Kate Mulkern


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

Posts by Kate

  • Handwashing, Bangla Style

    September 8th, 2014

    In a country where diarrhoea is the number one killer, it’s good to meet a community which takes the hygiene message so seriously that they wrote a Bangla song about it. And a children’s play. And a cartoon strip. And paintings galore. And assembled 200 men, women, and children to see the results at their community arts show.

    The place is a small district on the outskirts of Khulna City, in southern Bangladesh. The people are desperately poor, and they live in bleak, rotting, concrete slum tenements, but their community spirit is amazingly strong. Practical Action has been helping them spread the word about handwashing and hygiene, by developing messages to reach all of the men, women and children who live here. It seems such a small action, but it will save lives.

    My colleague Dawn and I were lucky enough to see the show, and the range of media they are using was astonishing. For example, a sketch written and acted by the slum’s children is sure to launch its 7-year old lead ‘baddy’ actor as a star, such was the enthusiasm with which he portrayed faecal bacteria killing children who fail to wash their hands after using the toilet. Another highlight for Dawn and myself was a Bangla song, with a ‘call and response section’ which demonstrated beyond doubt that the 200-strong audience knew all about using soap, helping children wash their hands, and cleaning the loo.

    The beat was so catchy that I’m still humming it, and at the risk of a poor pun, I think they may even have a Number One on their hands.


    dawn and members of the sanitation committeeBangla Drummer

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  • And the Oscar for Best Actress Goes To …

    January 27th, 2014

    me and woolRavalina! She deserves to be famous. I met her in Peru last September, long before her lead role in Innocent’s ‘Chain of Good’ film, but it was obvious she had star quality. Not only that but she wielded the fastest pair of crochet hooks I’d ever seen!

    She told me about her life before Practical Action’s training, living in a one-room hut with no electricity or toilet. Alpacas are her livelihood, but without hot water, she couldn’t get the wool properly clean before hand-spinning it into thread, and it would fetch a lower price.

    Her story is compelling – a strong woman in a patriarchal society, being trained in animal husbandry, showing her neighbours how to earn a better living, and being one of the first in her community to have the things we take for granted: a shower, a toilet, a low fuel stove, and electric lights. She’s a role model to her daughters, and an inspiration to women everywhere.

    And as she talked, she was turning a ball of the softest wool I’d ever touched into a hat. And I was so impressed that I filmed it!

    Now, I’ve never mastered the art of knitting or crochet; my mum, my gran, my long-suffering Home Economics teacher Mrs Wootton … they all tried, and failed, to teach me. But watching Ravalina make that hat – how I wished I’d stuck at it.

    I think she misunderstood the gleam of envy in my eyes, as she gave me a ball of alpaca wool to take home. It was a lovely gesture and it’s a pity that (sorry Mrs Wootton) the only use it’s going to get is as a toy for my three cats.  And to point at, in the photograph above.

    So, I’m voting Ravalina for best actress. Her football skills in the ‘Chain of Good’ are pretty nifty, but if you want to see sheer genius, click below and just watch her crochet fingers go!

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  • Crocheting with alpaca wool

    October 4th, 2013

    I’ve never been able to knit or crochet – my mum, my gran, my long-suffering Home Economics teacher Mrs Wootton – they all tried, and failed, to pass on the basics, so I could only stare in envy and admiration as Rabelina, an alpaca farmer I met in Peru, effortlessly turned a ball of the softest wool I’d ever felt into a hat while we chatted.

    Before her involvement with Practical Action, she lived in a one-room hut with her youngest children. There was no toilet, electricity, kitchen or shower, her children were constantly sick, and she got hacking lung infections from inhaling cooking smoke. She made her living from hand-spinning alpaca wool into thread, and in those days, the hardest part was washing the wool as it was a struggle to heat enough water.

    Practical Action chose her for training in basic animal care, and also helped her to build a stove, solar panel and shower. She said the biggest benefit was that she could clean and spin better quality wool, which sells for a higher price. If you want to know more about the project, see https://practicalaction.org/basic-services-for-life.

    I’m sorry, Mrs Wootton. I was a total waste of space in your classroom. But maybe meeting Rabelina will inspire me to have just one more go.

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  • Providing healthy school breakfasts in Bolivia

    g, Nuestra Señora de La Paz, Bolivia, Nuestra Señora de La Paz
    September 16th, 2013

    The first meal of the day is reckoned to be the most important, especially for children, but I heard from locals in the remote, rural district of Aroma, Bolivia, that school kids are turning up for class empty and hungry. This happens because they are too poor to afford breakfast, and it makes it impossible for them to concentrate on lessons, and their grades are suffering as a result.

    However, two of Practical Action’s projects have come up with an innovative, and sustainable, solution.

    One is a women’s collective which turns milk into yoghurt and cheese, to sell within the community. Practical Action trained them in dairy work, and more importantly, provided irrigation technology so their cows are well-nourished enough to produce milk.

    The other is a social enterprise a few miles away, which makes cereal bars from quinua, a South American grain, mixed with natural ingredients like honey and raisins. Practical Action helped them establish the business, and supplied the necessary machinery.

    Together, the groups approached Aroma’s mayor, and now they have government funding to provide yoghurt and quinua bars to 2,600 school children. They are excited not only by the commercial opportunity, but also by the fact that local kids will now eat a healthy and nutritious breakfast, and their school results will improve. I was excited to know that those breakfasts would be locally produced, and would support two great community enterprises, making them more sustainable.

    And I must admit, having sampled both the yoghurt and the cereal bars, I wish my breakfast was as tasty!

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  • Saving alpacas from the snow

    September 11th, 2013

    DSCN0444[1]As if it isn`t tough enough being an alpaca farmer in the high plains of Peru, last week 15 cm of snow blanketed the land. It killed thousands of alpacas, which are vital for smallholder farmers, who sell the wool. They don´t make much money, but it´s enough for food, clothes, and schooling for their children.

    We drove for two hours over bumpy tracks, many miles from the nearest town, to meet a group of these farmers. They are used to harsh conditions, with scarce water and poor grazing land, but the heavy snow had added an extra burden.

    We talked to Victor Hancco, who is 46, has 5 children, and lives in a small two room house, made of mud and straw bricks, with a corrugated iron roof.

    Victor has been trained by Practical Action in irrigation, animal care, and wool classification. He uses this knowledge to tend his own herd of 150 alpacas, and shares his skills with neighbouring farmers.

    He said that the snow fell over two days, and then froze hard, down to minus 20 degrees. The alpacas became weak as they couldn’t graze through the icy snow. Eight of his animals died in just a few days, mostly the kids. For a farmer with such a small herd, that represents a huge loss. Alpacas have a gestation period of almost a year, so it will take a long time to build up the numbers again.

    The people suffered too – some roofs collapsed with the weight of the snow. The only source of fuel is alpaca dung, and there was only enough for cooking, not for heating homes too. Victor said that they all just put on all the clothes they had, and some came down with pneumonia.

    But it could have been much, much worse. Victor used his training to tend the weak alpacas, providing medicine and basic animal care for cold conditions. He visited his neighbours too, and worked with them, to save their herds. He said he felt very proud that his skills made such a difference.

    As I listened, I was incredibly proud of Victor and of hearing him say,

    “I really value working in partnership with Practical Action – my new knowledge has helped me strengthen my community, especially in these times of climate emergency.”

    Without Victor, and the training he received from Practical Action, many more alpacas would have died, especially the vulnerable young kids. It would have taken years for them to recover, financially. Victor is a local hero and if we can train more people like him, then when the next heavy snows come, more alpacas can be saved.

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  • Power from Poo in Peru

    September 10th, 2013

    DSCN0420[1]Ilario Soto, aged 60, was happy to be proved wrong when his son encouraged him to make a Practical Action bio digester which turns animal waste into methane.

    We met him in Sijuana and he showed us a long poly tunnel, filled with cow poo, which produces methane, and ends up powering his stove and shower. He told us,

    “I didn’t believe in the project, but my son brought the materials, and we got trained by Practical Action, and I built it. I reckon anyone can do it.”

    He showed us the stove, which boils a litre of water in 6 minutes. As well as providing gas there is, of course, the other end product – a nice, big pile of animal poo – which he uses to fertilise his crops.

    Ilario is just one of the amazing people we met in the Allimpaq project, which trains local farmers in basic services for life.

    Lots of the technology seemed to involve poo, and several members of this Chair’s Circle trip, myself included, tested the ecosan loo and pronounced it fit for purpose.

    The waste from this loo is also used for crop fertilisation so we are proud to have made a material contribution to Practical Action’s field work in Peru.

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  • Climb every mountain to measure mudslide risk

    September 8th, 2013
    Me and the mudslide measuring equipment

    Me and the mudslide measuring equipment

    This Chair’s Circle visit to Peru is going from one disaster to another.

    After seeing how communities prepared for earthquakes in Lima yesterday, we moved to mudslides in the Cusco region where the small, rural town of zurite is facing terrible dangers. Heavy rains have weakened the structure of the hills above. In 2010, a whole chunk of mountain sheared off after a hard deluge, and tore a new river, complete with boulders, through the heart of Zurite. Buildings were damaged beyond repair, and it’s a miracle no-one died.

    I climbed up to see Practical Action’s early warning system, installed recently. It’s a perfect combination of simple technology and cutting edge computer design. A video monitors any increase in ground cracks, sensors pick up movement in the soil, and all the data is analysed in situ before being automatically relayed to the town’s environmental department. This means people can be evacuated to safe places in good time when the ground starts to slide down the mountain face towards their homes.

    Zurite’s residents won’t be caught unawares again. We are acting now to reduce the loss of life and livelihood when the next heavy rains come, and as I reflect on our visit, tending my achy knees and blistered feet, I think that’s a great use of time, effort, and money.

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  • Market stall holder in Lima to the rescue

    September 7th, 2013

    As I stood in the bustling little market in Villa El Salvadore, a district of Lima, I was scared. Villa El Salvadore is an unplanned, informal urban sprawl, home to some of the city’s poorest people, and the whole district sits on a huge natural sandpit, in one of the most earthquake prone places on earth.

    Project manager Illair Aguilar showed us how Practical Action is helping to reduce the terrible risks of living and working here. As we stood in the market, surrounded by colourful food, clothes, and the smell of good cooking, she pointed out the evacuation signs, and told us about the emergency procedures, set up by stall- holders, with our support and encouragement. We met Marciel Lanasca and his toddler son Messi. Marciel sells cooked chicken, and he said,

    “Before, we were all afraid of earthquakes – we know how deadly they can be. Now, we are prepared. We practice evacuation drills, we know what to do, we are prepared. It makes me feel confident!”

    Meeting Marciel made me feel more confident too. Before we talked together, all I had kept thinking about, every time I looked at the sand under my feet, was those terrible documentaries that show the effect of earth tremors on sand. I couldn’t stop wondering what on earth I would do to survive if one came now. But Marciel and his fellow stall holders would know what to do. I was safer than I thought.

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  • Peru trip with chair’s circle

    September 2nd, 2013


    On Thursday, a group of supporters from Practical Action’s Chair’s Circle will travel on a self-funded tour of our work in Peru and Bolivia.

    On the road are – Clive Quick, Emily Crowe, Laurence Taylor, Judy Mallaber, Crispian Collins, Warwick Franklin, and me, Kate Mulkern. I hope to update this blog with where we are, who we meet, and what we see. One thing I know already – it’s going to be an amazing experience for us all.

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  • Healthier homes

    November 12th, 2012

    Practical Action’s SWASHTHA project is addressing major environmental health risks, such as indoor air quality, water quality, sanitation and hygiene to create healthy homes and benefit 30,000 women and children and family members in these households.  We are working with people, mainly women and children,  from the socially excluded communities and marginalised ethnic and other caste groups in urban areas of Bharatpur, Butwal, Gularia and Tikapur municipalities.

    Helen Watson

    Most memorable moment: Two really super bits for me personally today, firstly interviewing the woman from the co-op about her life and family and also sketching at the Dalit village with a huge crowd of little children watching.

    Best person you met today:  The interviewee – she was so gracious and willing, after a little initial hesitancy, and it was great to find that life for her family had most certainly improved because of the Practical Action dairy project.

    What made you stop and think? So much! Again, being impressed by the calibre of Practical Action’s staff. Today it was Prakesh, the vet. So clear what value there is in being able to provide such professional expertise where it is needed. Good to see the mutual respect of all who are involved.

    Anything else you want to say? I had to remind myself not to romanticise the life of the villagers. On such a lovely sunny day like this, with such welcomes everywhere, it looked good.

    David Watson

    Most memorable moment:  Watching Helen and a Nepali woman totally engaged with each other while Practical Action supporters, local villagers and children milled around them.

    Best person you met today:  Pratibha Acharya, a 17 year old Nepali girl currently in school and planning to go on to college and study farm management.

    What made you stop and think?

    Anything else you want to say? Last visit to Nawalparasi library didn’t work well because we met nobody who had personally benefitted from Practical Action work or projects.

    Warwick Franklin

    Most memorable moment: The visit to the SWASTHA village and the changes to people’s lives by water, improved kitchens, and proper loos. Helen sketching by the river!

    Best person you met today:  Shanta Lama, a lady interviewed about SWASTHA  and her comment about her improved kitchen which had led to fewer arguments!

    What made you stop and think? The loss of land suffered by the farmer, Mana Badudur, at the DIPECHO site but his belief that he is no longer scared and felt safe/secure

    Judy Mallaber

    Most memorable moment:  Keshab Raj Achasoja and Ram Hazi Avyal heartily and joyously singing from the Muhabarat at the Thiskuni Community Library. Keshab co-ordinates the library’s religious programme – providing a place, musical instruments and books for those in the community wanting to celebrate their religion. He just took down a copy of the Muhabarat from the shelves and started singing and his friend joined in – infectious joy and a great picture He said, ‘Before the library we could just eat and sleep, take care of the animals, sometimes play cards. Now people come here, see all the books and magazines and know about the rest of the world.’

    Best person you met today:  Prakesh who runs the Kamadhere DFID-funded Practical Action project helping farmers with getting decent breeding stock, advice and expertise on food, help on animal health and much more. A great find for Practical Action as he trained as a vet for 5 ½ years at the only vet college in Nepal – others there went abroad to make a living, while Prakesh went to an NGO to use his skills for the community and then to Practical Action to set up and run an inspiring project with local co-operatives to produce more food and improve the livelihoods of some of the poorest.

    What made you stop and think? Two examples of harnessing the knowledge of experts to help people help themselves  1. Prakesh and his work as a vet with local farmers 2. The Practical Answers interactive session at the library – Kemal Kent Singh, agricultural technician with a local agricultural company with expertise in manure, fertilisers and plants – was the expert brought in to answer interactively by computer the latest batch of questions from the farmers.

    Anything else you want to say? Children – lots of wonderful incidents today with great children enjoying being photographed and being indulged by their families and all on the Practical Action expedition, from 6 year old Aurit who had to be in, and pose for, every photo and clearly should be a Hollywood star – to 11 and 12 year old Deepika, Gianga and Pabitra (and their nan) who already learned quite a bit of English and had lovely writing.  All kids and families have benefitted from the projects we saw – and some of whom now have higher expectations of their future than we would have heard some years ago. When did Nepalese children learn words like ‘handshake’ and ‘high five’? Lots of laughter and smiles – great!

    Terry Downie

    Most memorable moment:  At Shree Kamadhenu Milk Co-operative Improved Cattle Resource Centre (phew!) the gentle pride and love shown in the way the men talked bout their cows and touched them, and talked about them.

    Best person you met today:  At the Grass Cultivation Centre, the man who explained how Napier grass is cut and gave me a root of it. Also the man who invited me to see his new house and his cows but then said actually his wife built the house. And the man who wanted me to see his 600 chickens.  

    What made you stop and think? At the Dalit village – Chainspur – I thought the cow-funding arrangements surprisingly tight and fast-moving (11 families per month enabled to buy cows) and I guess I began to grasp how much involvement there is from members of groups – co-ops, Practical Action, UKAID, Nepali, community forest user group, etc, etc – and banks, chambers of commerce etc. And at the library, Practical Answers’ support on technical queries – after local experts have been asked to solve issues raised at Community meetings.

    Anything else you want to say? Children – lots of wonderful incidents today with great children enjoying being photographed and being indulged by their families and all on the Practical Action expedition, from 6 year old Aurit who had to be in, and pose for, every photo and clearly should be a Hollywood star – to 11 and 12 year old Deepika, Gianga and Pabitra (and their nan) who already learned quite a bit of English and had lovely writing. Ll kids and families have benefitted from the projects we saw – and some of whom now have higher expectations of their future than we would have heard some years ago. When did Nepalese children learn words like ‘handshake’ and ‘high five’? Lots of laughter and smiles – great!

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