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  • Overcoming obstacles to achieve success – A dreamer who never gave up


    December 13th, 2018

    It was a typical October afternoon in Kuldevmandu, Bajura. The sun was blazing like a fiery medallion in the sky, yet I could feel the chill. The small pavement by the road was filled with dried brown leaves dancing with the wind beats. Just down the road was ever joyful Budhignaga River babbling on its own pace. The Mount Saipal, in the distance not yet snow-cloaked, stood tall and mysterious. It was an awe-inspiring sight.  As we stopped by the sign that read ‘Nateshwari Foods Products’, it was almost 1 pm in the afternoon. Inside a small noodle factory was 24-year-old Bharat Bahadur Saud who was busy preparing noodles. For a while I did not want to interrupt his work, so I sat outside his small factory looking at the passersby.

    Festival vibe and nostalgia

    Dashain vibe was still on. Usually, Dashain festival lasts for more than a week. It is the biggest festival of the year, when families reunite and exchange gifts and blessings by putting tika on each other’s forehead. Historically, it is celebrated to honour the victory of gods over the evil demons. Not to mention, people in the rural areas tend to celebrate it extensively. I could see people walking around with red tika (red vermilion) on their foreheads. It somehow made me miss home and all the festivity fun. In a distant, I could see a man in his early 30s accompanied by his wife and three kids (which I assumed by their body language). The three kids had almost matching outfits. The man was wearing a light-grey suit piece with a Nepali hat and a big rucksack on his back. His wife was wearing a red sari with a flip flop and was holding a duffle bag (stuffed more than its capacity). Their foreheads were all covered with red tika. The serious looking man must have just got back from his in-laws after receiving Dashain blessings. Just next door was a bunch of kids grouped in one corner sharing snack together, which looked like candy bars and dry noodles from afar.

    Pic: Nateshwari Food Products (Sauce Factory)

    The first time I visited this place was back in 2014, with the ROJGARI project. Things were very different then. I am glad to see the positive changes; this place has come a long way. All of a sudden, I heard someone calling my name, I turned around and it was Gopal Nepali, our project coordinator for the Bajura district, he introduced me with Mr. Saud, “This is Bharat Bahadur Saud and he is the entrepreneur of sauce and noodle factory.” Mr. Saud greeted me with a smile and I offered him a chair which was just next to me. Mr. Saud seemed a little shy at first but after a while he started opening up and we had a very interesting conversation that went on for hours.

    Another one bites the dust

    Just like any other kids in the village, Mr. Saud also joined the bandwagon and went to India hoping for a better future. He worked as a cook in one of the restaurants. He recalls his time in India as a reality check, “I didn’t know it would be that difficult to make money, it was very hectic.” As a 20-year-old, Mr. Saud really struggled being away from his family. He got sick and was bedridden for weeks. He had intestinal complications, and had his appendicitis removed as well. In less than a year, he gave up and came back to Nepal. Things were not that good in his own village, so he went to Baglung (a district in western Nepal) and worked as a road painter (drawing white and yellow lines). That also did not last long. The contractor who hired him did not pay the full amount, so he quit the job and came back to his village.

    Pic: Bharat Bahadur Saud

    Hope and inspiration

    Mr. Saud did not lose hope. While working as a painter in Baglung, Mr. Saud was really fascinated by this restaurant where they used to go for afternoon snack. He recalls, “The owner used to make his own chowmein (noodle) and the restaurant used to be filled with customers queuing up for chowmein. That’s what really inspired me.” So, Mr. Saud decided to give another shot. As soon as he came back from Baglung, he went to Dhangadhi and learned the art of noodle making. He sold a small piece of land he inherited from his parents and bought a noodle making machine and started his own chowmein factory. “That’s how things started for me,” smiles Mr. Saud.

    Entrepreneurial capacity building

    Pic: Bharat Bahadur Saud ready to export sauce

    One of the objectives of BICAS project is to provide technical inputs, training and entrepreneurial capacity building to farmers, thereby improving production, value additions through processing and marketing of agriculture produces. Along with his brother, Mr. Saud attended training on ‘sauce (ketchup) making’ offered by the project where he also learned the effective ways to market the product. “The training was really helpful in shaping up our businesses. Therefore, we two brothers decided to open a sauce factory along with our chowmein factory, as it goes hand in hand,” shares Mr. Saud with a smile.

    It was no looking back from that moment on. While I was still having a conversation with Mr. Saud, he was getting frequent phone calls regarding the delivery. In a day, he sells around 480 bottles of sauce. He not only sells it in the nearby villages but also in the entire municipality, which covers more than 12 villages. In a month, he makes more than NRS 200,000
    (1 USD = NRS 115) profit from the sauce factory alone.

    Connecting with local markets

    Mr. Saud’s sauce factory has motivated the locals too, in producing tomatoes, chilies and pumpkins (required for sauce making). Kandhari Devi Saud shares her joy for being able to grow vegetables not only for consumption but also to sell it in the market, “Before, our vegetables used to go waste but now we can sell our tomatoes, chilies and pumpkins to Bharat Saud’s sauce factory and in haat bazzar. I am making a living from this vegetable farming.”

    Pic: Kandhari Devi Saud in front of her tunnel farm

    Despite his multiple failed attempts, Mr. Saud kept on going. He never gave up. His will power and dedication made him the most respected and talked about person in the entire Bajura district. He still has the same passion to do more. In the near future he plans to make potato chips and neemkeen (homemade dry flour chips) along with his noodle and sauce business; and also hire a dedicated marketing and sales agent. The project might phase out but stories such as Mr. Saud’s will live on forever.

     

     

    BICAS project is co-funded by the European Union and Jersey Overseas Aid. To learn more about the project click here.

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  • Technology helps lift women out of drudgery in rural Nepal


    October 25th, 2018

    General Information:

    About 40% Nepalese women are economically active and they bear the double burden of works in the family chores and doing farm works. But, the women from Manaagaun and its periphery have extra burden of fetching household consumable goods from Tipada, a nearby rural market with one and half kelometre distance. Anyone who wants to cross this distance has to face challenges and risk posed by Rudakhocha Vir, a hill having sharp-sloppy landscape.

    Being a development worker, when I was through the hill I found it a terrifying adventure whereas men and women of the areas had no other options but to walk frequently on those dangerous slopes carrying more than 50 kg weight on their back before the operation of ropeway.  If anything untoward happens, there is no way to get away from the highly possible fatal accident. If you look beyond the edge of the walking trail, you’ll see below the slopes descending to Budhiganga River which is scary, even to look at. The trail is so narrow that it looks like two big snakes hardly crossing each other!

    Installation of Gravity Goods Ropeway:

     

    Lower station of the system

     

    The situation no longer remained the same. After the installation of a Gravity Goods Ropeway[1] (GGR) no one now needs to travel on such risky road shouldering heavy belongings. The system was installed connecting Tipada (rural market center) and Manaagaun (remote village) of Bajura district, in November 2016. It is 908 metres long with an inclination of 34 degree. While installing the system under the financial and technical support of BICAS project, there were two expectations: to reduce women’s drudgery and enhance income of local households by ensuring easy circulation of local products, here however I will only discuss about the first expectation.

    Operation of the system:

    For its smooth functioning, a GGR management committee is formed and a member of it operates the system twice a week- Wednesday and Saturday for about 3 hours per operating day. In 3 hours, about 16 trips of different goods are usually shipped up and down, which guaranties two-way income to the management committee. Part of such income will be used for its repairing and maintenance purposes to continue its services in the future.

    People’s recognition:

    While travelling to the upper station of GGR, I met Ms. Binda Saaud waiting for her trip of rice bag which was to be shipped from the ropes of the ropeway on 22 June, 2018. She is a local resident of Manaagaun, about an hour walking distance from the upper station of GGR. According to her, she comes here twice a month to fetch rice and other consumable goods to feed her family of five members.

    Pulling out consignments in upper station

    When I requested her to share her hardship she endured while walking on such steep and narrow foot-trail with more than 50 kg weight on her back, Ms Saaud, at 40, shrunk her face, which was in fact enough for me to understand her ordeal by reading her face. About 18 months before the installation of GGR, her life was full of hazard. She lamented “all the time our life was in risk of falling down on the banks of the river with a zero chance of being alive while descending and ascending the hill with heavy load.” In this remote and rural setting, there are many stories of such agony, but walking with heavy load in such steep landscape was much agonising for them.

    During the course of the conversation, she said technology, however, has really made a significant difference to their lives.

    Reducing women’s drudgeries:

    As said above by Ms. Brinda Saud, it is absolutely true that the system or the technology has made significant differences to them on the following aspects:

    Firstly, the system has contributed to reduce the threats to their lives: no women need to walk on such a long and risky foot-trail via Rudakhocha Vir with their heavy loads of utilities essential for their household consumption. Their gravity of burden has now shifted to the ropes of GGR.

    Secondly, before the installation of the gravity ropeway, a commuter or a porter had to walk about two hours shouldering heavy load on their back to climb the hill to get near the upper station of the system. It was much difficult and painful work for each household, particularly for women over there. Now, with the gravity ropeway, any goods take only 1.22 minutes to cover the same distance, if load is properly uphold in both the ropes. Women from about 250 households of Manaagaun and periphery have utilised their time and energy saved from such risky travel to take care of their family members, work in the farms or do other income generating works.

    Finally, the gravity ropeway has also helped cut down the cost by two-third on the total wage a porter would take on any consignment. Average saving from the use of the system to carry consumable goods from lower station to upper station of the system is about NRs. 6,000 (approx. US$ 60) per year for a family of at least five members.

    In this way, a small, cost-effective and zero-energy based technology has made a sufficient contribution to reducing women’s drudgery, risk and cost in remote villages of Nepal.

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    [1] Gravity goods ropeway is a means of transportation that uses earth‘s gravity to transport goods without the use of external energy use.

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  • Market based resilience building in Bangladesh


    July 26th, 2018

    For the past week I have been visiting the Practical Action programme in Bangladesh to support their work on resilience programming. I attended the wrap up meeting of the GRP Project, worked with the consultant team undertaking the final external evaluation of the project, helped staff in the flood resilience programme design activities for the next phase of the project and attended the meeting of the Markets Development forum.

    Bangladesh is a relatively young nation achieving independence in 1971 and being described by the then US foreign secretary as a bottomless basket. The country has progressed considerably in the recent past and Bangladesh set a landmark record in poverty alleviation by reducing it by 24.6% between 2000 and 2016, meaning more than 20.5 million people escaped the poverty line to find better lives for themselves. Bangladesh has also been praised in the world media for its outstanding successes with regards to various socio-economic indicators, such as the rate of literacy and life expectancy.

    A demonstration of the commitment of the country to a market driven development approach was clearly demonstrated at the Markets Development Day that I was fortunate enough to attend. I gained a deeper insights into their valuable contribution to market driven development particularly as I was invited to provide the conference wrap up, due to the last minute withdrawal of the pre-agreed speaker. In summarising the conference I was made aware of the diversity of challenges matched to the wealth of critical thinking by the development actors in this forum.

    The Market Development Forum is a forum of over 25 likeminded organisations exploring the use of markets based approaches to poverty reduction. As highlighted above Bangladesh has made significant gains in this area, but this is not felt equally by everyone. The theme of this year’s conference recognises this with the topic “Unblocking barriers to markets” with specific focus on the following;

    • Youth and jobs, in recognition of the rapidly growing youth population facing challenges with inadequate growth in the jobs markets
    • Humanitarian Context, the role of markets in humanitarian relief, especially reflecting that Bangladesh has recently seen the arrival of &&& Rohingya refugees
    • Financial inclusion, looking at linking the small scale informal financial systems developed in poor rural areas with mainstream finance and access to traditional banking and credit
    • Women’s Economic Empowerment, many economic sectors are dependent on predominantly women works with the garments sector the largest GDP revenue earner
    • Reaching the disabled, how to make markets truly inclusive and ensure that the many disabled people in Bangladesh have equal access
    • Social services, markets development on its own is inadequate this session looks at the parallel development of social systems necessary to support and stabilise poverty reduction benefits in often precarious markets

    I was impressed not only at the level of participation in the conference, but also the diversity of organisations and perspectives displayed. The presentations were excellent and the question and answer sessions expanded the discussion indicating the depth and breadth of markets development thinking in the country.

    What were some of the key take home messages I picked up from the conference?

    For the markets in humanitarian context the challenges highlighted are in the case of the refugees is the almost instantaneous impact refugees have on existing value chains. The presenter highlighted that in Cox’s Bazaar where the refugee camps are located, the labour markets has collapsed from 500bdt[1] per day to less than 100, while the price of construction materials have increased with the price of raw bamboo poles tripling in price. In the flood case study the flood severs markets, causing value chains to be broken, as access to services, input and export markets become severed. In this situations it is important not to overlook the role of markets in the pre flood disaster planning, to ensure that forecasts and weather information are used to inform the markets actors to ensure that activities are matched to expected conditions and if extreme flood events are expected the critical supplies can be pre-positions for rapid deployment in the case of a flood event becoming a human disaster. Tools such as Emergency Markets Mapping and Analysis (EMMA) and Pre-Crisis Markets Assessment (PCMA) are invaluable tools to help agencies plan for markets based engagement in humanitarian contexts.

    For the youth and job sessions the situation in Bangladesh is challenging. The country has a growing youth population but insufficient employment opportunities to offer this potential workforce. In addition the traditional education system is failing to deliver the practical skills necessary for employment. So structural changes to job markets need to start in the education system. The projects presented are looking to develop appropriate opportunities for these workers, including self-employment in formal as well as less formal emerging sectors. Finally for youth employment it is important to look at the right supporting services including Sexual and Reproductive Health, Gender Based Violence, skills training and job placements.

    In the women’s economic empowerment, the first session highlighted the differential access to information for women and men. One project explored how the provision of information to women enabled them to explore alternative livelihood opportunities. Traditional extension services are focussed on providing services to men and male dominated institutions. New technologies can provide access to formerly disconnected groups. For example SMS messages reach wider audience and voice messages can reach illiterate members. The presenters reported that access to information is certainly benefiting women’s economic empowerment. But more importantly does the access to information lead to changes in the behaviours between women and men? Early indications are that access to information, is leading to women informally helping their neighbours and men being more tolerant of women’s engagement in additional activities and accepting if meals are late.

    In my closing remarks I commented on the refreshing absence of any market maps in the presentations. It is important to recognise that they are a vital tool in markets driven development, but can provide a very unclear method to share findings with a large audience. It was great to get the core messages from their markets projects without descending into the nitty gritty of the value chain, the key actors, the supporting services, or the limits and opportunities presented by the enabling environment. My final comment was on the absence of the care economy in any of the sessions I attended. I was surprised in a forum in which gendered markets development projects were being presented that I learned little about the traditional role of women and men and the implications for the markets driven development on women’s existing role as the care giver.

    [1] BDT Bangladesh Taka (100 BDT = 90 pence)

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  • 7 actions to boost small scale green enterprise in Bangladesh


    July 26th, 2018

    The term “green business” is barely understood by the majority of people, even the business fraternity.

    There is no clear definition of “green business” in Bangladesh yet. People take it as a business that either contributes to keeping the environment green, in other words, unharmed, or that doesn’t produce anything that contributes to a carbon footprint. Most people also understand that responsibility for keeping our environment green and safe rests solely on our own shoulders.

    Green enterprise

    The question is whether we have done anything to protect our environment? The answer is both yes and no.

    The “yes” answer would come up with some cherry picked examples, but the answer “no” would be weightier,  because what we have done so far are just some unplanned initiatives that have turned out well. When I say unplanned, this does not mean that we don’t have any plan on paper – you would be amazed at the many wonderful papers and policies in place!  We are very good at writing documents like policies, laws, orders, etc., but lack the capacity and political will to put them into practice.

    So, what could we do to sustain and scale up green enterprises?

    Many ideas have been put forward, but I am going to share with you seven that I have picked up from a Learning Sharing Workshop, organised by Practical Action in Bangladesh, entitled, ‘Promotion of Green Enterprises for Accelerated Inclusive Green Growth’.

    1. We don’t have a government-approved definition of green business. Often small-scale green businesses are not considered by agencies that could have worked with and supported them. Therefore, this is essential to have a definition in place as soon as possible.
    2. With a government-approved definition of green business, entrepreneurs will get access to Micro Finance Institutes. At the same time insurance companies could open their doors to them to safeguard their business. Other private sector businesses will also join in.
    3. Small scale entrepreneurs are not holding back in spite of such an identity crisis. They are doing business which contributes to keeping our environment clean and safe. Our small-scale green entrepreneurs are mostly poorly organised and untrained, and they work in unhealthy conditions. The time has come to develop cooperatives for them. Unless they get organised, deprivation will continue, and they will be looked down upon. With unity, they will be able to achieve dignity.
    4. One of the important components of green business is organic fertiliser. Government needs to give especial attention into this. Every year we lose nearly 82,000 hectares of land in Bangladesh, and there are roughly around 2 million more mouths to be fed. We churn out the nutrients of our soil to produce more and more food from a gradually decreasing amount of land. At some point of time, our arable lands will stop providing us with food. Organic fertiliser is the only solution available to rejuvenate our soil. Now is the time for an orchestrated initiative to save our soil by promoting the green business of organic fertiliser.
    5. Kitchen waste could a good source of organic fertiliser. But, turning bio-degradable kitchen waste into fertiliser is not an easy task. It would take an orchestrated effort of different government agencies, private sectors, donors, NGOs and civil society groups. Effective and strategic partnerships to do this need to be put in place now.
    6. In the recent past, the collection, transportation and dumping of household waste (mostly kitchen waste) was managed by small scale waste vendors, commonly known as waste-pickers. Now that there is money to be made in this, vested interest groups have appeared to take over control of these. These groups are also controlled by the local political leaders. Strong steps need to take to give back these ventures to the real waste vendors, and provide support them to turn into green business entrepreneurs.
    7. With a government-approved definition of green business, a major public awareness programme needs to put in place so that people, especially unemployed people, will be inspired to start in this business.

    You may be able to add other actions to this list. But, one action, which is essential is that we all work together for this cause – locally, nationally and globally to ensure that more people become involved with green enterprise.

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  • The Gravity of GRAVITY


    June 8th, 2018

    Life in high hills and mountains is not very simple. Access to resources, market, education to even health and other basic services are bleak due to treacherous geography; not to mention, how hard even commuting for the locals can become through the steep hills and cliffs. In absence of much prospect, many are compelled to live at edge of poverty. We have come across many people who have outlived great challenges with so much persistence and struggle. Their life stories inspire us every day to work harder and motivate us to do more to make life better for them.

    The Hardships of Hill, Belkosha’s Story

    In many stories, one of Belkosha Bohora from Tilagufa Village in Kalikot might captivate your sentiments too. She seems happy and content at first glance, but listening to how she went through the thick and thin of her life, anyone can feel dejected. Growing up in the parched hills of Kalikot, all she saw in life was the hardships the hills had to offer; in form of loss of childhood, no education and no alternative but to marry early and of course make a bunch of babies. With no option other than to work at the fields carrying fertilisers heavier than her, half her life went by foraging, farming and taking care of the cattle. In patriarchal society that is so deep rooted, men were not expected to take care of the babies she gave birth to almost every year after her marriage. That’s why she was not just a full time mom for year after another but also full time labour until the last day of her delivery and as early as 5 days after the delivery. Overworked and ‘un’cared, Belkosha lost 8 of her 12 babies to the hardships of the hill until eventually her uterus prolapsed.

    Belkosha Bohora (40) from Kalikot who lost 8 out of 12 children due to drudgery, Photo: G Archana

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Gravity Goods Ropeway

    But in the forty years of her life, she is finally going to feel rested. We are making it easy for women like Belkosha by bringing a pulley technology at the village that lie at the top of vertical peak. In Nepal, roads alone cannot guarantee access to services for the most marginalised and isolated communities like Belkosha’s. Gravity Goods Ropeways (GGR) is simplest form of rope based transportation system that works on the proven principle of a controlled freefall mechanism, GRAVITY. It is operated by potential energy of mass at upper station, generating kinetic energy by the action of pulley systems. Through GGR, people can easily transport goods from uphill to downhill and the other way round. Similar technology has been installed in Tipada of Bajura District where people are making most out of the system. We have witnessed people’s life changed since the technology directly affects farmer’s livelihood by bringing the market closer. Many farmers who were subsistence based have started commercial vegetable farming since they can easily transport the goods downhill in less than two minutes instead of hours and hours in the steep hills which have claimed lives of many. This simple to operate, low cost solution requires minimum maintenance and is indeed changing lives of many.

    Gravity Goods Ropeway being operated in Bajura, Photo: S Kishore

     

    The pulley system is being installed with financial support of project named BICAS, implemented by Practical Action with funding support of the European Union and Jersey Overseas Aid (JOA)

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  • From porter to proud agri-entrepreneur


    June 8th, 2018

    The inspiring story of Nara Bahadur Rawat

    Far from the madding crowd, a man who has toiled his whole life lives a quiet life. An immigrant worker to India and now back to his dwelling at Jumla, Nara Bahadur Rawat (47), is happy with his life. And why wouldn’t he be? Life in Jumla is full of vicissitudes and Rawat’s journey has been an uphill task. It’s not all easy for him.

    Nara Bahadur Rawat smiles for the camera

    I didn’t like the way I was treated by my employers in India. I was addressed ‘Bahadur’ (whether I liked it or not) and I had to carry heavy items on my back to multi-story buildings.” We were speechless when he showed us his permanent strap marks on his forehead that he got from carrying heavy items for years. His pain of emotions was heavy than the burden he carried on his back.

    Rawat lives in Jumla, one of the remotest part of Nepal in Karnali Region. After he returned home two years ago, life took a U-turn for him. Today, he earns more than 1 lakh rupees (Approx.695 GBP) every year from his one ropani (500 square metres) of land. Rawat who is a lead farmer was introduced to new variety of seeds, technology and improved practices in vegetable farming including market access by BICAS ( Building Inclusive and sustainable growth capacity of CSOs in the Agriculture and Forest Sectors) project implemented by Practical Action funded by the European Union and Jersey Overseas Aid (JOA) that works on building the capacity of local organisations to promote inclusive and sustainable growth; and increase the income of the households from agriculture and forest-based enterprises.

    Nara Bahadur Rawat showing his farm.

    Rawat with his wife live with seven children and studying from Grade II to Bachelor’s level. It’s a huge responsibility. Yet Rawat is joyous and grateful because he now can afford education with good food for his family. “I could barely afford salt and oil for my family,” remembers Rawat. His eyes lightened up with proud saying he is now able to manage nutritious food and vegetables to his family. Now he has plans to lease more lands to expand the commercial vegetable farming. He is now a proud agri-entrepreneur.

    The demographic dynamic baffled us. Most youths of Karnali have migrated for earnings. Elderly people and women were busy working on farms and we could hardly find any young men. We hope Rawat and his work can influence youth to work in own land and lessen the burden on elderly and women of Karnali. Rawat’s story has changed the perspective we look at development; every individuals’ enthusiasm contributes to country’s development. The strap marks on Rawat’s forehead may be reminiscent of his past but the smile and confidence he wears now indicate the bright future ahead.

     

     

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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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  • FSM in Bangladesh: How to operationalize the Institutional and Regulatory Framework?


    March 28th, 2018

    Bangladesh is considered a role model in the world for its achievement in providing access to sanitation for all. Currently, more than 99% of people in Bangladesh use toilets. The positive progress has created challenges. Issues such as how to empty the toilets, and how to deal safely with the faecal sludge need to be addressed. Manual emptying by informal workers, and indiscriminate and untreated disposal lead to serious environmental pollution and bring adverse impacts on water quality and public health. The informal emptiers have a big role in the current Faecal Sludge Management (FSM) market system but their dignity and working environment is a big issue.

    Last year (2017), the Government of Bangladesh published an Institutional Regulatory Framework (IRF) setting out the roles, responsibilities and coordination of different agencies (i.e Department of Public Health and Engineering, Utility Companies – WASAs, Urban and Rural Government Institutes & private sector) to tackle the FSM challenges. The framework was developed collaboratively by ITN-BUET (Centre for Water Supply and Waste Management), Practical Action and others and includes many of the key issues Practical Action wanted to see promoted. The initiative is highly appreciated by the global development partners. The burning issue now is how to operationalize this framework and bring visible and tangible impact on the ground.

    The country is yet to develop solutions which are proven to be technically feasible and reliable, socially acceptable, financially and economically viable and can be managed by the existing institutions. However, a number of organizations is doing research, innovations, piloting and demonstration work to create the evidence of the whole FSM service and value chain – including containment, emptying, transportation and treatment of sludge for resource recovery and its market promotion. These endeavors, including our own in Faridpur, have created useful examples and provided evidence in particular circumstances but are yet to go to scale. One of the biggest learnings from these initiatives is that capacities are limited at all tiers i.e. grass roots, local, sub national and national level to improve FSM and to operationalize IRF.  

    The government is not short of resources, and could invest in scaling up solutions for greening the economy and for sustainable growth. The most recent example is the Padma Multi-Purpose Bridge, the biggest infrastructural development project,  which the country developed without any financial assistance from external development partners.

    The time has come to think how we can build national, sub national and local capacity in an integrated, holistic and coordinated way to operationalize the IRF.

    A national capacity building program needs to address different aspects and engage many stakeholders. For example, changes in behavior and community practices for safe disposal of sludge is a big issue. Both social and electronic media has a significant role in popularizing messages to call for actions to stop unsafe disposal. However, the businesses are not properly orientated and they lack capacity.

    Informal groups, small and medium entrepreneurs and large scale private companies can play a big role in operating the business of improving the FSM services and treatment businesses. The local authority can invite the private sector and can create public private partnerships to leverage resources to improve the services. However, their institutional capacity is not up to the mark for design, development, management and monitoring this partnership.

    The professional capacity of consulting firms to design context specific appropriate FSM schemes is also an issue. The contractors that are responsible for construction of the faecal sludge treatment plant, secondary transfer stations and other physical facilities are yet to be developed. Similarly, the capacity of local manufacturers to fabricate pumps, machines and vehicles to empty and to transfer the sludge to the disposal sites is yet to be developed. Last but not least, finance institutions (including development banks, climate and green financing agencies, micro financing organizations) need to understand the sector better and focus on building their capacities to make sure there is enough investment to tackle the issues on FSM. The Department of Environment (DoE) needs to be on board for setting and regulating standards for improved FSM. Research & development capacity is extremely limited, especially when it comes to researching different aspects – particularly social, economic, environmental and health aspects. The Government should have a National Plan of Action for effective implementation of IRF on the ground.

    The emerging question is how to build this local and national capacity to optimize the impact from the current and future investment programs around FSM by the Government of Bangladesh and their lending partners Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. This capacity building is a big responsibility and cannot be delivered by any single organization alone.

    The country urgently needs to form a coalition/consortium of FSM organizations – led by Policy Support Branch of the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development & Cooperatives. These parties can designate and hire credible organizations to make a good action plan for short, medium and long term in participation with all stakeholders. This consortium should utilize the comparative strength of each organization and the organizations should not compete with each other. Practical Action is keen to play a part in such a consortium, drawing from our experiences on the ground, and our knowledge of ‘where capacities are lacking’ and ‘what are the best ways of building them.

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  • Learning through experience


    March 26th, 2018

    “ All genuine learning comes through experience “John Dewey

    I earned two degrees while working in Practical Action. I often boast it as one of my biggest achievements in Practical Action. My colleagues sometimes quip “when did you work, then? “ – implying how did I balance the work and study. The fact is I never had to study. The learning I gathered in my work was enough to earn me the degrees. I went to universities just for accreditation (balancing the field visit schedules and the exam routines was tough though!!)

    As I am preparing to leave Practical Action after 11 years of service, I wish to keep some of the key learning on record. Let me start with the professional ones,

    Too much focus on delivery kills innovation
    Timely delivery of the project targets including the financial target is important and binding. However, too much focus on delivery limit innovation. Innovation is an iterative process. An idea or technology has to go through several rounds of refinements before it is ready for uptake. If we become too impatient about the delivery from the onset, we may end up promoting the crude ideas and unproven technologies which may not work in long run. Hence, if we expect our projects to be innovative, we should be careful to consider the fact right from the project design and negotiate with donors accordingly.

    We were able to do that in the Strengthening the supply chain  of construction materials project, which I have been managing since last 2 years. As a result, we have been successful to demonstrate various new technologies like CSEB, Stone Cutting machine and innovative idea like Demand aggregation. The project had 4 months of inception period fully dedicated to understanding the context and testing the new technologies /ideas. The inception period was extended by 2 months to allow the ideas to mature further. Actual uptake of the ideas / technologies started only after 9th month. However, it didn’t take long to catch up the financial and physical targets as the ideas were mature and strategy was clear by then.

    Successful demonstration of technology alone doesn’t automatically lead to uptake
    I spent major part of my tenure in Practical Action promoting Gravity Goods Ropeway. I genuinely believe it is a great technology. It holds enormous promise to help 100 of thousands (if not millions) of people living in the isolated hills of Nepal and other mountainous countries in the developing world. However, the technology didn’t tip beyond some isolated success cases and sporadic uptake by few organizations. On retrospection, I feel that our implicit assumption that the successful demonstration of the technology will automatically lead to replication didn’t work. We focused our efforts on demonstrating the technology, which we did really well. However, we missed to demonstrate the incentive that the uptake of the technology will entail to different market actors (government and private sector), except for the poor farmers. The farmers, however, lack resources to uptake the technology on their own.
    The hard learnt lesson, however, came in handy in the Supply chain project, in which we consciously demonstrated both , the technologies and the incentives they entails to different actors. As a result, the market actors (private firms) are scaling up the technologies /ideas in the project districts with light touch support from the project. The firms are spreading the ideas and technologies beyond the project districts on their own.

    Resource poor not the knowledge

    It may sound like a cliché but over the time I have truly started believing that the people we are working for may be poor in resources but are rich in knowledge. They may not present their ideas in the development jargons that we are used to hearing but they always offer the most plausible insight and most practical solution to any problem. Hence, when you feel you are running out of ideas ok  stuck in problems, go to them. If you have patience and right ears to hear them, you will always be rewarded with the most innovative yet Practical ideas.

    Attitude is more important than intelligence
    In last 11years, I got opportunity to work with several people – people with different level of intelligence (IQ) and different attitudes (EI). Just to paraphrase them in the terminology we use in Practical Action for performance evaluation – people with different level of technical competency and behavioral competency. Though, I eventually, learnt to enjoy working with all of them, my experience boils down to the following 2 conclusions,
    • People with right attitude are more important than with higher intelligence for success of any project. Hence, if you have opportunity to choose between the people with right attitude and higher intelligence, go for former.
    • When people are given which is often the case, work through their attitude rather than trying to change them. Attitudes are difficult to change if they can be changed at all.
    I feel vindicated after reading this article. It argues the importance of attitude over intelligence for personal success. But, same hold true of success of any project.

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  • Enhancing Flood Resilience through Livelihood adaptation


    February 7th, 2018

    “The 2014 flood was worse than the 2009 flood but the loss and damage was less because people had learned from the earlier event.” Dinanath Bhandari

    I am currently visiting the Practical Action Nepal flood resilience project in the western region, which has been supported by the Z Zurich foundation for the last five years. The project is working in 74 flood vulnerable communities adjacent to the Karnali River, located in the Terai plains, the flat lands that connect Nepal to India. The western Terai is one of the poorest regions of the country and has faced migration from the mid-hills by landless farmers looking for space to farm. When they arrived much of the unoccupied land was next to the river, the flood prone area which has fertile soil great for agriculture, as long as you can save yourself and your assets when the monsoon flash floods arrive. It is in this context that the flood project operates, and I’m fortunate enough to be exploring the lessons from phase one with my Nepali colleagues before we start a second phase.

    Mrs Mana Kumari Tharu and her elevated rice store

    The raised grain store

    In the Terai flooding is a matter of life and almost every year a flood event of varying severity occurs. For many of the poorest members of the community this can be a devastating loss as hurriedly harvested rice stored in traditional ground level storage jars are ruined by the flood waters. It only takes moisture reaching the jar for the rice to spoil. One simple measure to avoid this problem is to raise the storage bins off the ground. But the problem is the bins can be very heavy and wooden structures aren’t strong enough to support their weight. So the project has provided 40 of the poorest households with concrete platforms to elevate their rice storage bins. Mrs. Mana Kumari Tharu[1] told me that now when she gets the message to flee to the flood shelter she is less worried about her precious rice. She knows it has a much better chance of surviving. If she can preserve this staple food supply her family will have enough to eat and will not be forced to adopt erosive coping strategies such as selling equipment or livestock. This will also reduce their dependency on relief food aid, something that not all families will be fortunate to avoid, hence ensuring those supplies reach the remote families who need them the most.

    The off farm training

    Youth workshop trainees from Rajapur

    We joined a workshop in which 12 young people between 20 and 35 years old, came together to share their experiences of a series of off farm training courses in which they had enrolled. This gathering was organised 12 months after their training to learn about their experiences and whether they had been successful in their new careers. The 14 young people gathered had been trained in such diverse topics as carpentry, dressmaking, engineering, plumbing and construction. The course was validated by the district education office and each of the graduates received a certificate which greatly enhanced their employment opportunities. All of the participants reported success in finding work and the story of one young graduate Mr. Anil Tharu who went to Kathmandu was particularly interesting. After receiving his certificate he tried to find work locally but was unable, so he ended up paying a middle man to join a construction project in Kathmandu. Initially he had to pay back the travel loan and the finders fee for securing the work. But he quickly realised that there was more work in Kathmandu than there were skilled workers. So he was able to pay back his loan find work on his own and after three months, he has saved enough money to return to Rajapur. He is now employed with a local construction company building houses and earning 30,000 Nepali Rupees (£200) per month.

    Mr. Sita Man Tharu and Mr. Prem Thapa discussing his Banana plantation

    The banana plantation

    Mr. Sita Ram Tharu is a traditional rice farmer who grew up in the Terai region. He was invited as a member of one of the target communities to attend a farmer field school at which a number of different cultivation methods were demonstrated. He said that most of the methods on show didn’t interest him, until they presented banana plantation. He and his wife, who suffers from high blood pressure, found that the annual chores of preparing the rice filed, growing the saplings, dibbing them out, caring for them during the rainy season and finally harvesting and winnowing his crop was getting too much. In addition the rice plants were vulnerable to flash flood events washing the young seedlings out of the ground. So Mr. Tharu replaced his seasonal rice plot with a banana plantation. He purchased the tissue culture produced saplings for 45 Nepali Rupees (30p) each and planted them in this plot. He admitted that the first year the labour was excessive, but now the 90 trees are established the job of wedding the plantation and harvesting the bananas is a lot less stressful than the challenge of producing a rice crop. And he knows that if a flood event does occur his banana trees have a much greater chance of withstanding the water providing him with continued income once the waters recede. The old rice plot used to generate a maximum of 30,000 Nepali Rupees (£200) per year, his banana plot now generates over 200,000 Nepali Rupees (£1,400) per year. When I asked him what he did with the extra money, he said he had put some in the bank in case his wife needed medical treatment for her blood pressure, and the rest he had used to send his son to Kathmandu to study for a master’s degree.

    All these stories demonstrate the transformative power of well targeted interventions and local choice in their uptake and adoption. This wasn’t mass development but locally targeted appropriate development, but I am still wondering if this will be enough to make the people and their communities flood resilient?

    Next steps…

    I am interested to explore with my Nepalese colleagues how these individual successful pieces of the puzzle, could fit together to tackle the underlying resilience challenges facing these people. Floods will undoubtedly continue, and will be supercharged by climate change making the monsoon rains more intense as we saw last year. But what can the individuals, the communities, the local government, private sector, national government and international community do to build the resilience of these people? These three examples are all successes in building resilience, however we still have a long way to go to roll this out across this one river basin let alone the other twenty plus river basins that criss-cross Nepal.

    More to follow….

    Find out more

    Discover more ways to build community flood resilience on the Flood Resilience Portal by exploring the resources library or sending an inquiry . Or share your own experiences with the Flood Resilience Portal community.

    [1] Tharu is indigenous to the Terai with over 70% of the population sharing this surname

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