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  • Reaching the Last Mile: Challenges and Lessons from Early Warning Systems

    Understanding Risk is a global community of researchers and practitioners working to identify, assess and communicate disaster risk. This year, the fifth Understanding Risk Forum was held in Mexico City. The Forum was attended by 1,050 people from 101 different countries and over 550 organisations, including Practical Action.

    Our session on “Reaching the last mile” focused on communicating risk effectively to the people most vulnerable to disasters. In order for people to protect themselves from hazards, they need to receive information, understand it, and be able to act on the information.

    However, there are many complex barriers faced by vulnerable communities: when information is shared via text message, people without access to a mobile phone can’t receive the information; if information is not communicated in local languages, or if technical or unclear wording is used, people who receive the information may not be able to understand it; and if people don’t know what actions to take, are afraid of losing their possessions, don’t have anywhere safe to go, or do not have decision-making power, they will not be able to act on the information.

    Within vulnerable communities, factors including age, gender, ethnicity, literacy levels, physical capacity and poverty affect the needs, priorities and abilities of people to access, understand, and respond to information.

    For example, a study that Practical Action is conducting in Nepal and Peru found that women and men often have different roles in evacuation. In addition, women experience unique difficulties evacuating related to their gender, presenting challenges related to their clothing, hair length, caring roles and responsibilities, lesser physical strength, and inability to swim. Perhaps because of these challenges, women prefer to evacuate earlier than men. However, because women lack decision-making power, they are often unable to take action until men decide to evacuate, by which time evacuation routes are more dangerous, particularly for women, presenting them with additional risks.

    We were joined in our session by colleagues from BBC Media Action, the UK Met Office, Soluciones Practicas (our Latin America office), and the German Red Cross.

    Lisa Robinson from BBC Media Action shared examples of their work in Bangladesh, where they partner with a local radio station, Oromia Radio, to broadcast a short radio magazine programme which provides practical advice on agriculture, water, sanitation and shelter.

    They also broadcast a reality television series which visits vulnerable communities as they work with their neighbours and local government to build their resilience. They have found that their audiences and listeners trust this information because it is in their native language, specific to where they are, and is easy to understand. As a result, people are using this information to make decisions.

    At the other delivery end, the UK Met Office is working to build the capacity of national meteorological services in hazard-prone countries. Nyree Pinder highlighted the key role that meteorological agencies have in identifying and communicating risk as they work within the government to protect lives and livelihoods. The UK Met Office is working through a range of programmes to build the capacity of national and regional meteorological services to improve climate information services, and is moving towards impact-based forecasting to better meet the needs of vulnerable communities.

    David Lau from Soluciones Practicas highlighted how the team in Peru are engaging with the community to build resilience. As well as installing solar-powered field monitoring stations to measure rainfall using photographs and soil saturation, community groups (brigades) are formed and supported to use these stations, issue evacuation alerts, and conduct drills. In this way, knowledge is owned and trusted by the community, supporting improved resilience in the long term.

    Mathieu Destrooper from the German Red Cross then demonstrated how the early warning system in Peru could be improved to give vulnerable communities more time to prepare: combining upstream water levels, rain forecasts and soil moisture levels could increase the time available from one to five hours, to one to five days.

    However, as well as improving forecasts, there are key questions to consider regarding how to guarantee early action being taken at the community level. Context will affect whether early warning systems are best managed locally or nationally, how to define thresholds for alerting and taking action, and how to share warning information.

    The session brought together a range of voices, perspectives and experiences in reaching the last mile. Our panellists worked in different countries, with different stakeholders and at different levels, engaging with national and local government, media, and directly with community members.

    Across this broad range of experience, a key factor emerged consistently: there are a multitude of factors which affect people’s vulnerability to and experience of disasters. Our work on early warning systems must be context-specific and tailored to the needs of the people who have to respond to warnings in order to ensure action is taken and lives are saved.

    Related links

    Reaching the last mile: addressing gender inequality in early warning systems

    Collaborative mapping creating local flood resilience with global impact

    Advanced Early Warning Systems Protect Lives and Livelihoods in Nepal

    How the community in Bangladesh prepares for Cyclones – BBC Media Action

    Early warning systems are a key component of community resilience to disasters and have the potential to save lives and livelihoods in hazard-prone communities.

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  • Sun, Water, Life


    June 15th, 2018

    There was an Afghan, a Pakistani, an Ethiopian, a Somalian and an Englishman…. Sounds like the start of a bad joke but fortunately it is not!

    But it is a reflection of the global interest in addressing the crucial issue of access to affordable water supplies that are so needed to sustain communities, particularly those without access to affordable energy and reliant on agriculture for food security and income generation.

    All of these nationalities were squashed in friendly harmony in the back of taxi making introductions on the way to a two day workshop on the use of solar power for pumping water.

    The workshop was hosted by the solar water pumping company Lorentz at their technology centre in Hamburg. Lorentz are a German company and have been focused on solar water pumping for more than 20 years (Sun, Water, Life is their mantra). They doing nothing else but solar water pumping systems, from development to manufacture to installation and aftercare through a global network of distributors and partners.

    They have a wealth of experience in installing systems in some very challenging locations and conditions and across a range of applications from refugee camps to remote impoverished communities. What perhaps sets them apart from other pump manufacturers is their integration, and application of, software into the pump controller and an app based interface to monitor and control pump performance. They also have an app based system that can enable PAYG services for the provision of water, either for household use or irrigation.

    Setting aside any particular manufacturer what became absolutely clear for the assorted participants is that it makes little sense to look at energy, water and food in isolation of each other. For those struggling to meet their daily needs in rural communities these three resources are increasingly under pressure from population growth and the impacts of climate change. The ability to pump water using free clean energy to irrigate land and provide improved sanitation gets to the heart of this challenge.

    Of course what is not free is the technology to make this happen. The upfront investment cost of a good quality system is still higher than that of a diesel or petrol pump. However, this is soon recovered (can be as little as 2 years) when the cost of fuel and maintenance is taken into account.

    And the cost of solar pumping has decreased significantly over the last 5 years as the panels required to capture this free energy have tumbled in price as they have become a commodity item.

    So how can this cost be met?

    Two approaches, using widely available technology in the areas we work in, were shared during the workshop:

    • Pay at point of extraction (Pay at pump) – A pump is loaded with credits. This allows for pre-payment of water either locally or centrally.
    • Pay at point of delivery (Pay at tap) Consumers pre-load secure tokens with credits (litres). Smart Taps dispense water and reduce credits on the token.

    As Practical Action we already have a number of projects on the go making use of solar power for irrigation and the provision of drinking water. This includes working with small holder farmers in Zimbabwe to help them to increase their income through the use of solar powered irrigation to improve crop production, and getting better prices for their produce in the local market.

    With the costs decreasing and the technology forever improving the opportunities to harness this free energy source in emerging economies are increasingly being recognised by both the private and public sector. We seek to encourage this and find innovative ways to scale up affordable use of this technology.

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  • Innovation in last mile distribution


    May 22nd, 2018

    The Global Distributors Collective (GDC) facilitated an ecosystem event at the Skoll World Forum on 12 April dedicated to ‘innovations in last mile distribution’.

    Event hosts Practical Action, BoP Innovation Center and Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship ran a panel with practitioners from the Shell Foundation, EYElliance and Danone Communities. The audience, which included a wide array of participants from the private sector, social enterprises, multinational institutions and NGOs, had a lively Q&A session followed by a world café.

    The event highlighted a range of key challenges and innovations in the last mile distribution (LMD) sector:

    The panel – Liz Smith (EYElliance), Meera Shah (Shell Foundation) and Valerie Mazon (Danone Communities), moderated by Emma Colenbrander (Practical Action)

    1. Working capital for inventory and consumer financing

    LMDs struggle to access working capital for inventory because they are not selling at sufficient volumes to attract the interest of mainstream debt providers, and are seen as too high-risk to lend to. They manage this challenge using different approaches, such as providing sales agents with stock on consignment, but innovation is desperately needed to facilitate better access to capital.

    The burden of providing consumer finance tends to fall to LMDs, but there is potential for manufacturers and intermediaries to play this role. There is significant opportunity to tap into MFIs, especially in countries like India where the pay-as-you-go (PAYG) sector is not as strong, but questions remain about how to de-risk this investment for MFIs. One innovation in consumer financing that Shell Foundation is exploring is digital lay-away schemes for customers to save towards down payments on products.

    2. Demand creation and behaviour change

    For complex products like eyeglasses and improved cookstoves, consumer education is needed to raise awareness and ensure adoption, but this is often expensive and inefficient. Broad campaigns can be a more cost-effective way of building demand and educating consumers than targeting individuals. Campaigns can be done nationally (such as those planned by EYElliance alongside governments) or on a local level (such as those done by Danone Communities using community ambassadors). Consumer campaigns must integrate LMDs on the ground in order to be effective and to ensure supply can adequately meet demand.

    Meera describes how LMDs are typically underinvested in compared with product companies

    3. Salesforce training

    All participants agreed that salesforce training continues to be an enormous challenge in the sector, especially given high churn rates in sales teams and the need to adapt training to different markets. Classroom training is of limited value, so ongoing mentoring and support (and a small sales manager/sales agent ratio) is essential. Innovative training providers are emerging in the sector to support LMDs and some companies (eg. M-KOPA) have set up their own training universities. However, these services are either exclusive or very expensive, and tend to focus more on technical skills rather than sales and marketing. There is huge demand for more innovation in this space.

    4. Opportunities to leverage economies of scale

    EYElliance represents an excellent example of how collective approaches can work in distribution. EYElliance is a coalition of multi-sector actors working at system level to create change in the vision sector. They have had success in distribution of eyeglasses by tapping into the expertise of many members and learning from distribution methods in other product categories such as antimalarials, solar lighting and Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCGs).

    The following key opportunities were identified to leverage the power of the collective across the LMD sector:

    • sharing best practices and lessons learned through online platforms, in-person networking and exchange visits between LMDs
    • improving access to information, including by building a directory of certified peer-reviewed products
    • developing standardised metrics and measurement tools for M&E
    • bulk buying products to streamline procurement processes

    5. Potential of emerging technologies to transform the sector

    Liz Smith describes EYElliance’s collaborative model to achieve systems-wide impact in eyeglass distribution

    Technologies that help gather data for operational intelligence are increasingly being utilised, for example software that can digitally track consumer behaviour. The next disruptive technologies are 3D printing which will transform manufacturing, and blockchain which will enable LMDs to track inventory through the supply chain and more effectively assess impact.

    6. Product specialisation vs diversification

    LMDs that use sales agent networks to sell complex consumer products generally need to specialise. Specialisation tends to be the most cost-effective approach because different skills and knowledge are required for different product categories, and also because LMDs have so many other functions to manage – logistics, procurement, finance, etc – that end sales need to be simplified to the greatest extent possible. However, LMDs can still achieve diversification across their portfolio by specialising at the sales agent level (ie, each sales agent only sells one product category) or by focusing on promoting different products during different time periods, rather than offering a basket of goods all year round. It has proven difficult to combine distribution channels for consumer durables like solar lights with FMCG products, although retail channels have more success than sales agent networks.

    The hosts closed the session by showing great willingness to work on the discussion points raised through the Global Distribution Collective.

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  • Seed cum fertiliser maize planter: how it works?


    December 12th, 2017

    The Developmental Challenge

    The Developmental Challenge Being one of the professional working in the sector of Market Development in Agriculture Sector in Nepal, the issue of farm mechanisation has always been the one of the sector of my interest. Even though the concept of farm mechanisation is ploddingly increasing, farmers access to related information and machineries in different crops are stumpy. In addition, the effort for farm mechanisation awareness and extension services are insufficient in the country.

    Alike the national scenario, I found the situation similar in the Maize Subsector in Bara District; during initial assessment under the Promoting Climate Resilience Agriculture (PCRA) Project. Maize farmers in the project area were unaware and did not use modern farm plantation equipment which resulted low productivity and high cost of production.

    On a positive note, this developmental hitch possessed a silver lining for promotion of farm mechanisation in the subsector. Thus, this challenge led identification and promotion of appropriate maize plantation machine in the area.

    Exploring Solutions
    With the help of the project team I started to identify possible service providers in nearby area of Bara district, which could fulfil our requirement. Though not a “Herculean Task”, the hunt was quite intricate and iterative to meet with service providers and select appropriate machine. After a week of market assessment, “Trishakti Traders” a supplier of farm machine and equipment was identified.

    To our ecstasy, Mr. Dhurv Shah (Proprietor- Trishakti Traders) was not only supportive towards our concept but also extended support to the project by offering us a free demo of the machine along with technicians support. Though Mr. Shah knew that though there would not be an immediate return for his investment, he was guided by his deep rooted values that being a responsible citizen he should be contributing for the society through ways he can.

    While returning from his sales outlet, a question kept knocking my mind: How vibrant would our society be, if we had more such heart warming people in the sector?

    Execution of Identified Solution
    Seven plots based upon developed criteria were selected for the demonstration activity. Those include; Affinity towards technology, having suitable land type for machine use, connector in the area for information dissemination and location. Based upon those criteria the selected plots were in Chiutaha, Kachaurwa, Paterwa, Pipradi and Lead Firm Plot Birgunj and the demonstration activities were conducted during 28 Nov- Dec 3, 2017.

    Trishakti Traders provided the “Maize Seed Cum Fertiliser Plantation Machine” for demonstration period and also called two machine technicians from Punjab, India to support the process.

    Major Outputs
     The demo was successful in planting the maize as per the expectations. During the event, effectiveness, efficiency and economic benefits of the machine were also tested. The machine has been found to be simple to operate and could be employed to plant at least 2.5-3 hectares per day under normal conditions . Farm economics shows that it would save about 100 USD per hectare plantation through savings from seed, manure and labour. When the machine would be used as per the calculations above the machine purchase cost (1250 USD) recovery would take less than 5 days. This information was shared to the farmers during the demo activity.

    Apart from the demo, the activity also raised a degree of curiosity and awareness in the areas. Being a new technology, farmers and passerby’s were keen to know about the technology and its benefits along with the purchase details. Some of the farmers wanted to test the machine to plant maize in their fields but due to inadequate time and incoming election, it was not possible.

     

     

     

    The Final Takeaway: Though this activity cannot be considered as a “Silver Bullet” to solve all the farm mechanisation issues, it has undoubtedly added a brick to lay foundation for farm mechanisation in the maize subsector in the area. PCRA is hopeful that the purchase and use of machine in upcoming maize plantation season will initiate.

     

     

    Description: Seed cum Fertiliser Maize Planter

    The Seed Cum Fertiliser Maize Plantation Machine used for the demonstration consists of five trench liners through which seeds and fertilizers are shown in the field and covered subsequently. The machine acts as an add-on-unit in tractor which is used for agriculture purpose and is easy to operate as it does not have complicated mechanism. It can be handled by two persons after they have a general idea of how the machine operates and can plant up to 3.5 hectares per day. The major parts of the machine along with their functions are described below:

     a) Seed and Fertiliser Holder: The seed and fertiliser holders have been designed in the machine at the topmost level of the machine. There are five seed holder compartments where the maize seeds are kept. Each compartment can hold more than 5 kg of seed. In case of fertiliser, there is only one compartment but has five drains from where the fertilisers fall down along with the maize as shown in the picture aside. The capacity of fertiliser holder is more than 50 Kilograms.

    b) Rotating Wheel Rotating wheel in the machine is connected to the main body with the help of a chain and provides thrust to move the machine forward. It also balances wheels on two sides in order to maintain the required plantation depth. As the wheel rotates forward, the chain provides rotational force to the Axle and Pivot.

    c) Axle and Pivot: As the axle and pivot receive torque, they rotate the seed holder and open the fertiliser holder. Due to the rotation, each seed move into the vacant space of the holder and are pushed down to the outlet. The seed holder is designed to accommodate only one seed and is pushed down by the brush attached in the seed holder. Similarly the opening of the fertiliser also allows a specific quantity to fall down the pipe to the trench developed.

    d) Trench Liners and Outlet: As the rotating wheel pushes forward in the plot ready for plantation, the trench liner develops five trenches where the seeds and fertilizers get dropped. The trench is covered with the soil by base opening of the trench liner. The continuous rotation motion of the axle and pivot enables a specific spacing amongst the seeds shown. Generally the spacing maintained amongst the seed is about 17-20 cm and the spacing between two trench lines is about 60 cm.

    e) Extra Liner for Mark up purpose: One of the peculiar characteristics of this machine, compared to zero till planter is the provision of extra trench liner. Due to the presence of extra liner, it helps tractor driver to mark up the planted area and maintain the crop spacing for proceeding plantation.

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  • Energy Supporter Objects – The Variety of Energy Technologies and Uses in Refugee Settings


    December 5th, 2017

    A blog authored by Sarah Rosenberg-Jansen and Anna Okello. December 2017.

    A ‘missing link’ in humanitarian energy access

    Energy is a critical need for refugees and displaced people: millions of displaced people do not have access to energy, and humanitarian agencies and refugees themselves struggle to work with complex energy technology systems and products – as we discuss in the Moving Energy Initiative Report. Recognising this, Practical Action has developed an extensive portfolio of work on energy in humanitarian settings. This includes current research into how refugees practice and perceive energy, undertaken by working with communities to understand how refugees in Kenya engage with energy technologies and the objects that surround them, funded by the University of Edinburgh among others. By ‘objects’ or ‘energy supporter objects’, we mean items and technologies which are integral for, or attached to, sources of energy to make energy-use possible. These technologies can be seen as missing links between the energy supply (e.g. a solar panel) and the service (e.g. a fully charged mobile phone) – the energy supporter object is the phone charger, because without it the end energy use (charging a phone) is impossible. Other examples would include, matches, wires, cooking pots, vehicles for transport, and appliances such as clocks and headphones.

    Our research shows the extent to which communities maximise their total energy access needs by using a variety of energy objects and technologies. This goes far beyond having solar lanterns and improved cook-stoves, as, for people to use these products effectively, they require a great many additional technologies and objects.

    A comprehensive approach to energy poverty in humanitarian settings

    For humanitarian decision-makers to be fully aware of how communities’ use and value energy, we argue that it is vital that the total energy life of refugees is taken into consideration. Energy supporter objects form a core part of the realities of refugee lives, and systems of support and humanitarian response need to consider these physical things as well as basic energy access technologies to effectively work with communities. For example, a bicycle may not be considered an energy technology, but many people are reliant on this form of transport to enable them to move batteries to be charged, to transport firewood, and to deliver diesel fuel.

    Energy supporter objects in practice: Kakuma Refugee Camp

    One area Practical Action works in is Kakuma Refugee Camp, which is in the Turkana District of the north-west of Kenya. In Kakuma there are many diverse communities; with people from Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The camp population is currently estimated to be over 180,000 and has been in existence since 1992. In the past few years, the camp has expanded quickly with new arrivals coming from South Sudan or being relocated from Dadaab camp, which may close.

    In Kakuma, there are a dynamic set of markets, energy products and services available within the communities. During our research several types of ‘energy supporter objects’ emerged as being key to the community, including matches, wires, and phone chargers. The table below provides a summary of some of these objects and the type of ‘traditional energy objects’ they are often connected with or to in the Kenyan context.

    Communities solving their own problems

    While we don’t suggest that humanitarian agencies should provide energy supporter objects as part of their responses or aid programmes, we want to draw attention to the ways local communities are already solving these problems themselves. Many of the refugee and host community businesses that exist within or close to refugee camps are already centred on energy supporter objects and are supplying this demand gap themselves. For example, the picture below shows a refugee business owner who sells solar panels. But in his shop, there are also batteries, matches, torches, extension cables, light bulbs, chargers, speakers, sound systems and radios. By supporting and facilitating these markets, humanitarian responders have an ideal opportunity to also support income generating opportunities and the self-sufficiency of refugees – which can lead to increased human development and wellbeing of communities.

    Refugees’ energy access priorities in reality

    In many cases, our research found that the energy supporter objects were more central to business owners and refugee households than the source of energy itself. The picture below shows a music store in Kakuma camp, the owner of whom has multiple energy appliances: a computer, screens, keyboard, fans, a television and sound system. The source of energy for this business was actually a mini-grid connection, however, when discussing energy, the business owner focused almost exclusively on the appliances and uses of energy. This finding is in-keeping with Practical Action’s Poor People’s Energy Outlook report series, which has long maintained that it is not the energy supply but energy services that matter most to marginalised people – people care about what they can do with the energy, not where it comes from.

    We suggest that NGOs and practitioners can focus on the way that people use energy and the practical realities of living as a refugee, to more successfully deliver support and energy access technologies. Understanding energy supporter objects is one angle that could be used to achieve this. More information on the energy lives of refugees and displaced people is available from the Moving Energy Initiative and Practical Action’s work on humanitarian energy.

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  • Learning to fail

    Often we celebrate success and seldom talk about failures. In a modern work-space it is difficult to imagine an environment where we confidently and openly talk about failures. In evaluation meetings we focus our energies on ‘best practices’ but less on ‘lessons learnt’. For me, success and failure are impostors, and I believe that the process leading to either or in some cases neither is key.

    Habitually we do not want to try innovative ideas for we fear failure, and now and again the magic associated with naivetés of trying new and untested technologies is treated as a liability; so (hush hush) these things are off limits as we are super engrossed in conducting evaluations and finishing reports in an ever evolving professional work-space. Getting things right at the first go might be valid from a project management perspective, but is that realistic when we talk about trying to change the world and inspire others by demonstrating something unique or niche.

    When we tried piloting simple low cost water level sensors in the foothills of the Karnali basin, West Nepal, we failed spectacularly. The rationale of trying the technology was not to replace the existing monitoring system but to test if these affordable water level sensors can provide redundancy to the current systems which are rather expensive to operate. First, we tried with acoustic sensors and realized that its capability was limited for large rivers and there was a spider nest in one of the equipment when we tried extracting the data. I was lucky not to get bitten. Nevertheless, three months later we tried again with LiDAR sensors, only to realize that the battery connection was weak and there was no data, yet again after few months we changed the sensor specification and are now nervously hoping that it would record some data.

    Piloting low cost water level sensors in lower Karnali River, West Nepal

    Whilst these sensors worked perfectly fine in laboratory conditions, we were appalled to see irregular field behaviour. Ah! The fallacies of being too research oriented and mechanistic – but the spark generated by the excitement of trying something innovative and trusting ones instinct was unparalleled. Perhaps one can conclude that the senor technologies did not adapt well in mountainous environment. Despite trying multiple times, are we ready to give in to criticism or failures? Nah! We are ready to fail again, not because we have the funding to fail but we are keen to look into the technical issues on why the sensors did not record data and what can be improved? The possibility of the sensors working well with real time data transmission and solar panels excites us. The sheer joy of ‘trying again’ is pure bliss! We are un(cautiously) confident that this technology might work one day and has the potential to change the spectrum of early warning and environmental observations. However, perseverance is critical, and not being deterred is crucial.

    International development is evolving in radical ways and while these changes are happening subtly, it surely does demand that we evolve from normative ways of thinking and styles of working. Yet we still fancy being on the safe side and avoid talking calculated risks. Having failed many times in the past, we are not scared of failing any more rather we are eagerly awaiting for the next opportunity to fail, and Failing is Fun when you have colleagues and supervisors that support you in the process. When we start celebrating failures as equally as success that is when magic happens.

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  • Beyond the jargon – why I’m participating in the UNLEASH Innovation Lab


    August 11th, 2017

    Here are some phrases many of us in the international development sector hate: innovative ideas, scale and scalability, accelerating impact, disrupting ‘business as usual’. These words have been so over-used that they’ve lost all meaning, and yet they continue to be plastered (mostly inappropriately) all over development programmes and initiatives.

    So when I read about UNLEASH, a ‘global innovation lab’ for ‘innovative, implementable and scalable solutions to the Sustainable Development Goals’ that brings together 1000 ‘young global talents’ to ‘accelerate disruptive ideas by engaging top talents in problem-solving and co-creation’, I admit my first reaction was…eye roll.

    Emma working

    However, though I might be a sceptic of the international development sector, I’m an optimist when it comes to the potential for positive change in the world to happen.

    So when I looked closer at UNLEASH, I looked beyond the jargon, and I saw something with potential. UNLEASH is bringing together smart young people, people with energy and experience and fresh ideas, and facilitating a hands-on experience that allows them to learn and work together to help solve very big problems. This is very interesting to me for three reasons.

    1. There’s a big problem I care a lot about solving.

    Improved cooking stove in Kenya

    I care a lot about the access gap – the fact that billions of people still lack access to very basic technologies and services like electricity, clean water and clean cooking facilities. Five years ago I co-founded a social business called Pollinate Energy to tackle the access gap in urban slums in India. Pollinate Energy uses door-to-door sales agents to distribute products like solar lights, water filters and clean cookstoves on credit to people who otherwise have no ability to access or pay for these kinds of technologies. Today, I work at Practical Action and collaborate with actors from across the sector to figure out how we can better support organisations like Pollinate Energy and improve distribution channels to close the access gap for the world’s poorest.

    2. I solve problems most effectively when I work with a team who care as much as I do.

    I co-founded Pollinate Energy with 5 other young people, and we worked together in a highly collaborative, iterative environment. We had different skillsets and personalities, we pushed each other and learnt from each other, and there was plenty of conflict. We made rapid decisions and many mistakes, but we also adapted quickly. While there are some people who would undoubtedly hate this approach to working, I loved it. UNLEASH is seeking to create a similar ‘start-up’ environment for people who share a vision. When I’m in this kind of environment I am at my best and can make a real contribution.

    3. UNLEASH seems to genuinely value and promote diversity.

    Participants at UNLEASH are coming from 129 countries, and it seems the majority are coming from the ‘global south’ which is a refreshing change. Just over half of participants are women. And participants have been chosen based on their experience in tackling the problems that the lab is trying to solve. This kind of diversity is critical to tackling any big challenge, but especially international development challenges.

    The idea of an ‘innovation lab’ that brings together different stakeholders to try and solve development challenges is not wholly new. But it’s hard to find research on whether other innovation labs have actually had an impact. Have they produced new solutions that work? Have they made hidden issues more visible or built momentum that has forced action? Have they developed the skills and knowledge of practitioners? I don’t know – and it seems the international community needs to put more effort into measuring the success of these kinds of initiatives – but I think there’s no question that UNLEASH has potential. And not just potential to deliver on its goals of building solutions to the SDGs, but also potential to prove that innovation labs can have a genuine impact.

    To a large extent, the success of UNLEASH will rest on the shoulders of the 1000 young leaders who have been given the opportunity to be involved. We can go a long way towards delivering on the goals of UNLEASH if we:

    • genuinely build on experience and lessons learnt, and don’t reinvent the wheel
    • use systems thinking to truly understand the problems we’re trying to solve and why these problems exists in the first place
    • come with the right attitude and in the right spirit, not focusing on building our own networks / promoting our own business / adding to our CV.

    If we can do this, we might produce some interesting new ideas and approaches that the whole international development community can benefit from. And hopefully some of these ideas and approaches will help us close the access gap for the world’s poorest.

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  • Direct seeded rice – A promising resource efficient technology


    June 29th, 2017

    Arjun Bhattarai, a 51-year-old farmer living in Koshi Haraicha of Morang district, grows rice as a major crop in his land. Out of his three children, a daughter and a son are blind by birth. So, with the help of his only wife and some casual workers, he used to grow rice and vegetables in his own 8 kattha (1 Kattha = 333.33 sq. meter) and leased 10 kattha land. They were able to hardly meet their annual household needs. Moreover, technical issues like lack of knowledge concerning cultivation techniques, suitable seed variety, pest and diseases, irrigation facility and unavailability of labour in the time of need have made them more vulnerable.

    Arjun sowing rice seeds using a drum seeder. (c) Practical Action/Prabin Gurung

    He joined a Pilot Programme for Climate Resilient Agriculture (PPCR) -Rice training and demonstration plot activity in April 2014 with the hope of getting technical support to improve his farming practice and productivity while reducing the cost of cultivation.He showed keen interest in developing a demonstration plot in his own land. However, he was quiet hesitant to try the new technology of Direct Seeded Rice (DSR) in his land. He was afraid that whether or not the new technology would give the same production as the traditional transplanting technology.

    What is DSR?

    Direct Seeded Rice (DSR) is a resource efficient technology that can overcome constraints and limitations of traditional cultivation technology. Various constraints of traditional cultivation technology like higher water and labour demand, extra expenses during raising nursery, uprooting and transplanting, uncertain supply of irrigation water and increased frequency of drought has necessitated alternative techniques like DSR that not only reduces the cost of production but also assure its sustainability.

    DSR is not common in Nepal because of lack of technical knowhow, marginal and scattered land, low land holding capacity of Nepalese farmers and poor irrigation facilities. There are some basic requirements for successful direct seeding like, big plot of well leveled land, more than 0.25 ha (1 ha = 10000sq. meter), large enough to use a machine; and good irrigation facility so that the land can be irrigated and the water can be drained easily.

    Before the project intervention, he had also practiced SRI (System of Rice Intensification) with the help of District Agricultural Development Office (DADO) Morang, with a good productivity. However, as it required lot of skill and labourers, he was unable to continue the technology. In this regards he found DSR as a suitable option to conventional transplanting and modern SRI technology. He says, “Though I was confused on the performance of DSR, I found that this technology can reduce labour cost significantly and perform better in poor irrigation facility too.”

    Direct seeded rice seedlings 20 days after seeding

    Usually in DSR, first 20 days after seeding is the most important period and critical for successful establishment. If irrigation water is not under control then DSR plants cannot develop as per the expectation. During this initial phase of establishment of seedlings, irrigation should be done just to saturate the field. If irrigation water is above the saturation threshold, i.e., standing water in field then it affects emergence and early development of seedlings, and the seedlings can even die.

    More yield with less input

    Arjun used to produce 4 mann ( 1 mann =  40 kgs) per kattha but this time he was able to produce 5 mann rice per kattha, also his cost of production was reduced by 25% as he used only two labourers during his entire cropping period.  In DSR, the labour required for nursery raising, uprooting and transplanting of seedlings are saved to the extent of about 40% and up to 50% water is saved as nursery raising, puddling, seepage and percolation are eliminated. The fertiliser use efficiency is increased and early maturity (15-20 days) helps in timely sowing of succeeding crops. Likewise, up to 50% energy is saved because of elimination of field preparation for nursery raising, puddling and reduced water application for irrigation. Even the methane emission is reduced and the soil structure is not disturbed as in puddled transplanted system. And the elimination of transplanting means less drudgery to farm women labourers. Also the cost of cultivation is reduced due to the reduced labour and energy costs.

    Direct seeded rice 40 days after seeding

    Challenges in DSR cultivation

    However, while cultivating DSR, farmers in Nepal face challenges like land topography, irrigation and drainage facility, and availability of inputs like herbicides and lack of technical know-how.

    Weed is a major problem in DSR, and it can be only managed through proper time management, controlling and weed-free irrigation system. Most of the irrigation water in Nepal comes through irrigation canals that are fully contaminated with weed seeds and also this irrigation water is uncontrollable, periodic and not sufficient for good production.

    In this regards, we have identified possible consideration and modification that have to be applied while practising DSR method of rice production in Nepalese context. Based on our experiences, we have developed following intervention to achieve significant results, thereby reducing weed infestation.

    1. Use of Glyphosate: Glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide that kills all grasses and weed. It should be sprayed before land preparation. However, use of glyphosate should be limited only to those plots which have higher weed infestation and are lying fallow for a long period.

    2. Suitable land selection and Controlled irrigation: Usually DSR can be cultivated in all types of soil and land. However, due to difficulty in irrigation water management, upland lands are more suitable than flood-prone lowland.

    3. Use of post emergence herbicide (15-20days after seeding): Post emergence herbicides like 2-4 D and Nominee gold (Bispyribec) are being used to control weeds. Usually these herbicides are used alone or in combination to bring weed concentration below economic threshold.

    4. Irrigation Water Management: Care should be taken for first 20 days after seeding. After 15 days, seedling phase enters to tillering phase and irrigation management is not a big problem after that. As we select upland land for DSR, we do not have much flooding problem. For the first 15-20 days, irrigation is done just to saturate soil from irrigation canals or deep borings. After 20 days, irrigation and other management aspects are same as traditional/transplanting technology.

    Having learnt about the technical know-how of cultivating DSR, Arjun is happy to continue it over the traditional method. He says, “I was in a dilemma whether or not to try this technology, but now I am confident that I can adopt this technology without any difficulty and even my neighbours are planning to follow this technology.”

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  • Meeting rural electricity needs in Malawi


    June 20th, 2017

    An expanding geographic area of work for Practical Action is in Malawi’s agriculture and energy sectors.

    Malawi has an agro-based economy, with the agriculture sector contributing 30% to the national GDP annually.  Increasing challenges from the changing climate and the demand to feed a fast growing population are driving an increasing focus on this sector. Practical Action has a valuable role to play, which I will talk about in a future blog.  Today I want to concentrate on our role in the provision of electricity.

    Malawi relies on a limited number of hydroelectric stations to generate its electricity. But grid generation is only able to provide power to 10% of the population and within that to only 1% of the rural population. Current generation plans fall far short of meeting the growing national demand. We know that electricity provision – for lighting, for cooking, for small businesses, for water pumping for irrigation is crucial for social as well as economic development.

    Malawi microhydro

    Microhydro site

    Currently there is a high reliance on fuel wood, cow dung, agricultural waste, candles, diesel and paraffin for energy provision in the rural communities but these solutions are not cost effective or environmentally sustainable compared to renewable energy technologies.

    Practical Action is working to address this shortfall in rural electrification through applying its strong international pedigree in pioneering off grid power generating solutions to producing results and learning in Malawi.

    Over the past five years we have established a functioning minigrid serving communities, small business, schools and health facilities in the Mulanje area in the south of Malawi. This facility will soon see three hydro schemes generating electricity from the rivers falling from Mount Mulanje.  This operation is managed and maintained by a local social enterprise and is the first independent power producer in Malawi to be approved by the Government. Practical Action also has other ongoing electricity generation schemes in Malawi, this time using solar power, providing electricity to pump water into irrigation schemes in Chikwawa and Nsanje in the lower Shiree. We are already seeing results in the form of household and community lighting stimulating improved education, improved healthcare and efficiency of small businesses.

    Malawi milling

    Diesel powered milling machine

    The greatest opportunity we have now is not to continue delivering these solutions ourselves but to produce solid evidence and learning from our past and current work and share this widely to allow others to take the delivery forward. By learning from these interventions and using this knowledge of what worked and what did not work we will define our role in Malawi by assisting and supporting others in the off grid sector. This approach will ultimately give more people access to electricity.

    A real example this new role comes from a scoping visit last week to a new hydro site North of Muzuzu. We have an exciting opportunity to facilitate a hydro based electricity generation minigrid through working with a group of commercial coffee producers, local communities and artisan entrepreneurs, funding agencies and the Ministry of Energy.  The potential is there to create a minigrid that provides power for local businesses to develop, to provide communities with lighting, to provide electricity to improve education and healthcare standards and also to power the coffee growers and processers thus stimulating economic output.

    malawi coffee

    Coffee co-operative

    Before we go further, we must be clear of the level of responsibility that lies with us – there are downsides as well as upsides to this initiative. Our role initially will involve learning and experience to feed into a thorough feasibility assessment taking into consideration the technical possibilities of harnessing the river flow and the economic sustainability using supply costs and demand forecasts. We must also emphasise the social and environmental impact. The project site is in a rural and forested part of northern Malawi and we must ensure that the generation scheme and the development that it catalyses minimise environmental degradation (the aim is to improve this aspect) as well as incorporate plans to  address the social changes resulting from increase concentrations of people around the electricity access areas.

    We believe that our learning and evidence from our current and past minigrid work places us in a very strong position to produce the best possible outcome.

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  • What’s next for ‘Enabling the Business of Agriculture’?


    June 1st, 2017

    Each year the World Bank bring together their country representatives from around the globe to measure progress and push forward on new initiatives.  ‘World Bank land’ in Washington DC becomes a bustling mini-city within a city. Even the bus stops get the messages out.  My favourite this year was Rich countries shouldn’t define poverty for poor countries’world bank

    I was there to participate in a panel discussing the relevance and progress of their four year pilot of the Enabling the Business of Agriculture program (EBA).

    Work began on this in 2013, funded by donors like DFID, USAID and Gates Foundation. It set out to become a high profile global programme that assesses countries regulatory environment for agri-business. The intention is to provide governments and others with information which will help them to make better policy and investment decisions.

    Over the past four years Practical Action has been engaging with this program because we know that:

    1. Farmers and other agri-business players are deeply affected by the enabling environment and, whatever the context, it can have a direct impact on their ability to make money from their activities. Part of this is determined by the regulatory environment, but only part.  Our work highlights many more issues not covered by the EBA.
    2. Regardless of what NGOs think of tools like the EBA, they can be influential, whether we like them or not! The World Bank’s flagship program Doing Business is in its 14th year and has been shown to shape regulation in the 190 countries that use it. So however imperfect, we recognise that this type of information is used by policy makers and investors.

    Throughout the pilot phase the EBA program has had harsh criticism from a high profile campaign Our Land Our Business. This group are concerned that the EBA will “create a race-to-the-bottom between countries as they clamor for World Bank investment dollars”.

    Practical Action has not joined this campaign but instead has been working closely with other INGOs like Christian Aid to engage with the EBA team to push for a stronger focus on:

    • Ending poverty – we’ve argued for the EBA to focus more on those aspects that will promote inclusion, i.e. benefit smallholders and others who struggle to achieve gains from agri-business, particularly women, despite their dependency on the sector for their livelihoods.

    end povertyWe want this ambition to move from obscurity to full visibility. A bit like these pictures I took of the World Bank building during the meetings. A big (literally!) reminder for all of the primary purpose of the World Bank.

    • Long-term environmental sustainability, making agricultural sectors towards fit for purpose in a changing climate. This needs to be bedded into key areas of the EBA (seeds, fertiliser, mechanisation) not sitting on its own, as a special island of optimism without regulatory teeth.

    Agri-business as usual is not an option

    There is global consensus that agri-business as usual is no longer an option. Kristalina Georgieva the World Bank’s CEO, opened a packed session on “The Future of Food” with a strong call for changes to a failing food system. We’re interested in how the EBA can support (as opposed to undermine) those changes to happen. The ‘Our Land our Business’ campaign is deeply concerned that it will exacerbate the failings of the food system. We are more optimistic. Over four years we’ve had some good conversations with the EBA team. However it’s been challenging for them to incorporate feedback because of their very tight data collection schedule and the limitations of the tool, because the donor mandate of the project means the focus is solely on regulation.

    EBA2017-Report17 1It is encouraging to see that in this recent progress report  attention is given to both environmental sustainability and gender. The EBA team are clear that it’s still very much work in progress. They are moving the program to biennial data collection and reporting which is very positive because it means they can take some time to address the more challenging issues. This is vital if the EBA is not to skew decision-making on agriculture in the future.  For the next phase of this program as they continue to develop and expand it there needs to be a clear intent to deliver:

    • Deeper engagement and meaningful consultation in-country – dedicated to incorporating views of agri-business and civil society as well as public actors.
    • More attention on inclusion and environmental sustainability – integrate them properly into the EBA so they are in the data sets and scores which will get the attention of policy makers. Make them what this is about. It’s a great opportunity for the EBA to make the shift that is needed actually happen.

    It is so important for users and supporters of the EBA to take a balanced approach, given that regulation is a very small part of the picture when it comes to an effective enabling environment for agriculture. In particular the World Bank and the EBA donors should focus on delivering the SDGs by supporting wider investment in processes that will shift towards a more inclusive and sustainable agriculture.

    For Practical Action that means investing in systems that rely on fewer external inputs, creating lower risk agriculture for the majority.

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