Archive for June, 2016

Can you trust technology to provide protection from flooding?

Thursday, June 30th, 2016 by

Practical Action has been working with a number of different partners in the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance[1] to explore the factors that build the resilience of communities in developing countries to the threat of floods. One of the features of flood prone communities is the fact that these communities are often fully aware of the risk, but some economic or social benefit leads to them discounting the risk to live in the at risk location.

We are now entering the monsoon season and once again the flood protection and early warning systems will be tested. Is it right to trust in technology alone? The story of what happened in Nepal during the monsoon season of 2014 is a timely reminder, when several communities along the Babai River learned the hard way of the problem of discounting risk and relying on technology.

Nepal Monsoon 2016Rainfall maps for June 2016 the start of the Monsoon

In mid-August 2014, three days of torrential monsoon rainfall led to the widespread floods in Western Nepal. The floods killed 222 people and had a major impact on 120,000 others, damaging infrastructure and property and displacing households[2]. The communities along the Babai River were particularly badly affected whereas neighbouring communities on the Karnali River were not. We have learned some interesting insights into how two apparently similar situations impacted the local people in very different ways.

Trust in Early Warning System

The communities along the Babai River had just been provided with a brand new flood early warning system. This system copied a system installed by Practical Action on the Karnali river but had only just been installed and had therefore not been tested in a flood. Unexpected and extreme rainfall in the catchment led to a rapid rise in the river. The rapid rise in the waters resulted in the gauge reader abandoning the gauge station to find safety on higher ground, unfortunately in an area with limited cell phone coverage. The gauge reader was finally able to contact the authorities but the river was already above danger levels and floodwaters had engulfed villages downstream of the gauge. Unfortunately, the communication chain via radio had not been practiced. The police did not know who to contact next, leading to delays. The local government office finally received the gauge reader’s warning, but did not understand its implications. Ultimately, sirens in Bardiya only sounded to indicate warning levels had been reached, but the sirens did not sound to communicate danger levels.

Guage Reader Mrs Gurung (Chaisapani)The Early Warning station on the neighbouring Karnali River

Trust in River Protection measures

The warnings that did reach communities along the Babai River were not well heeded. Those who thought they were not in the path of the flood judging, by previous experience, did not move to safety. For others, it had been over six years since the last large flood and they were sceptical that significant flooding was imminent. In addition they thought that the new irrigation canal constructed upstream would siphon flood water away from their community. Others believed that the river protection measures recently installed along the river banks would protect them. But this trust was flawed. Floodwaters flowed from unexpected places due to embankment failures; due to floodwaters being transported via irrigation canals; and due recent constructions blocking, disrupting and shifting flows. In addition the theft of large stones from the embankments weakened them when otherwise they may have prevailed.

River bank protectionLow tech embankment being constructed to protect communities

The installation of physical capital in the form of early warning systems and the construction of flood barriers are only part of the solution. People’s perceptions of flood risk are greatly influenced by their knowledge of the cause of floods[3]. For a holistic approach to flood resilience building it is vital to build social and human capacities as well as physical. Increasing the knowledge of citizens about the causes of flooding will increase flood risk awareness, and it is particularly important to target individuals who are unaware of or ignore the high risk exposure they face. In addition the underlying foundations of resilience depend on respect for the natural capital the foundation upon which the flood events unfolds. Finally in poor community’s access to financial capital will be required to implement protection and preparedness measures and to ensure an adequate and robust social safety net is in place to provide for people when things go wrong.




K Madhabi : An Entrepreneur in the making

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016 by

IMG_2085 (Cópia)In India, for every woman, cooking is a primary job. In villages and the countryside, women take care of the household work including cooking, collecting firewood and preparation of food. Using the traditional cook stoves causes respiratory diseases for women and children. In addition women collect firewood from the local forest and which is life threatening and lots of physical toil for them. It also creates a threat for the forest and its conservation. Though in short run, nobody talks about such issues, these have a greater impact in the long run.

A study in 2014 supported by Practical Action, ‘Gender and Livelihoods Impacts of Clean Cook stoves in South Asia’ states that, “women largely shoulder the majority of the burden they naturally become exposed to allied hazards while cooking. They also additionally get exposed to hazards collecting fuel.”

IMG_2035 (Cópia)

K Madhabi receiving Youth Innovation Fund award from Mr Naveen Patnaik, Chief Minister, Odisha.

All these questions and problems have a solution now with the efforts of a group of tribal women in Koraput district in Odisha. K Madhabi, the leader of the group has earned accolades for their honest efforts. A low smoke project, prepared by K Madhabi and her group, ‘Access Grameen Mahila Udyog’ won a prestigious Youth Innovation Fund Award from the Chief Minister of Odisha.

12 women from 5 blocks gathered together and formed this women group under the able leadership of Madhabi. At 26 years old Madhabi is now a successful entrepreneur and able to show a path to many like her in the community.

The cook stove prepared by the group is an energy efficient one which has reduced the smoke to zero level and the cooking time by up to 50%, according to many users. It also consumes less firewood in comparison to other traditional cook stoves.

“The journey was full of challenges. All the women first time learned the mason work and now can manufacture cook stoves of their own. They have divided the work for marketing and Madhabi is leading them.”

IMG_2073 (Cópia)

K Madhabi, among other awardees

As well as manufacturing, Madhabi is also instrumental in knitting together women from different villages and disseminating knowledge about using low smoke cook stoves. She advocates for a better living for all women and is pretty much dedicated for that. This cook stove has already been tested by the experts from Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology and the group has been registered under the department which deals with small and medium scale business units.

“Life is not the same as before. We have been treated with much respect in our community,” says Madhabi. The group has been getting regular orders and they are working hard to meet the demands.

Practical Action’s India office provided technical and financial support for this group through a project called ACCESS (Access to Clean Cook-stoves for Economic Sustainability and Social Wellbeing) funded by the Johnson Matthey.

So it’s Brexit. Where do we go from here?

Monday, June 27th, 2016 by

I am generally an optimist.  Leaving the office on Thursday I was sure the British people would vote to preserve the status quo and remain part of Europe.  How wrong I was!

Like many others, I’m stunned and heartbroken by the referendum decision to leave the European Union. We are now in uncharted territory, no country has left the European Union before and no one seems very sure what to do next. But, in a democratic system decisions taken by referendum must be upheld.  Unfortunately it seems that many people weren’t answering the question asked of them, but registering a more general protest vote.  Now we need to work together to find positive ways to deal with our precarious situation.

And we should not forget that in our globalised world it is the poorest who bear the brunt of harsh economic times as well as the ravages of climate change. Many of the countries where Practical Action works have suffered internal strife in recent years and our work helps to heal some of these wounds by enabling people to improve their livelihoods and income.

Inevitably there will be implications for this work.  Around 12% of our programme work is funded by the EU but we also have a broad range of other international donors and thousands of committed, generous supporters.

Energy was supplied to this community through EU funding

Energy was supplied to this community through EU funding

The European Union is the largest multilateral donor in the world. For Practical Action it funded projects such as:

Practical Action remains in a sound financial position to continue with our vital work using technology to challenge poverty in developing countries.

I will try to remain optimistic and to celebrate the EU’s contribution.

Have you seen the Global Innovation Exchange?

Friday, June 24th, 2016 by

Do you know about the Global Innovation Exchange? You should. The Exchange is an online platform for innovators, funders, and subject matter experts to connect and share valuable insights and resources to better address major global issues. It was just officially launched today during the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2016, and Practical Action is excited to see how it will grow. This is why:

It shares Practical Action’s love of open knowledge platforms: The goal is to accelerate development innovation where it is needed the most by making information easily accessible and collaboration possible at the right stages of innovation. More than 4,200 innovations, 8,800 collaborators from around the world, and nearly $173 million in current funding opportunities can be found on the Exchange. But those numbers will grow—it also is platforms where people with ideas, or interests in funding ideas can go see what is proposed, and who is supporting what.
It has the potential to bring innovations in the global south to the global funders around the world. Anyone can post an innovation, and there are resources for people to connect with others to develop that innovation in conjunction with others.
It has the potential to be very participatory: The Exchange has structures built into it to allow people around the world to engage with both donors and innovators, but if it gets the appropriate types of engagement, it can also be a way that people with an idea in one country can work with partners in another country to tweak their designs according to the needs of end users, and really promote appropriate innovation. This is an area that some of us here at Practical Action are excited about, as it could result in participatory design that is so often lacking in more traditional approaches to work for the poor.

Carpenter peru

Where will the next innovation come from?

It’s trying to make traditionally top down donors more systemic: Though the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID), Australian Aid, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), launched the Exchange, they are also trying to work alongside partners from across government, business, academia, and civil society who believe they can find solutions to major global issues through collaboration. Over 100 partners co-created the Exchange, providing feedback, content, and vision. Together, these groups have grown organically to share nearly $350 million in funding opportunities to date, collaborate on more than 4,200 innovations, and connect with more than 8,800 collaborators from around the world.

In many ways, it is trying to be more democratic, allowing donors to talk to each other, innovators to have an easier way to get their voices heard, and connecting people who have good ideas with the financial and intellectual resources they need to deliver success.

Moving forward, we hope to see the Exchange also focusing on issues of technology assessment, governance for this space, and how to address some of the barriers to scaling up innovations beyond funding gaps. It will also be really interesting to see how “open” these innovations prove to be, to allow innovators to adapt and build on existing ideas.

We are hoping to see more democracy brought to the process of connecting users and innovators focused on important social issues around the world with funders who can help test and develop long lasting solutions. We plan to engage with the Exchange further as it moves forward, and wish it the best on its official launch.

500 communities motivated to become open defecation free

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016 by

Bangladesh has reduced open defecation (OD) to 1%. But this ratio is not the same in some of the hard-to-reach and rural areas. A significant number of the population still practices open defecation, in some area this is as high as 24%. Gowainghat, a beautiful riverside sub-district in Sylhet is one such area struggling to achieve OD free status (DHS, 2012). Practical Action, Bangladesh have taken an initiative to stop OD in some these areas only through self-motivation of the community people.

Community approaches to total sanitation (CATS) in Dhaka and Sylhet

UNICEF and Practical Action, Bangladesh have a jointly designed project, Community Approaches to Total Sanitation- CATS, which commenced in October 2014 in 34 unions of 6 sub districts in Dhaka and Sylhet Divisions.

CLTS Dhaka and SylhetThe project’s aim is to sustainably improve sanitation and hygiene behavioural change in 500 communities through applying the CATS approach in close coordination with local government. Major tasks include capacity building of stakeholders including natural leaders, district authorities and water and sanitation committees.  In addition we have been linking local sanitation entrepreneurs with microfinance institutions, the department of health, and department of public health and engineering (DPHE) and raising awareness to generate demand in the population.

Through the CATS approach, the project has declared 500 communities Open Defecation Free (ODF) by March 2016 and received certificates from respective Unions and DPHE. The certification process included, three inspection visits to the community by a certification team, who observed improved sanitation and behaviour change achieved by the communities themselves. The team confirmed and certified a community’s ODF status with sustainable visible changes including behaviours and by reviewing the community’s action plan documents.

CLTS Dhaka and SylhetCommunities have installed around 22,000 new toilets and 23,000 unimproved/ improved toilets through motivation alone, leveraging local resources and establishing linkages with local sanitation entrepreneurs and microfinance institutions.

As a result, more than 300,000 people now live in an open defecation free environment and benefit from better health and hygiene that will change their lives and livelihoods forever.

Project sustainability

A strategy was developed to hand over this approach to stakeholders such as local change agents, health staff, DPHE and WatSan committees based in the community at all levels.  A participatory online monitoring mechanism is being used by these stakeholders along with training on a mobile based online monitoring system to carry forward the motivational task after the project ends. Knowledge materials and other information on CATS approach (hard and soft copies) have been developed at the local level by both formal and informal institutions for easy access of the communities, individual users, development practitioners and researchers. The improved and healthy sanitation practices of these communities have already been copied in adjacent communities by self-motivation to improve their sanitation situation.

Mock flood exercises in Nepal prepare communities for monsoon

Sunday, June 19th, 2016 by

On 5 June in the early morning, the community in Jhapa district of Eastern Nepal received phone calls around 9:00 am from the gauge reader at Mainachuli Hydrology Station located at upper stream of the Kankai River where flood information is monitored. The information is also monitored at the District Emergency Operation Centre (DEOC).

flood early warning JhapaThe information conveyed was on rainfall in the upstream catchment and water level of river at Mainachuli. Building on the early information (alert, warning and danger levels) to follow the potential flood situation in particularly, search and rescue, first aid, relief and rehabilitation task forces and Community Disaster Management Committee (CDMC) each exercised the roles and responsibilities that are essential for efficiency during a real flood. The monsoon is approaching shortly and it is the need of the moment to generate that potential.

The gauge reader said in the first message that there were three metres of flood. Immediately, the early warning system (EWS) task force alerted the CDMC and started informing every community member.  For mass communication, EWS task force uses hand operated sirens, flags and megaphones.  Ten minutes after the first call, the communities received a second phone call from the gauge station and DEOC informing them that the flood level had reached 3.7 metres and rainfall continued at the upstream catchment area. Hearing this, community members started the evacuation process. They were ready to evacuate to safer places and at the same time the task force started to evacuate highly vulnerable people such as people with disabilities, elderly women, pregnant women and children to pre-defined safe places.  The rest of the people were evacuated after they received the information that the flood level had crossed 4.2 metres. Four different task forces were activated with equipment and materials. The search and rescue (SAR) team rescued the injured people, the first aid team did the first aid treatment and transported the injured to hospital whereas the EWS team did internal and external coordination. The relief and rehabilitation task force did the overall management including shelter management, relief, etc. The CDMC supervised the whole process.

Flood early warning Jhapa

This is how a mock flood exercise is done every year ahead of the monsoons to ensure the communities are prepared for the worst-case scenario during the floods.

Practical Action and Nepal Red Cross, Jhapa Chapter in coordination with the government’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology and local authorities organised the mock flood exercise for 15 communities from 6 village development committees (VDCs) and 2 municipalities in Jhapa District of Eastern Nepal on the occasion of World Environment Day on 5 June 2016.

The massive exercises, with the involvement of more than 885 women and 615 men volunteers, 297 task forces, 75 disaster management committee  members and 10 project staff, was organised with the intention that the communities will be able to conduct such events in the future by themselves.

In the review meeting the CDMC members said that the exercises have developed their confidence. The exercises were carried out for minimum of 30 minutes lag time although it ranges up to 2 hours for the farthest community from Mainachuli. Officials from the district level agencies, security forces, representatives of different political parties and Nepal Red Cross representing the District Disaster Response Committee (DDRC) observed the community response. The DDRC members appreciated the event and preparedness to saving lives from flood and expressed their commitment to institutionalise the practice.

Local security offices (Nepal Police and Armed Police Force) joined the mock flood exercise and were pleased to join the community in countering a possible flood with safety precautions.

“Such exercise can help improve the capacity of community who have to deal with emergency situations,” said an official from the district Police Office.

The mock exercise was conducted just before monsoon. It was helpful in terms of updating emergency equipment, communication phone directory, communication channels and making the communities ready to cope with the upcoming flood this year.

Similar mock flood exercises were conducted for 74 communities of Bardiya and Kailali Districts from Karnali River Basin in Western Nepal.

Life light and livelihood: Konds of Badamanjari made it possible

Friday, June 17th, 2016 by

To talk about the future is useful only if it leads to action now ~ EF Schumacher

Despite all efforts to provide basic amenities of life to tribals in the state, there are still a large number of places deprived of daily needs such as electricity and adequate transport. Similar is the case for many Konds residing in hilly terrains of eastern ghat of hills. Such is a village Badamanjari, in the valleys, surrounded by sky touching mountains. Though it’s just 20km away from the Semiliguda in the koraput district, but it will take more than hours to reach the village because of the uneven and hilly roads.


The approach road to Badamanjari

18 years old Sunil Taring of Badamanjari is able to speak in English and now is a successful entrepreneur and continues education in Semiliguda College. Despite the odds he is able to mark this achievement as his village is now electrified; not with the state grid but by building a self-sustained micro hydro power generating unit. Badamanjari has set example in the district by generating 30KW electricity to provide light to all the villagers and in addition they are able to watch TV and few households have fans as well.

Sunil is running a rice and flour mill and earning handsome amount of money, as more thhan 15 villages are dependent on the rice mill. Same is with Suresh Tadingi who has also set up a unit for turmeric processing.  IMG_2353Other agricultural products are also processed here. Both of these youth have set up example in the village. Both these units however is sharing 30 per cent of its profit every month to the Micro Hydro development fund which is being created for the regular maintenance of the unit. Life in this village is now more ease after the installation of the micro hydro units.

A total of 110 household in the village are now electrified and leading a better life. In addition to self-sustain the micro hydro units, every individual household is contributing a token amount every month which is being used for the operation and maintenance of the unit. This village is using the natural water source to generate electricity. The water from the natural springs are the new source of generating electricity.IMG_2362

It is worth mentioning here that in 2006first time this micro hydro unit was set up by the WIDA (Integrated Rural Development of Weaker-Sections in India). However the same became defunct and stopped producing electricity in 2011. But now it has been scaled up and made more sustainable by Practical Action, a UK based NGO with local support from Koraput Farmers Association. Practical Action also linked and supported the livelihood option alongside the electricity generation which is a new and innovating angle.

Though efforts are being made to provide electricity to everyone in the country but these hilly terrains may need some more years to be lighted from the grid sources. However, micro hydro-electricity is the new solution to such needs to provide better life and solve the livelihood issue of people like Badamanjari. Decentralised distribution of electricity is something which the government should take it up in large scale.

A “road trip” to Gujrana

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 by

February’s beautiful few days kept me in the mid-west Terai. This part of Nepal is filled with the unusual beauty and especially Gulariya of Bardiya is at nature’s special rank. The sun’s radiance and crops spreading far and wide feed your eyes with a greenish-yellowish colour symphony, red-silk cotton trees catching up with you every next minute, give pleasure to the mind and heart. Gulariya holds unique flora and fauna; it is widely known for the Krishnasars (black bucks).

A view of setting sun from Gujrana, Gulariya.

A view of setting sun from Gujrana, Gulariya

Gulariya is a cluster of diversity and has a unique indigenous way of life. With so much of nature’s generosity and cultural wealth, this place is a heaven on earth. But nature and culture’s lushness do not always make a land fortunate. Many reasons including illiteracy, lack of infrastructure, poverty, natural hazards such as flooding, among others have been a barrier to development in many parts of Gulariya. However, many parts are moving ahead too.  While on a field trip, I spent some time in this beautiful village named Gujrana, a settlement of Gujars, a Nepalese ethnic/minority Muslim community.

After a 30 minutes drive on the highway from the main town, our course diverted to an unpaved road. We drove off leaving billows of dust behind us. I looked back at the billows and contemplated how this short dusty ride made quite a big difference to the Gujars. The road we were driving over was a long awaited one for the Gujars  and ‘WE’ walked shoulder to shoulder with them to bring the road to their village. I was proud to be driving on the road which finally connected the village to a brighter future.

A road that has many stories to tell

Upon arrival at Gujrana, the village’s warmth gave us a big hug. Unlike other poor communities, Gujrana has a different personality. A neat, tidy and well managed little village, Gujrana also has an abundance of nature’s beauty. The people I met there had stories to tell about the road. Some shared the road linked them to higher education, some were just happy because access to hospital was easier, some said the road just pulled markets nearer, and the others were grateful that life essential infrastructures and services were now within their reach.

A Gujar girl posing with her cycle in the new road

The first ambulance entered the village only in 2015 and this very road took it there. Before last year, it gave the villagers distress to have their lives at risk because an ambulance could not cross the mere 800 metres of distance. Many shared experience of rushing patients on bamboo made stretchers over muddy trails until they met the main road where ambulances waited.

Less than one kilometer of distance and the entire village had been pushed back by half a century. Gujrana’s facelift is mainly attributed to the road. It is not black-topped yet but is wide and well maintained. Thanks to the financial support of UK government’s UK Aid match fund through DFID, Practical Action could reach to the Gujars with Safa & Gulariya project and as part of the project, the idea of Community Action Plan (CAP) came to the Gujars which remained instrumental in bringing the road to them.

School time…

The whole time at Gujrana, I was surrounded by bright children inquisitive about the camera I was using. They mostly responded by big smiles but their inquisitiveness and curiosity allowed me to anticipate their bright futures.

The Gujar children went to school by walking few hundred metres from home. Before the road was there, the monsoons were way too hard on them. The muddy and slippery trails led to regular absence of school-goers. Many children would get back home with cuts after tripping and some were badly injured too. In poor communities like Gujrana, only light of hope for the children’s bright future is their education and failure to attend schools can hamper them from what they can be. A few children timidly said me they don’t miss schools anymore because the way to school is ‘walkable’.

This road is a step towards Gujrana's brighter future

This road is a step towards Gujrana’s brighter future

Better road is better economy and better life

Tractors can finally reach the fields of Gujars now. The road has brought technology in the farmers’ backyards directly showing results in their yields. The labour involved in agriculture has dropped tenfold and harvests have increased. Most importantly, they can now easily get their produce to the nearby markets loading on ox carts, horse carts and tractors, even in the monsoon. Selling their produce takes less efforts and they have been able to make good savings. All thanks to the newly arrived road; many Gujars’ living standards have gone up.

The road helps transport the produces to the market easily

The road helps transport local produces to the market easily

What’s CAP all about?

Government of Nepal (GoN) has a provision of accepting community-led proposals for their local development as part of 14 step planning process under Local Governance and Community Development Programme (LGCD). The municipalities and Village Development Committees (VDCs) accept a participatory plan of action from different communities. This Community Action Plan (CAP) involves the community people directly in selection of community problem, prioratisation of them and proposal to the locally based governance body, VDC or municipality offices. However, most of the poor and marginalised communities commonly remain unaware of many provisions and services introduced by the government due to many gaps; gap in education, gap in information, gap in knowledge, among others. CAP’s provision is also unknown to many. Many times, merely knowing about CAP is also not about everything; there needs to be capacity to develop CAP. Gap in such capacity is also hurdle to many small developments communities themselves can lead.

Using various instruments like: social map, seasonal calendar, situation analysis, problem tree analysis Practical Action with partner Environment and Public Health Organization (ENPHO) involved the Gujars in rapid CAP developing exercises. At initial stages, it was bit of a challenge to teach Gujars such serious proposition. But our social mobilisers did all it takes to simplify everything using local resources as metaphors drawing maps in the mud, creating different games and showing dramas in the local dialect, communicating more and more ̶ door to door and at a personal level, among many more techniques.

Gujar community

Beautiful sun kissed Gujrana village during dusk

The CAP approach actively involved the villagers in preparing an inclusive and priority based plan of action. It played a crucial role in unique team building, identification of village needs, preparing plan of action and dragging municipality’s attention to address them. Team building bound the Gujars and adjoining village dwellers in a thread of unity to jointly work in bringing road to their doorsteps. Besides Gujrana, the intervention has enhanced capacities of 10 communities of Gulariya Municipality in participatory planning and has helped them develop their Community Action Plans (CAP).


It’s really interesting how developing simple skills can bring such significant change in their lives. While harnessing my Gujrana understanding, I caught a moment to speak to its Chairperson, Nokhe Gujar. Responding to my query about how he felt about the change in his village, he expressed his views.

“The change has brought the village out of captivity of backwardness. We felt imprisoned without a road. Our children missed schools and we ourselves had difficult time to sell our produces in the market. CAP has helped us understand our needs and get the municipality address them. Nowadays, we sit for regular meetings to discuss our problems and we make strategies to solve them. We develop our priorities and design CAP on our own. Even in future we will be able to plan our development on our own.”

Gujrana’s village chair sharing experience of being without road

Over a year’s rigorous teaming up with Gujars and they were able to get themselves a road.  However, it does not end right here on the road. It’s just a stepping stone and is a great beginning. With that capacity, they can shape further community level developments themselves in future. And if other parts of Gulariya replicate the good practice here, the face-lift of entire Gulariya is certain. With the nature’s abundance and rich cultural heritage that Gulariya holds; people participated development can open many doors of opportunities for the Gulariya and its people.

Someone rightly said, give a person a fish and you feed them for a day; teach the person to fish and you feed them for a lifetime!

How can health centers benefit from energy access? Thoughts from our recent Energy Engagement Series

Monday, June 13th, 2016 by

Health centers don’t need massive amounts of energy to do basic things, but energy can mean the arrival of refrigerated vaccines and light for newborn deliveries in communities that live beyond the grid. In this way, the energy-health nexus links up with many of the Sustainable Development Goals. However, bringing energy to these places can often be a challenge, and energy providers still haven’t cracked the nut on how to develop sustainable model. This was the theme of discussion at this week’s Energy Engagement Series in Washington, DC, where we teamed up with the Tech Salon to discuss the realties in this space. Sonali Rohatgi, Technical Advisor at FHI 360 and Jem Porcaro, Senior Director, Energy and Climate at United Nations Foundation were there as lead discussants, but the conversation went around the table.

One challenge is a basic lack of data around energy needs in health centers. To really understand Policy challenges at the health and energy ministerial level, this data would need to be present, but it isn’t often tracked, and perhaps more importantly, it isn’t often even tracked on a health center by health center level. For that matter, energy consumption is often not budgeted, so it becomes something that would be seen as a further cost, and not as a space for potential savings. Beyond the micro level, there needs to be a place to aggregate this data as well. At one point, USAID was actually a resource for this, under the global Powering Health project. But that wasn’t permanent. Groups like the UN Foundation are looking for a global place where this might be housed.

If health centers don’t know how much they are spending on energy, and you have women bringing candles for their own childbirth, health centers won’t know the benefit of the savings they might otherwise bring in. In this way, the lack of data isn’t just a policy issue, it becomes a challenge for businesses trying to show value to health centers that don’t understand why they might save money.

Another major issue is sustainability. Energy products have evolved to the point where there often isn’t a lot of maintenance for smaller systems. But in either case sustainability eventually becomes an issue. If the system is a small system, it is built to run until it is disposed of and replaced. Larger systems need maintenance from time to time, but that maintenance is often not budgeted for. From a donor perspective there is sometimes not a budget allocation for maintenance either.

The UN Foundation has been working with the World Health Organization (WHO) to try to tackle the data issue. They just did an energy needs assessment around what the expenditures are, focusing on primary care doing maternal and child health. They were targeting off grid facilities, and found that, in fact, many did have solar pv systems, sometimes as many as 4-5 discrete systems. But of those, 50 percent are not working. Typically, at least 1 is for the vaccine refrigerator, and others will be for other services. One major takeaway that they have found is that facility wide systems would be a better focus, but often, this is also connected to funds from multiple donors that target smaller specific needs.

There is a lack of clear definition of what the business proposition is when working with health centers. One major challenge is that there is no internal rate of return for most firms on these projects, so they would need to be grants and concessional activities, if they were to be funded.
The business proposition becomes important if people will be expected to supply the energy services and repair systems over time. This requires a review of how to improve the business model. Management, maintenance, and budget are all considerations that shift depending on how the energy system gets delivered. In terms of personnel, and distribution systems, building entrepreneurs could mean building technicians as well. That is also still not known.

In terms of what types of systems are used, there is real difference in what level you work from. For example, pico-systems are usually seen as throw away, but there is much to be learned from Pay As You Go systems. In those cases, working capitals and call centers are the biggest constraints to new PAYG groups. For health centers, service based models might work better because it addresses the issue of how to pay for regular upkeep.

Other groups have looked at models where health centers are used as charging stations—along with getting health services provided, people could get their phones charged as well. Although there might be health benefits for setting this up (for example, it might create a regular habit that brings people in for anti-retroviral treatment), it still does not create enough of a demand to support a business model that would pay for maintenance over time.

Sometimes in the energy space, we talk about anchor firms, and this came up as well. However, health centers don’t serve as a great anchor because they don’t offset community needs during the evening. Even when coupled with schools in a community, they just don’t take that much of a charge. After the official event, we had some discussion around this notion, and discussed that part of this may be that energy services for health centers are often seen as a refrigerator and a lightbulb, but if health centers provided services that demanded more power, that charge might go up.

So who should do repair? Don’t expect the health staff themselves to repair it—they are often overworked as it is, and won’t go through the training that is necessary to know how to do it. The best systems that seem to be emerging are ones that train somone locally to repair it. Often, they take a note from solar home system providers, who will have someone nearby and can fix the product. One model that might be interesting to look at is one that shifts from thinking of it as a product in need of repair, to one that is a service with a monthly payment. But, once again, this is where that data comes in—health centers don’t track the costs for this, and usually are not thinking of having to pay a monthly fee to keep their vaccines refrigerated.

One bright spot for this is remote monitoring and maintenance is becoming a very constant thing for many providers. The internet of things has reached the energy space as well, and sensors can be used to know when minor changes need to be made, such as cleaning off a solar panel, or tilting it 5 degrees to get better sunlight.

Ultimately though, as one participant put it, these are health projects, not energy projects. The main impacts come from health services provided, and they usually get paid for by the Ministries of Health. In addition, Health and Energy Ministries aren’t talking to each other about their needs and what they want to accomplish. The Ministries of Energy usually see this as a supply issue, but don’t get much more involved than that. Another challenge is policy. For example, health facilities don’t have bank accounts, which creates further payment issues.

Managed services and pay as you go models are usually not interesting to energy service providers, because they don’t really have a client in these cases—the government is often not seen as a good reliable customer, and the Ministries of Health would need to prioritize this access if it were to become more compelling. In the public health sphere this many times deals with institutional issues of policy, not tech, and that often comes down to needing to have a way to recoup costs somehow.

One participant pointed out that Kenya recently extended their grids to electrify all schools and clinics, using grid extension for electrification. They started with clinics, then connected to secondary schools, then to primary schools. This does have shades of potential for energy access advocates, as the grid extension could provide a way to get rural access extended quickly. It is a case by case issue though—in Nigeria, for example, the grid is already overburdened, and could not handle the additional charge.

The Energy Engagement Series is a salon-style event that takes place in Washington, DC. If you would like to attend a future event, please contact Glen Burnett at We’d like to extend thanks to WRI and FHI 360 this month, and to the Tech Salon which helped us promote the event.

Good and not so good news from the World Humanitarian Summit

Monday, June 13th, 2016 by

Two weeks ago I attended the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul and thought I would share a few thoughts.

Firstly, the positive message! The side-event on the Moving Energy Initiative with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves went very well: The next phase of funding was agreed and additional funding for the energy in emergencies sector was announced. The event was well attended and Practical Action made connections with important partners for us in the energy space.

Baroness Verma from DFID and Susan Myers from the UN Foundation spoke at the event, reinforcing international commitments to delivering sustainable energy for all in conflict and disaster situations.  Participants pledged to investigate the linkages between gender-based violence and energy access, as well as work with humanitarian agencies to innovate with technology and approaches to increase access to household cooking energy and renewable energy in refugee camps.

Moving energy initiative

On a less positive note, the summit as a whole was, as expected, a demonstration of political wrangling. The high-level commitment emerging is the Grand Bargain, which commits to a target of 25% of humanitarian funding going to local NGOs by 2020. This includes greater use of cash transfers and global south implementation partners. But will this work in practice? Will it change the way major donors fund and the way the UN bodies implement? The feeling at the summit was no.  MSF were the strongest voice in this arena, refusing to even attend the summit, but many other NGOs and groups at the conference were voicing similar concerns.

The challenge we face as a development organisation when working with the humanitarian community is – does the existing system work for the poorest and most vulnerable people? Many in the sector think it does not, and that we have a failing system in need of radical reform. Many field workers at the summit felt we should leave the UN and the international summit process and start doing things differently, independently, and directly. Were Practical Action to consider engaging further in the humanitarian sector, we need to think carefully where our engagement should focus.