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  • The first instalment of “A Google free month” – ask nicely


    September 9th, 2016

    Do you remember the movie Sliding Doors? The one that asks the question ‘what if she never caught that train?’

    A colleague and I were exchanging ‘what if’ questions recently and I told her my favourite ‘what if’ was ‘what if Coca Cola was never invented?’ I started outlining my current theory which includes a lot of yoghurt-based drinks like India’s Lassi or Turkey’s Ayran.

    My colleague told me her dad’s favourite ‘what if’ was ‘what if there was no Google?’ We both rolled our eyes of course, laughing at what a typical dad-type question that was. Amidst the sarcastic giggling, there was something about this question that struck a chord. Being the life-hack addict I am, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to once again experiment on myself and I decided then and there to abstain from Google and all other search engines for a month.

    Google Emma BellI started excitedly buzzing about my plan to ‘go Google-less’ and a friend suggested that I fundraise off the back of my crazy experiment and donate to Practical Action’s Technology Justice work. Given my tendency to give up on things halfway, I figured fundraising for a worthy cause would spur me on to achieve my goal so I set up a Just Giving page and the rest is history.

    Actually, I only wish it was history – my experiment started just a few days ago, at the beginning of September…

    If I’m honest, I had very little idea what it would be like without instant access to information apart from the obvious: London would be tough to navigate without Google Maps, my poor memory of song/band names would be exposed once and for all and (the most scary perhaps) I would never know when to take my umbrella with me. Less than a week into my ‘Life before Google’ experiment, I am already on quite a different type of adventure.

    If I could name one thing that has truly impacted me so far it would be the simple act of asking for help. Instead of feeling ‘help-less’, asking friends and family for information has made me feel much more warmth and connection with other people in my life. Today I asked my Colombian friend to translate the word ‘Chévere’ which I had seen being used online. His answer was: ‘it’s a very Colombian word. It means “cool” or pleasant, nice, fun… yeh, more like cool and fun’. I couldn’t help but bask in the warmth of his wonderful, personalised answer and the subtle shades of meaning he conveyed – a far more enjoyable experience than frantically using Google Translate in the cab en route to an Airbnb.

    Asking for help is sometimes a bit scary too, especially when you think you already know the answer. For example, I am forever getting confused between sea bass and sea bream. Last night I was convinced that I’d finally remembered the long skinny one (my favourite) was called sea bream. Unfortunately my boyfriend was of the opinion that this was actually sea bass. After several minutes of debate, I habitually reached for my phone but then remembered: no Google during September. There I was in the kitchen, the realisation slowly dawning on me that I might have no other option than to trust my boyfriend (at least for September). A scary thought for someone like me who is always right!

    I remember my dad saying to me once that when people can help you, it makes them feel really special. I have a feeling that over the next few weeks I’m about to make a lot of people feel special. Either that or they will stop answering the phone when they see who’s calling them to ask for help… again.

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  • Wellbeing, water and sanitation – community led solutions in Kenya


    May 27th, 2016

    In order to support our understanding of ‘wellbeing’ Practical Action is supporting doctoral research at University College London, Development Planning Unit. Stephanie Butcher is looking at the connections between urban services and citizenship, to support wellbeing in informal settlements.

    Stephanie Butcher is a PHD candidate at University College London’s Centre for Urban Sustainability and Resilience and Development Planning Unit. These reflections emerged as a part of a wider project conducted by the MSc Social Development Practice programme at the DPU.

    What do we mean by wellbeing?

    Wellbeing is a golden thread which weaves its way through all our work at Practical Action, but what do we mean by ‘wellbeing’?

    Critically it’s about people getting their basic material needs met. Our work in areas such as food security and access to energy and clean water, are all key to improving material wellbeing. But wellbeing is more than this. It’s about the degree of control people have over their lives and the quality of relationships within their communities. What this means for Practical Action, is that it’s not just what we do that’s important, but also how we do it as well. People participating in decisions and taking control of their own development is critical and central to the way we work.

    What innovations can address the next generation of urban water challenges?[1]

    Collecting water from a protected spring, in Kisumu, Kenya. This counts as an 'improved water source', but could still be contaminated.

    In 2015, I spent time with residents of the Kondele neighbourhood, one of the many informal settlements of Kisumu, Western Kenya. This community benefitted from an innovative type of water service delivery, called the Delegated Management Model (DMM), implemented as part Comic Relief funded work, and delivered by Practical Action under the  2008-2013 ‘People’s Plans into Practice’ programme in Kisumu, Kenya, with local partners Shelter Forum and Kisumu Urban Apostolates Programme.

    In Kisumu, the Kisumu Water and Sewerage Company (KIWASCO) agreed to begin working in informal areas, providing cheaper water to a ‘master meter’ in the settlement. The responsibility for this meter was given to a managing community group, who use a network of small pipes to deliver to individual houses or community kiosks. For the utility, this creates incentives to work in hard-to-monitor informal areas, as it no longer has to police illegal connections and leakages. For Kondele residents, both the master meter and community kiosks are new business opportunities, as water can be sold down the network at a small profit.

    What was most striking in Kondele was that the managing water meter group was linked with an elected body of representatives, called the ‘Neighborhood Planning Association’. Practical Action used participatory planning tools to support these associations in agreeing and voicing their priorities for service improvements. Practical Action’s intervention also particularly encouraged women, people with disabilities, and youth to participate as kiosk operators and in the planning association.

    Conversations with residents demonstrated a range of positive outcomes of this model.

    It helped the growth of the water network, generated employment and income opportunities for entrepreneurial residents.  It allowed for more flexible service delivery.[3]

    Residents experienced many positive contributions to their wellbeing, including perceived health benefits; greater community interaction; improved quality and quantity of water; and economic benefits from subsidised tariffs.[4]

    Yet I was also struck by how this model was working in the wider Kenyan environment, especially given the shifts towards the commoditization of services, and decentralization of service delivery.

    In Kisumu, an emphasis on cost-recovery in the Kenyan water sector meant that some of the most vulnerable residents were less likely to access the services. Master meters were most often placed in areas of higher economic potential, so that they could run as sustainable businesses. This meant they tended to be located in denser, wealthier, or roadside locations, leaving behind some of the poorer interior areas of the settlement. Tenants especially noted the rapid increase in rents with the improvement of services, creating real trade-offs in whether to live closer or farther to improved services.

    Second, while decentralization allowed for coverage in informal areas, the old risks from leaks and illegal tappings suddenly became the concern of the community group. While leaders expressed a sense of ownership, this increase in responsibility did not always come with an increase in authority. Ongoing disputes made it clear that the Kondele association did not feel they could fully hold the utility accountable in partnership agreements.

    Finally, gender aspects were improved but there’s more to be done. For many, the emphasis on women’s participation created options to participate in extra income-generating activities and water forums. However, where gaps did exist in coverage, it was still largely women and young girls that bore this burden as ‘household managers’, walking farther distances to collect from DMM sources, or squeezing household resources to pay more from private vendors.

    Some reflections on the Delegated Management Model

    1. collecting water in Kisumu 23493The DMM was possible because of a supportive policy environment in Kenya, which encouraged spaces of citizen participation.
    2. Emphasizing cost-recovery might prevent access for the most vulnerable. The location of master meters, household income, and rental status meant that not all residents benefitted equally. This suggests that some master meters might need to be placed in less economically viable areas to reach lower-income residents. Likewise, reaching agreements with landlords to maintain rental prices plays a crucial role in supporting tenants.
    3. Practical Action’s support linking the water group with the elected Neighbourhood Planning Association supported ownership and democratic practice.  This was critical. As in other neighbourhoods of Kisumu meter management has been opened to private individuals, potentially moving away from management by a community-based organisation.[5] While this is intended to stimulate competitive service delivery, there is a critical difference between the empowerment of savvy entrepreneurs, and that of an elected community body.
    4. Capacity building measures for both utility staff and community groups remain key. The experience in Kondele demonstrated the wider benefits experienced through the trainings of Practical Action’s ‘People’s Plans into Practice’.  Yet there is also still room for engagement with utility staff—and particularly in establishing clear channels of accountability
    5. Social and cultural norms continue to influence water services. This calls for further research on  the different ways water management occurs at the neighborhood and household level for women and men, addressing perceptions which reinforce identity-based inequities.

    What are your experiences? Feel free to get in touch and post comments below.

    [1] This was a key question posed by the 2015 Reducing Urban Poverty Student Paper Competition, hosted by the Wilson Centre , World Bank, Cities Alliance, and IHC global, at which I presented these reflections.

    [3] Castro and Morel 2008; Schwartz and Sanga 2010.

    [4] Frediani et al. 2013

    [5] Castro and Morel 2008.

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  • 3D printing in developing economies


    February 24th, 2016

    The growth of 3D printing has been rapid in the last decade, with the creation of low cost printers and the availability of easy to use software.

    The growth and use of this technology is evident across many developed economies.  3D printers are now a common tool for prototyping and used by many design agencies, engineering firms and research institutions. However, there is now a real opportunity to use 3D printing in developing economies and help to leapfrog highly capital intensive manufacturing.

    The premise of 3D printing is simple, in that firstly 3D geometry is created using specialist 3D modelling software. This geometry is then virtually sliced into layers and outputted as numeric code. This code is read by the 3D printer which prints layer by layer to create the final part. The print material could be metals, plastics or ceramics and typically come in one of the following forms:

    1. Liquids – often cured using a laser
    2. Filament – typically extruded from a nozzle
    3. Powder – typically cured using a laser or form of adhesive

    These 3D printers are available in various sizes and have respective build qualities. Although traditionally very expensive, growth in the 3D printing industry has led to the development of desktop printers which are easy to use, affordable and have relatively good part quality.

    Future of 3D printing

    Some predict that this rapid development of 3D printing has started a new industrial revolution which will ultimately influence and affect almost every aspect of life. However, it is already evident that the advantages of 3D printing have opened the way for novel product development and innovations which can provide a range of logistical and technological advantages. The core advantages include:

    1. Ability for low volume production
    2. Faster and more responsive production than traditional methods
    3. Simplification and shortening of manufacturing supply chains
    4. Democratisation of production
    5. Ability to optimise and personalise a design

    (Royal Academy of Engineering, 2013)

    These advantages represent a potential paradigm shift in the manufacture of products which will have a direct effect on the design and distribution process. The market and application for this technology is clear in the developed economies. However, there is now an opportunity to investigate the application of 3D printing in developing economies as a way to alleviate poverty and help bridge the vast technological divide.

    3D printing in developing economies

    3D printing has become an increasingly affordable and life-changing technology to places in need, such as manufacturing simple medical devices in Haiti. Photo Credit: Field Ready

    3D printing has become an increasingly affordable and life-changing technology to places in need, such as manufacturing simple medical devices in Haiti. Photo Credit: Field Ready

    Although developing countries may not be the most obvious place to adopt 3D printing technology, the rapid uptake of mobile phones shows how new technologies can be used to leapfrog developed nations.

    Over the last 30 years the cost of mobile phones has significantly decreased and the rate of adoption has reached 3.4bn (50% of the population). Uptake in developing countries has far exceeded expectations, with usage in sub-Saharan Africa now at 60% of the population.

    Before the mobile phone, developed economies had invested large amounts of money in land-line infrastructure. However, developing economies are able to effectively skip the landline, which, after all, would have been prohibitively expensive in poor communities due to vast distances and low population density. The popularity of mobile technology, its ability to increase levels of income, and the rapid adoption demonstrates the real opportunity for 3D printing as the technology development curve is not dissimilar to that of mobile communication. Furthermore, this lack of infrastructure and limited logistics provides a huge opportunity for 3D printers as it could mean rural villages would be able to print their own products or agriculture tools and not have to rely on unreliable supply chains. The advancement in mobile communication and the internet continues to support this technology allowing for the rapid transfer of data between sites.

    For engineers, this development could enable greater access to these markets through online communities (which are already beginning to form) and enable end users to join the design process, creating more effective [product] solutions to meet their needs.

    3D printing pilot study in a developing country

    Dr Timothy Whitehead instructing Practical Action staff in 3D printing, Lima, Peru

    Dr Timothy Whitehead instructing Practical Action staff in 3D printing, Lima, Peru

    As an academic, it is interesting to see how this technology can be integrated into the development sector. In order to begin to understand this De Montfort University has partnered with Practical Action to carry out a pilot study with the charity’s office in Lima, Peru.

    The primary aim of the project is to see if 3D printing can be used to enhance the design of existing solutions, and if some of their current products can be more effectively developed across multiple site offices. The secondary aim is to understand if the possession of a 3D printer enables new and innovative design ideas to be created, which were previously not possible. The hope is that this pilot will lead to a larger study exploring the potential of this technology in the development sector.

    Initial findings from a visit to Lima highlighted that one of the first things Practical Action wanted to do was to print a 3D topographical map of the areas of poverty in Lima. This showed, in clear detail, how landslides were a real danger and what would happen in their inevitable event. These 3D maps will be used to explain, across a language barrier, to people living there why we needed to make changes, to have safety measures put in place. Without 3D printing it would not have been possible to produce these. These insights are really useful and demonstrate just one potential benefit of 3D printing technology.

    The study is being carried out with Practical Action using an Ultimaker 2 Desktop printer. For further information please visit the project website www.bridgingthedivide.org or contact timothy.whitehead@dmu.ac.uk 

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  • Sandbar cropping to eradicate extreme poverty in Bangladesh


    February 2nd, 2016

    Every year in monsoon, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Meghna and their hundreds of branches carry enormous amounts of water and silt and flood at least a quarter of Bangladesh. The scenario is very different in winter. As the water reduces in the main river channels, thousands of hectares of sandbars (sand-covered silty riverbeds) surface.

    Sandbar cropping is an innovation, tested and scaled up in northern Bangladesh by Practical Action over the last decade, making these uncultivable lands arable.

    A life changing nature-based innovation

    In this agro-technology, numerous pits a couple of feet deep are excavated on sandbars reaching down to the silt layer to sow pumpkin seeds. After a few weeks’ nurturing, green plants come out of these pits and spread over the sand. Over the next few months, flowers bloom, fertilized ones turn into green fruits, which ripen into orange pumpkins.

    pumpkins gaibandhaThis fascinating innovation transforms the silver sandbar first into a green then into an orange landscape.

    This visual metamorphosis of ‘sandscape’ has effectively been used through a series of initiatives over the past 10 years transforming the lives of 15,000  extreme poor families, who were without any land or productive assets, often lived on embankments, earned only a couple of dollars a day, and lacked most basic services.

    The fantastic positive impacts of sandbar cropping on the ultra-poor have been achieved by overcoming many social, environmental, technological and systems challenges.

    Sandbar access

    Existing laws of Bangladesh put sandbars, which are dried up riverbeds and temporary in nature, under the ownership of the government as unsettled land. But the ground scenario is different; most of the sandbars are claimed by local people.

    Although left unused, getting consent from the land claimants for sandbar cultivation by the landless people can be very difficult, especially when there are multiple claimants. After negotiating in presence of local governments, administrations and NGOs, a sandbar can be accessed by an extreme poor family for free or in exchange for cash or by sharing a part of the production.

    Access in exchange of harvest has a downside. Some extreme poor farmers hide their hard-earned pumpkins by harvesting them green. This causes crop damage during storage, leading to lower prices and reduced production.

    A fantastic production of pumpkin not only upholds the success of the sandbar cropping technique, but also increases the value of the sandbar. Seeing the production, some land claimants who initially gave free access began to demand a share in the middle of the season. In other cases, the land claimants increased the percentage of the share the following year. In severe cases, no access was given to the extreme poor as the owner decided to practice sandbar cropping himself. All these indicate a ‘success backlash’ to this nature-based venture.

    Access to land is further constrained by uncertain geomorphology of the rivers. In the upstream of a river, sandbars are temporary. Their extent and characteristics, like position in the river and depth of sand layer, vary significantly from one year to another. If a piece of land appears without a sand layer, it is leased out for cash crops, like tobacco, maize, potato, chilli, onion and garlic. Such uncertainties make long-term land-tenure arrangement for sandbar cropping impossible. Every year, new negotiations have to be opened up for access to new sandbar or to fix the percentage of share cropping.

    To minimize land access challenges, it is important that the local administration and local government formally facilitate the extreme poor’s ‘operational access’ to sandbars, since such a natural-resource-based, innovative cropping system can directly contribute to extreme poverty eradication − the core of the Sustainable Development Goals.

    Environmental factors

    Another challenge of sandbar cropping is the dependency on seasons. The starting of sandbar cultivation depends upon the first exposure of sandbars in autumn (October−early November). Late availability of sandbar delays the whole cultivation process. It may lower pumpkin seed germination rate due to severe winter/cold wave. Sand storm may cover young plants causing stunted growth. Sudden rainfall in March can cause crack on mature fruits just before harvest due to lack of micronutrients, like boron, in the soil. Early flooding in late March−early April may also push for early harvest of crops before they mature properly. All these reduce the overall pumpkin production.

    Timely availability of seeds, compost, fertilizers, micronutrients and irrigation has therefore been a basic prerequisite of the success of sandbar cropping. Such need has been met by building farmers’ capacity, establishing effective market linkages, and making financial resources available.

    Human capacity and economic aspects

    Sowing of pumpkin seed in the sandbar pits usually takes place in mid November and the first harvest of green pumpkins occurs in the late February. It is difficult for extreme poor to cope with this three-month lean period as they need to give time to sandbar cropping in lieu of their regular work.

    Sandbar cropping is also labour intensive for a significantly long period. Ability of individual farmer is thus a major factor. It is very difficult to work (e.g. for irrigation, artificial cross-pollination, and pest control) in February−March under strong heat. Ripening fruits also need 24-hour guarding from theft. All these may cause loss of regular daily wages affecting household income. Further, women and adolescents of the family also need to get involved in sandbar cropping, particularly when the male family members migrate the area at the beginning (October−November) or end of the sandbar cropping season (March−April) to work in winter rice fields.

    Cultivating some quick-harvesting crops, like squash, on sandbars has been found to be very useful to cover the lean period by earning money within a couple of months. Further, linking the extreme poor families with other government initiatives, like social safety net programmes, could be useful to partially compensate income loss during sandbar cropping season.

    Managing and marketing the harvest

    pumpkin storagePumpkin, the major sandbar crop, has a long shelf-life. If ripe pumpkins can be stored for a few months, a good price can be expected in the monsoon season. As they mostly have small houses, however, extremely poor farmers cannot store their whole harvest.

    Practical Action helped to install simple, low-cost bamboo shelves within farmers’ houses which helps them store much of their produce for several months. Creating a community storage facility has also been considered, but the farmers have expressed unwillingness to keep their produce somewhere distant.

    Finally, given a huge pumpkin production in a small area, selling them with a reasonable understanding of the market system is a major challenge. The extreme poor have a limited understanding of market mechanisms as they work in the agriculture sector as day-labourers. When they produce crops, usually they produce for themselves, not in bulk for formal markets. Limited access to markets and market information, and over-saturation of pumpkin market may lead to low prices.

    Capacity development of farmers on market systems and value chains, organizing them into formal producers’ associations, facilitating their access to microfinance, and connecting them with big buyers and markets in the region and beyond have therefore been important aspects of sandbar cropping projects in Bangladesh.

    A stepping stone

    Sandbar cropping has effectively shown its potential and strengths to help the extreme poor. In the long journey of promoting this technology, development organizations and their partners have been crucial initiators, facilitators, advocates and catalysts. But the question remains, whether sandbar cultivation alone is robust enough to push ultra-poor families out of extreme poverty.

    Given the uncertainty around the availability of sandbars every year, the low bargaining power of the extreme poor to access sandbars, labour intensiveness, initial and recurring costs, complex market mechanisms, and environmental risks, sandbar cropping may not be practiced by an extreme poor family as the sole livelihood choice year after year.

    sandbar cropping

    A mechanism needs to be built in the sandbar cropping promotion, whereby the income from this practice can be efficiently invested in livelihoods diversification and asset creation (see figure above), creating a staircase to get out of extreme poverty. Sandbar cropping is thus an effective ‘stepping stone’ to bring the riverine extreme poor out of poverty.

    Dr. Haseeb Md. Irfanullah is the programme coordinator of IUCN in Bangladesh. He used to lead the disaster risk reduction and climate change programme of Practical Action in Bangladesh. Haseeb can be reached at hmirfanullah@yahoo.co.uk

     

     

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  • Role of women waste pickers in Dhaka


    January 8th, 2016

    Beneath the glaring afternoon sun, I watch as a woman crouches roadside at the base of a city garbage container, referred to as a “dustbin”. Using her unprotected hands, she dutifully sorts through the waste, separating out non-perishable items of value such as plastic, paper, and glass. These items are placed in a woven basket to be sold to a local scrap shop and then recycled. She is considered a “tokai”- a waste recyclable wastepicker. She is one of the estimated 120,000 in Dhaka.

    For the “Technology and the Future of Work” project, the Dhaka office has chosen to focus the waste sector interviews on the informal workers who collect waste from households. From there, it is transported by rickshaw van to the local dustbin. Although it varies in every neighbourhood, there is generally a system of microenterprises organising the collection. Although still in many ways an unfavourable and marginalised profession, being a waste collector requires some capital, allows for a fixed monthly salary, and has a certain level of visibility within the city. This role is predominantly undertaken by men. As explained by my friend and research partner Lamia, it is “a social norm” that women are not the waste collectors; rather, they are usually the tokai earning a precarious daily wage.

    waste picker on siteThe strategy for fieldwork designated one research pair to focus on South Dhaka and the other to focus on North Dhaka. From 11 to 30 May, Lamia and I visited 12 areas in South Dhaka. On the first day in the field, we spoke a woman tokai. She shared that she would like to purchase a collection van, but did not have the money and also thought that no one would be interested in selling her a van due to her gender. She worked formerly as a household maid, but after the death of her husband began waste picking as a means to earn more money. She has a son who assists her. She chose to call her story “I am helpless”.

    female waste picker with collection vanOn our fifth day of interviews, I was surprised and curious to meet a woman waste picker who collects from households. She explained that her husband needed assistance to pull the van and was unable to finance an employee, so they began to share the work. They receive only one salary from their supervisor. Although she expressed no discrimination from other male workers, she said she does not wish this work for other women, as it is “dirty” and “not nice”. Her work helping her husband seemed to me an exception, a visible overstep of a gender boundary.

    As the fieldwork progressed, Lamia and I traveled across South Dhaka. Interestingly, changing areas brought changing gender dynamics. In Moghbazar and Malibagh, we met several women waste workers who collected waste from every flat and transported it to the dustbin. One respondent explained she faced no social problems doing this work. “People don’t give me any trouble”, she said, “And this work doesn’t change the way that people view me. This is because at the end of the day, I can go home and I can wash my hands and then I am clean. Then I am the same as anyone else”.

    Factors such as gender, class, and race compound to influence both what women earn, and what work is available to them. As Dhaka city has no formal recycling system, waste pickers are the primary processors in a system of both economic and environmental benefit. Women may be emerging as the new face of the informal recycling chain in Dhaka in terms of participation, but it is often a face veiled from public or political recognition; a face kept looking down at a basket behind a dustbin. However, gender and class have demonstrated an interesting and unexpected relationship for women’s work opportunities in the waste sector.

    Far greater numbers of women waste collectors, who also separate and sell the recyclables, were visible in lower socioeconomic areas in the city. I asked Lamia about these variations. She explained that our earlier interviews had been in posher areas, and now we had transitioned. It seemed that in the less wealthy areas, there was less stigma around women’s involvement in waste work. These observations negated my previous ideas that increased income, and assumed increased education, necessarily leads to increased gender positioning- at least in the informal waste sector. Lamia nodded to draw my attention to the happenings around us and explained, “you see this man, and he is here fixing his rickshaw. And next to him, this woman is depositing the waste in the dustbin. And there are also men working with the waste. They are all working for their survival. In that way, it doesn’t matter that he is man and she is woman. In that way, they are the same”.

    Additional Reading

    Chen, M. (2001). Women and Informality: A Global Picture, the Global Movement. SAIS Review, 21(1), pp.71-82.

    Chen, M., Vanek, J. and Carr, M. (2004). Mainstreaming informal employment and gender in poverty reduction. London: Commonwealth Secretariat and International Development Research Centre.

    Waste Concern, (2004). Country Paper Bangladesh. Dhaka, pp.1-20.

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  • Happy Floating Gardening!


    January 5th, 2016

    The year 2015 ended well for floating-garden-enthusiasts!

    On 15 December, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) declared floating gardening of Bangladesh as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS). This agricultural system has now become one of the 36 systems around the globe, and the first from Bangladesh. A GIAHS is essentially an outstanding land use system or a landscape that has been evolving with a community meeting their needs and desire for sustainable development.

    Floating gardening is a traditional agricultural practice in the southern part of Bangladesh. In this farming system, rafts are made on stagnant waters with aquatic plants, mainly water hyacinth. On these platforms, crop seedlings are raised, and vegetables, spices and other crops are cultivated during monsoon. In winter, when water recedes from the wetlands, these rafts are dismantled and mixed with soil as compost to grow winter crops.

    gathering produce from a floating garden 21778

    In addition to supporting food and nutrition to rural Bangladeshis, this indigenous technology is a good tool for disaster management and climate change adaptation in the wetlands. Floating farming has also been an useful income generation option for wetland dwellers, thus their poverty alleviation, by managing aquatic resources.

    Over the past few years, floating gardening has received much global attention, specifically as a means of adaptation to climate change. It has now found its place in the latest authoritative Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Practical Action’s work on floating gardening in Bangladesh is showcased by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as a farmer-led sustainable agricultural adaptation technology.

    FAO’s latest recognition is a step forward to appreciate the contribution and opportunity of this indigenous technology to mitigating some basic global challenges, like food insecurity, extreme poverty and climate change. Such global appreciation is indeed a result of long-term efforts by many organizations, like, Practical Action, IUCN, CARE and Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS), to name a few.

    It is interesting to note that Bangladesh’s centuries-old floating gardening technology had never left its ‘centre of origin’ − a small area of about 25 sq km − until NGOs started promoting it in the late 1990s. This is particularly fascinating since about 50% of Bangladesh’s 147,570 sq km is basically wetlands.

    The recent robust promotion of floating gardening is an excellent example of how an indigenous technology can transform  poor people’s lives as an innovation − in new areas, to meet new challenges. There, however, has not been any assessment per se to check if floating gardening is really a sustainable option under changing climate. Such testing is very logical as the growth and survival of water hyacinth is very much dependent on amount of rainfall, length of flooding period, and salinity of water − all to be affected by climate change.

    The need for research on floating gardening has repeatedly been raised in recent years. But very limited studies on floating agriculture, however, do not match the overwhelming interest in and increasing recognition of this technology.

    It may be argued that floating agricultural practice has reached its pinnacle in Bangladesh by being in practice over centuries. But ever-changing climate and hydrology, people’s economic conditions and aspirations, and our development approaches have been continuously changing the face of floating gardening in newly introduced areas. To cope with these changes and uncertainties, promotion of floating gardening should be backed by organized innovation, planned research, and effective knowledge management.

    As we start 2016, floating gardening gives us a fantastic opportunity to go about nature-based solutions to basic development challenges − extreme poverty, food insecurity, climate change − duly supported by evidence, not only by emotion.

    Dr. Haseeb Md. Irfanullah is the programme coordinator of IUCN in Bangladesh. He is the former disaster risk reduction and climate change programme lead of Practical Action in Bangladesh. Haseeb can be reached at hmirfanullah@yahoo.co.uk

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  • Waste and recycling: health concerns herald technology change


    January 4th, 2016

    Waste recyclers in Lima, the capital of Peru, have overcome tremendous adversities to function as a recognised and legitimate sector.

    When they had started to pick waste around the city, they were branded ‘nut cases’ or drug addicts and were sometimes chased away by the police when foraging for recyclables. This presented a social challenge since they became a marginalized group.

    After unionizing and pursuing their labour rights, the Peruvian government passed the ‘Law of the Recycler’ in 2009- the first of its kind in the world.

    Their labour unions, known as associations, provide them with representation and the ability to negotiate better prices as a group. The recycling sector has boomed ever since.

    Although their jobs help make the earth greener, the same cannot be said for their own health, as the waste picking process presents many health risks.

    Technology change

    recycling tricycleMany of the recyclers started to collect waste with sacks, wheelbarrows, or industrial trolleys, mostly without protective uniforms, hygiene masks, or rubber gloves. The handling of unclean waste left them exposed to germs and the stress of transporting the collected waste across long distances caused constant backache. One of our interview respondents, Roberto, recounts how he broke his spine and switched from a wheelbarrow to a tricycle, and then to a moto-taxi. Like Roberto, many recyclers have switched to more automated, locally produced, transport technologies to curb these potential health risks. Other technologies that are changing or disappearing from use include transport scooters, pedal bicycles and pedal tricycles.

    mototaxi These health issues have created a market for newer technologies, enabling changes to technology they use. New and emerging technologies include auto-tricycles, known as ‘tricimotos’ and motor taxis. This is accompanied by an increase in the use of protective wear such as gloves, uniforms, rubber boots and hygiene masks.

    The fundamental shift from manual to automated technologies enables them to be more productive, collecting more waste in lesser amount time and ultimately, higher incomes, or increased leisure time.

    Collection centres

    Although many recyclers have been able to reduce excess physical effort by switching to more automated means of waste transportation, they still face a major challenge- the lack of a central waste collection centre.

    Currently, most of the waste they collect are sorted in their homes before being sold. This presents huge health risks, since they are constantly surrounded by waste acquired from different parts of the city. Good hygiene is difficult to maintain in such circumstances.

    waste for recyclingThis also causes problems with some of the recyclers’ relations with neighbours in their local communities. In an interview with Luzuela, a recycler in the Lima district of Los Olivos, she laments on how she has constant problems with her neighbours because she constantly brings home large amounts of waste to their shared communal space.

    Evidently, many of Lima’s informal recyclers stress the need for a central collection centre; so they can all sort their waste there, rather than in residential areas.

    The recyclers spend a substantial part of their income on basic expenses such as food, rent, childcare, education and other living expenses. The balance left is put in savings for upgrading their technologies. Since these informal recyclers earn so little, they barely have enough left to contribute towards a central collection centre.

    However, there are prospects for the development for the sector as the Peruvian government, in 2013, committed to the promotion and increase recycling practices within the city. The leaders of their associations intend to form an enterprise to capitalize on this opportunity, which could potentially become a lucrative business.

    The once looked-down upon sector of recycling in Lima is now recognised as a pivotal part of environmental efforts the city is increasingly making.

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  • Nairobi’s informal water vendors: heroes or villains?


    December 30th, 2015

    Nairobi’s informal settlements are places of startling juxtaposition. Holding 60% of the city’s population on only 5% of the total land mass, they house some of the nation’s poorest citizens and immigrants at the edge of Eastern Africa’s most developed city. Change has flooded in in some respects, contrasting with persistent socio-economic divides. While almost all residents have access to a mobile phone network, for example, very few have access to clean drinking water.

    buying water in NairobiThe statistics available on poverty levels are deceptive of the economy within the informal settlements, which is highly functioning and complex. Frequent water shortages and the absence of a public water supply throughout the settlements have created a competitive market space for water vendors, many of whom sell by illegally tapping into water lines or, if they are some of the fortunate few to have a residential water connection, sell it on the side for supplementary income. In Nairobi, it is expensive to be poor. There are complaints among the residents of extortion, with many water vendors inflating prices. Those that purchase city water do so for between Ksh 18 (12p) per 1,000 litres, and resell it from Ksh 3- 10 per 20 litres.  The price rises during shortages.  This leads many to view water vendors as ‘villains’, cashing in on one of life’s most basic necessities.

    IMG_0144 (2)But are the vendors villains, or merely good business men taking advantage of an opportunity to earn income for their own daily needs? Narayan and Petesch (2007) identify informal settlements as places of “hidden and invisible battlegrounds where poor people strive to realize their aspirations”, part of a “hidden symbolic world of competing values and norms that shape what people believe and do not believe and what they perceive they can and cannot do” (13). Many water vendors are pragmatists, justifying their actions based on opportunism (I have a water source, I might as well sell it to earn a living), social coherence (other people with a water source are selling it, so I should too) or as redeemers of a broken social system (if we don’t provide water, who will?). As one vendor said, “We wouldn’t be doing this if the city just did their job. Don’t blame us; blame them (the city).”

    Within the settlements, those who posses the technology of pumps, pipes and tanks control the access to flowing water, and divide the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’. But even the owners of technology have their limits; their businesses are wholly dependent on the city releasing the water supply, which only occurs 2-3 times a week in most settlements. The water sector has become a frontline for the power plays between the informal and formal and the rich and the poor, all occurring within a spatial-social divide, the remnant of colonial-era segregation.

    water vending So are informal water vendors the villains or the Robin Hoods of Nairobi’s informal settlements? They are the former, the latter, neither and both. The answer lies within one’s position within the water supply chain. That the question should even be asked signifies a failure at state level to reconcile the gross inequalities of access to life’s most basic needs, with access determined by one’s geography rather than the right to it as a human being.

    Informality and illegality is a spectrum here. The beauty and the challenge of the informal economy is that people constantly defy generalisation into neat boxes of being ‘this’ or that’. Morality battles with pragmatism, and innovation is born from human resilience in a context of deeply imbedded inequalities, injustice and corruption.

     

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  • The Emolienteros: organised labour as the driving force of technology advancement.


    December 29th, 2015

    The ‘Emolienteros’ are vendors of Emoliente, a beverage made with medicinal plants sold on the streets of Lima. With the availability of different flavours, mixtures and consistencies of the herbal beverage, they provide an unrivalled service for inexpensive on-the-go breakfast/snacks, in Peru’s densely populated capital.

    As the third largest city in the Americas, Lima presents a huge market for the Emolienteros, with much potential for growth. This fact is not lost on these ambitious workers. They have been able to form a robust labour union, well-structured into associations in the districts in which they function most.

    emoliente stall LimaIn a discussion with Walter Villegas, the leader of the Association of Emoliente Workers in the Pueblo Libre district of Lima, as well as the interviews and focus groups we have conducted so far, we have learned about the progress they have made so far, the role technology change has played in their livelihoods, and their plans to start an enterprise.

    From zero to hero

    Emolienteros that have been working in this sector for 15-20 years recount their earlier experiences of not having associations. As informal workers, they had lacked representation in the city council and in Peru’s Ministry of Labour and Promotion of Employment. As informal workers, they were constantly harassed by the city’s officials for ‘unauthorized’ vending in the streets, making it very difficult to sell their products and make a decent living.

    In response, they formed their own labour union association in 1999 (officially recognised in 2007), known as ‘Tradition of the Incas: Natural Product Workers’. Since then, they have been able to push for better rights and recognition, even in the Peruvian parliament. On May 16, 2014, The ‘Law of the Emolientero’ was passed by the congress, hailing them as generators of productive self-employed micro entrepreneurs. Also declared, was the national Day of Emoliente and other traditional natural beverages on 20 February. Furthermore, the local governments signed cooperation agreements with the Emolienteros within the jurisdictions where they work.

    Their association has since enjoyed more publicity through wide media coverage of the new Peruvian law.  Today, it is considered one of the most prestigious informal sectors in Lima to work in.

    Technology change and livelihoods

    The impact of technology change on their livelihoods is best understood when analysing The two major benefits of association membership, which are:

    1. Representation of their interests on a national and city level
    2. More informed economic decisions through transfer of knowledge.

    Having an interconnected network of Emolienteros within different sectors means that news of better and more efficient technologies are more easily accessible by all members of the association, thereby decreases the occurence of asymmetrical information between these informal workers.

    mobile emoliertoro cartThe main technologies used by the emolienteros are mobile carts or ‘carretillas.’  They also use freezers to store excess supplies on days with low purchases.

    The change from older to better models of carretillas improves efficiency and productivity. As a result they earn slightly more and some have increased leisure time for childcare, or a second job.

    This use of improved technology has allowed them to capitalize on the growing industry of Peruvian cuisine, especially since as it has recently gained ground on the international food market.

    Due to the advancement of this sector, most of the change within this sector is brought about by reinvestment of income into newer technology.

    As a result, today the Emolienteria industry has an economic value of 700 million soles a year, with reported sales exceeding 1,000 million soles a year.

    Future prospects

    Although the Emolienteros have come a long way, they believe that there is room for improvement. In their plans for technology advancement in the near future, they hope to rent a shop outlet, since rolling the carretillas to and from work is one of their biggest challenges.

    Also, they are putting plans in motion to start an enterprise where they manufacture, package and sell the natural products used in their emoliente. This would enable mass production at cheaper rates to cater for the increasing demands of their products and services.

    The association of Emolienteros in Lima demonstrate the importance of unionized informal workers in challenging existing bureaucratic conditions, and how advancing the uses of technologies can bring about real positive impacts to improvement of their livelihoods.

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  • Just throw it on the ground! Waste disposal in Nairobi’s informal settlements


    June 29th, 2015

    From May, 2015, three university students joined Practical Action, Eastern Africa, as interns within the Urban WASH team to assist in conducting research for the “Technology and the Future of Work” project, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The WASH intern team consists of Eric Mugaa and Charles Kwena, both in their fifth year at the University of Nairobi in the Civil Engineering programme, and Megan Douglas, a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh in the International Development programme. The project is examining the enabling and disabling impacts of technologies on work opportunities among informal workers in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Read about Megan’s reflections from her time in the field…..

    By Megan Douglas

    Megan pic

    On a recent research trip to Kawangware, one of Nairobi’s informal settlements, our field guide contact treated me to a large slice of watermelon from a roadside vendor, packaged in plastic wrap to keep it fresh. After finishing my slice, the warm juice running in rivers down my arms and the wrapper growing sticky in my hand, I looked around for a bin to dispose of the waste. “There are no rubbish bins around here,” my contact laughed. “Just throw it on the ground!”  I couldn’t bring myself to do such a thing; throwing waste on the ground just seemed wrong, despite the multitude of old watermelon rinds and plastic wrappers strewn across the road in front of me. After carrying the rubbish for several minutes, the flies began to come. Begrudgingly, I bent down and gingerly laid the rind in a ditch, where it floated away to join the garbage dam choking Nairobi River. The plastic wrapper I ‘nobly’ stuck in my purse pocket, where it later formed a large sugary stain.

     

    Is it about having ‘principles’ or having options?

    Being from a relatively clean city in Canada, littering feels foreign to me. It is not only illegal in Canada, punishable by hefty fines, but is also considered by many to be immoral in a sense. I had never seen anything like the sheer enormity of human waste competing for space with homes in Kawangware.

    It isn’t that residents of Kawangware produce more waste; it is that there are few viable options for rubbish disposal. Nor are informal residents apathetic. Many of those interviewed make ‘tsk tsk’s with their tongue against their teeth when surveying the carpet of garbage across the streets. “It’s a shame,” expressed one woman, in response to my question about her opinion of the waste situation, then, immediately following, tossed a black plastic bag she had been eating a samosa out of into a ditch. While it was amusing, I didn’t consider her a hypocrite; her littering doesn’t necessarily discredit the genuineness of her displeasure with the amount of waste on the ground. At times, pragmatism must trump ‘moral’ sentiments in the informal settlements. Either she tossed the oily plastic bag, or carried it in her purse (most likely indefinitely, unless she ventured to the outskirts of the district, costing her time and money, all for the sake of not littering).

    Do I not litter in Canada because I am against littering? Or is it because I don’t have to? Most likely, a combination of both, but the two are likely mutually reinforcing.  Some sort of innate concern for environmental conservation isn’t likely the principal reason I grew up with such an adversity to littering. When you have accessible, affordable and sustainable methods of human waste disposal, one never has to be reminded of the volume of non-biodegradable waste you produce every day; garbage is simply thrown in the trash bin, which is collected once a week, never to be seen again. Canada isn’t without waste. It is one of the world’s largest producers of it. But the difference is that garbage is just shipped off to dumps far away from urban centers, or sent across the ocean to fill another country’s dumpsite, allowing citizens the comfort of never having to be visually reminded of the size of their carbon footprint.

    The poorest of the poor in Nairobi, however, must constantly live with their waste and that of others, piled high in mountains and overflowing into rivers, a visual reminder of the spatial and socio-economic and political marginalization of informal residents. The combination of a high concentration of people (60 percent of Nairobi’s population live on only 5% of the total land mass), the increase in non-biodegradable waste, and the lack of a public waste-collection service within informal settlements, culminates in a shockingly large amount of garbage on the ground, leading to a myriad of environmental and health issues.

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