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  • Menstrual Hygiene Day 2019: It’s Time for Action


    May 29th, 2019

    One Vision Creating Countless Hope.

    Entrepreneur Lily Akhter.

    From a destitute victim of river erosion to a successful entrepreneur, it’s not been an easy path for Lily Akhter (58). After losing everything from river deterioration in 2003, Lily and her husband with their 6 children started their new life in Baitul Aman slum, Faridpur municipality. Her husband’s earnings were not sufficient enough to feed 8 people a day which persuaded her to earn for her family.

    Lily got the idea of the sanitary napkin business from the Delivering Decentralisation project, implemented by Practical Action Bangladesh in association with Faridpur Municipality and local NGOs. This project worked towards institutionalising the participation of slum dwellers in municipal planning and budgeting the uptake of infrastructure technologies with the systems that are appropriate, affordable and maintainable for the long term. Here she received skills training on production, quality assurance and market promotion of sanitary napkins. With very few materials and machinery to start with (swing machine, plastic packaging), she produced her first sanitary napkins, which she sold only to her nearby community. She encouraged the neighbouring women of her community to learn this new earning skill and to get involved with her business. Seeing this innovative business in 2012, the 2nd Urban Governance and Infrastructure Improvement Project (UGIIP) of Local Government and Engineering Department (LGED), extended cooperation to provide advanced skill training and financial support to expand her business on low cost sanitary napkins ‘APARAJITA’.

    This product is helping numbers of adolescent girls and adult women to have the appropriate sanitary materials for safe and hygienic management of menstruation. This practice of using sanitary napkins amongst the adolescent girl and women progressively reduces the malpractices around menstruation and saves them from severe health crises. She sells her products to neighbouring communities at cheap prices and at the market rate to adjacent hospitals, private clinics and medicine pharmacies. To meet the necessary expenses and remuneration of assistant women workers, she got BDT 10,000 in her hand every month and financial restoration of her family who now have a strong stand. Along with her own financial well-being, she’s created job opportunities for 16 poor unemployed women in her neighbourhood. The popularity of APARAJITA napkins are increasing because of good feedback from the customers.

    Globally, more than half of adolescent girls and women are currently of menstrual age all around the world. Many of them haven’t got access to menstrual hygiene products either, due to limited availability or excessive cost. Recently on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2019, Lily received an award (3rd prize) and a certificate signed by the Minister from Ministry of Local Government Rural Development and Cooperatives, the Chief Engineer of LGED and from LGED’s urban sector development programmes for her outstanding contribution in self-reliant entrepreneurship. This award has profoundly inspired her to widen her business at a larger scale outside of Faridpur and to help numerous girls and women to have a safe menstruation and diminish the social taboos and stigmas around menstrual hygiene management. She has been selected for a visit to Mysore, India to learn from the My Radha programme which is a flagship initiative of the Indian Government for women in economic empowerment.

    Currently Bangladesh’s Government are preparing a National Strategy for Menstrual Hygiene Management and the impact will only be observed when it is operations are set in stone.  To get this radical action of our Government operational, we need to stand by hundreds of Lily Akhter to make their vision actionable.

     

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  • Pumpkin Commerce for Fighting Poverty and Hunger


    May 29th, 2019

    Uttam Kumar Saha is a Strategic Lead of Urban and Energy for Practical Action in Bangladesh.

    I went to the northern Char areas in Rangpur last week along with the Agriculture team to facilitate the field visit with the Secretary, Ministry of Commerce. Char is the transitional, infertile sandy land, which generally goes under water for six months of the year and is always considered as one of the biggest poverty prone hot spot in Bangladesh.

    What I saw, heard and learned from my first visit, it couldn’t stop me from sharing my feelings. Hundreds of framers, including many women, gathered to meet the Secretary and share their decade long learning and the changes it has brought to their lives by growing pumpkins in Char.

    Women told me that they have sent their children to college and universities or abroad to work. They have also improved housing quality for a healthier life. I was very excited to learn the transformation stories especially from women farmers starting from a dilemma to believing in the technology. They have access to land and input support; knowledge and skill on farming for production, storage, packaging, marketing locally and nationally. In some cases they even export to Malaysia and other countries. Farmers did not leave the practice to grow pumpkins after the withdrawal of project support and most of them are continuing it as business’s or livelihood options.

    This is a great example to showcase how small technologies can bring a big change for millions of people. Despite many improvements, fair price and net profit are still a big concern for sustaining this innovative riverbed farming, which recently got space in the National Agriculture Policy. The secretary advised to move differently.  He shared the example of the French fry by KFC, which is a well-known fast food company in the world. A French fry is nothing more than frying processed potato in hot oil. Technologies they use and the values they add to prepare a French fry from a potato are simple but the cost is 25 times higher than a traditional potato. Time has come for Pumpkin farmers to learn valued ideas for commercialisation, product diversification and processing. Equally they need to explore the export market.

    What I realised is that Practical Action still need to continue working with these farmers and adopt systemic and private sector led marketing approaches to make the changes more visible, tangible and sustainable. We need to bring proactive and responsive export logistic firms and private businessmen, who have willingness, experience and capacity to invest in the pumpkin value chain.  We need to mobilise farmers to work collectively, preferably as a company or a business cooperative. And link with private sector as suppliers, subcontractors and even shareholders. We also need to demonstrate and develop mechanisation skill of farmers for lowering the cost for production and to reduce physical labour especially for women. A strong advocacy component is required to influence local and national stakeholders for an increased allocated budget to provide subsidised input and financial services to these landless farmers. Development of rural infrastructures like irrigation, storage and road by the Government can make it accessible and available to the business cooperatives of pumpkin farmers.

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  • Learning from failure: the untold story


    May 21st, 2019

    Absorbing failure and learning from it is not always easy. Building on failure is even more challenging and requires great strength of character. This Practical Action story has remained untold for a decade because looking at failure positively is not something we typically do.

    I’m taking this opportunity of sharing our faecal sludge management (FSM) journey – a story of how failure made us rethink a problem and develop a more ingenious solution that put addressing people’s fears and concerns at the centre. It took failure to make us see this. But from this small pilot project that failed, big transformational change is happening.

    Open defecation in Bangladesh has rapidly reduced over a decade and a half. A sanitation movement took place in Bangladesh where national Government and local Government Institutes, I/NGOs, the private sector and most importantly communities, participated with joint ownership. This social mobilisation resulted in the installation of millions of toilets, reducing open defecation. But we didn’t think much about faecal waste management. This resulted in another development challenge. Hence, the second generation sanitation problem evolved as ‘faecal sludge management’.

    In Bangladesh around 24 metric tons of faecal waste is generated every day in urban areas where two types of sanitation system exist. One is the ‘off-site’ system – a conventional sewerage network with a treatment facility. There is only one such system in Bangladesh situated in the outskirts of Dhaka city, in Pagla, which covers roughly a quarter of Dhaka city. The rest of Dhaka city and the urban areas of the entire country have on-site systems. These mostly consist of septic tanks with or without soak wells and pits connected to individual or community managed toilets. With the exception of a few municipalities, there are no treatment facilities. This poses a threat because of the increasing volume of faecal waste. Only around 7% of the total faecal waste is treated at Pagla treatment plant and the small number of FSM plants established very recently in a few municipalities.

    Usually septic tanks/pits are emptied manually using buckets and ropes. This is discharged into a nearby open drain manually in an unhygienic and primitive way. Sadly, in many cases the outlets of the septic tanks or toilets are connected to nearby public drains or storm sewers and remain out of sight as an invisible problem. This is a much less discussed issue and people often do not know where their sludge is going and the impact it has. The occasional spell of consciousness strikes when this invisible problem becomes visible by creating nuisance due to overflowing septic tanks.

    The first FSM plant in Faridpur

    Practical Action had long been active in the sanitation sector and was concerned about the potential threats of environmental pollution and public hazard of faecal sludge. To address the issue, Practical Action piloted the first ever FSM plant at Faridpur in Bangladesh back in 2008.

    When it started operation, it was soon realised that the elevation was too high and it was too difficult to lift the sludge. To correct that technical glitch an approach road with a ramp was planned to make the operation easier.  We continued to monitor the performance of the plant.

    Sadly, Practical Action had to shut down this plant not due to any technical fault but because of protests from the community. People were under the impression that the place would smell bad and that the value of their land, property and rent would depreciate due to the placement of such a plant. The issue reached such heights that it went as far as the then Minister and the plant had to be shut down within 7 days of operation.

    Participatory approach is key

    We realised that our site selection was not done with proper consultation with the community.  We really didn’t try to understand the socio-political implications of this plant and the concerns of the people. We did not make adequate effort for local and political buy-in as we had underestimated the significance of community engagement.

    In our professional life, in many cases, we often design projects considering the ideal scenario. Often people’s views, needs, expectations even emotions are ignored. We tend to go to them with prescribed solutions assuming ‘our thoughts’ are ‘their thoughts’ or even superior. We remain more accountable to ‘donors’ than ‘communities’ who should be the central attention of our work.

    Faridpur gets its FSM plant

    Learning from this failure, our subsequent approach became more participatory, inclusive and engaging. Eventually, after negotiations with the municipality, the Mayor of Faridpur was kind enough to allocate another tiny piece of land. But by the time we acquired the new land, the project period was almost over and the money had been depleted. With the remaining money, more research was initiated to sustain our FSM initiative in a consortium with WaterAid. Practical Action regained its strength after a successful demonstration of FSM.  Then following a global bidding process, we won a project with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) to provide city-wide FSM services to the citizens of Faridpur.

    It is nine years since the construction of the first plant and Practical Action has now successfully established a large scale FSM plant in the same city- Faridpur. The new plant started operation in 2017 offering citywide services. Practical Action gave the utmost importance to the citizens and rolled out a city wide communication campaign to convince all segments of the local population. It ensured adequate political buy-in and local engagement where citizens and authorities were brought under the same platform to make them mutually accountable.

    Don’t underestimate the strength of the community

    So this is what we learned from our failure: the strength of community is enormous, and that community is the key. If the planning is not done with proper community engagement, no intervention can be sustainable. Political will is essentially very important. Without political and local buy-in working in municipalities is not sustainable. The failure which remained as a monument, in reality added a star in our learning curve, giving us the strength not to give up but to build on failure.

    We need to accept that in our work failures may come and albeit not-so-desirable, we should harness their hidden benefits.

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  • Fashion comes at a price


    May 7th, 2019

    The impact of the fashion industry on water resources in Bangladesh

    Bangladesh is the second largest garment exporting country in the world. Around 80% of the country’s earnings come from the Ready Made Garments (RMG) sector, which contributes 16% to the country’s GDP. A total of 4.4 million people work directly in the fashion industry, providing support to more than 40 million indirectly for their livelihood.

    The concentration of the fashion industries is high around the river banks surrounding Dhaka due to easy access to the capital city via waterways and the availability of essential amenities. Industries generate significant amount of wastewater and discharge them into the surface water without proper treatment, polluting the river eco-system. The effluent contains pollutants including salts, dyes and bleaches, heavy metals, chromium etc. Over the last twenty years, surface water quality in and around Dhaka has significantly deteriorated due to unregulated industrial expansion. Water pollution is creating stress in domestic water use as well.

    According to the ranking of National Water Security Index, Bangladesh stands at the 5th lowest. The major reason for that is the deterioration of water quality in rivers and waterbodies due to the discharge of inadequately treated industrial wastewater, unregulated groundwater abstraction and saline  intrusion.

    Photo by Sarah Beckhoff

    An analysis of industrial water use in Bangladesh in 2015, showed that a total of 11,000 industries are operating currently in Bangladesh, of which more than half originate from the fashion industries. Typically, water for industrial use mostly comes from groundwater abstraction. The result of unregulated groundwater abstraction is causing the depletion of groundwater aquifers. With the growth of fashion industries, the demand for water is also increasing. In 2014, estimated water demand was around 4,000 million litres a day. This will increase by 250% by 2030, of which 98% is expected to come from groundwater. Average groundwater depletion in Dhaka city is 3m/year and at some places it led to a ‘water mining situation’, which means water will not be replenished in the aquifer for hundreds of years. Unregulated water abstraction may cause irreversible damage in different parts of the country.

    The fashion industry creates livelihood opportunities for millions of people but at the same time, these industries are polluting natural resources – water in particular. We simply cannot ignore the significant financial contributions of the industry and its influence on the socio-economic dynamics of the country. The question now is how to strike a balance between the positive and negative impacts. The easiest solution could be understanding the causes of pollution and minimizing the impacts on the environment and people.

    Minimizing water use

    There are water-efficient technologies and products which can minimize water use. We need to invest more on research and development. With the forecast increase in the need of water for industry, we need to plan ahead the investment required for future water security towards saving the environment. Often effluent treatment plants are too complicated and expensive. Context specific effluent treatment systems could be designed and operated to suit local conditions. We can promote the reuse and recycling of water and wastewater from the fashion industry. A simple example could be harvesting rainwater and recycling water within industry premises.

    Tackling plastic pollution

    Another issue is that packaging plastic impedes the natural flow of water and aggravates water pollution. The time has come to handle plastic pollution globally. We need to find alternatives but more importantly we need to consciously recycle plastic products now. Technologies are available for recycling to a large extent, if not for all sorts of plastic. However, the very simple issue is that recycled plastic products are always costlier than new plastic. Therefore, to promote plastic recycling, it is essential to change the mind-set, understand the financial implications and adopt a conducive policy environment to make it happen.

    The fashion industry needs to revisit its investment paradigm and operational approach to reduce its adverse effects on the environment and become a trendsetter for the globe.

    Acknowledgement: This presentation was made on invitation from Drip by Drip  at an event FASHION FOR WATER in Berlin on the occasion of the World Water Day, 22 March 2019

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  • A warm and thoughtful breakfast with the WASH ladies!


    April 12th, 2019

    I never thought that I would so enjoy such a charming breakfast and chit-chat with women from different corners of the world at the ‘Citywide Inclusive Sanitation Principles’ workshop in Khulna, Bangladesh. That morning, 2nd April took me by surprise! I met more than twenty beautiful faces working for the WASH sector in different capacities and roles who joined the conversation, bringing a wealth of thoughts and courage, breaking the silence.

    The conversation began with Alyse from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She introduced herself by saying how everyone had childhood dreams and over the years discovered themselves  as a grown up women in diverse roles. I had no idea that the conversation would be so interesting. A range of inspiring characters appeared, including the world class political leader who influenced the idiom – the sky’s the limit!

    Many women referred to their father as their dream icon. As an engineer, a quick mental calculation told me that around 40% mentioned that they wanted to be like their ‘fathers’. They portrayed their fathers as independent individuals, change makers, decision makers, or charismatic characters from their own perspectives and context, explaining why they wanted to follow their footsteps.

    I was surprised not to hear a single story from a woman wanting to follow in her mother’s footsteps and asked myself why. Perhaps the traditional role of a mother doesn’t appeal to us – to be a blind follower rather than the glorious ‘father figure’, perhaps we were more attracted  to be an ‘achiever’ in our life.  This is just my assumption, I really don’t have the answer.

    Their enlightening stories continued, reflecting their lifestyle and work and I was mesmerised listening to them. They shared their aspirations and experiences along with their learning curves. The journey of one woman really touched me. She became a councillor, and as the wife of an official of the same municipality, overcame stereotyping and social stigma.

    Equal sharing of inherited property emerged as one of the critical issues for women’s empowerment, coupled with the state’s role in it. No one raised issues such as excessive workload, the capacity gap, extra support required to perform better and there were literally no complaints or frustrations. I personally knew that at least three of the participants are single mothers as well as performing very well in their professional and personal life. It made me proud seeing that all are making ‘efforts’ in a real sense, not ‘excuses’.

    While witnessing the inspiring stories, I recalled the time back in 1998 when I joined ITN-BUET as a Technology Specialist. At that time, the engineering curriculum contained neither low-cost water supply and sanitation technology nor gender aspects. The first formal effort was made in the book, “Water Supply & Sanitation Rural and Low Income Urban Communities” by Professor Feroze Ahmed and Prof Mujibur Rahman.  They introduced a light touch on gender awareness in Chapter 4 with deliberate effort, and with support from a Dutch woman, Ineka Vann Hoff from IHE Delft. I’m indebted to her for landing the first blow of gender thoughts on me.

    I have been working in the WASH sector for over twenty years. I have found myself talking about sh*t in front of hundreds of men, with a feeling of isolation on many occasions for many years. This scenario has changed over the years. Women everywhere are taking over leadership positions, even though globally amongst the total number of WASH professionals they don’t exceed 10% yet. We should encourage more girls in this sector and at the same time, girls should be able to carve their own way to create a brighter future, utilising the available opportunities to the full. Conscious efforts to raise voices and bring thoughtful arguments, take challenges and use opportunities for professional engagement will definitely take a girl in the right direction.

    I have one wish at the end! Maybe twenty years down the line, at another breakfast meeting, people will be stating their dream personalities to be their brave mother, sister or mentor from the WASH sector, the real trendsetters of the globe.

    With acknowledgments to SNV, Practical Action, ITN-BUET and BMGF

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  • Dignifying Lives of Women in Waste Management: Challenges and Way forward


    April 10th, 2019

    Earlier in March at the 2019 UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW63) I was able to share some initial insights about the gender issues facing women in Bangladesh who earn a living from solid waste management – in collecting rubbish from households and streets or in the recycling or reuse.

    As the urban population of Bangladesh continues to rise, and to rise at rates faster than the rest of South Asia, the challenge of dealing with ever-growing volumes of solid waste is also increasing as well as concerns on the safety and well-being of waste workers who are often on the front-line of providing much needed services to households and communities. Only around 55% of generated waste is ever collected. Currently roles are divided with:

    • Municipalities provide staff who sweep streets. They also provide large communal skips or bins for people to dispose of waste, which they empty and transport to a disposal site
    • NGOs, CBOs or sometimes private companies provide a patchy service of household collection, taking the rubbish to the communal collection points.
    • Informal sector businesses and individuals also make money by picking waste, sorting it, and selling it on to be recycled.

    Gendered roles in the solid waste system

    Women and men play different roles in this system. Women’s participation tends to be limited to jobs at the lower level of the chain including sweeping streets, apartments, markets, offices, and health centers; collection of mixed wastes and supporting their male partners to carry and dispose of waste in the bins/transfer stations. A few women are pick recyclable waste from bins, and help to sort and process wastes at plastic and organic waste recycling companies. As a result, women on average earn half that of men in the sector.

    Working conditions are poor, and women face particular risks

    Both men and women mostly earn money as day labourers. They often lack protective equipment and many suffer illness or injury, but being unable to work means not being paid. They are also not part of insurance or savings schemes. Harassment by employers and law enforcement agencies and disrespect from communities are a regular part of their life. It is hard for them to move into other professions because they are viewed as ‘untouchables’ by others in the community.

    Women face particular risks. Street sweeping or cleaning of shops and offices often takes place at night or the early morning, and working in the dark leaves them vulnerable to harassment or abuse. They often lack access to toilets while they are working, and have not place to rest for a break. This can be even more difficult during menstruation or pregnancy when they may continue to have to deal with heavy workloads.

    Women’s discrimination is overlooked

    These poor working conditions and inequalities for women remain overlooked. This is partly because women have low bargaining power as they participate and engage less in policy, planning, programming and decision-making by national departments, municipalities, recycling companies or other employers.

    The government developed its 3R strategy (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) in 2010 and mentioned ‘gender transformative approaches’). However, when it comes to implementation, women’s issues have hardly been addressed at all; neither by national departments, development partners, cites and municipalities or NGOs working in the sector. There has been extremely weak or no co-ordination between organisations involved in women’s rights or labour rights, and the waste management sector. We are hopeful that the recently formed National Task Force might take up these issues and promote better co-ordination. It is being headed by the Additional Secretary, Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives (MLGRD&C).

    Practical Action’s work in solid waste management: a new commitment to addressing gender inequalities

    Practical Action has been involved for more than a decade in designing and piloting integrated sustainable waste management scheme in different municipalities of Bangladesh, helping to extend waste services to urban poor communities. Recently we have committed ourselves to doing more to recognise and address gender inequalities.

    Our work takes a systemic approach looking right across the chain from waste generation, separation at household level, up to its collection, transportation and disposal or recycling/re-use. We work with the existing informal sector, both women and men, to help them establish themselves as entrepreneurs, and have a formal space to engage with municipalities. We also support them to improve their relationships with larger recycling companies. We have often done this through performance-based service-level agreements between waste co-operatives and municipalities.

    To get to this point requires a lot of work: assessing the current informal system and presenting the untold stories to municipalities to help them see the financial and service opportunity better engagement offers. Specialized facilitation and soft skills together with convincing facts encourages the municipalities to extend cooperation towards engagement and partnership with business cooperatives of informal workers.

    Informal workers are organised, mobilized and supported to form business organizations where women’s participation is strongly considered both in numbers and positions in the committees. A few cooperatives are exclusively for women who are mostly street sweepers and particularly vulnerable in various ways. Entrepreneurial skills are well taken care of so that members of the cooperatives independently can assess local markets and based on that they can improve their businesses.

    Education and exposure to appropriate technologies are organised specially for women which can significantly reduce physical labor and improve working conditions. Occupational health, hygiene and safety education and knowledge is provided together with on job work and follow up continues until this becomes established practice and habits.

    Practical Action supports municipalities to set up multi stakeholder platforms including representatives from women cooperatives, urban poor communities, NGOs/CSOs, private recycling companies, business organisations and other government organisations for inclusive and integrated waste management planning. Through these platforms, informal workers can advocate for increased annual allocations from municipal budgets, better health and safety provision, and to access a share of the budget allocated to gender concerns. The participation and engagement of women is emphasized in leading campaigns and movements for awareness raising, behavior and practice changes towards safe disposal of wastes.

    Private sector partnerships are encouraged to bring new investment and business skill in establishing treatment plants to recycle organic waste into fertilizer and biogas which creates green jobs and employments (mostly for women) in sorting/separation, processing, quality inspection and packaging, supply and distribution in local and national markets. We are also discussing with Bangladesh Bank and their partners who operate green and other subsidized financial schemes to extend loans to women led entrepreneurs for running the business of waste collection and recycling.

    Taking our learning to key decision-makers

    There are few organisations in Bangladesh who are considering gender inequalities in waste management. Whatever we are learning on the ground, will be captured and shared with key national departments (Local Government Engineering Department -LGED, Sustainable Renewable Energy Development Authority – SREDA, Department of Environment – DoE, Department of Public Health Engineering – DPHE) for inclusion in national 3R, WASH and municipal development programmes.

    Our initial learning was recently shared in a parallel event at the UN CSW63 conference titled Dignifying lives and empowering women in waste management together with International Labour Oroganisation – ILO and Women in Informal Employments – Globalising and Organising- WIEGO who also work and speak globally for social and economic empowerment of informal women and men waste workers to realise decent jobs and secure their work rights.

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  • Innovations in Briquette Business for Clean Cooking Energy


    April 1st, 2019

    Access to clean and affordable energy is an important determinant in the livelihoods of all rural and urban people, however, only a few have access to an adequate gas supply for cooking and other productive purposes.

    Those who have not been blessed with the access to this valuable resource depend on the use of a wide range of biomass such as firewood, and agriculture residues such as jute stick, leaves, rice husk, sawdust, cow dung which are not thermally efficient and result in creating smoke in the kitchens. Moreover, the use of firewood is aggravating another major environmental crisis – deforestation. The overexploitation of wood is contributing to deforestation causing an adverse effect on the ecosystem, and the environment and climate at large. This has led to the need for an innovation that can potentially deal with these issues from an eco-friendly lens.

    The Practical Action team in Bangladesh, with support from GIZ and SREDA (Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority), have devised an intuitive innovation – the conversion of biomass into briquette, a block of compressed flammable organic material used as fuel – to address the aforementioned issues. Briquette significantly increases thermal efficiency, reduces smoke and the cost of cooking fuel, in the most reductive terms. Not only does it have a thermal efficiency higher than traditional biomass, and emit less smoke, through this innovation we have essentially transformed “waste” into a useful resource and in that, alleviated its value by manifolds. It has also made way for a solid source of livelihood where women can be involved in its backward (raw material supply) and forward (market development of finished products) production.

    Throughout the duration of this project, the team worked with several medium and large scale briquette producers and increased their technical and business management capacity and created linkage with a wide range of biomass suppliers and distributors to reach a wide range of clients i.e households, institutional and commercial. The comparative pros and cons of the use of briquettes from at least three to four different biomasses were also assessed under this intervention.

    One of the briquette producers under this intervention was Mostak Ahmed from Siddik Sanitation, a veteran in the biofuel stove manufacturing industry who has previously worked with organizations like USAID, GIZ. He wholeheartedly acknowledged Practical Action’s efforts. He said that he did not understand “efficiency” and all those big jargons, but what he understood was the satisfaction of his customers, whether their needs were met, and that was his only prime concern. He expressed that with support from Practical Action and GIZ, he could further his stride on bringing optimum utility to his customers.
    Another one of the briquette producers was Josna Begum from Kheya (Samaj Unnayan Sangstha) who appreciated how this initiative has reduced the work load of the women, by eliminating the need for them to forage for firewood, which is not only cumbersome but also poses risks. She felt that this initiative has empowered women, in that, they not only now have the opportunity to network with each other, but they can also spend a nice time with each other and share their daily woes and joys. They could venture out and develop their marketing skills, which eventually led to a multiplier effect and encouraged more women to do something on their own as well. 

    The project namely “Innovations in Briquette Business for Clean Cooking Energy” under this intervention, implemented in Rangpur and Satkhira from July 2018 to December 2019, by Practical Action, GIZ and SREDA recently concluded. A learning sharing workshop was organized on 25 March 2019 to disseminate the lessons, successes, and challenges of the project. All the beneficiaries of the project shared their experience on how this project has helped them stride ahead and that they would love to receive more support in the future as well. 

     

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  • Striding Ahead – The Story of How the Livestock Business Centre is Changing Lives


    February 26th, 2019

    Livestock as an important segment of the agricultural sector of Bangladesh has seen an exponentially growing demand. Its prospects as a driver of substantial and sustainable socio-economic change are very promising, however, there remains a lot of room for improvement. There has been a dearth of knowledge with regard to the livestock sector, leading to unaddressed gaps. There is a lack of service and quality inputs for the rural farmers, affordable distribution network and absence of private companies’ business hubs in the community level. That is where the Livestock Business Centre (LBC) comes in. The LBC performs a facilitative role, with the underlying objective of working towards benefitting the rural poor farmers. It has been designed to address all the unmet knowledge needs of the farmers, with a goal of commercialization of rural livestock products and relevant services and inputs. It also ensures affordable output supply for the rural poor farmers, which is contributing to market access and income increase of the rural producers, value chain actors and other market players.

    Practical Action Consulting (PAC), in collaboration with a microfinance institute (MFI) established the Livestock Business Centre in Faridpur Sadr, which is an independent rural enterprise providing one-stop solution to farmers, with the vision of establishing a viable business model for products and services surrounding and including rural livestock products. This business aims towards a multi-pronged benefit approach for the producer community, for the traders as well as for the consumers. The objective of this project is to improve the supply chain by establishing rural business centre and distributions network and farmer groups and market-led production systems. 

    Many have made remarkable strides ahead benefiting from LBC. Stories of some have been brought to light.

    Sharifa Syed was a member of the Asha Committee when she heard about the Livestock Business Centre. She heard about the benefits of LBC and realized it was here to help. Inherently, she would face difficulty availing medical services for her cows. Quality feed was not readily available. Since LBC seemed like a welcome solution, she expressed her interest in availing the services of LBC. She first took a loan and bought one cow. Then she bought another a few months later. She then sold both the cows for a significant profit. After that, she never had to look back. She then repaid her loan to LBC and bought land with the rest of the money. She cultivated all sorts of vegetables, starting from cucumber, eggplant, gourd to onion, chili etc and made a huge profit from there as well. She invested some of her profit on renovating her house and the rest on her children’s education and household expenses. Riding on her initial success, she continued taking loans from LBC. She started from scratch and achieved resilience leveraging on the benefits of LBC. She now keeps busy all day tending her cows or working in the field. She boasted that her husband consults her for every major decision and her standing in her family and the society at large, has been cemented.

    Surjo Banu and Billal Sheikh have always been each other’s support throughout. They have been in the cattle rearing business for very long. When they first heard about the services LBC provided, they realized it tapped into a lot of their problem areas. They inherently faced some issues, particularly availing medical services for their cows. The local veterinary professional would not always be within reach. Additionally, availing medical services was a costly affair. It costed them BDT. 1000 to BDT. 1200, often as high as BDT. 2000. With LBC, medical services were now within their grasp, with just a phone call, and at zero costs. Things have become a lot easier for them since LBC happened. They collectively made the highest profit margin they ever made. In a very calculative move, they invested the profit in buying land and a trailer for cultivation, which led to greater profits for them. They can now support their children and cater to their needs with this safety net in place. The couple also hosts the LBC collection meeting in their courtyard, where all the cow rearers socialize, apart from talking about business. Surjo Banu and Billal Sheikh have set a wonderful example of how two partners have crafted a better life for themselves systematically, taking assistance from LBC.

    Afzal Hossain reaped the benefits of the LBC to the fullest with this timely planning. He sold the cow that he bought for a very lucrative profit for Eid, just a few months ago. He then systematically invested his profit to achieve a greater level of financial stability. He bought land with this profit and is looking to cultivate onions, which is particularly profitable in this time of the year. He estimates to earn an aggregate return of BDT. 4 lac through his clever investments, multiplying his initial investment by manifolds. He believes this was only possible because he had LBC’s support. LBC has made things a lot simpler for him. With living expenses increasing every day, he was having a hard time making ends meet with the profits he was making earlier. An underlying issue he had been facing was availing medical services for his cows. Not only would it be difficult to manage veterinary services, but it was also costly. The fee would range from BDT. 1500 to BDT. 2000. For cow rearers like Afzal, this kind of cash was not always readily available. If the fee of the vets was not ensured, they simply would not come, leading to catastrophic ramifications for the cow rearers. But Afzal feels the vets of LBC are one of their own. The vets are at his service any time the need arises, which has lifted a huge burden off his chest. With the convenience that LBC has brought, Afzal could diversify his income sources and become a more resilient individual.

    Abdul Kalam was sceptical about LBC at first but after hearing how his neighbours were benefitted through the service, he decided to try his luck. He previously had a bitter experience availing financial aid from the government microfinance scheme. The loan given then was a very meagre amount, not enough to meet his needs. Because of poor governance prevalent within the system, he also had to give away a huge portion of that loan as a bribe, ultimately not leaving enough for himself. He first took a loan from LBC and bought a cow. He then bought a second. He sold both his cows for a handsome profit, but he did not stop right there. With the huge profit he made, he cleared his loans and invested on land. He has been working relentlessly in the field to reap more profits. He was fortunate to have his wife Anowara by his side throughout. While he worked in the field, she would stay at home and tend the cows. Kalam wholeheartedly acknowledged his wife’s contribution. Leveraging on her enterprising spirit, he diversified his investment on goat, chicken, and turkey rearing. As a token of his appreciation, he made her a pair of gold earrings from the profits. Abdul Kalam and Anowara Kalam have a happy and prosperous life now. Because they are now more resilient, they hope to continue their youngest daughter’s education without restrictions. Abdul Kalam not only acknowledged his wife’s contribution, but he was equally thankful to LBC which gave him the footing to take up more ventures.

    It was evident from Naznin Akhter’s smile that things have been going in her favour. Naznin’s husband has a booming onion cultivation business, but she wanted to do something on her own and create an identity apart from her husband. Having heard about the benefits of LBC, she decided to avail the services. She bought a cow with her loan. When inspecting the feed provided by LBC, she found that it was of a much higher quality than local feed. She was also particularly impressed by the promptness of the medical services. Her effort in tending her cow yielded positive results for her, and she sold it for BDT. 3 lac 60 thousand, making a huge profit. With the additional income in hand, she was now able to contribute financially to her family as well. Some of the profit was invested in onion cultivation and the rest on her familial expenses. But Naznin made sure most of the investment went towards ensuring a better life for her daughters. Both of her daughters were students in the Faridpur Polytechnic Institute. Her oldest was receiving a degree in Civil Services and the youngest in Computer Studies. It would cost them around BDT. 6000 for their commute every month, which was now mostly covered from the profits made. Naznin wanted to set an example for her daughters, and she is proud to have done so. She believes because of the advises she received from LBC she now knows a lot more than what she had previously known. She can now transfer her knowledge and skill to her friends and acquaintances and help empower them. She is now very confident about her capabilities and is looking to buy two more cows in the coming months with support from LBC.

     

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  • Jute – the natural alternative to plastic


    February 18th, 2019

    Most families in north-west Bangladesh rely on farming small plots of land to make a living. But it’s hard to make enough and men often have to leave their families to work in cities, leaving women and children without support. Work traditionally done by women earns very low wages.

    Jute rettingJute is the second most important crop in Bangladesh after rice. The climate is ideally suited and it was once a major source of foreign exchange but lost out to artificial fabrics. As we become more aware of the environmental dangers of plastics, jute is popular once more.  In 2017 Bangladesh produced 9.2 million bales compared to only 5 million in 2016.

    Practical Action, with European Union funding, is working to address issues for farmers, processors and entrepreneurs to unlock the potential for thousands of poor jute producers to boost their incomes from the crop. Our approach combines a set of solutions that together bring about lasting change. Here are some that are reaping rewards in Bangladesh.

    jute processingImproved varieties of jute

    Nurul Haque grows rice, jute and maize on his 2.5 acres. Practical Action introduced him to a new, highly productive variety of jute called Kanaf. It grows tall, up to 16 feet, and the fibre is white, making it more valuable.

    Usually after harvesting, jute is soaked in water for a couple of weeks to make it possible to remove the fibre.  This processing is hard work and very time consuming.  We have sourced a simple machine which can strip out the jute fibre very quickly without requiring this soaking.

    For Nurul Haque using the new machine saved time and cost less.  He also has an extra 280 kg of jute to sell this year because the machine extracts the fibres more efficiently leaving less on the sticks.

    Leasing the processing machine

    The jute sector currently lacks entrepreneurs and growers are trapped at the bottom of the supply chain.  We have designed a leasing system to help people obtain the processing machines and set up businesses processing jute and other crops. Unemployed young people are being trained in metalwork skills that enable them to manufacture these locally.

    Sheuli Begum, from Bozra in Kurigram lives with her husband and two children. Her husband is a farmer. Their income from farming and selling jute fibre is inadequate and she has to borrow to support her children’s education or pay for medicines. Sheuli  struggles to repay these debts.

    It came as a pleasant surprise to her that women were getting equal access to this jute machine business opportunity. She expressed her keen interest to  join the initiative.

    After training, she leased a machine. Now she is earning 1500 taka (£14) per day with her jute extraction machine after meeting all her business expenses. She also hopes to get a better price for her jute fibre.  Full of ideas, Sheuli is looking for ways use the waste from the jute sticks. She plans to compost those to make organic fertiliser to use on their field.

    “I am a housewife and people did not encourage me to be an entrepreneur. They laughed at me. But I know, the machine has changed my way of living.” said Sheuli.

    Skills training

    Ruzina Begum, Jute projectRuzina Begum is 34 with four daughters.  Her husband is disabled so she is the family breadwinner. She used to work as a housemaid but was poorly paid and struggled to feed her family and afford her children’s educational expenses. With little education herself, Ruzina was unable to find better employment.

    When she found out about a local business employing women to make products made of jute, she was delighted.  She took the basic training and began an apprenticeship with the company Karupannya.  She was keen to prove herself and to do something for herself and her family.  Now Ruzina is able to pay her daughters’ educational expenses as well as providing proper meals. She no longer needs financial support from her neighbours. And through practise her skills are improving daily which should lead to more work.

    More than 400 women have undertaken similar training and are now working for small and medium sized enterprises creating jute products.

    The project is also supporting the production and marketing of jute products with some small and medium sized cottage industries. This has resulted in the development of new products such as sandals and yoga mats for the export market and sales are increasing.

    Limited mechanisation and a lack of skills and market knowledge inhibit development.  With the help of market development, skills training and loan systems these vulnerable communities can become more economically productive. And there are environmental benefits. Jute is environmentally friendly being both biodegradable and recyclable as well as strong and versatile. Plastic bags are banned in Bangladesh so there’s already a growing local market.

     

     

     

     

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  • Supporting the informal sector to deliver effective FSM services


    , | February 14th, 2019

    Next week sees an important gathering of practitioners, government representatives, funders and others focusing Faecal Sludge Management. From lowly beginnings in Durban in 2011, the growing numbers of people gathered at this two-yearly conference demonstrate an increasing recognition of the importance of this issue – supported by the SDG commitment to achieve ‘safely managed’ sanitation for all.

    Of course, ensuring people have access even to a basic toilet is still the crucial starting point in some places – including in the slum communities in Africa and Asia which are the focus of our work. The number of urban dwellers without even basic sanitation in sub-Saharan Africa rose between 2010 and 2015 from 177m to 215m (according to JMP figures).

    However, once levels of sanitation coverage begin to rise, particularly in urban areas, properly tackling the issues of how the contents of pit latrines and septic tanks can be safely cleared, transported and treated (the faecal sludge management – FSM chain) becomes ever more important.

    While tackling FSM has been recognized as important, there is still huge debate about how best it should be delivered. Many see enterprise opportunities for companies, small and large. Some take the route of helping companies to enter this business, especially if they have been involved in similar business lines perhaps in refuse collection (SWEEP in Bangladesh). Others see opportunities for youth employment in new business models for example with container-based services (Ghana’s Clean Team).

    A new study Practical Action has carried out in 3 secondary towns and one city corporation in Bangladesh reminds us again of the extent to which it is the informal sector which is already delivering these services. It also shines a spotlight on the extremely difficult working conditions they face.

    The study carried out in Gazipur, Faridpur, Bagerhat and Barguna interviewed 6 pit emptiers as well as 38 people working in solid waste management as part of the ‘Dignifying Lives’ project.

    • Many combined this work with other informal jobs such as being employed as street sweepers by the municipality, or working as rickshaw pullers or day labourers.
    • They may only empty pits 3-4 times per month as customer demand is fairly limited, although compared to other sources of income it is relatively well paid, charging around BDT 1,000-1,500 for emptying a small pit, while a daily labourer may only earn BDT 100 per day.
    • This work in Bangladesh is tied to particular communities and has been passed down for generations. Although levels of social acceptance for this work have improved, the harijan community as a whole is still treated as ‘untouchable’ to some extent.
    • Although they may have been provided with safety equipment, it was rarely used. Gloves, boots and masks were found to be too hot and impaired their movement, making the job harder.
    • New sludge carts and safety equipment.

      The work is often hazardous. Workers had suffered broken bones, cuts in their hands and feet and stomach problems, losing 4-5 days of work a month as a result.

    • They are usually poorly represented in discussions with decision-makers. Neither do they have access to social safety nets to support them if they fall ill or are injured.

    At the same time, we found in earlier work in Faridpur, 72% of households and 52% of institutions preferred to use the informal service providers, largely because they could do the job more quickly with less bureaucracy than the service offered by the municipality. For slum dwellers, the municipal service was not available because the trucks could not get close enough to their toilets.

    In our work in both Bangladesh and Kenya we are developing models and approaches for bringing these informal workers into the mainstream. We are interested in the extent of the service which can be provided by these entrepreneurs at the citywide level. If additional capacity is needed to meet service provision needs citywide, then who and how can additional capacity be brought in while not undermining opportunities for those who already rely on it for their livelihoods.

    We are also working on approaches through which their working conditions and access to social protection can be improved – and one solution is through forming co-operatives, and bringing those together into a nationwide network. That network in Bangladesh (the FSM Network) will be represented at the FSM5 conference. Come and find out more at their stand.

    I’ll be at the FSM5 conference, and looking to share experiences with others in the sector who are approaching the problem in similar ways. My focus will remain firmly on how the proposed systems meet the needs of poor communities and protect the interests of existing informal sector workers. Do follow me on Twitter @lucykstevens for updates.

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