Paul Smith Lomas

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Paul is Practical Action's International Director, and is responsible for the overall operation of its programmes and consulting service which it runs around the world.

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

Posts by Paul

  • We need the right climate action

    June 1st, 2017

    It seems likely that in the next few days President Trump will withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement.

    I’m not a climate scientist, but the vast majority of the scientific community is of one mind, that climate change is undeniable.  From own experience of working in Africa and Asia for over thirty years, and talking with many people who live there, the climate is changing.  Extreme events such as droughts, and floods always affect the poorest the most, which is why it matters so much to me and to everyone at Practical Action.

    If the USA does withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the world still urgently needs to act to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

    The United States is the world’s second largest greenhouse gas polluter. But it cannot on its own destroy an agreement already ratified by 146 other nations.  It could encourage other sceptical nations to do likewise, increasing the burden on the rest of the world.

    It’s time for other nations, to step up and provide the leadership and ambition necessary to achieve the crucial 1.5°c target.  Already Chinese and European Union leaders have signed a joint statement.  Once the UK elections are complete, and since we are to leave the EU, I expect the UK Government to step up and provide similar leadership.

    It is widely recognised that limiting climate change is necessary to ensure the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The global action plan to eradicate poverty and improve the wellbeing of billions of people worldwide. These 17 Goals are interdependent, and a failure to achieve Goal 13 on climate action, could undermine the ability of countries worldwide to achieve the other 16 Goals. Civil Society, businesses, and governments should all stand up for agreements and actions which create a better world for all.

    Practical Action supports the commitments made by Parties at COP21 in Paris in 2015, and reaffirmed at COP22 in Marrakech last year.  A key element of this Agreement is the recognition of the need for developed countries to support the most climate-vulnerable developing countries financially.  This will enable developing countries to develop low-emission development plans, so that energy is generated from renewable sources, and agriculture practices move to low input approaches.  These are the kind of simple, sustainable approaches that Practical Action has demonstrated for years, and still do today.24603 flooding bangladesh

    Developing countries also need to be able to cope with changes to the weather patterns and adapt to the volatile conditions created by climate change.   As extreme weather events such as Cyclone Mora continue to ravage countries like Bangladesh, Practical Action and other like-minded organisations are putting into action plans to help people survive and rebuild their lives for example developing early warning systems to give advance notice of floods, and using simple design changes to protect houses from future flooding.

    Whatever the US does, we all still have to cope with changing weather patterns today, and importantly work together to protect future of our planet.

     

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  • Join a movement for Technology Justice!

    January 21st, 2016

    Today Practical Action released Technology Justice: A Call to Action. Technology Justice Call to Action

    In it we introduce the idea of Technology Justice – how so many existing technologies are not available to people who need them;  how many technologies we use today are destroying the planet; and how technology innovation is not focussed on addressing real needs.

    This call to action is designed to reach out to and engage with like-minded individuals and organisations and inspire them to collaborate with Practical Action to take action towards Technology Justice. We want to engage with anyone who might help us to build the case for change, and raise our voices to challenge technology injustice.

    Come and join the conversation!

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  • Happy Birthday to us!

    July 20th, 2015

    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!”

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  • Last week I fixed my own iPhone

    October 22nd, 2014

    Like lots of people in the world I own a mobile phone, and common to many in the developed world, mine is a smart phone. An iPhone 4 to be precise. My smart phone is an amazing piece of technology. It helps me to keep on top of news, do emails, texts, take photos, and listen to music. I can even make phone calls with it. (Actually as a friend who works for Apple admitted to me the other day – it’s not too good at phone calls! But that’s another story!)

    iphoneSo my phone is a few years old now, and it was beginning to show signs of age. The back was cracked after I dropped it. The camera had a crack across the screen too. However it was suffering from a serious problem – the home button was getting increasingly unreliable. This, as any iPhone owner knows is a major problem. If the home button doesn’t work – you’re stuck. I had tried the trick some blog sites advocate – pressing home & off buttons at the same time to “re-calibrate it” – but it didn’t fix the problem. I was about to do what most people do at that point. Buy a new phone. However – I happened upon a You Tube video where I discovered that it’s possible to fix your own phone.

    So last weekend, armed with a range of new bits costing around £10 bought off the internet, and my laptop, with the appropriate ifixit video running on You Tube, I set about fixing my phone. I can’t pretend that it was all plane sailing. It turns out that to replace the home button you need to disassemble almost the entire phone, and as the ifixit presenter says “there’s a whole lot of tiny screws that you need to remove”. Things definitely got tough when everything was in pieces, and the video ended – leaving me with the challenge of assembly by running the video in reverse. Not too easy.

    Happily, my son, who is rather more confident with small computer-type bits & pieces, was around, and helped a bit. OK, he helped a lot, and maybe he did most of the work, and I helped! The whole exercise probably took a couple of hours, but now I have a fully functioning phone again, and I’m back in touch with the world. I even fixed the camera, so can also take good quality photos without a crack across the middle! What is perhaps interesting in this story is the reaction of so many of my friends who passed by and witnessed my repair attempts. Everyone said “great! Well done! But why didn’t you simply buy a new phone?”

    I guess this is exactly what most people, at least in the UK, would do. In fact, most people in the UK replace their phone every 12 to 18 months. While some old phones are sold on, and others recycled, many are simply thrown away. This contributes to a massive and growing problem of e-waste. Last year nearly 50m tonnes of e-waste were generated worldwide – or about 7kg for every person on the planet. Not only is this a problem for pollution, it also represents a huge loss of valuable metals. Many phones include precious metals like silver, gold and platinum. Some manufacturers like Fairphone are designing phones with recycling in mind from the very beginning. Others are developing modular phones, which will make it easier to replace or upgrade sections of a phone, without having to buy a whole new one. This kind of approach to consumer goods ought to be more mainstream. It should be great for consumers, but also in line with our vision for technology justice, where new technological is focussed on meeting people’s basic needs, and improving the sustainability of our planet. In the meantime, I’m happy to have extended the life of my phone. However, I’m sure that I shouldn’t have a couple screws left over….

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  • Making Fast Cars and Technology Justice

    September 22nd, 2014

    Last weekend I went to the “Small is…” Festival, in Bristol, the UK. People, who know Practical Action well, will know that we have held a festival for a number of years now. What started as a small gathering of friends of an enthusiastic staff member has become quite a large event. This year it was held in Bristol, and attended by around 300 people over the course of the weekend.

    Attended by people who are interested in the concepts that Fritz Schumacher espoused some 50 years ago; people centred technology, and alternative economics, it was a great place for us to host a workshop on Technology Justice.

    Many of the people who read this will probably already be familiar with the concept, which simply says that ‘Everyone should have the right to access the technologies they need to live the lives they value so long as that doesn’t prevent others now, or in the future, from doing the same’.

    It’s a concept that we’ve been working with inside Practical Action for some time, but we are keen to see if we can get more people interested in the ideas that build from it. Ideally, it will be a lever to that we can use to lead to wider change.

    One of the co-panellists shared an interesting story of the wikispeed car. The car looks like it is pretty fast, though actually I don’t know how fast it goes. The thing that’s exceptional about the speed of this car is the speed that it’s being developed.

    car

    It’s being developed through support from “crowd sourcing”. So they receive funding from people around the world – and ideas from people all around the world. Rather like Wikipedia; or Firefox, or Libreoffice, but for cars. Since it’s developed by people collaborating all over the world, the speed of development is way faster than traditional private sector approaches. In traditional car manufacturing it can take over twenty years to bring a concept to production. In wikispeed they can take the whole car through redesign iteration in seven days! If you want to know more. Have a look here http://wikispeed.org/

    “So what did this have to do with a discussion about Technology Justice? I hear you say.

    Well the primary aim of the not for profit company is that the car produces maximises fuel efficiency. Which has to be a good thing for the planet, and reducing our addiction on fossil fuels? OK, but then again aren’t loads of commercial car companies doing the same. The difference with the wikispeed car is that the since the design is open source, anyone can use the design, and build a car for themselves. A technology for everyone, which seems absolutely what Technology Justice, is all about.

    I am sure there are loads of other technological challenges that would benefit from a similar collaborative approach. How about a clockwork cooker? If it were affordable, it would reduce Co2 emissions, and reduce many of the 4 million deaths per years from indoor air pollution in one go. Does anyone have an idea we could start with? If wikispeed can redesign their whole car in seven days, we should have the clockwork cooker ready for Christmas!

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  • Kenya plans to build massive solar plants. Is it great news for everyone in Kenya?

    January 27th, 2014

    I heard recently that Kenya has announced plans for major investment in solar power, with the aim to produce as much as 50% of it’s total energy needs from solar by 2016.  The plans involve some $1.2 billion of investment, as reported in the Guardian , which would see the development of nine large solar generating stations.   Even if they achieve only half of their plans it would be an amazing achievement.

    It’s fantastic that there are more and more of these major efforts to invest in renewable energy.  As momentum builds, it’s sure to help reduce costs, and build confidence which will attract future investment for renewables.  This can only be great news for global targets for reducing carbon emissions.

    These are exciting times, and I am sure few people would argue that more and more solar power plants around the world are anything other than a great thing.

    However, there is one thing that I fear remains missing.  Most of Kenya’s population are not connected to the electricity grid.  Many millions live many miles from a grid, and in current projections, it will be decades before most of them are connected.  Mega solar schemes like the one above rarely address this critical issue.  There is a well proven answer to this challenge – min-grids, such as this one pictured.

    An off-grid Solar System in Kenya

    An off-grid Solar System in Kenya

    I blogged about one mini-grid which Practical Action are supporting in Malawi, and there are many such min-grids popping up around Africa.  Unfortunately, although there is widespread recognition that over 50% of future electricity connections should be off-grid, we’re yet to see major investment in off-grid schemes anywhere in the world.  Until we do, then we will continue to see billions of people left without access to modern energy, and held back in their development.

    So of course $1.2 billion of investment into mega solar schemes in Kenya is great news.  But $1.2 billion of investment into off-grid solar schemes – now that would be brilliant!

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  • Electricity for Christmas

    January 2nd, 2014

    Like quite a lot of British people today is my first day back at work after a long Christmas break.

    Over the holiday period, there were serious storms, and thousands of people had their homes flooded, and many people went through days with no electricity.  Luckily I was not one of them, but having lived a number of years in rural Africa I know what life without electricity can be like.  Smoky kerosene lanterns giving poor light; nothing to charge your phone; expensive batteries for a radio; and a charcoal stove for cooking. It’s not easy.  In the UK it will have been cold too.  It can’t have been an easy time for anyone.

    Late last year, I had the chance to visit a project we have been running in Malawi, in which we were helping to bring electricity to villages which are many kilometres away from the grid, and probably decades away from being connected to it.  A small electricity grid is powered by a small hydro-electric station, which takes water from a small river close to the village, and provides a low power connection to people’s houses.

    The technology, which includes taking water from a perennial stream, and passing it through a small hydro-power station is well proven, in other parts of the world – simple, reliable, sustainable.

    Battery charging helps to delivery energy where it  is most needed

    Battery charging helps to delivery energy where it is most needed

    When I was there, I was reminded how transformational electricity can be, by a poem that a young student had written and recited at a small celebration to mark the opening of the scheme.  He talked about the immediate things we might all think of – lighting to do homework, power for phones, radio, TV, even a computer for the school.  However, it was interesting how the new electricity grid meant he could feel proud of the village, and how government teachers & doctors would be happy to be posted there, and not seek a transfer back to the town at the first opportunity.  “We’re now a place with a future”, he said.

    Being based on a sustainable source, this system should run for many years to come, and of course emits no carbon dioxide either.  There is plenty of potential for similar small hydro-electric plants in other parts of Malawi, so we are keen to share our story, and see the approach replicated by others.

    This is perhaps a long way from power cuts in the UK, except that it’s interesting to reflect on how much a difference that an electricity connection can make.

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  • Still visiting Kenya

    September 25th, 2013

    I am sure that everyone reading this will be aware of the awful events still unfolding in Nairobi with over 60 people killed, and almost 200 hundred injured following attacks by an armed group.

    On Saturday I was still at home in the UK with a ticket booked for Nairobi the following day. As the first news filtered through, I began to get concerned calls from friends and relatives checking I was not already in Kenya, and asking if I felt safe to proceed with my planned trip.  My immediate answer was  – “yes of course”.  Though I did check with the local Practical Action office that they were still happy to host me.

    Having been here for three days now, and with the final stages of the hijacking not yet fully resolved, it’s impossible to understate how horrific events must have been for people involved or their relatives.  Thankfully none of our own staff were directly affected.  However, at the same time I think it’s important to recognise how much Nairobi, and Kenya is determined to “get on with business”.

    Hygiene lessons in Nakuru

    Hygiene lessons in Nakuru

    Yesterday I was in Nakuru, with two new Board members of Practical Action Kenya, and while they were keen to keep up to date with events, they were also excited to discover our work on the ground.  Here we are working in an amazing partnership with local county authorities; water companies; banks; landlords and civil society groups. Our target?  To ensure that everyone in Nakuru has access to a toilet.  While this may not sound that challenging, when you think that of the 190,000 people living in the low income areas of Nakuru, only 15% currently use a toilet today, you might begin to understand that this is quite a stretch.

    In the middle of the day I met Joseph, an entrepreneur who we helped to set up a waste collection company which cleans up low income communities and also makes him and his colleagues a small income.

    Having made the decision to come to Kenya, do I still think it was the right thing to do?  Yes, absolutely.  It has made me realise that while there is terrible news unfolding in Kenya, there are also some really positive stories.  Of course the story of Practical Action, toilets, and waste collectors won’t reach the headlines, but I do think it important that people know that there are other things going on.

    Background

    On Saturday 21st September, between 10-15 heavily armed terrorists invaded the busy Westgate mall, in upmarket Nairobi (Westlands). The mall has several food courts and on that particular day, there was a young chefs competition – which meant, that there were several children at the Mall with their mothers.  Al-Shabaab/Al Qaeda groups have claimed responsibility for the attack. The attack was conducted at midday, when the Mall is at its busiest. The official number of deaths currently stands at 68 (official figure) and several others (around 200) with varying degree of bullet/shrapnel injuries. Official reports state a minimal number of hostages are yet to be rescued. The operation is led by the Kenya Defence Forces and the Kenya Police with assistance from Israeli, US and UK advisors. The terrorists have refused to negotiate – they want Kenya Defence Forces to pull out of Somalia.  On the fourth day, as Kenya enters a three day period of national mourning, we are all hoping and praying that the siege is over,  people can grieve, bury their dead, and nurse their wounds.

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  • Do you have troublesome neighbours?

    August 14th, 2013

    Living in the UK it’s not uncommon to hear of minor disputes between neighbours.  Sometimes it’s about playing loud music, or it might be because a hedge is grown too long. But what if your neighbours arearugam-bay-elephant elephants? While they don’t often play loud music, they rarely respect boundary hedges, and could easily destroy a whole year’s crop for a small scale farmer.

    This is exactly the challenge that I found on a recent trip to Batticaloa in Sri Lanka.  A number of farmers were unable to farm their land for fear that the elephants from the nearby forests would trample or eat all their crops. Practical Action had been working with these and other farmers, and when faced with this problem, they came up with an ingenious solution- live fencing made of palmyre trees.

    3 row palmyre fenceThe trees are indigenous to the region, and have traditionally been used as a decorative boundary line, but planted in three rows, the trees form a barrier that will stop elephants.

    Palmyre tress also provide a harvestable crop (nuts and palm leaves), and once mature, one row at a time can be cut for wood, while still retaining the integrity of the boundary.   It all adds up to a low cost sustainable solution far superior to an electric fence.

    I don’t anticipate planting many palmyre fences in my village in the UK, but this story was a great reminder to me how often the simplest locally developed technologies, are often the most effective.

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  • Are too few development workers interested in the power of technology?

    226 Lower Woodrow, Forest, Melksham, Wiltshire SN12 7RB, UK,
    January 21st, 2013

    Teaching Improved Stove Manufacturing Techniques in RwandaAs many people who read blogs from me and other people involved with Practical Action, we have a particular focus on technology, and how it can help to solve some of the world’s poverty issues. We have some great projects helping millions of people around the world to get access to electricity through small scale technologies like micro-hydro power schemes; manufacture improved stoves (like the one on the left); to access agricultural extension information through pod-casting; to grow food in flood zones with floating gardens; and to turn sewage and kitchen waste into fertiliser & cooking gas. I could go on but I won’t.

     

    We believe that technology has the power to help millions of people to escape poverty, but today 90% of the world’s investment on new technologies is spent helping to fulfil the desires of middle class consumers, who want the latest app, or a slimmer smart phone. Not on the needs of the 2 billion people without access to sanitation, or the 2.7 billion without access to modern energy.
    We’re currently recruiting for a Policy Adviser who can help us to make this point to more and more people. To technology companies, to academic institutions and government officials. We’d like to work with others to build a movement for change. We know it will take time, but we’re convinced that by working with others, we can make a much bigger difference than by working on our own. Filling this position with the right person will be a good start.

    We actually tried to recruit once before. In the first round, we decided not to hire anyone, but I was struck then by the fact that so few of the applicants had any experience of development. It made me wonder whether there are too few agencies like us who are working to harness the potential of technology.

    This makes me only more enthusiastic to try to get someone into the post, and to help us share our views, and experiences with more people than we currently do.

    If of course there is anyone who reads this, and would like to apply here is the link  https://practicalaction.org/senior-policy-and-practice-adviser,  I’d love to hear from you.

     

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