Archive for January, 2015

Competition finalists show way forward for renewable energy

Monday, January 19th, 2015 by

I am writing this in Abu Dhabi, where I am attending the World Future Energy Summit as a guest of the Zayed Future Energy Prize. For the second year running Practical Action was shortlisted for this $1m prize in recognition of our work on helping poor people in the developing work access clean energy.


Receiving finalist certificate from Chair of judging committee and former President of the Republic of Iceland, HE Olafur Ragnar Grimsson

Today was the day for announcing the winners and, unfortunately, I have to report that it was also the second year in a row that we didn’t win the prize! However, given out of nearly 600 organisations considered for the award this year, only 30 made it as finalists (and only 5 in our category of non-profits) I think we can all be very proud of getting so far and the deep respect for our work that these 2 nominations in a row implies. Coming on top of Practical Action winning UNFCCC Momentum for Change awards in both 2013 and 2014 for its work on climate change, these nominations show just how much attention our work is getting internationally at the moment.

The very worthy winner of the Zayed Future Energy Prize for non-profits  this year was an organisation from the Philippines called “Litre of Light” that converts plastic bottles into sky lights and solar lanterns and I’d like to offer my sincere congratulations to them. Congratulations also to MKOPA, the innovative Kenyan solar home system providers that use credit payments via mobile phones to help people afford solar lighting and who won the SME category. Panasonic won the large company category whilst ex US Vice President Al Gore was also recognised with a life time achievement award for his work raising awareness of climate change. You can see information on all the winners here and the other finalists (Practical Action included) here.

As was the case last year, the finalists represented 30 really positive stories about people demonstrating how things could be different and how renewable energy is the future in many different contexts. It was also interesting to hear this message repeated over and over again in the opening ceremony for the World Future Energy Summit itself. Solar photovoltaics are, it seems, increasingly becoming cost competitive with conventional sources for power generation. One example given was a very recent contract let for a 200 MW solar park in Dubai at a cost of just under 6 US cents per kwh – one of the cheapest renewable projects ever and around 3 cents per kwh cheaper than gas! What was also interesting, particularly given this conference is taking place a major oil producing region, was that there seemed to be consensus amongst today’s speakers that renewable energy was a technology whose time had come and that even the current falling oil prices were unlikely to make a difference to that position.

I will be the conference for the rest of the week, speaking at a couple of side events, and will report back on anything else of interest I see.

Can business work for poverty reduction?

Thursday, January 15th, 2015 by

As someone passionately involved in fair trade for more than two decades I believe business can work for poverty reduction – however we haven’t got it right – yet!

I welcome the renewed debate on business, its impact on poverty and ultimately  how we encourage business to do good. Its great to see DFID – UK Aid taking a lead, even if I personally would want to offer up some challenges!

So I’m going to summarise some of DFIDs  thinking on economic development – their five pillars for action –  and offer up five challenges of my own.

In this presentation from David Kennedy, UK AID (DFID)’s First Director General for Economic Development he sets out ideas how the developing world can be transformed through economic development – if you have 15 minutes its well worth a listen.  To help make this happen, DFID will structure their economic development work around five pillars.

  • The rules of international trade – for example those established through the World Trade Organisation.
  • Supporting the enabling environment – ‘having the things in place that give investors confidence’.
  • Catalytic investment via The World Bank, CDC, etc.
  • Working with the private sector.
  • Marrying up economic development with DFID’s broader themes – girls and women, sustainability, etc.


I understand that choices have to be made and priorities set but would still want to offer challenges to DFID and others thinking about how business can work for poverty reduction. Its vital plans address:

  1.  Support for the role of Civil Society and others in holding business and governments to account?
    I’m thinking here of recent examples such as slavery in the Thai prawn industry supplying major UK retailers, or compensation paid by Shell to villagers in Nigeria for the impacts of two massive oil spills – described by the Guardian a ‘David v Goliath battle’. And the BAFTA nominated film Virunga which explores the fight to save Africa’s oldest national park from oil exploration.In each of these cases civil society – local people, NGO’s, the media – has sought to hold business to account and see global agreements – the rules – applied in reality. This isn’t anti-business, its pro-good business.  Talking with many people involved in big business who support fairer trade one of the things they call for is a ‘level playing field’.  book
  2.  Small is often Beautiful?
     It may be that because David Kennedy was talking at scale – addressing more macro level challenges –  that there appeared to be a focus on international and big! Local, small scale business has a huge role to play in poverty reduction. Funding mechanisms that support small scale local business are vital. If he, or anyone else would like to know more about the realities of this work, Practical Action Publishing’s new book ‘The Business of Doing Good’  – insights from one social enterprise’s journey to deliver on good intent, is a great read. The book points to lessons for microfinance and other social purpose organisations using the market place to tackle pressing social challenges.


  1. The ultimate challenge: our planet is finite, unlimited growth is not possible
    Very soon we have to say enough is enough, we have to tackle inequality, live within our planetary boundaries.  Wellbeing and happiness are not all about money and consumerism we need to find a way to shape business to help drive the transition to truly sustainable development. But we’ve known this for quite a long time.  Fritz Schumacher, Practical Action’s founder, addressed the issue in his seminal work ‘Small is Beautiful’ half a century ago, yet robust action still isn’t happening.  Development financing can be a catalyst for change and the push needs to be towards future proofed businesses – those with lower impact even in the developing world.
  1. We’re not starting from a level playing field
    The rules of trade and the reality of business power are skewed towards developed nations and large scale. This is accepted by all, and why we invest in institutions such as the World Trade Organisation. How do we make sure that in helping business engage in poverty reduction we don’t just increase the divide between the powerful and the disempowered.
  1. Celebrate success and keep pushing fair trade forward
    Shout about the organisations and people doing brilliantly. Push for change fairer trade rules, holding people accountable so they comply and by celebrating real stories of change.  Good news stories are great!


Thanks to David for starting this debate. I would encourage everyone who shares Practical Action’s mission – of tackling poverty in the developing world to engage in the discussion – it couldn’t be more important!

Fascinated by the Incas

Thursday, January 15th, 2015 by

I had the good fortune to study ancient history – a subject that fascinates me.  However, my studies only covered classical civilisations so my knowledge of the Incas is minimal.  So when I was in Peru in December and visited some Inca sites, I was enthralled and keen to learn more.  I’m delighted that the BBC has just begun a new series ‘Masters of the Clouds’ which will enable me to do this and especially to consider how technologies of the past can help to deal with modern problems such as climate change and disaster resilience.

"Pisac006" by Alexson Scheppa Peisino

“Pisac006” by Alexson Scheppa Peisino

From the first episode it became clear that the Incas knew a thing or two about climate smart agriculture. They developed complex water harvesting and terracing systems which enabled them to produce enough food to store surpluses in their vast granaries against hard times.  As a result of having a secure food supply the population increased and the Inca empire was able to expand to cover nearly 690,000 square miles – from modern Colombia to Chile.  Practical Action is using similar techniques in the high Andes to support farmers who face low rainfall today as a result of climate change.

Alpaca farmer stands by his irrigation reservoir

Alpaca farmer stands by his irrigation reservoir

Earthquakes are a regular hazard in this region is earthquakes and the Incas developed building techniques to minimise the effects.  Leaning their walls slighting inward, excellent masonry skills and rounded corners have ensured that Macchu Picchu’s stone walls still stand despite 500 years of shaking.

Once again Practical Action looked to the past when helping with the reconstruction efforts after major earthquake, using traditional quincha techniques for greater stability.

Technology also proved to be their downfall.  Inca soldiers armed with spears and bow and arrows were up against the Spanish forces equipped with horses, cannon and firearms.  Smallpox and measles also brought by the invaders devastated the population and the Inca Empire folded. I’m looking forward to finding out more this week.


Information Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D): From Programme Effectiveness Perspective

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015 by

In recent development discourses, Information Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) has gained momentum. Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) are being used for identifying target beneficiaries, progress monitoring, tracking trend of success and failures of development interventions. It helps project managers to take quick decisions. Ultimately, it results better programme implementation at the ground.

Practical Action, Bangladesh and Mobile Based Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E):

Since inception of mobile based M&E in Bangladesh, Practical Action, Bangladesh has been using it . Since August 2010, we have been using CMS (Change Monitoring System) in a DFID funded project (SHIREE- Stimulating Household Improvements Results in Economic Empowerment). Later in 2012, we have also adopted AKVO FLOW (another mobile based M&E system) in water and sanitation projects (funded by Dutch Wash Alliance). Basic functions and features of both systems are similar. However, as of today, CMS has more elements than of the AKVO Flow. As a result, in this write up more examples and experiences will be taken from CMS. CMS has five (5) elements or versions which are briefly mentioned below (source:

  •  CMS1 is about Household Profiling. This is a detail profile of every beneficiary household that is undertaken at the time of enrolment of a household into the programme. The household profile is completed by NGO field staff through an once‐only interview and acts as a baseline for evaluation of project impact. A database of profiles for all Shiree beneficiary households (Scale and Innovation Fund) is maintained, each household has a unique identification number allowing linkage to other CMS tools. This CMS1 started in August 2010 and was completed in June 2011 (for 1st Phase of the Project) and during July- December, 2012 (for the 2nd Phase of the Project).
  •  CMS2 is a ten minute monthly census survey administered at the household level by Shiree’s partner NGO field staff. It is a smart phone-based management information tool which monitors the progress achieved by Beneficiary Households (BHHs). It also allows NGOs to track the frequency with which field staff visits each BHH. Practical Action, Bangladesh directly applied both CMS1 and CMS2.
  • CMS3 is Socio-economic and anthropometric survey to provide in depth socio-economic and nutritional data allowing an assessment of longer term change and the impact of project interventions. On an annual basis the survey is enhanced to include anthropometric data (Body Mass Index, Hemoglobin level). The panel survey is administered with a statistically significant sub sample of beneficiary households. It is being handled by Shiree directly and data collection was done by external field enumerators.
  • CMS4 is about Participatory Review and Project Analysis which beneficiaries to explain changes in their lives and the reasons for these changes. In addition, it is also to create a platform for Innovation Fund NGOs to adapt and improve their innovations according to the needs of beneficiaries. CMS4 has been applied by those received innovation fund.
  • CMS5 deals with Tracking Studies. This is a qualitative longitudinal tracking tool which documents the dynamics of extreme poverty as it is experienced and changes take place in beneficiaries’ lives as a result of project interventions. It takes an in-depth look at the original positions of households before the project (through Life Histories) and then tracks their change throughout the intervention (through Reflections on the Interventions). CMS5 is being handled by Shiree directly.

Direct application of some of the above tools gives us a lesson that the mobile phone based M&E System is not the missing panacea for developmental impact. However, it is something that allows managers to understand/explore how the intervention may help its target beneficiary. Additionally, it also informs whether the supports need to be revised or any special attention needs to be given to any particular working areas, household or to an individual. Tracking progress and finding discrepancy through the system gives messages to all staff involved, to put their maximum effort in carrying out the planned work. On the other hand, managers need not to be dependent on frontline staff too much since system itself directs where and what is the problem. For an illustration about the process, when we use CMS or AKVO FLOW system in project monitoring, the system allows frontline staff to collect monitoring data through mobile phone device (requires a smart phone) and once it is completed, it can be sent to the system (whenever internet connection is available). Application of mobile phone technology for such monitoring work reduces time for data collection. And data will be automatically processed, cleaned and can be interpreted- in the way we want. Moreover, it gives real time data; thus, managers sitting in the desk can easily see how things are moving and where to put his/her efforts. Managers can also take quick decision or pay a physical visit independently to any individual or household by tracking through GPS (Global Positioning System) which is inbuilt in any smart phone.

Participation in training and continuous brainstorming:

Recently, I had an opportunity to participate in a training called AKVO FLOW (organized by Practical Action, Bangladesh and participated by different partner organizations of Dutch Wash Alliance).The week long training provided us skills to apply technology and understand how background logics work behind the system. Additionally, since that training, idea has been moving in our (colleague at Practical Action, Bangladesh) mind how to build a system which can be worked for all projects, programmes across the group. Ideas are yet to get a shape. Interaction with people from similar fields gives a hope that it can be done. And if we can do it, data management and programme effectiveness will be changed drastically.

Challenges and Confusion:
While our understanding is trying to form a shape, some issues came to my mind and made me confused. Firstly, through this will we not be trying to mechanize our development intervention which has a strong human face? Or is it inevitable integration into programme implementation for improving its effectiveness? I think, we need better understanding and evidence before we move to apply this at a large scale. Particularly, when we talk about, indigenous knowledge based local innovation, intermediary technology for poverty alleviation, then how and where these do fit into. Secondly, in a country like Bangladesh, where we have surplus human resources, should we apply technology intensive development approach or the other approaches which may not be so fast and/or accurate but has potential to integrate mass people and benefit more people. While we will be using modern technology for poverty alleviation or any other development intervention, undoubtedly the technology (including apps, software and the like ) will be imported from developed countries (from where development aid comes). These technologies are not cheap always; sometimes they cost more than the estimated project value.

To conclude, undoubtedly ICTs such as mobile phone has potentials to accelerate development impacts. In the coming days, ICTs will be playing significant roles in development programming. This integration seems to be inevitable. However, we need to keep our efforts retaining human faces all through the development interventions.

Understanding Innovation through Practical Answers Services!!

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015 by

As a fundraiser, I often come across the challenge of either being or providing support to become “Innovative”; innovative in the sense of “different”, “out of the box” and “walking an extra mile”. My bucket of proposals and concepts is mostly full and sometimes it overflows – looking for the supporters and partners who would be interested in funding my little piece of project; which will ultimately bring happiness in many poorest of the poors! While investigating upon potential supporters, I am asked – Is my proposal Innovative; what is my offer; why should my concept be supported; and what is the added value I can bring along. This has been the case in recent opportunities we tried to approach including USAID/Development Innovation Venture, Guangzhou Award for Urban Innovation, Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF), Securing Water for Food Programme, Powering Agriculture, and Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Challenge.

For quite a sometime, I have been trying to find the most sophisticated answer to the simple question “Innovation”. For this, I surfed, read, made queries and became part of the discussions; more convincing of all was the book I read from Jim Collins “Good to Great” where he defines innovation as being great. He conveys the message that good is not good enough to win and stand out; one needs to walk beyond good to become innovative.

In my recent visit to the sites of Practical Answers, I actually saw how innovative we have been in reaching the neediest pocket of the society. Transferring demand-based knowledge/information and promoting locally sustainable practices for awareness creation is something very effective and unique compared to the traditional and most practiced approaches to knowledge delivery. Considering that agriculture is the source of food, income and employment to majority of Nepalese Population, it is obvious for the farming communities to have their mind full of agriculture related queries. Under Practical Answers Services, we help respond/answer their enquiries/queries that support them in having better produces and effective agricultural practices. Upon realisation of the need, the service also collaborates with the relevant government and non-government agencies to capacitate farmers in the identified sectors.


Ms. Kamala Suvedi from Lumbini Tinau Practical Answers Services group in her vegetable farm. (c) Practical Action/Upendra Shrestha

From among farmers, women are the major players in Nepal’s food system. Amid this, they have limited access to resources including knowledge/information. By responding/ answering their simple enqueries/queries on agriculture, the service has demonstrated that giving women the right support and training, and empowering them with knowledge/ information can have remarkable results. Ms. Kamala Suvedi – 26 years of age – is one of such examples. She received a three-month long vegetable farming training and is enthusiastically putting her efforts in turning herself to an established vegetable entrepreneur. Earning knowledge on “How to do things correctly” is the most important aspect she likes about the service. She learnt appropriate methods to sow seeds, prepare organic pesticides, prepare field for various types of spices and high-value crops, and knows who to contact when she has questions. Like Kamala, many farmers are now habituated in making queries; they open up and come forward with their hunger for knowledge/information – they actually ASK!


Local farmers accessing whether information placed in Agyauli Community Library. (c) Practical Action/Upendra Shrestha


As the name says, the service answers the practical questions. To help farmers suitably plan their agriculture operations including sowing operations, irrigation, application of fertilizers, completing/withholding harvests, taking measures to fight frost, managing plugging harrowing hoeing, etc; a local level weather forecast boards are installed in the strategic locations. The farmers save their energy and money by sensibly planning their daily chores. By doing this, the Practical Answers service is helping farmers cope/adapt with the changing climate.

The Service collaborates with READ Nepal (US-based INGO) that seeks to build literacy and empower rural communities through Community Libraries and Resource Centres (CLRCs). Within the community libraries, the service runs its technical knowledge service where technical knowledge products (in print and digital) are placed. In order to increase the coverage, the mobile knowledge dissemination centres are also conducted. Within this, knowledge products are placed in different rural locations where the farmers are encouraged to earn technical information at their ease. Through this model of partnership, knowledge dissemination and integration with other development sectors, for instance -climate change- Practical Answers proves to be a great example of delivering maximum benefits through the mobilisation of limited inputs. There exists a Knowledge Management Committee (KMC) in each of the districts that include representatives from relevant government agencies. The idea behind this establishment is to mainstream all of the technical knowledge related interventions through this committee even after the Practical Answers Service ends its interventions.

Practical Answers Service helped me shape my understanding on Innovation, which does not necessarily be an “Invention”. Most of the times, it is simply gaining more with less effort; and bringing forth the simplest solution to the pre-existing problems!

Preparedness helped us

Friday, January 9th, 2015 by

Tihar Bahadur Chaudhary is resident of Balapur village in Guleria Municipality, Bardiya. Balapur is situated along the bank of Babai River, which is regarded as a volatile area during monsoon time. Practical Action has been working in Bardiya since 2008 with the European Union’s DIPECHO co-funding. Tihar has always been an active person in the village and he was unanimously proposed by the community as one of the village disaster management committee members. He has participated in variety of disaster preparedness trainings and is leading fellow villagers by taking initiatives and getting actively engaged in community works.

Tihar Bahadur Chaudhary explaining the night of 12 July

Tihar Bahadur Chaudhary explaining the night of 12 July

Every year during monsoon Babai River is flooded several times between June and September. With the project’s initiative, a communication flow arrangement has been agreed by all stakeholders including District Emergency Operation Centre situated in the District Administration Office, District Development Committee (DDC), Nepal Police, Nepal Army, District Disaster Management Committee, Village Disaster Management Committee and so on. The communication flow enables connection among vulnerable people, relevant stakeholders and flood monitoring gauge station of Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. Gauge reader provides flood information to respective stakeholders using the communication channel. In order to ensure smooth communication, the DDC had committed an allowance of Rs 3000 per month to the gauge reader. Tihar also used to get information through this communication network and at times he could get direct information from the gauge reader. Years were passing on like this.

However, 2014 was a different year. On 12th July evening, he got a phone call from his bhanja (sister’s son) from Dang district, saying that there has been a huge flood in Dang and enquired about the situation in Balapur village. He immediately called the gauge reader in Chepang, but the call was not received. He tried several times but his efforts went in vain. By the time he was trying to call, the flood water in the village was already knee high. He started panicking and informed police. The villagers were already gathering around and started discussing about the coping strategies. The water was getting higher and higher and was moving like a big river. They sensed that the flood had entered the village and it would keep on increasing, so they must think about saving lives of all the villagers. Tihar reminded the villagers about what they had learnt from the trainings and mock drills during the DIPECHO project time. They also remembered the evacuation route and emergency shelter. They carefully packed their clothes and beds and hung them high on the walls of their houses, untied the livestock and started moving to the school where one of the buildings was developed as emergency shelter by the project. They were also guided by policemen who came on site to rescue them. They spent the entire night on the first floor and top of the buildings.

By 5 am on 13th July, the water was high enough to drown people of average height.  The floodline can be seen on the photograph of the toilet constructed by one of the families. Then onwards the water level started decreasing and by the evening they could gradually move to their houses to assess the damage. Many of their livestock were carried away by the flood and their kitchens were unusable for several days due to mud. However, they were pleased that they could save their lives and no one died in the village although nine people lost their lives from Bardiya district.

The flood mark clearly seen on the toilet

The flood mark clearly seen on the toilet

Tihar believes that the preparedness activities that he and other fellow villagers learned from Practical Action and its partner Radha Krishna Tharu Jana Sewa Kendra was instrumental in savings their lives although they could not get early warning information from the gauge station on time. He believes that he did not get information from the river gauge reader because he was not paid as promised earlier. Later the river gauge station was also washed away by the flood on same night. It was the biggest flood probably in last 50 years. In exceptional situations, the system may not work, but the skills they learn are always useful to save lives and assets to a large extent.

Bill & Melinda open the Gates to data

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015 by

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has launched a new Open Access policy for all material published from work it has funded, as of January 2015. This is a huge step by one of the largest development funders in the world and it could pave the way for others to follow suit. (more…)