this work or even donate


Adaptation: Science, pessimism and planning

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014 by

I went to a Castle Debate on climate change earlier this month. It wasn’t – fortunately – a debate but a briefing. It was realistic, and therefore depressing.

The consensus, based on the latest IPCC report and work by PWC, was that though it’s still POSSIBLE to keep the temperature rise below two degrees it’s likely to be four degrees. That’s not really ‘four degrees’. We’re on track for four degrees by 2100 with substantial increases thereafter. And, given the uncertainties, a likelihood of four degrees means means the possibility of five, maybe more, even by 2100.The first speaker, Dr Celine Herweijer of PWC, presented these facts and the IPCC view on impacts – falling food production, dying coral reefs, loss of summer sea ice from the Arctic. In fact the usual stuff. She also drew attention to the UK’s vulnerabilities – we import 40% of our food and our 350 largest public companies own overseas assets worth £10T (that’s £10,000,000,000,000) many of which are vulnerable to climate change.

24603 The most vulnerable sectors include energy, mining, utilities and manufacturing.Next up was Anthony Hobley of Carbon Tracker. Hobley acknowledged the science and mentioned that whole civilisations can fail. It’s happened repeatedly in the past though never globally. Of course, ours is the first global civilisation so that qualification is not entirely encouraging. These failures often followed environmental changes and the ruling elites failed to respond because their wealth shielded them from the impacts of those changes until it was too late to act. Hobley did not make the obvious connections but I will:

  • Climate change has increased in parallel with increasing inequality.
  • The super-rich are increasingly powerful and increasingly isolated from the problems that beset the rest of us.
  • London’s economy is increasingly dependent on the richest 1%.
  • Some of them use their wealth to stop governments addressing the problems.
  • Therefore, a sharp reduction in economic inequality is an essential step in addressing climate change.

But back to the meeting! Hobley tried hard to be encouraging about the prospects for the 2015 UN Climate Change conference in Paris which he clearly regarded as our last hope. However he struggled to be optimistic and implied that the most plausible success scenario was a global crash programme that he called the Lastminute scenario. This is similar to my Emergency Braking scenario.

The final speaker was Lord Krebs of Wytham. As Chair of the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the  Committee on Climate Change he was very well qualified to explain his committee’s thinking and recommendations. In short, last year’s National Adaptation Programme was based on climate projections made in 2012. These projections included rising temperatures and sea levels, drier summers, wetter winters and more extreme weather events. Specifically they expect 1 in 100 year events to occur every ten years.

So a science-based plan?

Actually no. In answer to a question from me Krebs explained that the projections were based on two degrees of warming “because that is the government’s target”. He accepted that this approach is inadequate and would need to be revised (though I didn’t get much sense of urgency from his remarks).

I will go further. The current National Adaptation Programme is essentially dishonest because it implies that it is appropriate to the actual threats. Only a programme based on the most likely projection – four degrees by 2100 – can be honest. And, given the uncertainties, an honest programme must at least consider the possibility that things will be worse.

First published on the Climate Cassandra blog

Living below the line

Thursday, April 17th, 2014 by

In less than two weeks I start living below the line for 5 days, spending £5 or less on food and drink. I made this commitment to Practical Action a couple of months ago not long after taking over as Chair of Trustees. And now I am feeling OMG, what have I let myself in for. It will be hard.

101012 Upper Guruwe - livelihoods improvement agri processing - peanut butter making

Making peanut butter

Truthfully, there are aspects which will not be hard. I like rice and pasta simply flavoured. I don’t mind forgoing meat.  Porridge is a great filler in the morning. I am OK with drinking lots of water – hot or cold. I will give what I would normally have spent on food and drink as a donation to Practical Action.

But I will miss: a morning coffee, having lots of fruit and vegetables, a glass of wine and probably most of all, spontaneous decision making about what I eat. Living on £5 for the 5 days requires planning and research about where I shop. But these limitations and frustrations are what most people live with every day of every year.

Reflecting on my experience of the five days is one of the things I want to get out of it. And that’s apart from raising awareness of the work Practical Action does in enabling people to lift themselves out of poverty by accessing simple, useful know-how and technology and of course raising funds for that work. If I can have the optimism and lack of self pity during these 5 days that the people I met in Zimbabwe when I went to visit Practical Action’s work there have, that will be something.

Farmers from Upper Guruwe

Farmers from Upper Guruwe

I took this photo in northern Zimbabwe, a place called Upper Guruwe where Practical Action has enabled local communities to improve their vegetable growing. And not just that, but also enabling people to create higher value-added food products which they can sell at market and so earn more money for themselves and their families eg. peanut butter making also pictured here. One of the things that really impressed me was how people make sure that the elderly and the sick in their communities get the benefit of these vegetables – not just keeping them all for themselves or for selling at the local markets.

Do have a go at Living Below the Line too.  Who knows what you might learn from the experience or how much money you might raise if you get people to sponsor you. And if anyone wants to sponsor me, please do.

Harnessing the power of mobile

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014 by

The Practical Answers call centre in Bangladesh is now live – giving us a great opportunity to increase our reach exponentially. The initiative – which we have been piloting for a couple of years, is a partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture. Apparently it’s completely unique – because the Freephone short code (16123) has been recognised and endorsed by all the main telecom operators in the centre
There are no shortage of call centres in Bangladesh – where the mobile phone seems almost ubiquitous. We have had a lot of debate about the business model behind the call centre – why should we be subsidising anything that the private sector could do more effectively? And how do we make it sustainable in the longer term?

The answer on this occasion is that private sector initiatives have not reached the poorest farmers (where knowledge can have most impact) because of their high call charges . And in the medium term we are looking at an annual very low subscription service – rather than cost per call, which shouldn’t get in the way of accessibility.
The new Krishi Call Centre is going to be advertised through national tv, and will handle enquiries on livestock, agriculture and fisheries. According to a government press release – it could benefit a staggering 20 million poor farmers – by supplying them with cutting edge information.
Every answer from the call centre – will be of the highest quality, having been approved by the experts in the Ministry themselves. The call centre will also be proactive in generating new knowledge based on the work done by Practical Answers’ extension agents who are out in the field meeting farmers every day.
Check back here in a few months and we’ll let you know how it’s getting on.

Rwanda: a one people nation

Friday, April 11th, 2014 by

Practical Action Consulting has worked in Rwanda for a number of years and recently opened an office there.  Denyse, accounts and admin officer, reflects on the transformation she has witness in her country.

Monday, April 7, 2014 was the official opening of the 20th commemoration of genocide against the Tutsi people; different countries sent delegations as well us United Nation and African Union Commission to comfort Rwandans during this difficult time of painful memories.

Remember, unite, renew

Rwanda’s commemoration slogan is ‘Remember, unite, renew’

For the last three months young Rwandans have been carrying the flame of remembrance to all district of the country and this gives hope since three quarters of Rwandans are under 30 years old (they are the new Rwanda).

Having experienced the 1994 genocide 20 years ago I wouldn’t have imagined Rwanda this way.  Personally I thought that the world had come to an end and all we wished was for a less painful death e.g. being shot.

A few months after the genocide we thought it was a bit safer but most of us were prepared for another war considering the situation from Tutsi survivors, other Tutsi family from abroad ( exiled in the preview Hutu massacres) who really had power and a thousand reasons to seek revenge on Hutus. I personally never imagined going to school again, making new friends,  eating food harvested in Rwanda, not surviving on aids from UNIHCR, UNICEF, and other international organizations.

But now look at Rwanda, we have become a one people nation and after all we have one culture, one language which proves that we have been, are and will be one not considering other invented ideologies to separate us.

Rwandans have chosen truth, unity and reconciliation.  Rwandans have chosen to forget about tribes, forgive and admit what happened then focus on building the better future that the results are palpably seen on the ground.