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Fight Poverty By Improving Cooking in Africa
One of the goals in the 2015 Millennium Development Goals was to eradicate hunger and poverty. New technologies and programs are currently being developed to achieve this global challenge. One important focus of such innovations is to fight poverty by improving cooking.

A shortage of fuel and the use of biomass and kerosene for cooking both cause many health issues in Africa, such as physical ailments from collecting firewood, burns and respiratory problems due to the inhalation of deadly smoke fumes. In order to feed their families, African women in poor communities face life-threatening attacks and rape.

Furthermore, in some places where local firewood sources have been completely used up, women have to resort to digging up tree roots or travel increasingly further away from their homes in order to find firewood. The practice of cooking with wood fuel contributes to poverty in Africa by taking up time and resources families could be using to buy food and generate income. Fortunately, new technologies in Africa are making the process of cooking cleaner and more efficient.

One example is the fuel-efficient woodstove created by the global innovating charity, Practical Action. The woodstoves are easy to use, affordable and require less wood fuel. Their high sides allow for improved heat transfer. Best of all, they can be made with clay and bricks that are readily available in local communities. Practical Action has also trained more than 150 women to use its new stoves as well as to practice fuel saving methods, like using dry wood, pre-soaking beans prior to cooking, using a weighted lid and regulating the air supply to the fire.

Another initiative that is helping to fight poverty by improving cooking is the SCORE (Stove for Cooking, Refrigeration and Electricity) project. Also supported by Practical Action, the stove was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and created under the collaboration of the University of Nottingham, City University, the University of Manchester and Queen Mary and the University of London.

SCORE is a smokeless cooking stove with a generator powered by burning different kinds of biomass like wood and animal dung. It converts the generated heat to acoustical energy and then to electricity, allowing for even the waste heat to be utilized when cooking. The SCORE project aims to halve the household fuel consumption and to use local, low-cost materials as much as possible.

Other innovative efforts to fight poverty by improving cooking include introducing new construction materials, improving designs for basic cooking stoves and intermediate rocket stoves as well as enabling for more customization in design. Such efforts are led by multistakeholder initiatives such as EnDev and ProBEC, national cookstove programs as well as NGOs like GERES in Africa and Southeast Asia and HELPS in Central America.

However, reducing the combustion of solid cooking fuels, in general, is important to the health of the poor. Burning fuels like charcoal, wood and coal produce significant emissions of hazardous air pollutants (HAP) that have potential carcinogenic and other harmful effects. According to a recent World Health Organization study, HAP emissions contributed to 4.3 million premature deaths in 2012 and more than 110 million years lost due to ill-health disability or early death in 2010.

Forced draft and natural draft gasifier stoves are a promising technological solution. Their side-loaded design significantly decreases emissions without requiring the user to prepare or refill the fuel. While advanced biomass stoves are still at a very early stage for commercialization and field testing, they have the greatest potential to improve cooking health conditions.

BioLite’s patented Direct Conduction Thermoelectric System, the HomeStove, is a great example of this. Not only does it autonomously power an internal fan, but it also generates extra electricity to charge LED lights and mobile phones.

As for the renewable fuel sector, cookstoves are still in embryonic stages. They also typically remain expensive. One promising biogas digester model is that of SimGas Tanzania. It is small and custom designed for East African farmers to use by feeding in manure as its power source.

These improved cookstoves, from the cheaper ones produced by artisan collectives like GEREs and EnDev to the high-tech ones manufactured on the global mass scale, face several common challenges. The growing cost of materials and labor make it difficult for such producers to make cookstoves that the poor would be able to afford as well as to transport cookstoves where the poor would have access to them. This makes quality control and, in turn, safety additional issues. Lastly, they also lack access to capital markets.

While many improvements have been made to fight poverty by improving cooking in Africa, much still needs to be done in making improved cookstoves available to the poor.

– Connie Loo

Photo: Flickr

Pumpkins

Every year, the citizens of Bangladesh have to contend with monsoon season, a cool, rainy period that usually lasts from June until October. Most parts of the country get at least 2000 millimeters of rain per year, and 80 percent of that falls during monsoon season. Northeastern Bangladesh is typically hit hardest, sometimes receiving over 4000 millimeters per year.

The heavy rains bring another problem: flooding. When rivers flood, they destroy both crops and nutrient-rich topsoil. As flood waters recede, they often leave behind large quantities of sand and silt, which reduces the availability of arable land.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) blames this problem in part for Bangladesh’s malnutrition epidemic. According to USAID, 25 percent of Bangladeshis remain food insecure, and women and children are affected most. Of children under five, 16 percent are acutely malnourished and 41 percent have stunted growth.

But one organization believes it has found a solution. Practical Action, an international NGO that uses technology to alleviate poverty in developing countries, has spent several years experimenting with various “sandbar cropping” techniques in Bangladesh. Their solution? Pumpkins.

Practical Action’s tried-and-true technique for farming pumpkins in the sand is to dig a pit in the sand and fill it with compost and a dozen pumpkin seeds. The pumpkins can grow and be harvested before monsoon season rolls around again.

Pumpkins provide a variety of health and logistical benefits. They can store for a year, providing a stable, reliable source of food. They are also a good source of Vitamin A, a nutrient often lacking in Bangladeshi diets. And in a nation where rivers often change course during monsoons and farmers thus lose their land, sandbar cropping provides more security.

This is why Practical Action started Pumpkins Against Poverty, a project to train 50,000 Bangladeshis with no land of their own to grow up to 600 pumpkins a year. Participants can use the extra income generated by selling the crop to buy livestock or send their children to school. The project will last until March 2018 and has the potential to be replicated nationwide.

Bangladesh is far from the only country to realize the value in farming pumpkins as a solution to poverty. Uganda has also embraced the crop as a profitable, nutritious foodstuff. Pumpkin varieties in Uganda are numerous and include Sweet Cream, Bala, Dulu, Onziga, Sunfish, Anderina and Sugar Pie, among others.

Fatuma Namatosi, founder of Ugandan agribusiness firm Byeffe Foods Company Ltd., decided to center her business on pumpkins, citing them as her favorite crop. The company makes pumpkin porridge, which is popular among children and gives them a vital nutrition boost. Byeffe also helps teach young Ugandans agricultural entrepreneurial skills and creates jobs in the field that employ thousands of young people.

Namatosi founded Byeffe in 2015. Since then, she says, “I’ve provided more accessible and nutritious food options to communities across Uganda, created a variety of agricultural jobs that generate income for families, and empowered more people like me, especially young women, to create their own path in the agriculture industry.” All that progress comes down to pumpkins.

Chuck Hasenauer

Photo: Flickr

Technology to Alleviate Poverty
Politicians everywhere are starting to learn the relation between technology and poverty. They are starting to realize that in the growing demand for new innovations in technology plays a part in the solution to poverty. Technology makes not only global communication and information access easier, it also creates infrastructure and development in developing nations, helps discover and get access to alternative resources, and along with all this, helps create many jobs and stimulates the economy.

 

In Practice: Technology Eradicating Poverty

 

Chile’s president, Sebastian Pinera, sees the importance of technology and how it can alleviate poverty. The Chilean government has almost doubled their investment in technology. Pinera hopes this will help Chile rise out of poverty by the end of the decade. Various programs in Chile encourage innovation and development of technology. From organizations that give grants to entrepreneurs to organizations that support travel abroad (such as Silicon Valley in California) to see and learn how the hub of technology works, there is a lot of encouragement of creativity and innovation in Chile. Such dedication to eliminating poverty helps not just those living in poverty, but also the national economy, and the world with the possible technological innovations.

Organizations like Practical Action focus on helping those living in extreme poverty with the help of technology. Their concept of technology justice, that technology should be aimed at helping humanity rather than just focused on pleasing the consumers who can afford technology, is something that will greatly benefit those in need. By bringing those living in poverty access to technologies such as electricity, technology that ensures clean water, technology that improves agricultural yield, and preparation for natural disasters, Practical Action gives them opportunities that bring not only financial stability and good health, but also the opportunity to rise out of poverty.

– Aalekhya Malladi

Sources: Bloomberg, Practical Action
Photo: Twisted Sifter

Almost three-quarters of Africans rely on smallholder farming for their livelihood, yet one-third of all Africans go hungry. To meet that need, those farmers must increase their production dramatically over the next 40 years—and most of the world’s uncultivated land is actually in Africa. Clearly, smallholder farming in Africa is a big deal. Want to know the major players in the development of African farming? Read on.

1. TechnoServe

This is one of those organizations that has been working behind the scenes, primarily in Africa, for decades. Since the 1960’s, TechnoServe has been quietly targeting failing food markets, identifying unmet demand in those markets, finding the businesses that can meet that demand, and partnering with those businesses so that they grow and uplift their communities. Their emphasis is on partnership—they want to find the locals already doing great work and help them do it better. In 2011 alone, they helped their partners collectively earn $315 million in revenue and impacted over 2.5 million people’s lives in over 30 countries as a result.

2. One Acre Fund

This is the organization that claims to, within three years, represent the largest network of African smallholder farmers. How? They predicate their entire model on one simple idea: when a farmer increases their harvest, they lifts themselves and their community out of hunger and poverty. Toward that end, the organization offers a comprehensive “market-in-a-box” that lends farmers crucial agricultural inputs (seed and fertilizer), trains them how to use it, and connects them with markets to sell their yield. Their simple model has already reached over 60,000 farmers in Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi, and they project that they will reach 1.4 million farmers by 2020.

 3. Farm Africa

One of the leading African agricultural development organizations, Farm Africa does it all: bringing farmers better tools, showing them how to double or triple their harvest, and training them how to navigate the market. What makes them different? They say it is their unique, compound approach of agricultural innovation and marketing savvy. Because they are highly specialized in farming, they have a wide inroad into the development of Africa’s unfarmed land and untrained famers. In 2012 alone, they increased coffee crop revenue for farmers in Ethiopia by 600% and helped 30,000 people in Tanzania double their crop yields.

4. Self-Help Africa

If you really want to know what’s going on in the African farming world, you need to know about Self-Help. For over 25 years, this organization has been supporting farming entrepreneurs in Africa with microcredit programs, enterprise development, community cooperatives, access to inputs, and policy advocacy. Because the success of smallholder farmers lies at the heart of so many poverty-related issues in Africa, their mission is to empower Africa’s rural population. They work in nine countries across Africa and have reached millions of Africans with their services.

5. Practical Action

Yes, the name is broad—but so is the organization. Although Practical Action is one of the great champions of agro-economic development in Africa, it works all over the world. Its focus is “technology justice”, which is the equitable application of technology for positive social impact. So what are they doing in African agriculture? The answer: radical community development, policy advocacy focused on food rights, and over a dozen groundbreaking agricultural innovations, to say the least.

– John Mahon

Sources: IPS, Practical Action, One Acre Fund, Farm Africa, TechnoServe
Photo: The Guardian

rice_farms_climate_change

Climate change is having a profound effect on coastal rice farming. The resulting increase in pests, diseases, water scarcity, and salinity has been devastating to farmers.

Research conducted over the past decade demonstrates a strong relationship between climate change and the prevalence of disease and pests in rice paddies. Crop stressors like irregular rainfall often increase the virulence of rice blights such as brown spot and blast. Extreme weather, like flooding or drought, forces farmers into asynchronous, or unseasonal, cropping. Such practices, along with the weather events themselves, often lead to pest population explosions.

Water scarcity is another factor affecting rice production. As rice requires a certain amount of water to grow, even less-severe droughts can take a toll on production yields. Climate change continues to cause more frequent and more severe droughts, and rice farmers are starting to feel the pressure of drying rice paddies.

As higher temperatures and lower rainfall cause a decrease in ground water, sea levels continue to rise and intrude into fresh water areas. These factors cause a noted increase in salinity. Rice, particularly higher-yielding hybrids, is only moderately tolerant of salt. Thus, increases in the salinity usually see a decrease in yields for the affected paddies.

Drastic decreases in production are causing some farmers to abandon their fields. Several governments and NGOs, like Practical Action, a UK-based development organization, are launching initiatives to help these rice farmers cope with the growing challenges of climate change.

Practical Action partnered with farmers in southern Sri Lanka, a country that has seen significant effects of climate change over the past 20 years. The organization participated in farmer-led trials of traditional varieties of rice to assess each type’s resistance to temperature, pests, and salinity. The varieties were held against standards of crop duration, plant height, grain quality, and overall yield.

Sri Lanka has over 2,000 traditional varieties of rice. Most of these varieties had been abandoned for modern rice types and hybrids, but new climate challenges are turning many farmers back to indigenous varieties. The traditional rice is nutritional, some even having medicinal properties, and according to tests are more resilient in the face of climate change.

In fact, of the ten varieties tested by farmers in the Practical Action program, four scored high enough to now be officially promoted through farmer organizations as hardy and saline tolerant. The traditional rice cannot, generally, produce the high yields of hybrids, but its resilience and popularity in the consumer market still enable a farmer to generate profit.

It seems that for an agricultural community faced with emerging climate challenges, revisiting traditional methods could be the best solution.

– Lauren Brown

Sources: Practical Action
Photo: International Land Coalition

Technology_and_global_poverty_opt
The idea that technology can end poverty has been hotly debated in recent years. So much so that The Guardian’s Poverty Matters Blog made the claim that the “D” in ICT4D, or Information and Communication Technologies for Development, more resembled “debate” than development. Supporters say access to technology can accelerate economic development. Critics have pointed to classrooms full of unused computers and under-developed irrigation to show that, no, technology cannot end poverty.

The key to harnessing technology in the fight against poverty is to consider the usefulness of the technology to those living in extreme poverty. Technology can be cutting edge in theory but worthless in practice. For example, it does no good to develop a high-tech, high-yield seed if farmers do not have the space to store surplus crops.

Perhaps, as Susan Davis, CEO of BRAC USA, suggests, ‘tethering’ technology to reality will provide the common ground fertile enough to incubate a solution. In her recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Ms. Davis queries whether technology can end poverty. Noting that her organization, BRAC, is known for using surprisingly low-tech solutions, she goes on to praise the use of technology so long as it takes a practical approach to grappling with the local and human dimensions to the problem.

This approach is gaining traction. Even in universities, the importance of the perspective of the poor in crafting effective technology is made clear. The course description for Info 181. Technology and Poverty, a course at the UC Berkeley School of Information, includes the following:

“Students will come to understand poverty not only in terms of high-level indicators, but from a ground-level perspective as ‘the poor’ experience and describe it for themselves.”

The takeaway here is that through communication and practical awareness of conditions on the ground, technology can be a useful tool in addressing global poverty.

– Herman Watson

Sources: The Guardian, BBC, Harvard Business ReviewUC Berkeley

How to Make a Floating Garden
Floating gardens are rafts of aquatic weeds on which vegetables and other edible products can be grown. Practical Action, a UK-based development organization, is currently heading a program to introduce these floating gardens in the Gaibandha district of northern Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is home to some of the world’s most unstable rivers. Monsoon season has always left fields and land submerged for certain periods throughout the year, but climate change has intensified these seasonal floods. Often fields are submerged for longer than two months and, even when the waters recede, are left too water-logged to yield crops.

Floating gardens are a pragmatic agricultural alternative for the more than a million Bangladeshis affected annually by flooding. Much of the appeal of this method is the relative ease of constructing and cultivating a floating garden.

Steps to Make a Floating Garden:

1. Decide on an appropriate size for the floating garden. Generally, rafts are about 8m long and 2m wide and are 0.6m to 1m deep. The exact size depends on the amount of space and resources available.

2. Collect water hyacinth. This aquatic weed will serve as the base, or raft, for the floating garden. Water hyacinth is fairly abundant in Bangladesh and is free for collection.

3. Lay bamboo poles over the collected plants. The poles should be appropriate to the overall size of the raft.

4. Collect additional water hyacinth and place it on top of the bamboo layer to build the thickness. Weave the water hyacinth into a raft.

5. Once the plants have been woven and the general structure of the raft has been established, remove the bamboo poles.

6. Wait for 7 to 10 days and add more water hyacinth to the existing raft.

7. Add a mulch of soil, compost, and cow dung to cover the raft. This layer should total about 25cm deep. Usually, the compost is composed of azola and other easily accessible organic matter.

8. Pick an appropriate place for the raft. Floating gardens should not be placed in waters with tides or currents as the water movement damages the water hyacinth and risks the total disintegration of the raft.

9. Plant seeds. The most effective technique is to place a couple of seeds into a ball of compost and tema, an organic fertilizer. These balls are placed in a shaded, protected area while the seeds germinate. Once seedlings sprout, plant them on the raft.

10. Tend the floating garden as appropriate to the crops planted. In Bangladesh, the most common crops tend to be leafy vegetables, okra, gourds, eggplant, pumpkin, and onions. Animals like ducks and rodents might be attracted to the rafts. Fencing, even using improvised means like fishing nets, can effectively protect the gardens.

11. Harvest the crops. Rafts can be reused or, if no longer in a useable condition, can be used as compost on a new raft.

– Lauren Brown

Sources: Practical Action, FAO
Photo: Visiting Paradise