Archive for July, 2014

Putting a value on human waste

Thursday, July 31st, 2014 by

Internal knowledge sharing is vital in our organisation.  It is a struggle to keep up with the amazing variety of different work Practical Action is doing all over the world.

Yesterday was particularly illuminating.  A video conference in the morning covered the potential of showcasing our work using the global mapping tools on Google Earth. And at lunchtime we discussed private enterprise in the faecal sludge market.

In the city of Faridpur in Bangladesh, the sewerage system reaches very few of the cities’ 30,000 households.  And there is no allocated place to dump waste.   Most families have pit latrines that are emptied by enterprising individuals who transport the waste by bicycle and dump it wherever they can.  This often means in the local river – not a good idea for public health.

Practical Action Consulting have been carrying out a study, funded by the Gates Foundation, is to see whether this human waste when converted into compost can become a marketable commodity.

The municipality of Faridpur plan to build a treatment plant to process the waste and the sweepers who empty the latrines have indicated that they are happy to deliver to the new site, if they are provided with motor bikes as the site is several miles outside the city.

Projected waste treatment site

Projected waste treatment site

There are three big challenges

  1. Relationships between the private sweepers and the municipality are difficult and there is also some conflict between Hindu and Muslims organisations of sweepers
  2. Most households do not have safe or adequate septic tanks
  3. Rebranding faecal sludge as an acceptable fertiliser which fetches sustainable price in the market

Our staff in Bangladesh are developing a business proposal to test whether or not this is a viable proposition.  Any dragons out there keen to invest?

The only boss that I have – “The DONOR”

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014 by

Is your boss not satisfied with our work? What do you expect then? A pink slip? – It makes sense and is perfectly logical!  After all, you are hired to meet the expectations of the organisation.  However, as a fundraising professional, I have realised that– at the end of the day, there is the only one boss – “The DONOR”!.

I recently participated in a week-long certificate course in fundraising and communications in New Delhi, India. I have always been keen on tapping funds from institutions, trusts, foundations and corporate houses. I was quite determined that my efforts/interactions/discussions during the training will mainly be in this line.

Donor representatives visiting a project in Bangladesh

Donor representatives visiting a project in Bangladesh

On the very first day, the resource person somehow tried to give us an impression – “fundraising is all about individuals”. I had a reservation, and I was rather convinced that funding has to do a lot more than an individual. As the days passed, we discussed differently on direct mails, cold calls, donor acquisition and retention, and so on.  At times, I felt that it was a complete waste of time; the whole discussion each day ended with a conclusion – “It is actually about an individual”.

During a practical session on telefacing, a pretty lady was on the phone talking to a stranger. She talked for about four minutes including her introduction, the cause for the call and the conclusion. I had an impression that the person on the other side gave her an appointment for the meeting. She put down the phone with a cheerful smile on her face. At the end, it is the impression you leave on a stranger. I thought about it over the night and was convinced that fundraising is not possible in isolation. First, it was a cold call that ended up with an appointment, which could turn into a request for a concept note and subsequently a full proposal. No matter how big or small the amount we are proposing, this is exactly the way it works. So, is it all about an individual?

I wrote a case for support, a capacity statement, appeals and many more. I featured Practical Action’s energy and DRR works, because then I could showcase my project to be the most urgent of all. The question was again, why the projects should be considered urgent to receive funding? I remember many projects I have been involved in which were not as urgent as the others, but they were funded. The answer is – the case I proposed was actually URGENT for somebody at the donor organisation. I again took my stand, it is not about “Somebody” who decides; It is about the whole organisation! But remember, evaluation committee in each donor organisation is comprised of a group of individuals. We need to win their heart, soul and mind! It is them who make decision on whether or not to support our project – be it a 2000 worth activity or a multi-million multifaceted project. So, am I convinced that it is all about an individual?  Somehow, yes!

Each evening, I analysed what I am doing, and what is my job. I assure quality of donor reports, communicate with them, accompany them to the project sites and make sure they are HAPPY! I swallow all the guidelines on donor call for proposals, and make sure that our proposals meet their needs and criteria. I follow my donors on Twitter, regularly check their sites and update myself on recent happenings. I greet them on their special days, I participate in events/functions mainly because I could talk to them. Every second, I am trying to be nice with them, become conscious on what I communicate, and gently/visibly/widely acknowledge them in every possible activity. What for? Because, I want them to be happy with my organisation and its works. And always, a donor is an individual – to impress whom, we put all our efforts. Having realised all these, what do you think? I strongly believe – “Fundraising is all about an individual”, and a donor in whatever form, ultimately is an individual!

I don’t want to get fired and become unwanted;  each moment I have this strong desire to please  my boss;  Yes, the only boss that I have – “The DONOR”!

3 shocking stats on inequality!

Monday, July 28th, 2014 by
  1. The worlds ‘85 richest people as wealthy as poorest half of the world’
  2.  The ‘Wal-Mart family (US based retailers) own more wealth than the bottom 40% of Americans’
  3.  ‘The richest 1% of the UK population are now wealthier than the poorest 50% put together’
Chris Evans car

Chris Evans car

And how do the rich spend their money – well UK radio and TV personality Chris Evans bought in 2010 a $19 million car.

But why does any of this matter? Practical Actions concerned with the poorest – why not just ignore the rich and let them get on with their consumption?While of course happiness or wellbeing can’t be measured by money alone this degree of inequity is damaging, for example

Research has shown that more inequitable societies have a greater degree of social problems – murder rates, infant mortality, obesity, and life expectancy – women and men who come from a more equitable society have better lives.

Too much wealth can give people too much control over the lives of others. Think Rupert Murdoch! (Australian-American news magnate friends with Tony Blair, he strongly supported the Iraq war. His newspapers claimed they could influence the outcome of UK elections. More recently his newspaper empire has been mired in phone hacking and bribery scandals).

Inequality is destabilizing – economists say some incentives are needed but when inequality gets to the levels illustrated above it can leave those at the bottom feeling angry, marginalized and disenfranchised.

Sustainability – the consumption levels enjoyed by the rich and sought by many – more and more things – are incompatible with the finite nature of our planet. In our pursuit of trinkets (I’m not a car lover!) we risk devastating environmental degradation. Climate change is happening now.

And then there’s gender – writing this I started looking for stats on the financial control women have across the world. Turns out they are pretty hard to find – the figures normally quoted by the UN ie “women perform 66% of the world’s work, produce 50% of the food, but earn 10% of the income and own 1% of the property.” are estimates. The just released Human Development Report 2014 (HDR) identifies being a woman as a marker of vulnerability – not surprising but still shocking! Yet investing in women and girls is one of the best ways to deliver sustainable development. Society is unequal and even more inequitable for women.

And justice…….


Practical Action is an organisation driven by our values – the way we see the world is that for all of us, poor and rich, life could be transformed for the better through a refocus on well being, equity, Techology Justice and sustainbility.

I overheard a critique of someone – not me – recently. The critical person said ‘passionate about the problems but not so articulate about the solutions’. I am passionate about the solutions! We at Practical Action have so many we are already delivering and more that together with others we have still to discover. But I’ll leave you to read some of my and others past blogs to discover those.

$19 million car – imagine the cost of a service!




(source for the statistics – Oxfam,  Politifact, New Economics Foundation)



10 highlights from the Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning issue of the Gender & Development Journal

Monday, July 28th, 2014 by


Global opportunities in the draft science curriculum

Monday, July 28th, 2014 by

I recently made myself a cup of coffee, sat down, took a deep breath, and started to look though the new draft science curriculum for England for KS4  ( 14-16 year olds). I wanted to see if it offered any opportunities for pupils to learn how science can be used to reduce global poverty, and role they have to play in global issues such as climate change and food security.Such opportunites are really important if we want the next generation to understand and become as passionate about

Testing materials as part of the Beat the Flood challenge

Testing materials for a model flood-proof house

working toward technology justice as we are at Practical Action.Along with other organisations such as Think Global we had put forward the case for inclusion of global issues when the DfE opened the consultation some months ago, so I had my fingers crossed.

Somewhat to my surprise and delight, although the content pupils need to cover has little very obvious global context, the way in which the content is to be taught described under the heading ‘working scientifically’, certainly does.  This is great news as it aligns with what we have always believed in at Practical Action, which is that where possible science should be taught ‘through a global lens’.

Let me give you an example.  In ‘working scientifically’ the document states that students should be taught…

‘’the role of science in understanding the causes of and solutions for some of the challenges facing society, such as climate change, food security, water supply, health and energy issues.’’

And that they should be given the opportunity for…

Evaluating associated personal, social, economic and environmental implications (of the technical applications of science)

In the chemistry section, part of the content states that pupils need to cover ‘bulk properties of materials’ . We would suggest that a great way for them to do this, fitting in with the requirements of ‘working scientifically’, is for them to design a model of a flood-proof house using different materials, and link this to both climate change and health. Having understood flooding is made worse by climate change, and the detrimental effect of flooding on health, they can go on to consider what they can personally do to help slow it down. As it so happens one of our most recent resources, our Beat the Flood challenge would be perfect!!

The KS2 ( 7-11 years) and KS3 ( 11-14 years) science curriculum for England has already been produced. To see where our resoruces fit these curricula and the science curricula for other countries in the UK please see our Global learning in science docments, which have been downloaded by over 1,000 teachers.

And finally …I have to say i am particularly pleased by the recognition of energy as a global issue, something we strongly suggested was included.


Why doesn’t Angelina Jolie invite Practical Action to her parties?

Friday, July 25th, 2014 by

I recently attended an event with some passionate voices in the ICT4D world. ICT4D is a common abbreviation for those who develop internet and communications technology for international development.

Podcasters sharing knowledge in Zimbabwe

Podcasters sharing knowledge in Zimbabwe

In this event, we discussed the need to develop guiding principles for good ICT4D design, and, more importantly, how those principles can be conveyed to the larger development community. But as we began to discuss these principles, I noticed that, for the most part, these aren’t specific to ICT4D, but show up in many design circles. The issue though, is how to get them all to work together. Practical Action often considers how systems work together. As an organization, we have been working on systems thinking since around 2003. In many ways, our focus areas of energy access, water and sanitation, resilience-focused agriculture, and disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation all work together, and we see a lot of crossover. So not only do we use many of these principles in individual applications, we also should see crossover with these principles in our everyday activities.

You can see the source document here, but if I go through this list, Practical Action nails every one of these.

1. Design with the user in mind: we do collaborative planning where we put beneficiaries at the center of stakeholder engagement. Check out our work on Participatory Market Systems Design and EMMA.

2. Understand the existing ecosystem: We’ve been working with systems thinking since 2003—and many of our projects start with collaborative ecosystem mapping exercises with an “all parties at the table” approach.

3. Design for scale: Our founder, E.F. Schumacher, used to argue against mass production. But mass production is only one kind of scale. If you don’t design for local needs, you won’t design for purpose, and scaling will be impossible. Designing products and services that can be replicated in many communitities is also scaleable.

4. Build for sustainability: When I go visit Practical Action projects, they don’t want to take me to the ones we are currently running, they show me the water system set up 10 years ago that is still running. We not only do this, we can show you organizations that we built years ago that are still going strong.

5. Be data driven: We’ve not only built our successes on good data, we are also looked to for innovations in monitoring and evaluation using systemic approaches that focus not just on direct impacts, but on indirect impacts as well.

6. Use open standards and open data: Look at Practical Answers. The open-source-anyone-can-use-it repository for everything you need to fix in your community website. 1.3 million downloads of technical briefs last year, and no one was charged for them.

7. Reuse and improve: Practical Action works with local communities to identify issues, and then finds already existing ideas and technology that can be deployed as a unit to address specific needs.

8. Do no harm (i.e. have a secure approach to data, and ensure equity and fairness in co-creation): So this may be the most ICT4D centric point in this review, but it still has non-ICT4D applications.

9. Be Collaborative: In this, I would point to our work on MAFI with the SEEP Network, as well as our engagements with the Sustainable Energy for All movement. And of course the work we did with USAID’s collaborative learning work in connection to the KDID office.

This maybe looks like a little like Ayn Rand’s run-on train section in Atlas Shrugged, but you get the point. Practical Action has done all this, and in ways that have little to do with ICT4D. What’s more, we would argue that they are all extremely important for development as a whole. And they aren’t new concepts—designing with the user in mind as a guiding principle has been around since the 60s.

Photo credit: Simon Davis/Department for International Development

Photo credit: Simon Davis/Department for International Development

But if this is a list of best practices for development engagement, not just for ICT4D, but for development in general, why isn’t Practical Action being heralded by Barack Obama, the World Bank’s Jim Kim, and for that matter, UN ambassador-to-the-world Angelina Jolie, as the paragon of development? Why doesn’t she invite us to her cool-kid pool parties? We, like so many other organizations, can point to examples of how we do this. We even lead in these activities. But we are still working at doing it all at the same time. These principles form an ecosystem of their own—they have to be done in conjunction for maximum impact.

This is a greater issue for more than just Practical Action. Many organizations can point to best practice principles, but they rarely get to that ideal state achieved. Often because they move onto another list with similar objectives with which they feel they need to start over. Practical Action often unofficially takes a portfolio approach. We acknowledge there is room for many solutions, and developing several of them means you are better to solve them. We collaborate with other organizations that want to explore these combined approaches even further. But we’d be interested in hearing about other collaborations as well.

When have you seen organizations openly collaborate, with their end users as partners “at the table”, that resulted in sustainable scale? What do you think is missing from this list above, not just for ICT4D, but for “D” in general? And what do you think makes all of these principles come together, or prevent them from coalescing?

The Tao of #Feedingdev

Friday, July 25th, 2014 by

How Energy, Water, and Agriculture all need each other

watering vegetable in Turkana

Practical Action (@Practicalaction) and Devex (@Devex) are holding a Twitter Chat on Monday, July 28 at 3PM BST/10AM EST.   By following the hashtag #feedingdev you can join the discussion about how the different components of the development arena – energy, water and agriculture – are inter-related within a well-functioning agricultural value chain.  Water is needed to produce food and energy, energy is needed to move and treat water and to produce food, and often food is used as a source of energy.

In implementing our four key thematic programmes in Agriculture, Energy, Urban WASH and Disaster Risk Reduction, @Practical Action have come to realise that these systems are becoming increasingly more complex and dependent upon one another.  A change in one system can cause significant impacts in another. The systemic approaches we are now implementing and advocating for support the #feedingdev initiative to reimagine solutions for food security.

These and are based on four main principles

  • The supply of food, energy and water is irrelevant if it remains inaccessible to the poor.
  • The supply of food, energy and water should be adaptable to climate change and protect the world’s resources for future generations.
  • People do not need any technology, they need the appropriate technology.
  • Women and men have different needs and are impacted differently by the agriculture-energy-water nexus.

Key questions to address during TwitterChat:

At a recent virtual workshop, attended by Practical Action staff from our seven country offices around the world, a list of key questions emerged.  The answers to these will help us better address the challenges of implementing a nexus approach’ for food security. We’d like to raise these questions with the larger twitter community:

  • Q1: Does a ‘nexus approach’ require complex, high-cost program design & implementation, or can it be simple and low-cost?
  • Q2: What are the major ‘trade-offs’ for smallholder farmers in the agriculture-energy-water nexus?
  • Q3: How can a robust evidence base be established to measure the impact of a ‘nexus approach – what indicators are useful and appropriate?
  • Q4: How can civil society effectively work with the private sector to take appropriate technologies to scale?
  • Q5: How can gender considerations best be included in the agriculture-energy-water nexus approach?

“Economic development is something much wider and deeper than economics…Its’ roots lie outside the economic sphere…in political independence and a national consciousness of self-reliance.” (E.F. Schumacher)

Join the Twitter chat on Monday, July 28 at 3PM BST/10AM EST using #feedingdev

Explaining Practical Action to my dad!

Thursday, July 24th, 2014 by

My father visited us last weekend for my daughters 18th birthday. Lots of nice food, some wine and good conversation. But he has been reading the Daily Mail and after years of supporting my work in international development he suddenly decided to quiz me.

His big question – or lots of questions wrapped into one  – was ‘how do you differ from Oxfam, why is is what you do important and what do you believe in?’

I started with the last question first and the official Practical Action answer ‘we believe in Technology Justice: A sustainable world free of poverty and injustice in which technology is used to the benefit of all’.

He doesnt drink alcohol but even so his eyes glazed over – too much jargon I suspect. I tried the simpler answer we believe in working together with people to develop and deliver practical, sustainable solutions. And we are good at it!

For people who live in areas covered by water during the monsoon season, such as the riverine areas of Bangladesh, it is impossible to grow crops. Practical Action has developed a technology to allow farmers to grow food on flooded land.

Harvesting crops from a floating garden in Gaibandha, Bangladesh

I always find examples help people understand best what Practical Action does and I love our work on podcasts and floating gardens. So talked about new solutions to old problems such as podcasts to disseminate animal health information to farmers in Zimbabwe. My dad loves animals and is deeply committed to their welfare. So he started to look interested at this.

I also talked about rediscovering and re-engineering old solutions to new problems, such as using ‘floating gardens’ for Bangladeshi farmers made landless by river erosion. They are great – the rafts are from the stems of water hyacinths which are a weed and they enable communities to grow food during the monsoon. The original floating gardens were developed by the Aztecs – which I always think is pretty wow!

Getting into my flow I started talking about Technology Justice and used another example – drinking water.

My dad loves history so I talked about the Romans building pipes and acquaducts to get fresh water into their cities. About the Victorians in UK cities engineering sewage systems to take away waste. And yet how even today lots of poor people in the developing world dont have access to clean water and decent sewers, so lots of people including lots of kids get ill and die.

For me this is technology injustice hitting you in the face. We have the knowledge and technology to prevent these deaths – we should be able to do soemthing about it.

I think – or maybe hope-  at the end of the conversation my dad thought we are a clever organisation, making practical things happen, working together with people. I could tell he loved some of our stories and suspect he’ll be looking at our website – may even read this! But I suspect next time I see him Ill get more questions – Im hoping they will be about how you build a floating garden. I might catch him testing one out on his pond!





Energy for the poorest – going beyond the reach of markets.

Thursday, July 24th, 2014 by

I was lucky enough to be part of a panel discussion today marking the European launch of the UN Decade for Sustainable Energy for All. The event was hosted by the Scottish Government in Glasgow as a cultural side event to the Commonwealth Games.

Scotland is an interesting place to host such a discussion. It’s a country with some fairly remote, small and difficult to serve communities in the highlands and islands, for whom a connection to the national grid would be prohibitively expensive – mirroring some of the problems faced by rural communities in the developing world.

One such example is the Isle of Eigg, off the west coast of Scotland, which only got 24 hour electricity in 2008. You can read more about this on their great website: islands going green but, in short, universal access to energy on Eigg was achieved through the efforts of the Eigg Heritage Trust via a community-owned company Eigg Electric. Their scheme is a hybrid one in that it delivers power via a mini grid attached to 3 renewable sources (hydro power, wind and solar) plus a diesel back-up generator. It was financed from a mixture of sources including the European Regional Development Fund, the Big Lottery, HIE Lochaber, the Highlands and Islands Community Energy Company, the Scottish Households Renewables Initiative, the Energy Saving Trust, the Highland Council, the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust and the residents of the Isle of Eigg themselves.

Technicians George and Lisungu working on the MEGA project in Malawi

At 184kw of total renewable generating capacity, 11 km of grid, and a few hundred consumers the Eigg system is not dissimilar to the sort of mini grid projects Practical Action would work on in places like Malawi. What’s particularly interesting is that it is owned and operated by a community organisation and that its capital costs were financed (judging from the list above) at least in part from grant funds.

Why is that interesting? Because at the moment there is a largely unchallenged assumption in many circles that the additional energy infrastructure needed to ensure universal access by 2030 will be funded through the actions of markets responding to unmet demand. All we need to do, the narrative goes, is get regulation right, remove market barriers, perhaps do a bit of capacity building and then stand back!

That assumption does hold true to an extent, in certain circumstances – witness the progress made in Bangladesh with over 4 million solar home systems installed since 2004. But even in this great success story, if you dig a little deeper, you find the assumption holds true only for a certain segment of the ‘market’. As a recent World Bank study shows, people who install solar home systems in Bangladesh have, on average, twice the landholding and three times the non-land assets of those who do not. In other words the poorest and most marginalised are still being left behind (not surprising when a solar home system costs around $450).

In terms of up front capital costs, the gap between what people can afford and what systems actually cost gets much bigger when you move from solar lamps or solar home systems to mini grids with the capacity to power more than just a few lamps. Which was why, I guess, the people of the Isle of Eigg’s energy needs were not resolved by a market responding to unmet need, but through the actions of their community organisation and the availability of grant financing.

The Isle of Eigg is not a unique example in the ‘developed’ world of how remote rural communities have eventually got access to electricity. In the US difficult to reach rural communities were connected to electricity in the 1930s and 1940s through the actions of farmers’ cooperatives and subsidised funding from the government. Indeed 11% of all electricity sold in the US today is still provided by those cooperatives, helping to connect the 16 million rural citizens living in places where it remains too difficult for commercial utilities to generate sufficient return to invest (see the NRECA website for further details).

We need to remember this experience when we make assumptions about how the goal of achieving universal energy access will be financed. Markets, the private sector and private finance will make a huge contribution to this process. But for the poorest and most difficult to reach, history in the ‘developed’ world shows that markets alone will not bridge the affordability gap.

In her contribution to the discussion at the launch of the UN Decade of Sustainable Energy for All today Lynne Featherstone, the UK Under-Secretary of State for International Development, emphasised a principle of ‘leaving no one behind’ as we pursue development. My main point in the same discussion was that, if we are to achieve that with respect to energy, if we are truly to ensure energy for all, then we cannot just leave everything to the market. There will still be an important role for civil society organisations and public finance.

Towards healthy informal waste workers in Nepal

Thursday, July 24th, 2014 by
PRISM Supported IWWs

PRISM supported IWWs

Practical Action recently completed PRISM project funded by the European Union that aimed to enhance social protection of the informal workers and vulnerable groups dependent on solid waste for their livelihoods. The target beneficiaries are poorest of the poor in Nepal, they make make a living by selling materials they collect from dumpsites, bins and from along roadsides. The 36 month project was implemented in Kathmandu Valley and worked with 8,047 Informal Waste Workers (IWWs). The PRISM facilitated to achieve social protection and recognition to IWWs in Solid Waste Management (SWM) sector and helped to strengthen capacities of groups within informal waste workers for collective bargaining for better price; enhance their technical and entrepreneurial skills and introduced nine different social protection schemes for their better income and secured livelihood.

As one of the schemes was to improve health care, PRISM collaborated with various local health service providing institutions for better access to the health services for IWWs. During the project period 2,775 IWWs benefited from improved health care services. This proved to be a successful model to provide enhanced health services to the IWWs which is one of the very important social protection schemes.

This good practice is now being replicated in other municipalities in Nepal. Recently, in Chitwan, Practical Action facilitated to sign an agreement between Nagar Sarsafai, a private organisation and Narayani Community Hospital, Bharatpur to provide health access to 59 IWWS affiliated with Nagar Sarsafai. The IWWs will receive 50 per cent discount up to NPR. 50,000(1GBP = NPR 165) on all services offered by the hospital. Moreover, the hospital will also provide 15 per cent discount on the services to the family members of the IWWs. Similarly, IWWs of Sauraha, Chitwan are also receiving 50 per cent discount on health services available at a clinic run by Raj Medical and Clinic.

Sustainability of the initiatives taken by the project and scaling up of good practices is a major focus of Practical Action in its project. PRISM has left a mark in the five municipalities of the Kathmandu Valley and has set an example for other municipalities to follow the good work.