Amanda Ross

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Amanda is Communications Officer in Practical Action's UK head office.

Recommended reading: http://www.practicalaction.org

Posts by Amanda

  • Women making it happen

    March 9th, 2015

    Here are some of the women and technologies that help to #makeithappen at Practical Action

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  • Suddenly science is sexy      

    February 20th, 2015

    I went to see a new play last week about the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan project which produced the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War.

    Robert Oppenheimer with Albert Einstein in 1947 by James Vaughan

    Robert Oppenheimer with Albert Einstein in 1947 by James Vaughan

    Over the last few months, I have also seen films about two other famous scientists, Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking, both of which have received Oscar nominations.  I can’t remember when interest in science fact (as opposed to science fiction) has been so strong among film makers and the film going public.

    The play – Oppenheimer by Tim Morton Smith – was both absorbing and chilling.  It also provided an excellent, simplified explanation of the science as well as exploring the moral issues involved in the development of this destructive technology.   The project cost more than $2 billion and involved over 100,000 personnel – with the justification that it would shorten the war (which it did) and save lives. It seems that money can always be found for destructive technologies such as these, even when budget are squeezed elsewhere.

    What is encouraging is to see more effort being made to make science and technology more accessible and comprehensible to lay people.  Also the ethical aspects of scientific and technological research and development are being widely explored.

    Priorities for research spending

    In this context, Practical Action is developing the concept of Technology Justice.  We want research and innovation efforts and money to focus on meeting people’s basic needs and increasing wellbeing and environment sustainability and are engaging with development organisations and scientific institutions to encourage debate on this issue.  So raising the profile of science in the arts comes at the perfect time.

    17533In a speech in 2013, Bill Gates pointed out that funding for research on baldness outstripped that for malaria.  I have no doubt that $10 billion spent on the Large Hadron Collider is great for science, but when 1.3 billion people in the world still lack access to safe water we have to wonder about our priorities.  Please let me know if you have other examples to illustrate this.

    If we are ever to eradicate extreme poverty, deal with climate change and live in a more equitable world, there has to be change. And science and technology will play a leading role in making this change happen.   Getting more about science on the stage and on the screen should increase knowledge and interest as well as provoking debate, which can only be a good thing.

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  • Fascinated by the Incas

    January 15th, 2015

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

    "Pisac006" by Alexson Scheppa Peisino

    “Pisac006” by Alexson Scheppa Peisino

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

    Alpaca farmer stands by his irrigation reservoir

    Alpaca farmer stands by his irrigation reservoir

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

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

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

     

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  • Building stronger communities in Cusco

    December 10th, 2014

    During the last two weeks I’ve seen some amazing sights and met some extraordinary people in Peru,   Practical Action is using innovative ways of empowering women to raise their voices to improve their communities and to achieve economic independence. Here are some of examples from the Cusco region in the south of Peru.

    pomocanchiAmelia and Juana are local Councillors in Pomacanchi.  Their desire to improve the wellbeing of their community led them to undertake training in radio broadcasting. Despite initial shyness they are now both seasoned broadcasters.  This is the second stage of the project which brought internet connectivity to this remote community and is working to  to strengthen participation in local institutions. One of the areas they are focusing on is malnutrition which affects 28% of the population in this municipality.  The broadcasts give information on the preparation of food, childcare and the most nutritious local products such and quinoa.  The broadcasts are in both Quechua and Spanish.  Amelia proudly told us: “At the beginning I was very frightened to talk on the radio but now I have much more confidence.  I am happy to know that I am participating in improving the health of the community.”

     

    school in PomocanchiAs part of the same project, in partnership with the Ministry of Education in Peru, this class of 30 13 year olds are making radio programmes for young people, covering a wide range of subjects – general knowledge, history, geography, current affairs, health and rights as well as music of many different genres.  They broadcast every day – taking it in turns.  They prepare the subject matter with the teacher, using the internet to gather interesting material – such as ‘the elephant is the only animal with 4 knees!’  They have fun, they are learning, gaining confidence in speaking and passing on useful information to others.  When I asked if any of them wanted to be journalists when they grew up, hands shot up all over the room!

     

    hilandoFinally there is the knitting and weaving group working together to recreate the traditional crafts of the region.  They dye wool (both sheep and alpaca) with locally available natural dyes  and use traditional weaving and knitting techniques and patterns.  The group has a brand name (Canchi) and are taking the products to fashion outlets in Lima to try to build a market in these high quality products. A display of their product ‘El Arte Peruano Navidad’ is taking place at a smart store in Lima this week. Each Thursday the women (and one man who came in for a lot of teasing!) come to work together at the social centre and to learn new skills which they put into practice at home.  The products take a great deal of time and skill to produce – a scarf is around 3 days work, so it is important for the project to ensure that this is reflected in the price they receive for their work

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  • Alpaca farming threatened by climate change

    Puno, Peru, Taraco
    December 8th, 2014

    Farmers are not renowned for their optimism.  Grumbling about the weather, crop or livestock prices is a recurrent theme.  So it was refreshing yesterday to meet Modesto Hunan, an alpaca farmer from the Puna region of Peru, who has so many positive things to say about his work.modesto family Modesto trained as a kamayoq – a  local agricultural extension worker and for the last three years has been part of the Melgar Alpacas project which is helping farmers in the high plains of the Andes to improve their livelihoods.  The work is addressing three main areas -pasture enrichment, better animal breeding and improved marketing of their main product, alpaca wool.

    Modesto lives with his wife Doris and three sons in a remote area about 3 hours drive from Puno.  His farm is a breathtaking 4,200 m above sea level and covers 116 hectares. Two of his sons are studying at university in Puno and return at weekends to help on the farm.  He owns just over 200 alpacas – half of the more expensive Suri breed and the rest the more common Huacaya.  The project has helped to strengthen the herd by providing a number of high quality male alpacas for breeding.

    irrigation systemTo provide better pasture for his animals, Modesto has installed an irrigation system fed from a small rain fed reservoir.  This enables him to cultivate small areas of land with improved grazing for animals at key stages of their life –  those in their first year as well as pregnant females and nursing mothers.  This has led to better survival rates, better quality wool and healthier animals.  He also cultivates grasses with higher nutritional content such as clover and alfalfa which would not grow here without irrigation.  He is also planning to grow potatoes and quinoa for the family.

    Before the project Modesto earned around 6 soles (£1.50) per pound for his wool,  but as a result of the improved quality of his product he now gets 10 soles (£2.50) per pound  and sometimes twice that for good Suri wool.  The community currently sell their wool in the local market, where the price is lower but the project is working to create a co-operative to sell the wool together to a bigger enterprise to obtain a better price.

    But  despite their current success there is a blot on the horizon which threatens all this family’s hard work – climate change.

    Modesto and his familyThe rainy season in this area usually lasts from November to March (summer) and it is not usually necessary to irrigate at this time.  But Modesto’s reservoir was barely a third full as there had been so little rain this year so far (in early December).  He is extremely concerned about the effect of climate change on his livelihood and told me;

    “As well as the lack of rain, the winters have become much colder with snow and hail and dramatic thunderstorms.  Only last week 3 people in the region were killed by lightening.”

    He recorded a message (in Spanish) for the UN COP20 meeting in Lima describing the problems he is facing to urge the international community to take action.

    Let’s hope that they listen otherwise the way of life of Modesto and the other alpaca farmers in this challenging environment may no longer be viable.

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  • It’s not fair!

    October 16th, 2014

    Do you remember how angry you felt as a child at any small injustice?  ‘ It’s not fair!’ is a constant refrain of children.  I had a teacher who used to reply to this ‘Whoever said life was fair?’ This used to make me even crosser.

    I believe that it’s important that we point out injustice wherever we see it and take a stand to try to change what is wrong in the world.

    So here are five of the things that are not fair and still make me angry today:

    1. 1.3 million people lack any form of electricity
    2. 2.7 billion people still cook over open fires and 4 million die each year as a result of indoor smoke
    3. 1 billion people lack access to clean water and 3.5 million people die every year from diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation 
    4. Half a billion people (7% of the world) are responsible for 50% of global CO2: the poorest 50% emit only 7% of worldwide emissions
    5. Women do two-thirds of the world’s work, receive 10% of the world’s income and own only 1% of the means of production

    I could go on…I work for Practical Action because we believe in addressing injustice.  These images show some of the ways in which we are tackling these inequalities.

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  • Putting a value on human waste

    July 31st, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

    Projected waste treatment site

    Projected waste treatment site

    There are three big challenges

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

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

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  • Hens bring happiness

    July 15th, 2014

    My daughter has recently started keeping a few chickens in our garden.  I now have a daily supply of fresh eggs and ‘the girls’ (Audrey, Cherie and Margot) fortunately require very little input from me. Occasionally they escape their enclosure and excavate my vegetable plot but generally they have been a positive addition to our household.  Only the cat begs to differ.

    Audrey, Cherie & Margot nesting among the potatoes

    Audrey, Cherie & Margot nesting among the potatoes

    Keeping chickens has a far greater impact on the lives of women in the Kassala region of Sudan.  Eggs provide their families with an excellent source of protein in a normally less than adequate diet.  But the ability to sell their produce offers the prospect of some extra income in a society where this is hard to achieve for women.

    In an interesting collaboration with our energy work, some of the women in this project have been given solar lamps for their chicken houses.  Light is important for hens as they generally lay eggs when they have at least 16 hours of daylight – difficult to achieve in equatorial regions.

    Our hens supply us with endless amusement and the luxury of a really fresh breakfast.  For women in Sudan they are an opportunity for financial independence and a key ingredient for a more balanced diet.

     

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  • 8 surprising things about Zimbabwe

    May 13th, 2014

    In late April my colleague Jamie Oliver and I visited Zimbabwe for the first time.  Like most people from the UK we had preconceptions about the country.  Many of these were utterly wrong and we were constantly being surprised by aspects of this little visited country.

    Digging an irrigation trench in Himalaya, Mutare

    Digging an irrigation trench in Himalaya, Mutare

    1.  There are millions of trees – I never imagined this.  In the main areas we visited – Gwanda, Masvingo and Mutare the countryside was covered with trees and even Harare had many tree-lined avenues.
    2. Zimbabweans are football mad. I lost count of the number of times I was asked which Premier League side I support.  Having no particular affiliation to football I had to masquerade as a Swans fan!  One evening we watched the Champions League match Chelsea v. Atlético Madrid in a packed bar in Mutare where we witnessed some exceptional enthusiasm for Chelsea!  Apparently even the president is a Chelsea fan.
    3. Great Zimbabwe – what a stunning place – and I never knew it was there!
    4. Crime (or rather the lack of it).  Arriving after a few days in paranoid Johannesburg, I expected Zimbabwe to be similar. How wrong I was.  There were no bars on the windows and no ‘car security’ volunteers on every street and everyone we encountered was exceptionally friendly and welcoming.
    5. It’s expensive. The US dollar is the currency and  only a very small amount of change is available (in South African Rand) which means means that the minimum price for goods is 1$. Dollar notes are all very well worn so the fresh new ones we brought with us were extremely popular!

    6. 13935821817_36378f9dc1_mHarare has regularly featured in lists of the top ten worst cities in the world.  Lonely Planet fortunately disagrees.  We didn’t spend long enough there to judge but saw nothing that would make it fit this list.
    7. ‘All right’ is a phrase that can be heard whatever local language is being spoken.
    8. While Chinese investment is focused on mineral resources, hotels and energy systems have also been funded.  Zimbabwe’s improving economy is partly due to this bilateral trade.
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  • Building a future with energy

    May 2nd, 2014

    It is hard not to be inspired by the enthusiasm of the people of Himalaya for their project. They are able to see neighbouring Chipendeke from their homes and the lights in that valley spurred them on to create their own source of energy.

    Many years previously there had been a micro hydro power system on their river, running a pump to irrigate the land, but this had broken and could not be repaired, so they knew that generation at their site was possible.  Practical Action held communitymeeting to help them work out what services energy could provide that would benefit them most and what they could afford. Irrigation was identified as the primary need so that more of the land could be cultivated.  This was closely followed by opportunities for running  businesses.women collecting sand for building irrigation system

    The 87 households of Himalaya are scattered over a wide area and farming is the main occupation.  Connecting individual houses would be extremely expensive in transmission equipment.  But, as they have more than 2 million trees on their land, mostly eucalyptus which are perfect for electricity poles and fencing posts,  the community decided to build a sawmill, a pole treatment facility and an business centre where a range of businesses – a shop, phone and solar light charging centre, hairdresser will be set up. The development is set up as a co-operative to enable the whole community to benefit from the energy. 

    During my visit I witnessed an astounding amount of activity.  Irrigation ditches were being built, sand gathered from the river to make cement and a concrete slab being laid at the business centre.

    Climbing up to the top of the micro hydro was hard – the path was steep and stony and I felt huge admiration for the men and women who had carried loads of sand, cement and heavy pipes up this hillside.

    The community were full of expectations for the ways in which the project would transform their lives and this was the motivation for the work they put in, on top of their daily chores and farm work.  The chairman of the management committee, William Mukonje, told me that he was delighted:  “It was difficult to unite people to go in the same direction, but we are proud of the work we are doing and people are now very motivated to finish the project”,  he said.

    Having seen just how much this community has achieved in the last year, I can wait to find out how far they will progress in the future.

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