Archive for July, 2015

South Asia Right to Food Movement

Thursday, July 30th, 2015 by

Practical Action, Bangladesh has been participating in the South Asia Right to Food (SARF) Movement for over the last year and a half. There are about 250 national and international NGOs and about 300 individuals of civil society representatives, academics and researchers. The individual dignitaries are from different fields like economics, education, social development, right based issues (human, women and child rights) and food security, from Bangladesh as well as in South Asia.

South Asia Right to Food conferenceAt present, 925 million people of the world do not get enough food to eat and a huge portion of them (336 million) live in the South Asia Region (FAO 2012). These figures, however, don’t represent the true extent of food insecurity which also includes hidden hunger, micronutrient deficiencies, food wastage and unsafe food. An alarming situation exists in the South Asian (SAARC) countries. In Bangladesh 16.8% of the population are undernourished, 17.5% in India, 24% in Sri Lanka, 5.6% in Maldives, 19.9% in Pakistan and 18% in Nepal.

The challenge of hunger and malnutrition in South Asia is a complex issue. It will require a multi-pronged approach, including interventions for greater availability of food through improved agricultural production and secure access to livelihoods; education for improved food utilization; clean water for improving health and nutrient uptake and agriculture; women’s empowerment and social protection for the equitable distribution of food with a focus on resources amongst other relevant interventions. These will also provide the basis for communities’ resilience to climate change.

The movement aims to share experiences of civil societies and relevant entities on right to food and nutritional security movements, policies and legislation across South Asia; building perspectives and strategy of the movement for all relevant actors; strengthen networking among civil society organizations and networks, farmers’ organizations, CBOs, academia, researchers, individuals, and policy makers for effective campaign. And, thus, promote Legal Framework on Right to Food issue and relevant policy reforms at national and regional level engaging policy makers, political societies and relevant stakeholders. Among the SAARC countries India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are already going to implement several laws and policies regarding right to food and food security. Currently Bangladesh is in a better situation in terms of food security, nutritional scenario and social protection and safety net compared to the last decade. The ultimate goal of the movement is to formulate a food and nutritional security act in Bangladesh.

South Asia Right to Food conferenceThe Objectives of the movement are similar to SAARC objectives. Peoples’ SAARC under the SARF Movement carry out parallel activities to uphold its objectives to attract and influence the SAARC leaders for its implementation such as SAARC Food Bank that was decided in 2007 upon critical gesture of the civil society. The progress, however, is yet to take place in reality that is supposed to work as a regional food security reserve for member countries during the time of food shortages and emergencies. The right to food movement wants to influence SAARC countries to establish the food bank with immediate effect. With all critical progress of food rights and emergence of food sovereignty in this region, neoliberal discourse and regime of excessive trade liberalization, privatization and deregulation continuing unfair trade system and corporate dominance in agriculture and benefiting the transnational corporations and the elites of our countries. Industrial and chemical intensive agriculture threaten the food and nutritional security and economic development of the people of south Asia.

Multifaceted environmental and climatic challenges make it difficult for the small holder producers to maintain their livelihoods.  These include land grabbing and land degradation (agriculture, pasture) for industrial purposes, corporate agriculture, mining and logging.

Of the 925 million hungry and undernourished people, 70% are women and girls; inclusion of gender dimension on right to food could bring down this gap in the region. We are confronted with intensifying economic, social and environmental crises in this region. Securing tenure of land and natural resources, investment in public goods and services, such as infrastructure are necessary to foster responsible investments in agriculture and food systems. At the same time, it contributes to food security and nutrition, and overall economic development. Responsible investment includes priority investments in, by, and with small scale producers, such as, peasant, small holder farmers, pastoralists, artisans, fisher folks, forest dwellers, and processors. The SARF movement wishes to deal with the food and nutritional security issue and raise voices in South Asia to achieve the ultimate goal.

Issues with the movement will address are:

  • Right to food & nutritional security and food sovereignty,
  • Economic, social and environmental issues in the context of right to food & nutritional security in South Asia region,
  • Equal rights for women with regards to access to food, land rights, financing for farming, and ownership of resources,
  • Policy, legislation and regulatory framework regarding right to food and food governance,
  • Responsible agriculture investment and food sovereignty in this region,
  • Situation of small food producers, experience and learning sharing,
  • Social protection and rights of the peasants, working people and marginal groups in urban and rural areas,
  • Landlessness and insecurity of tenure over the lands, forestry and indigenous people’s rights,
  • Corporate dominance in agriculture, industrial, chemical intensive agriculture,
  • Excessive trade liberalization, privatization and deregulation,
  • Regional rice Strategy for Asia including South Asia,
  • Land, coastal and natural resources grabbing,
  • Access to water for aquaculture & agriculture and ecological diversity,
  • Water as common regional resources for right to food & nutritional security,
  • Access to potable water and sanitation,
  • Effects of grabbing on women, indigenous and marginal people.

Expected Results:

  • Experiential sharing and critical learning on right to food & nutritional security and food sovereignty for surfacing the challenges and obstacles of existing policies, legislation across south Asian region,
  • Strategize common approach and plans for South Asian countries involving several streams of movements and networks on right to food and nutrition,
  • Initiate discussion on standardization of policies and procedures required for food governance at regional and national level,
  • Explore and streamlining the regional and national networks on right to food and nutrition,
  • Widening and reinforce South Asian regional Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) process,
  • Common statement of the conference considering Right to food obligation,
  • And, finally influence the Government to formulate a Food and Nutritional Security Act.

Amongst the diversified challenges of South Asia strong solidarity among the people of this region is crucial. With this in mind, SARF recently organized a South Asian Right to Food (SARF) Conference in Dhaka (May 30 – June 1, 2015). Practical Action, Bangladesh was one of the organizers and was a member of the Organizing and Working Committee.  We also presented learning and experiences of our extreme poverty programme with special focus of our policy issue “Operational Access to Transitional Sandbars for the Extreme Poor” in the regional convention.

Duck rice, water wheels and electricity from cow manure

Thursday, July 30th, 2015 by

This is my third blog from Nepal, written at the airport in Kathmandu waiting for my flight back home. It’s always great to visit our programmes and catch up with our staff. Here in Nepal people are gradually picking up again after the earthquakes and life seems to be getting back to normal, at least for those who were not too badly affected by the events of April and May. Our staff all seem in good heart and very busy.

I was pleased to be able to talk technology and innovation with colleagues while I was in Nepal, and see some examples of it on the ground during field visits. Here’s a taster; although I’m pretty both of the following two examples have been blogged on by others, I can’t resist!

Ducks doing their stuff in a rice field

Ducks doing their stuff in a rice field

Duck rice (or rice duck, depending on your view point!). Practical Action believes in an agroecological approach to food production. That means finding ways of helping smallholder farmers boost production and maybe create surpluses for sale without having to resort to expensive and unsustainable inputs such as chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. This initiative is a great example of such an approach. The practice was originally seen by one of our staff during a visit to Japan, so he thought he would try it out here. Two ideas are involved. Firstly, planting rice in lines and a greater spacing than normal. Farmers in Nepal generally plant rice seedlings out in paddy fields in a random pattern and quite close together. Counterintuitively, spacing rice seedlings further apart increases the yield as the plants have more room to grow. Introducing small ducklings to paddy fields provides an added bonus, provided the lines are far enough apart to let the ducks swim around. The ducks graze on weeds and eat insects and pests while at the same time depositing their guano in the water, fulfilling the functions of fertiliser, weed and pest control without a dose of chemicals in sight! This is the third year we’ve been trying this out and 1000 farmers have now adopted the technique. Rice yields are up an average of 13% and incomes up 50% (because the ducks are ready to sell to market by the time the rice is harvested). Very simple but very effective.

Bio gas being cleaned (green cylinder) and then fed to generator

Bio gas being cleaned (green cylinder) and then fed to generator

Bio gas from cows has been blogged on many times on this website. But at one dairy cooperative farm in Chitwan District we’ve gone further and, by using a simple device to remove the sulphur and moisture from the biogas, we’ve been able to use it to fuel a generator to produce electricity top run a milking machine and lights. The cooperative is also taking gas from the plant to heat a boiler which produces the steam used to pasteurise the milk, saving thousands of Rupees a month as a result of not having to buy of firewood.



Water wheel irrigation pump under test

Water wheel irrigation pump under test

And third and finally, we’re testing out a new low lift water pump in the West of Nepal for irrigation. The pump is basically a modern waterwheel designed to be tethered in river and lift water from the river up to 20 metres into a storage pond, from which it can be sent by pipe to sprinklers or drip irrigation systems for high value vegetables and winter crops.

Three inspiring uses of technology or technical knowledge in our Nepal programme!


The business of the achieving the new SDGs

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015 by

That the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been described as the ‘most inclusive process in the history of the UN’ seems worth celebrating…. even if a flip side is the daunting number of goals (17) and proposed targets. This inclusion has undoubtedly been a recognition that the scale and depth of the challenges needed extensive public, private and civil society engagement.  Unlike their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), this time round many businesses have been encouraged to have their say about what’s important and how they’ll contribute.

Market in Jamuna charNow that the talking is nearly done we’re seeing a shift from ‘what’ to ‘how’.  In a very interesting initiative, SDGCompass (UN Global Compact , WBCSD  and GRI) has produced a guide for companies on how they can realize these goals.

Focus is on big business

The guide primarily focuses on big business: supporting and guiding the world’s largest companies to respond to the SDGs and reporting their transparency in doing so. But it’s not just the Walmarts  who need attention.  There are millions of small and micro-enterprises who will play a vital role in delivery goods, services and opportunities in challenging environments. Will the SDG Compass Guide for Business resonate with them? Just a single reference to SMEs in a 30 page document suggests probably not, so we need to ask SDG Compass, how will they be engaged, can this initiative be expanded to include them?


They are currently consulting widely and for now I have made these four points as feedback:

  1. Just big business, global companies? Domestic companies, including medium, small, and micro businesses need to be involved in understanding their contribution to the SDGs at country/regional level. They and others (including governments and meso level actors) need to recognise the critical role they will play in delivering the goods, services and opportunities needed to achieve the goals.
  2. To achieve many of the SDGs, businesses will need to be involved in investing in those technologies and knowledge and skills that will have the most benefit for people in poverty, which may not necessarily match with the most benefit to them as a company. How can they be incentivised (more carrots than sticks?), what tools and reporting will help them and others understand their contribution? This will often mean taking longer-term business development viewpoints – building markets for the future, even if they have minimal ROI in the medium term. How can they report on this as a contribution to longer-term objectives to achieve the goals?
    More information on Technology Justice and SDGs
  3. No single actor will achieve much alone, as the Guide recognises in section 4 on partnerships. Tools and investment are needed for effective processes (ref 4.3 in the doc), such as multi-stakeholder platforms, that engage a broad spectrum of actors (which should include the smaller, marginalised players) and where their individual interests as actors are subsumed, regardless of their size/power, to address systemic challenges.
  4.  Businesses need tools to better understand these power-dynamics so they can be transparent about how these dynamics affect the functioning of the systems they engage in.

Have a read of the guide and why not give your feedback But hurry… the deadline is the end of July…I nearly missed it!

Energy Engagement Series Recap: “How can accelerating on-grid solutions help developing countries leapfrog to better electricity access?”

Monday, July 27th, 2015 by


Sarah MartinPractical Action and the World Resources Institute (WRI) regularly host a Washington, DC based “Energy Engagement Series”. Our last event was hosted by WRI’s Joshua Ryor and Sarah Martin and asked our attendees to discuss how accelerating on-grid solutions help developing countries leapfrog to better electricity access?”  Josh’s summary of the event begins below, written by Josh and Sarah.

The increase of variable renewable energy and other factors are causing changes worldwide in the centralized electricity grid. These changes are wide-ranging and include technology, system operation, business models, policy and regulation, and ultimately how we think about the grid itself. While many of these changes are occurring rapidly in developed countries, developing economies are experiencing these changes as well. In Brazil and India, trends towards consumer production of electricity (‘prosumers’) and changes in markets and regulations, for example, have increased the number of generating entities involved with the grid, causing new complexities in grid operation. Such changes are occurring simultaneously with other equally, if not more important, challenges such as meeting an increasingly growing supply-demand gap and quickly rising urban electricity demand.

June’s installment of the Energy Engagement Series focused on the implications of these changes on energy access, specifically the issues of supply quality, quantity, and reliability. The discussants sought to inform four key questions on the future of the centralized grid:

  •  How can system reliability be ensured and service quality improved under much higher renewable scenarios?
  • How will tariffs need to be redesigned to compensate for increased self-generation?
  • How should institutional capacities be improved as the grid becomes much more distributed?
  • How can sector governance be strengthened to properly oversee the transition to a more complex and distributed grid?

Discussants widely noted that changes to the electricity sector and the questions being asked about the future are the same in developed and developing economies, but with unique contexts in each country. The conversation was broadly framed around the following buckets:

Technical: In many cases, transmission and distribution grid upgrades and expansions are needed to more efficiently and effectively integrate large-scale variable renewable energy (VRE). However, this isn’t necessarily always the case if distributed generation (DG) and energy efficiency measures are put in place. These measures can often help with VRE integration, as well as help improve service quantity and quality. This is also true for bringing renewable energy to those that lack any electricity – while a DG or centralized approach may be preferred in one instance; they don’t have to be at odds and can complement each other depending on the circumstance.

Utility Models: Simply put, utility business and service models need to change, especially in developing economies. Africa provides a slew of examples in ineffective utility business models and India’s distribution utilities are chronically insolvent. These issues are also being looked at in the US and Germany by utilities and regulators, with major changes occurring. Changes to utility business and service models have implications for tariffs, require new institutional capacities, and governance structures. A key question is whether governments allow utilities to evolve on their own or whether they should help push them through policy and regulation.

Institutional Capacities: The need to develop institutional capacities (technical, managerial, process, etc.) for both utilities and regulators is critical to enabling successful changes that both increase renewable energy generation and increase access. These capacities will help these institutions to think carefully about these changes, make proactive decisions, and flexibly adapt to new circumstances.

Key Question: What is the value we derive from the grid, specifically the services above energy and demand that it provides? Understanding this value better will improve planning, policy, and regulation for the grid of the future.

We are taking a break for the month of August, but hope to be back in September. In the meantime, if you would be interested in joining our invitation list please click here


Update on the Nepal earthquake response

Monday, July 27th, 2015 by

This is my second blog during my current visit to Nepal. I came back to Kathmandu this afternoon after visits to projects in Chitwan district (down close to the Terai region of Nepal which abuts the plains of northern India) and to also see some of the earthquake response work we have been doing in Gorkha District in the middle hills. I will stick with the earthquake work for this blog and then return to the other projects for a later one.

Damage to old royal palace in Kathmandu

Damage to old royal palace in Kathmandu

Walking and driving around Kathmandu this evening it’s difficult to spot the evidence of the impact of the April and May earthquakes. At first sight things seem pretty normal and, truth be told, apart from some cosmetic cracking of surface finishes, most modern concrete framed buildings seem to have survived and coped well with the earthquakes. Bhimsen Tower, a notable landmark next to the Central Post Office in Kathmandu is missing – but the rubble has already been cleared away, so all that you notice is literally, that it’s not there anymore! On the Tundikhel (or parade ground) there are only a few left of the hundreds of tents that people sought shelter in in the immediate aftermath of the first earthquake. You have to dive into the narrow lanes of Assan, the old part of town before things become a little more obvious. Many of the old houses and shops here have temporary props installed to hold up the front walls and in a couple of cases buildings appear to lean at alarming angles. But its only when you get to the main Durbar Square that you see some really significant destruction, with many temples damaged, including the Kasthamandap, one of the most famous, completely destroyed, and large scale damage to the old royal palace (see photo).

In Gorkha it was a bit like that too. I managed to visit one village development committee area (similar to a ward or a parish in the UK in terms of size) where we have been working – Ashrang. At first it was difficult to get a sense of the scale of the impact. There were occasional piles of rubble where houses had been, but generally most structures seemed to be OK. And where the buildings were modern and concrete framed that generally was the case. But many of the traditional stone and mud mortar houses that looked ok at first sight were clearly not OK after a more detailed view. Some had serious cracks that left them unstable and vulnerable to collapse whilst others, on closer inspection had sound facades but when you went around the back you could see entire walls missing.

In the immediate aftermath of the first earthquake Practical Action, with support from Christian Aid and the help of our local partner Goreto, was involved in distributing relief materials (tarpaulins for shelter, water purification tablets, blankets and food) across 17 village development committees (VDC’s) in Gorkha and Dhading Districts.

The disaster response as a whole has now moved on to a second phase of providing temporary shelter that will help people survive the monsoon. Proper rebuilding will only start once the monsoon is over. We are coordinating our effort with the local government and other NGOs and have been allocated two VDCs in Gorkha and two in Dhading to work on. Again with Christian Aid and Goreto, we’ve trained over one hundred men and women across these areas to build simple temporary shelters that are earthquake proof and helped over 1700 households get access to building material such as corrugated iron sheet to help with this construction.

The remains of Khadanada Dhakal's house

The remains of Khadanada Dhakal’s house

Khadanada Dhakal, aged 79, is one example. Khadanada lives on his own as his daughter is married and his two sons overseas studying. His house was completely destroyed by the earthquake but, using material recovered from the debris and new corrugated iron sheet, we’ve managed to put something together that will provide adequate shelter for the rest of the monsoon.

Achyut Luitel (Regional Director Practical Action) talking to Khadanada Dhakal outside his temporary shelter

Achyut Luitel (Regional Director Practical Action) talking to Khadanada Dhakal outside his temporary shelter

We’ve also restored water supplies and put some solar charging stations where there is no electricity to help people charge mobiles and keep communications working. And we’re in the process of assessing the status of latrines across the 4 VDC’s with a view to repairs to ensure safe sanitation.

At the moment we are drawing up plans for how we want to be involved post monsoon in the reconstruction phase. Most likely it will be through trying to help with the design of the new houses that will have to be built to ensure they are a bit more resilient to future earthquakes.


Leaving Practical Action – reflections, from a Kathmandu hotel room, on the last 10 years

Friday, July 24th, 2015 by

October this year will mark the completion of 10 years for me as Chief Executive of Practical Action. It has been a huge honour, joy and privilege for me to occupy this position and to work with such a fantastic and dedicated group of staff across the world. I remain enormously enthusiastic about Practical Action’s mission, the idea of technology justice, and all of our work.

It’s my belief however that organisations need to refresh themselves from time to time and that 10 years is long enough for an individual to be in a CEO position. I therefore confirmed some time ago to our Chair, Helena Molyneux, that I would not seek to renew my current 5 year contract when it expires this October. This is not a recent decision for me, as I made the then Chair Stephen Watson aware of my position when I signed my current contract back in 2010. Although Helena and the Trustees were kind enough to let me know I could continue in place if I wished, I have continued to believe that this is the right course of action and so did not change my mind.

One advantage of flagging the intention so early on is that we have managed to chart a smooth transition to the installation of a new CEO. As you can see in elsewhere on this site, after a very thorough search and recruitment process Paul Smith Lomas, our current International Director, has been appointed as my successor and will take over the reins at the start of November. I think the Trustees have done a great job managing the recruitment process and have made a great choice in the candidate they eventually picked. Paul brings a huge amount of experience of the development world and is a strong strategic thinker as well as being hugely passionate for our cause. I know he will lead Practical Action well.

I’m writing this blog in a hotel room in Nepal, having just stepped off the plane for what I think will be my last overseas visit for Practical Action. I’m here to check up on how our staff are doing after the earthquakes in April and May of this year. I will also be visiting some of the post-earthquake relief and rehabilitation work we have been involved with in the district of Gorkha, one of the worst hit. Coming in from the airport today I only saw one building that had been damaged by the earthquakes. Strangely it was completely flattened – just a pile of brick, concrete and twisted reinforcing bar, but surrounded by buildings apparently untouched. I know though that there was a lot of damage to some of the older buildings in the centre of the city that my ride today didn’t go near. My taxi driver was from Dhading District, one of the other areas most heavily affected and he told me that his house, and all the houses in his village, had been totally destroyed. Given the scale of the disaster I think it will be difficult to meet someone who has does not at least know a friend or relative has been affected in some way. I will update my blog during the coming week as my visit continues.

Sitting in my Kathmandu hotel room and reflecting back over the past ten years with Practical Action I can only feel immense pride in what our staff have achieved in that time. We’ve grown – doubled in size in fact in terms of income – which has allowed us to open new programmes of work in India, Malawi, Rwanda, Bolivia and, most recently, francophone West African. As a result, our direct impact has also grown to the extent that we now touch the lives of more than a million people a year in some way.

But we have also been able to expand our indirect impact very significantly over the same period. Our knowledge services have been perhaps one of the most dramatic examples of this expansion – 121,000 technical enquiries were answered by us and our partners in 2014/15, 50,000 more than the previous year alone. In the same year 1,600,000 downloads of technical information were made from our websites across the Group.

And our policy influence has also increased dramatically. We’ve built a global reputation as a leading authority on helping poor people get access to basic electricity supplies and clean cook-stoves. We are on steering groups at the United Nations and the World Bank and advise national governments on energy policies. Our annual Poor People’s Energy Outlook report has become so influential in the sector that the UK DFID has just agreed to put £840,000 towards securing the next 4 issues. In disaster risk reduction our reputation is such that we are seen as the innovation partner in an international programme on building poor people’s resilience against flooding that includes organisations that dwarf us in size, such as the Zurich Insurance Group and the International Red Cross. And in field of urban sanitation we are now building a strong reputation on pit latrine waste disposal in countries such as Bangladesh, Kenya and India to the extent that, even as a new player in India we have been asked to advise not just the State Government in Orissa (where we have a programme of work on the ground) but the National government too.

But what will always remain special for me, as far as Practical Action is concerned, is that through all that growth we have managed to hold on to a core philosophy, grown out of the ideas of Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful and now encapsulated in the concept of Technology Justice. It’s a vision of how the world could be different: more just, more equitable, more sustainable. A world where everyone has access to the technologies they need to enjoy a reasonable standard of living and where achieving this for the current generation does not impede future generations’ ability to do likewise. It’s a vision but not a pipe dream. And if I wished anything for my successor, apart from heaps of good luck and success, it would be that, whatever happens to the organisation, that vision of a technology just world remains at the centre of Practical Action’s work over the coming 10 years. There is a movement for technology justice to be forged and Practical Action has much to offer that movement in terms of leadership.

Announcing our next Chief Executive

Friday, July 24th, 2015 by

Helena Molyneux is Chair of the Trustees of Practical Action

IMG_0067This year we celebrate our 50th anniversary.  We will embark on the next stage of our journey with a new Chief Executive, Paul Smith Lomas.  Paul is currently Practical Action’s International Policy and Programmes Director leading our work in 45 countries where we enable women and men living in poverty to change their own lives by getting access to and using people-centred technologies that can make a real difference to them, their families and their communities.  This might be getting access to electricity for the very first time and all the things they can do with it by building their own small scale micro-hydro scheme as I saw in villages up in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe a few years ago, or small scale farmers and fishermen/women getting answers to farming and fishing questions through our free-phone Krishi Call Centre in Bangladesh.

Simon Trace, our current Chief Executive, has taken this very special organisation from strength to strength over the last 10 years.  We now for example have a major voice internationally in influencing energy policy for poor people.  (Want to know more? Look at the Poor People’s Energy Outlook report which we produce annually, which is now a key source for policy makers globally on energy access.)

Simon stands down at the end of October and Paul will then take the helm.  The trustees, Simon and the staff are very pleased with the appointment.  We ran a rigorous recruitment process using a recruitment firm with specialist knowledge of international development.  The post attracted a big field of applicants who wanted to lead Practical Action in the future.  It gives me real pleasure when a home grown candidate emerges from the field as the outstanding candidate, as Paul did.

Paul has a deep understanding of Practical Action and its unique role and capabilities which he has gained over the five years with us.   He was a key player in the development of Practical Action’s current five year strategy and played a major role in leading its implementation with Simon and the global team.  There are lots of opportunities ahead for Practical Action’s specialist capabilities in international development – our people centred sustainable technology approach to enable poor people to change their own lives.

This means for example work with people living in slum areas of developing country cities such as Nairobi or Nakuru, Kathmandu or Dhaka, enabling them to figure out innovative but sustainable solutions to improving water and sanitation whilst in the process creating income earning livelihoods.  Or work with poor communities to enable them to increase their resilience to disasters (natural other otherwise) such as floods, droughts or earthquakes.  Or work with small scale poor farmers and fishermen/women to enable them to improve their livelihoods and get more access to markets for their produce and products.  So plenty of opportunities ahead for Practical Action, but also plenty of big challenges.  Paul has demonstrated that he has strong strategic leadership skills, energy and drive, indispensable in steering Practical Action’s future course.  But Paul is also a people person and passionate about Practical Action, what it stands for and what it has the potential to achieve.  He will be excellent at leading the organisation both externally and internally.

So what did Paul do before he joined Practical Action?  He came from Oxfam where he had been Regional Director for the Horn, East and Central Africa, based in Nairobi, managing all Oxfam GB’s work in 10 countries.  Before that, he was Oxfam’s global Humanitarian Director.  Paul trained and worked as an engineer before moving into international development in 1991.  He has himself been a board member of a number of organisations and recently took over as chair of the board of the Start Network of 24 INGOs driving innovation in emergency preparedness.

When I gave staff in our offices the news of Paul’s appointment as the next Chief Executive,  it was received with real joy and excitement.  As one member of staff said to me when I arrived at the office the day before yesterday for a Board meeting, “there are smiles all around the office this morning”.

As for me, I am very proud to play a part in Practical Action especially at this pivotal time, turning 50 and with huge possibilities in front of us.  I will do my best to provide good support and guidance to Paul in his role as Chief Executive.  I can tell you that the board feels that with Paul at the helm, the highly experienced and motivated staff in all our offices, together with all our strong supporters, Practical Action will go on to make an even bigger and longer-lasting difference to the lives of poor men and women.

The impact of technology on street food vendors – part 2

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015 by

This is a continuation of ‘The impact of technology on street food vendors‘.  Part two covers technology disruption and investment considerations in the street food sector.

In part one we learnt about technologies used in the sector, technology changes and emerging technologies along with their impact on work opportunities for the informal workers engaged in selling street food.

Technological disruptions

street food vendorsTechnologies used for transportation in the street food vending sector are mostly, wooden and steel vans. These are manually operated, very heavy and hard work to pull or push. They also have maintenance problems and health hazards. Both juice and fuchka sellers said that their fruit squeezers are easily damaged. Modification of these technologies have reduced their sufferings gradually, though many vendors lack the financial capacity to modify their vehicles.

Street food vending is mostly unapproved by the government. Vendors face many social problems like harassment by the police and local politicians. Street food vendors are mostly poor informal labourers and because their business is at the side of the street, it often creates problems for passers by as well as environmental pollution. There is no institution- government or private to look after or monitor the street food vendors. Thus, they frequently have to pay illegal tolls to the police and local politicians. The glasses they use often get broken and have to be replaced. The van can also be damaged and need to be maintained. Pulling a loaded van from home in the morning is very difficult.

Addressing technological disruptions:

Modification of existing technologies and the adoption of new emerging technologies are taking place, though these depend on financial capacity. It is very important to adapt to changing trends in technologies used to sell the food. Further, there has been a tremendous shift in trends in food items because of the change of food habit of the city people. So, addressing the technological disruptions is important and also modification of the existing technologies or adoption of new emerging technologies is also very important to sustain in the sector, increase their business and cope with the changing trends of technologies, food items and habits of the city people.

Investment considerations 

The selection of technology depended on cost and affordability, seeing how others used it and the technological skills to operate the technology. Similarly, regard to investing in new technologies, the street food vendors considered a number of issues such as safety, cost and affordability and ‘technological knowhow.’  Further, most street food vendors emphasized that they would modify their existing tools and technologies instead of purchasing new ones, since cost always mattered to the street food vendors as most of them are poor.

Other factors also influenced change of technology in street food vending. Participants shared that when they observed others using a new technology, they themselves become interested in acquiring new and better technology; those in a family business were sometimes told by family members  about new technologies; sometimes customers suggested improvements in food safety, ingredients and tools.

Their sources of information about technology were mostly other workers and friends and seeing others to use the technology. None of them reported any government or private institutions as sources of information of those technologies.

The impact of technology

Technology changes have brought multiple benefits to the labourers by reducing hard physical labor, health and environmental hazards, trust and  confidence of citizens and increasing work opportunities, income and comfort in work as mentioned in my previous blog.

The way forward

There remains huge scope for work with technologies for the informal labourers involved in street food vending in Dhaka City.  There is scope for developing entrepreneurship and increasing work opportunities by supporting them with appropriate in the sector. Such support would help informal labourers to increase their income and reduce health and environmental hazards.

The impact of technology on street food vendors

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015 by

Thousands of informal labourers are involved in various types of street food vending in Dhaka, one of the most populous city of the world and the capital of Bangladesh, home to 15 million people. Hundreds of people migrate to Dhaka each year in search of work, driven by the opportunity of work as well as disasters and poverty that force them to migrate. Most of these people find shelter in  slums and start working in areas such as street food vending, rickshaw pulling or construction. Practical Action in partnership with WIEGO conducted a study entitled “Technology and the Future of Work” in five cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America in the energy, transport, urban waste and ICT sectors, where a large number of poor people are involved in informal labour.

street food1The study was conducted from the perspective of Technology Justice and looked at the use of technologies, technology disruptions, emerging technologies in these sectors and the impact on work and income opportunity, as well as how this may influence work opportunities for street food vendors in the future. Practical Action, Bangladesh carried out the study in Dhaka from April to June 2015 covering domestic waste transportation (from home to local dump station) and the street food vending sector, especially considering energy issues. Participants from two sectors – juice sellers and fuchka sellers attended the focus group discussions. They also shared experiences of other categories of street food vending such as singara/somocha, chop, pianjo, beguni; sweets; sarbat; cakes; popcorn; halim; etc. This article is based on the preliminary findings of that study.

Technological changes

Earlier, the earthenware stove was the dominant cooking method for street food vendors followed by the kerosene stove, modified kerosene stove, IPS battery and more recently, liquid petroleum gas (LPG) all of which are being used to make street food. The changes are shown sequentially below:


Changes have also occurred in the transportation used for street food vending. For example, the basket and push cart was dominant about twenty years ago, later the four wheel wooden cart was introduced and this was followed by the three wheel van, modified van and recently the truck/pick up van, as shown below:

food vending transportation

The truck or pick up van is used by the more well off and companies such as Sajna, Yan Tun, etc. which the poor informal street food vendors usually cannot afford.

There were changes with regard to use of other equipment associated with street food vending, as shown in the following chart:


Emerging technologies

street food vendorThe charts above already include some emerging technologies – the IPS battery and LPG are the emerging technology in the street food sector from an energy perspective. And the modified van and truck/pick up van are the major emerging technologies for transportation. Changes in equipment include the bigger saucepan, larger modified stoves, water filters; blenders and digital measuring scales.

In specific case of juice and sarbat selling, vendors are currently using water filters and blenders powered by a battery, a fruit squeezer, a van with a compartment in the bottom, and sometimes a glass chamber on the upper part of the van. Fifteen to twenty years ago they carried a bucket on their heads to sell the juice and later, began to use a van. Now, some juice vendors have a van with a fibre glass chamber, since it is light and easy to push.

New technologies bring new opportunities

For example a blender allows the vendor to make new kinds of juice. One with only a lemon squeezer can only sell lemon juice. A water filter is important for cool and safe drinking water and attracts customers. A glass chamber allows storage of different kinds of juice.

Fuchka vendors use kerosene stoves, battery powered lights, a modified enlarged van with fibre glass surrounding. Fifteen years ago they used a four-wheel, wooden pulling cart for their business. Later, they started using a three wheeled larger, steel van. Recently, they are trying to make their vans attractive through installing fiberglass. Fuchka vendors considered that a larger van would help them to manage larger stove, produce and sell more food. They used to use small, ready made stoves, but now use larger, modified stoves. Before, the flame for the stove would top out, but now the flame is more reliable. However, the adoption of new technologies or modification of their existing technologies always depends on financial capacity. These technological changes have been adopted in other categories of street food like fried food as well

street foodParticipants also shared information about other street food vending, like snack shops or popcorn sellers, who also previously used the four-wheel cart. Then, they also used the three-wheeled metal van. Now, snack sellers are using modern food carts with colorful designs. Popcorn sellers use gas to make the food and battery lights and vans with airtight glass, and the popcorn machine. In this connection, participants shared example of Yan Tun Company that used an automated van with a motor, which can both keep food hot and frozen. But, for the fuchka and juice vending, this van is not applicable; rather, it is very useful and applicable for fast food such as burgers. The example of a burger shop was also shared that used a modified van with a motorcycle engine. The selling of fast food items on the street is a recent phenomenon in Dhaka (initiated around 5-7 years ago), which was and still is a business in sophisticated shops. But, improved technologies have made it possible to bring on the street, where many people could be involved if they could afford the technology. There remains a huge demand for such fast food at a cheap price in this highly populous city.

Technology changes have brought multiple benefits to the informal sector with regard to reducing hard physical labor, health and environmental hazards, building the trust and confidence of citizens about quality and hygiene issues of food, increasing work opportunities, expanding business and earning good income and improving working conditions.  However, the sector lacks attention from government, NGOs or the private sector. There is no institution to provide information, technical or financial support to street food vendors. There remains huge scope for working with these thousands of street food vendors. Unless, they manage the technology changes and emerging technologies in the sector, they might lose their opportunity for work.

Note: The technological disruptions, technology choices and consideration for future investment in technologies in street food vending will be covered in the part two.

Happy Birthday to us!

Monday, July 20th, 2015 by

Last week I went to a rather unusual birthday party.  There was plenty of the ‘normal’ birthday party stuff  – lots of people came – all dressed up in their smart clothes, we had a cake and we sang ‘Happy Birthday’.

What made it unusual was that it a party for an organisation rather than a person.  This year we’re celebrating 50 years of Practical Action’s work with technology challenging poverty.  To mark the event HRH The Prince of Wales, our patron, hosted a reception at Clarence House (his London residence  just across the road from Buckingham Palace).

HRH The Prince of Wales with Grace Mukasa, David Nash, Thomas O'Loughlin and Verena Schumacher

HRH The Prince of Wales with Grace Mukasa, David Nash, Thomas O’Loughlin and Verena Schumacher

We were reminded how 50 years ago, our founder Fritz Schumacher launched a movement to change the way in which development aid was delivered.  Firstly he published an article in the Observer entitled “How to help them help themselves” pointing out the inadequacies of current aid policies based on large scale capital transfer. The following February the Intermediate Technology Development Group was formally registered as a non-government organisation – now of course renamed Practical Action. Schumacher’s seminal publication “Small is Beautiful – A Study of Economics as if People Mattered”, often cited as one of the most influential books of the 20th century, came later in 1973.

From these simple beginnings Practical Action has grown to be the strong, relevant and effective organisation it is today.  Our unique mix of project work on the ground – working with communities to help them identify technological solutions to answer their needs in a sustainable way; systematically capturing our experiences and lessons, sharing them with people across the world; and working with policy makers to influence their decisions so that our work can reach many millions more than we could ever reach on our own.

We still live and work with the same basic principles that inspired Schumacher’s words all those years ago. Our passion for Technology Justice remains true to that.

50 years of Practical ActionAs is often the case, after meeting some of the many people who have been involved with Practical Action’s work in one way or another, I left the evening with a great sense of “walking on the shoulders of giants”.  I’m sure that I won’t be working for Practical Action in 50 years’ time, maybe Practical Action won’t .  However I’m sure that the principles and ideas that we stand by today will still be relevant as they are today and as they were 50 years ago.

“Happy Birthday to us!”