Rob Cartridge


Rob Cartridge is Practical Action's Head of Knowledge. His role is to improve knowledge and learning across the Practical Action group and then to make sure it is shared as widely as possible. .

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Posts by Rob

  • Podcasts for Poverty

    July 20th, 2012

    We travelled for a day and a half to reach Ntepe – a ward in Gwanda district, south western Zimababwe. A crowd of 50 – mainly women greeted us beneath the spreading arms of a huge, but dead,Gwanda livelihoods podcast tree. Around us the earth was completely parched and there was red dust in the air as the winter wind was picking up.

    I was travelling, with the Permanent Secretary of the Zimbabwean Ministry of ICT and a number of our key local partners – to witness for myself the podcasting work that Practical Action is delivering there.

    Podcasting is effectively a way of communicating with people who have no access to the internet, no access to mobile phones, no TV and no radio. We use it to share information with remote and vulnerable people around agricultural techniques and issues of water and water conservation.

    Local knowledge workers charge their MP3 players and are given new materials through our local partners who operate from the nearest market town (Gwanda) some 70 km away. They take the new messages out to community meetings where they play them. Unlike traditional extension services – where the Ministry of Agriculture employee comes, delivers a lecture, and then goes, the podcast and MP3 is left in the community, so anyone who missed it or wants to listen again can do so.

    The most effective thing about the podcasts is that they are recorded in local languages and dialects. This means that unlike many knowledge materials – they really do reach the last mile. One of the women told me that what she liked best was that she could trust the podcast – it was accurate where, she suspected the men from the Ministry did not always tell the truth!

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  • Sex sells

    Rome, Italy, Rome
    September 27th, 2011

    I came across a development project today that blew me away! Shujaaz FM is a fictional radio station in Kenya. It is known to millions of young Kenyans and is playing a fantastic role in education, peace building and poverty reduction. It takes the form of a comic book of which half a million are distributed every month for free. The young people in Kenya lap it up – and each copy is read 10 times.
    Everything about it makes it the perfect communications project:-
    • It has a very clear audience, 16 to 24 years olds
    • It speaks to them in their language – in this case sheng – a combination of English and Swahili which nearly all young people in Kenya understand
    • It talks to the audience about the things they want to hear about – mainly sex and money!
    • It is constantly informed by rigorous focus grouping and testing of attitudes with its target audience
    • It is backed up across a whole series of communication channels – facebook, twitter, web, and a call centre (they are having 450,000 conversations on facebook per year!)
    The critical thing is that it doesn’t start from a “worthy” message. It starts from where people are. So – to paraphrase its creator Rob Burnett: Kenyan boys are mainly interested in attracting Kenyan girls. The Kenyan girls aren’t interested if the boys have no money. Shujaaz brings them messages about how to make a little money – perhaps through improving their crop yields by soaking their seeds. But it always puts it in the context of “what motivates the kids”.
    Rob’s presentation this morning was the highlight for me of the Sharefair (#sfrome) conference I am attending in Rome. I am here looking for new partners and new ways of working for our knowledge sharing service Practical Answers. I am really hoping that we might be able to use shujaaz to get information out there, to people who can benefit from our simple technologies.
    To be honest I don’t feel like its rocket science but it’s inspiring to see such a fantastic communications project – delivering real benefits in Kenya.

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  • Bangladesh Heart Ache

    December 12th, 2010

    This week’s Independent on Sunday article has stirred up some real heart ache for me. Just over a year ago I was in Bangladesh for Practical Action, helping to make some of the videos about people who could benefit from our technologies. I have been out talking about my visit to many people since. There are three things that stand out in my memory.

    Firstly there was the lack of hope. People I met were completely resigned to their fate. They had been worn down by the annual flooding and loss of belongings. In many developing countries it can be a surprise at how optimistic people are when they have so little, but in this case the people living on the river banks saw no reason to hope for any improvements in their lives.

    Secondly there was the use of the word “starvation”. It’s a word we usually associate with famine, or drought. But in Bangladesh some of the people I met had to starve for days – not because there was no food, but because they didn’t have the money to afford it. This was usually because their casual work in the fields was not possible during the time of the flood.

    videoing in Bangladesh

    Filming in Bangladesh

    Thirdly, it was amazing how a tiny, cheap intervention could make all the difference for people. For some people it was being given a couple of ducklings and some training. For someone else it was being taught how to grow pumpkins on the river bank. For yet another person it was to be given some baby fish and the ability to build their own fish cage. These interventions, which cost only a few taka, gave people a breathing space and enough resource to get themselves to a better place. It gave them an ability to take charge of their own lives and secure a way of getting themselves out of poverty. Some of the people I met had benefitted from a project two or three years earlier and were now making a small profit and able to share their money or their fish with others in the community.

    So thank you to the Independent on Sunday for reminding me of these feelings – and more importantly, thank you for bringing it to the attention of thousands more of your readers!

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  • Easy peasy?

    Birmingham, UK, Birmingham
    March 30th, 2010

    So I thought I had an easy option for no tech day.

    I was off in my caravan for the weekend with the kids. Which meant no tv, no PC, all I had to do was turn my phone off.

    But as we trundled along the A45 (at 50mph – deliberately irritating Jeremy Clarkson if he was near by) my mind went through how this was hardly going to be a low tech day. First of all I need mechanical power and technology (a car!) to get the caravan to where we were going. On arrival the first thing I did was to switch on the gas so we could cook. Then I plugged into mains electric to power the water pump, microwave and halogen lights (caravanning isn’t what it was when I was a kid!)

    Even away from electricity I was struck by the technologies I had on my side. The carbon fibre poles which hold up the awning are only one example. It’s amazing to think that people have spent thousands, if not millions of pounds developing technologies to make my caravanning (a “sport” which admittedly only appeals to a minority) a slightly better experience, and to make my awning more affordable. What would the world be like if similar resources were dedicated to the technology challenges faced by people in the developing world? Probably a lot better…..

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  • Floods!

    November 22nd, 2009

    So I’m back in the UK. News here is dominated by the torrential rain and flooding in Cumbria. One police officer has lost his life and hundreds are having to live in emergency accommodation. When something like this happens close to home you can’t help feeling sorry for the people involved. Your heart and mind is with the people who are having such a terrible time.

    On the TV last night were pictures of Gordon Brown visiting the area. Giving £1million in assistance. Some people were arguing that more could have been done to prevent the flooding, Others argues that it was so exceptional that to take prevention measures would not be cost effective, which leads to the question what price do you put on lives and people’s security?

    Reflecting on this with the Bangladesh visit behind me leads to a few thoughts. In the places I have visited tens of thousands of people are faced with moving every year as the floods come and their riverbank erodes. I have met only a handful, but in all more than a million people altogether are directly affected by river bank erosion. What price would we put on their lives and security, and why should it be less than people living in Cumbria?

    For the people in Bangladesh there is no safety net. There are some food handouts when the floods come, but there is no certainty that they will reach everyone. There is no insurance – the people who we met could not possibly afford anything like this. And there is no security – people in Bangladesh simply do not know whether they, and their families will survive the next flood, whether they will have a home to go back to or any belongings. Of course this doesn’t in any way mean that the people of Cumbria have it easy, but it’s a very sobering reflection.

    And one more though before signing off. Some people have been linking the flood in Cumbria to climate change. It is generally accepted that the floods in Bangladesh are getting worse and more frequent as a result of climate change. Next month world leaders gather in Copenhagen to try and reach a new climate change deal, I can only hope that for the sake of the people I have met on this visit an effective and ambitious deal is reached, so that maybe their problems will become slightly less each year, instead of slightly greater!

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  • Home sweet home

    November 19th, 2009

    Well not quite home yet – but back in Dhaka. It’s funny how a city which last week felt so strange, poverty stricken and otherworldly, now feels quite familiar and prosperous.

    Of course all these things are relative, but somehow it feels like the people I have met in recent days in rural areas, with no secure income or home are so much more isolated than people in cities. Of course there is great poverty in Dhaka, I haven’t been to the slums on this visit, but I know they are still there. But somehow there is a sense that you are at least connected with the outside world, and so there might be opportunities and communities to protect you.

    Maybe its the ever present billboards (promising among other things 100% freedom from dandruff) which contrast with all the handpainted sign boards in the rural areas. Maybe it’s the mobile phones that are everywhere. Or maybe it’s the increased number of motorised vehicles. People are dressed differently – and it might be my imagination, but it feels like a happier place.

    But then you could argue that poverty is worse in cities, because poor people tend to me more exposed to those with money than they do in the rural areas. People in Rangpur could go for weeks without coming into contact with people outside their own community, but in Dhaka you have to go through rich areas to get to poor areas and vice versa.

    So which is worse? I don’t know and development academics will argue about it for an eternity. To the people at the sharp end it doesn’t matter anyway. The important thing is that we do everything we can to tackle the problem wherever we find it …

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  • Working again after 30 days

    November 18th, 2009

    One of the people I met yesterday – Shahana is hoping that the good days are coming again. After thirty days without work, her husband, a casual farm worker, had gone to work that morning. For his efforts he will be paid 80tka which they can spend on food, or paying off the tab they have run up with the local shop during the lean period.

    But Shahana isn’t complaining. In fact she is very happy, because for the first time in her life she has a secure place to live. Shahana is one of the people living in a special “cluster village” built by Practical Action to help people survive the annual flood disaster. This village, known as Salabhora, is just ten houses made out of tin, built on a special embankment which means they will be protected from the rising waters. There are two wells that they use to get clean water and there is one toilet for every two houses.

    Shahana moved to the village when it opened 8 months ago. She was chosen by her peers in the local community, because she had no where secure to live with her husband and young baby, and because her husband has some mental health problems. She said that the best thing about the new village is that it gives her security, this means that her husband can travel further for work without having to worry about her because the villagers all look after each other.

    It was great to end my last trip into the field with such a positive story. Although I have to say the peace of the village was very much shattered as we were leaving by the arrival of the Bangladeshi equivalent of an ice cream van. This bicycle has a cool box strapped to the back, and a loud speaker on the front playing Bangla music as loud as possible to attract the children. The white ice lollies which appeared cost only half a taka (slightly less than half a penny) and so are accessible to nearly everyone. Shahana’s baby isn’t old enough to appreciate ice cream yet … but it won’t be long.

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  • New technology spreading appropriate technology

    November 16th, 2009

    Technological advancement is not always a good thing. It often excludes the poorest people. But yesterday I found a really innovative use of new technology. As I have mentioned before, at Practical Action we like to share our knowledge with people who can gain benefit from it. One of the main ways that we do this is through our technical enquiries service – Practical Answers.

    Practical Answers is based on a number of different ways of working. We put lots of materials on our English language website, and we have sister websites in Spanish, Tamil and Sinhala. Materials in Bangla are due to be added soon, but internet access is still very limited in rural Bangaldesh and there is still a great preference for the spoken word.

    So yesterday I visited a Gyaner Hat (literally “knowledge bazaar”) which we run in a High School in Barakhata. The school give us a room for free, and we supply a set up grant and pay the staff for a year to measure demand. From this centre a network of extension workers (mobile agricultural advisors) work, giving out advice to farmers far and wide. The extension workers earn money by offering services like pruning. The farmers gain invaluable knowledge. In this way up to 150 enquiries are answered every month.  I was able to visit one particular garden that had been created largely with the support of our team and was certainly looking very productive!

    The technology comes in because an internet connection helps the extension workers to research their topic and keep up to date. And a series of videos have been produced and shown to more than 1000 farmers, giving them advice on everything from urinary problems in cows to mango tree pruning. One particularly gory video showed how to safely remove a cyst from a cow – personally I thought it was a bit of video nasty but it seems to have been popular with its target audience!

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  • In another place

    November 15th, 2009

    In another part of the world, the place I have been today could be described as paradise. The sandy lanes are lined by bamboo and banana palms. There is no traffic and the birds sing in the trees. The water of the lagoon laps against the embankment just below you. Sunshine and high temperatures virtually guaranteed. But this small area of north west Bangladesh was a long way from my idea of paradise.

    I have been meeting the people that Practical Action is hoping to help through the Shiree project. As explained previously, Shiree is deliberately targeting the very hard to reach “extreme poor”. We are working with people whose lives have been ruined by the annual indundation of the Tista river. The homes of the people I have met cling to the embankment above the river like limpets on rocks. Every year their houses are flooded, and most of the people have already lost six or seven homes through the erosion caused by the river. The land the houses are perched upon is owned by the state, so it is free, which is why they are there.

    The people that I have met, whose lives are dominated by nature, mainly earn tiny amounts of money working on the same land for local farmers. But it’s not enough for any of them. We usually reserve the word “starvation” for long lasting famines, but one person I met today, Rahman (not his real name) is 80 years old and goes without food for ten days every month. Everyone I met goes without food for two or three days at a time during the wet season.

    At Practical Action we usually talk about how strong poor women and men can be. But the people I met today were generally very defeated and demoralised. Rahman said he was just waiting to die. There is a little hope on the horizon, with the Shiree project providing some income-earning opportunities. I really hope it works for Rahman’s sake and the 50,000 others we are trying to reach.

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  • Reaching the extreme poor

    November 12th, 2009

    Made it to Rangpur! It’s only about 250km north of Dhaka, but it’s a full day’s drive. The roads are pretty good, all tarmac, but the further north you come the more rickshaws, bicycles, carts, overladen buses and other slow vehicles you come across and so inevitably you make slow progress. I was here in time to meet the team who are responsible for our new “Shiree” project. Shiree stands for something long and academic in English, but no one can remember what! In Bangla it means “ladder” which is very appropriate.

    Shiree is the initiative of the UK Department for International Development (DFID). It is a recognition that after several decades of pretty intensive anti poverty work in Bangladesh, there is still an “underclass” of people, who even the charities and the microcredit people have not yet reached. These are the most vulnerable people who, as in any society, tend to fall between the cracks and are difficult to find. DFID have asked six different charities, including Practical Action, to deliver a programme which really tries to target these most marginalised people or “extreme poor” as they are known. They hope these programmes will become models for replicating across Bangladesh and maybe elsewhere in the world.

    Based on our previous experience in nearby Gaibanda, Practical Action is targeting people who live close to the river banks, and who have to move every year when the floods come as their land is flooded or eroded, then return to try and eke out a meagre existence on the sandbars that are left over. We are aiming to get 50,000 such people out of poverty for ever, within three years. At the moment every single household being targeted by the programme has an income of less than 2000 Bangladesh tka per month (that is a little under £20 for the whole household).

    The training in pumpkin cultivation – which works well in the sand, and the short growing season – started yesterday. The team are very excited about the work and the challenges that it will bring – but confident that they can deliver. I’m looking forward to working with them over the next couple of days.

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