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Change Agent

Charitable works, NGOs, nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and ordinary people with great ideas on how to make a positive change in their communities and around the globe.

A Boulder-Denver 'Power Past Fossil Fuels' bike ride in September served as a rally for an initiative to create in Boulder, Colo. a locally owned power company that would emphasize renewable energy over coal. (Zane Selvans)

Why Boulder, Colo., took charge of its electric company

By Valerie SchloredtYES! Magazine / 03.29.12

The city of Boulder, Colo., has won the right to take its power supply – and carbon emissions – away from corporate control.

The change for Boulder came in November when voters passed two ballot measures that allow the city to begin the process of forming its own municipal power utility.

The city’s current electricity supplier, Xcel Energy, is a large corporation that sources more than 60 percent of its power from coal. Colorado climate activists tried for years to persuade Xcel to transition from coal to renewables, arguing that the state’s plains, mountains, and 300 days of annual sunshine give it abundant potential for the development of wind and solar power.

But they found Xcel’s take-up of renewables was frustratingly slow. Xcel is investing $400 million in its coal-powered plants, and its plans for renewables stops at just 30 percent in 2020, with no further increase until 2028. 

City officials were increasingly skeptical about the corporation’s willingness to meet their clean energy goals. Analysis showed a municipal utility could work, while prioritizing climate change action over profits to shareholders.

Boulder has long cherished the goal of becoming a leader in tackling climate change. In 2002, the city council passed the Kyoto Resolution on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In 2006, residents voted for the nation’s first city carbon tax to achieve those targets.

“Municipalization” – the legal process whereby the city would form its own utility company – has been on the table since 2004. When Xcel countered with the offer of an ambitious city-wide smart grid in 2008, Boulder accepted. But Xcel and its partners didn’t do a cost-benefit analysis prior to starting the project, and the portion of the costs consumers would pay rose from a projected $15.3 million to (at last count) $44.8 million.

Meanwhile, the corporation’s reliance on coal affected its use of wind power. Coal plants can’t be switched on and off as the wind blows. So when there was more electricity generated than needed to meet consumer demand, Xcel would curtail its wind power purchases in favor of selling power from its own coal plants.

As Xcel’s 20-year franchise with Boulder came due for renewal, city officials were increasingly skeptical about the corporation’s willingness to meet their clean energy goals. Analysis showed a municipal utility could work, while prioritizing climate change action over profits to shareholders. In 2011, the city drafted two ballots for voter approval: Ballot Issue 2B would increase the utility occupation tax to fund the planning process. Ballot Issue 2C would authorize the city to form the utility and issue bonds to buy the distribution system – providing that the new municipal utility’s rates would be equal to or less than Xcel’s.

Thus began a closely fought battle between corporate money and grass-roots activism. Xcel financed a “vote no” campaign to the tune of nearly $1 million, buying extensive (and some said, misleading) advertising and hiring door-to-door canvassers.

One development that climate activists found particularly galling was when Leslie Glustrom, research director for climate group Clean Energy Action, was banned from carrying out her watchdog role at the Public Utility Commission – which regulates Xcel.

But the “yes” campaign for 2B and 2C drew on Boulder’s strengths – it’s a college town populated with progressives and technical experts, a hub for clean energy start-ups and atmospheric research. The campaign support group, RenewablesYes, was able to assemble an impressive and all-volunteer “Citizen Technical Team” who worked out a model that used solar, wind, and electricity use data to analyze Boulder’s electricity mix. Then they publicized their analysis – that a local energy utility could reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 66 percent, increase its use of renewables to 40 percent, and keep rates the same as, or lower than, those charged by Xcel.

The list of endorsements for 2B and 2C grew, and eventually included dozens of elected officials, a roster of businesses, three local newspapers, and over 1,000 residents. Political action organization New Era Colorado put additional vitality into the effort by mobilizing young people, who worked phone banks and pounded the pavement to counter Xcel’s advertising.

The ballot measures passed by a whisker – a major victory given that the corporation outspent the grass-roots campaign 10-to-1. Ken Regelson, a leader in the campaign, thinks that community organizing tipped the balance. Personal contacts with voters, he says, “are worth more than a utility can spend.”

Municipal utilities aren’t the untested experiments Xcel’s “vote no” campaign made them out to be – there are more than 2,000 public utilities serving 46 million customers in the United States. While some of these utilities are in small or rural markets, Boulder is a big, growing market – it generates at least $100 million in annual revenue for Xcel. The revolutionary potential of Boulder’s ballots is that producing renewable energy for a municipal utility could keep millions of dollars in the local economy instead of exporting them to the headquarters of an investor-held company.

Boulder officials estimate it will take three to five years to create the power-and-light utility. Climate change activists working on the plan hope it will be a successful model for other cities.

“Everything we are doing,” says Ken Regelson, “we plan on sharing as widely as possible … there are lots of lessons to learn and share.” As Boulder works out the details, other cities are watching. They may already be planning to “go Boulder,” ditch the corporation, and take control of their own local power.

• Valerie Schloredt wrote this article for 9 Strategies to End Corporate Rule, the Spring 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Valerie is associate editor at YES!. John Farrell, at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, contributed to this story.

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A Thai fishery department official catches a Mekong giant catfish to harvest its eggs, as part of a captive-breeding program at the Inland Aquaculture Research Institute outside Bangkok. Breeding fish in captivity can be an important source of food and jobs. But it can also be environmentally destructive. More sustainable methods are being explored worldwide. (Sukree Sukplan/Reuters/File)

Five ways to make aquaculture more sustainable

By Laura ReynoldsNourishing the Planet / 03.28.12

Aquaculture, or the rearing of fish in captivity, is the world’s fastest-growing protein-producing activity, with nearly 50 percent of all seafood being farmed rather than caught in wild fisheries.

This rapid growth has provoked questions of sustainability in the global aquaculture industry, including how to handle the massive amounts of salt water being imported inland for fish farms. While researchers warn of dangerous overfishing and decline in the world’s wild fish population, aquaculture stands as a potentially sustainable alternative, and recent innovations promise to enhance the efficiency, safety, and sustainability of aquaculture while improving the lives of its fish farmers.

Today, Nourishing the Planet examines five innovations that are improving the sustainability of aquaculture around the world.

1. Integrating rice-and-fish farming: In many parts of Asia, rice farming provides a major source of income. Rice paddies and fish have long coexisted incidentally, since many fish species find their way into flooded rice fields and actually prefer the fields for reproduction and habitation. But, recently farmers have intentionally imported fish into their rice fields. The advantages of integrated rice-fish farming include a more productive and nutrient-rich rice crop, because fish increase the availability of phosphorous and nitrogen in soils; a reduction in disease-carrying aquatic weeds and algae, which compete with rice for nutrients but are a favored food among fish; and an extra source of income for farmers who can find markets for their fish.

Rice-fish farming in action: In Bangladesh, where approximately 80 percent of its total cultivable land is devoted to rice farming, two researchers from Charles Darwin University in Australia studied the benefits of integrating fish into rice cultivation in 2010. They found that for aman, the most popularly raised rice variety in Bangladesh, the yield was 12 percent higher in integrated systems than in rice monocultures, and fertilizer and pesticide inputs were reduced. In addition, another researcher from Shimane University in Japan found that rice-fish farmers had 5–11 percent higher revenue than farmers of rice monocultures.

2. Combating salmon lice with wrasse fish: The spread of disease in aquaculture poses a serious threat not only to farmed fish, but also to wild fisheries. Although one such disease, salmon lice, occurs naturally in the wild, salmon lice has been intensified by aquaculture because of its high concentrations and varieties of species – in some areas of Norway, for example, wild salmon and sea trout had 3-5 times more lice than what is considered to be a “fatal dose.” Furthermore, the lice can be transmitted from fish to fish or across large distances via currents, making the disease very difficult to contain. If aquaculture contributes to the incidence of a potentially fatal disease in wild habitats, then it may contribute to the collapse of global wild fisheries. For these reasons, scientists from Stirling University in Scotland are studying the effect of wrasse, a family of fish that cleans other fish of parasites and has been shown to help control lice in farmed salmon. If wrasse can effectively control the incidence of salmon lice, fish farms can reduce their use of medicines and other inputs, and limit their environmental impact.

Using wrasse to reduce salmon lice in action:  In September 2011 Scotland’s two largest salmon-farming operations announced a joint study with Stirling University in Scotland to determine the best species of wrasse to combat salmon lice. The companies are each investing nearly $700,000 to develop and grow enough wrasse to deploy in Atlantic salmon farms throughout Scotland.

3. Recirculating aquaculture systems: A form of aquaculture that has gained popularity in the last few years is called recirculating aquaculture systems, or RAS. These systems recirculate the water used in the fish tank after flowing through a treatment tank, so they use up to 99 percent less water than other aquaculture systems. Because they are maintained in controlled environments, RAS can reduce the discharge of waste and the need for antibiotics or chemicals used to combat disease, as well as prevent fish and parasite escapes. RAS can also incorporate hydroponics, or the water-based cultivation of plants, because the plants thrive in the nutrient-rich water and actually help purify it for reuse. In addition, RAS are less damaging to the environment than many other aquaculture systems, such as open-ocean farms, because of their limited pollution and low demands for space.

RAS in action: Clifford Fedler, a professor of civil engineering at Texas Tech University, has taken the idea of RAS and created a system that can also treat wastewater and create biomass to be used as renewable fuel, potentially helping rural and underserved communities become largely self-sufficient. The systems use the wastewater to grow plants such as water hyacinth, which produces one of the highest biomass yields and is the fastest-growing plant in a hydroponic system. In 2004, the system was implemented in a Peruvian village, and it now turns human and animal wastewater into reusable fuel, providing electricity for cooking and lighting.

4. Using locally caught fish as feed: The question of how to feed fish raised in aquaculture operations is controversial. Many researchers, such as Rosamund Naylor and Marshall Burke from Stanford University, now estimate large-scale, industrial aquaculture to be a “net drain” on the world’s fish supply, meaning that farms raising larger fish such as tuna actually consume more fish in the form of ground-up feed than they produce for human consumption. In addition, farmers are increasingly cutting costs by feeding fishmeal to traditionally herbivorous fish. Aquaculture that relies on local supplies of fish to feed their fish stock could reduce the inputs of industrial operations.

Locally caught fish feed in action: Many tuna farms and “ranches” in Baja California rely predominantly on seasonal, locally caught Pacific sardine as feed. This alternative feeding method reduces many of the dangers of industrial aquaculture because the feed comes from natural populations, reducing the risk of introducing exotic species that could cause negative interactions with wild fish. In addition, the feed does not have to be processed and pelletized for transport, which greatly reduces the carbon emissions of these operations, according to Peter Tyedmers of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

5. Involving women in aquaculture: Women in developing countries can have a large role in small-scale, sustainable aquaculture systems because they are often charged with managing their family’s land while the men seek work in cities. Commercial aquaculture often replaces paddy fields or other agricultural activities in which women are traditionally involved. Because there is often bias against employing women in these larger aquaculture operations, the involvement of women in home-based aquaculture systems, such as backyard ponds, would provide them with a reliable source of income. These operations would also provide nutritional, monetary, and social benefits for the family and community.

Women in aquaculture in action: In a southern state of India, researchers from the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation are training 30 women to run home-based aquaculture operations, raising ornamental fish for sale. Ornamental fish were chosen as the crop because they require limited space, technical skill, and time, and can be sold at markets for around $9-to-$14 per household, per month. The program linked women with credit, technology, infrastructure, training, job security, and trade, providing a powerful tool to improve the lives of women in poor, rural areas.

• Laura Reynolds is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

• To purchase "State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet" please click HERE. And to watch the one-minute book trailer, click HERE.

This article originally appeared at Nourishing the Planet, a blog published by the Worldwatch Institute.

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The charitable foundation of New York City Mayor Bloomberg will give $220 million to support anti-smoking efforts around the world. The donation brings the total donations of the former smoker to anti-tobacco efforts to more than $600 million. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters/File)

New York Mayor Bloomberg donates $220 million to anti-smoking efforts worldwide

By Caroline PrestonThe Chronicle of Philanthropy / 03.27.12

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a former smoker turned anti-smoking activist, is contributing another $220-million to fight tobacco use worldwide.

The pledge brings Mr. Bloomberg’s total commitment to the anti-smoking cause to more than $600 million, according to Bloomberg Philanthropies. In 2006, he announced a plan to give $125 million over two years to a coalition of groups, including the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Two years later, he pledged another $250 million, while the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation joined him with a commitment of $125 million.

The new money will be spent over four years and will focus on low- and middle-income countries – where, the World Health Organization reports, nearly 80 percent of the world’s smokers live.

Mr. Bloomberg has taken a bold approach to fighting tobacco, pushing for efforts to raise taxes on cigarettes and even helping Uruguay mount a legal defense against Philip Morris International, which sued over the country’s anti-smoking laws.

“It’s a miracle,” says Gregory Connolly, a professor of public health at Harvard University. “Most philanthropies are reluctant to take on large corporations.”

Says Nick Guroff, communications director at Corporate Accountability International, an advocacy group that receives Bloomberg money: “In tobacco control, Bloomberg has really shifted the field in ways that Gates has shifted the field of global health.”

Public health is one of five grantmaking priorities of Bloomberg Philanthropies, which also makes grants that help groups working in the arts and education, as well as those that protect the environment and spur government innovation.

Last year, The Chronicle ranked Mr. Bloomberg as the country’s fifth most-generous philanthropist.

This article originally appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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Members of the New York Army National Guard march down 5th Avenue in New York wearing uniforms from the War of 1812 on Memorial Day in 2006. The year 2012 marks the bicentennial of that war. In Connecticut the Powder House, a War of 1812 era building, has been restored, and a plan to honor War of 1812 veterans is under way. (Chip East/Reuters/File)

Betty Oderwald helps save a memory in stone of a 200-year-old forgotten US war

By Cathryn J. PrinceContributor / 03.26.12

The Powder House in Fairfield, Conn., is one of the state’s few surviving witnesses to the War of 1812.

The stone structure stored ammunition during what has been called the "second war of independence" or the Forgotten War. Over time it fell into disrepair, stones were askew, the door had nearly rotted away, and the property was overgrown.

Then Betty Oderwald came on the scene.

As president of the Connecticut Society of US Daughters of 1812, Ms. Oderwald raised local awareness and prevented the town and state from losing this structure.

Together with Connecticut's Society of The War of 1812, the Fairifeld Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and the Fairfield public works department, and with $5,000 from town funds, Oderwald was able to provide the cottage-like stone building with a new roof and new door. Its stones were also realigned and cleaned.

It was an important endeavor because the Powder House is thought to be the only structure in Connecticut built expressly for the War of 1812 that is still standing, Oderwald says.

US President James Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812. Britain had steadfastly rejected America’s right to engage in free and unfettered transatlantic commerce. It routinely boarded American vessels and pressed American sailors into the Royal Navy.

The small building was built in 1814, two years after the war began, according to minutes from Fairfield’s 1814 town meeting. Fairfield citizens didn’t become truly worried that their town might be a target for British troops until 1814.

“[French leader] Napoleon [Bonaparte] had abdicated, and Britain could now turn all its forces on America with a kind of burn-them-out mentality. At that point, it became crucial that you had adequate defenses,” Oderwald says. “Britain always had ships going up and down Long Island Sound. The citizens really knew [a raid] could happen.”

In 1814 the British burned Washington, D.C., including the White House and US Capitol, and bombarded Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor (inspiring Francis Scott Key to write the words for "The Star Spangled Banner"). In December 1814 the battle of New Orleans was fought after the official end of hostilities.

In 2012, the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) presented the Fairifeld DAR with a historic preservation award for its renovations to the Powder House.

Oderwald wants residents across the state to appreciate the building's history. She is working to have the Powder House listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But first it must be listed on the State Register of Historic Places.

Oderwald gives tours to local schoolchildren and lectures at historical societies across the state to raise awareness and interest.

Ironically, Fairfield never used the Powder House. The state of Connecticut so opposed the war with Britain that Gov. Roger Griswold prohibited the state’s militia from serving beyond the state’s borders. Some 5,000 Connecticut men served in the war, but only to defend the state's own borders and coast.

Oderwald’s interest in the Connecticut militia has led her to initiated yet another project. She wants to compile a list of 1812 veterans buried in cemeteries in the state’s 169 towns and cities.

While tracking down the names and burial spots for these veterans isn’t easy, she has had help from other members of the Connecticut Society as well as members of the DAR. They scour books, including “An Index of Veterans of Connecticut during the Years 1812, 1813, 1814,1815, 1816." Oderwald then cross-references those names with state militia rolls.

Oderwald hopes each veteran of the War of 1812 can be recognized in this bicentennial year.

“If the War of 1812 is the Forgotten War,” Oderwald says, “then it follows that the veterans of the War of 1812 are the forgotten veterans.”

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Jennifer Lawrence portrays Katniss Everdeen in a scene from the movie 'The Hunger Games,' opening March 23, 2012. The movie has spawned fan-based efforts online to fight hunger in the real world. (AP Photo/Lionsgate, Murray Close)

'The Hunger Games' movie attracts campaigns to fight real-world hunger

By Staff Writer / 03.23.12

Lionsgate, the producers of "The Hunger Games," the movie opening tonight that some think could be the next "Harry Potter" blockbuster series, knew that the title of the fantasy film aimed at teens and young adults would bring to mind the problem of hunger in the real world.

The film has made an official partnership with The World Food Programme (WFP) and, in the United States, the charity Feeding America. A special website,, features a brief video with "The Hunger Games" stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth urging the film's fans to fight hunger. The site also features a "hunger quiz" and ways to click and donate online.

A press release issued by the WFP and Feeding America last month notes that hunger affects 1 in 7 people – nearly 1 billion people worldwide. And in the United States alone, 1 in 6 Americans, nearly 49 million people, face hunger.

“This partnership will help us spread the word that hunger is the world’s greatest solvable problem,” says Nancy Roman, WFP's director of communications. “We want to tap into that excitement.... We are deeply grateful for the support of Suzanne Collins, [the author of 'The Hunger Games' books,] who writes as though she understands hunger in the world, as well as Lionsgate and 'The Hunger Games' cast – who have the power to change lives as they feed people worldwide.”

But fans are also spreading the word themselves. Imagine Better, an effort that originated with fans at the Harry Potter Alliance, has begun a "Hunger Is Not a Game" campaign, calling on fans to donate to Oxfam America's Grow project, which emphasizes helping people around the world grow more of their own food, rather than relying on imported food aid.

Imagine Better has asked fans to use the Twitter hashtag #NotAGame to raise awareness of Oxfam's Grow project and the issue of hunger.

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An Afghan girl drinks water from a well through a makeshift faucet in a village in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan. March 22, 2012 is World Water Day. By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with water scarcity, the UN estimates. Techniques such as electrodialysis and solar purification could increase supplies of clean drinking water in developing countries. (Erik de Castro/Reuters/File)

World Water Day 2012: Two innovations for purifying water

By Erik MandellGlobal Envision / 03.22.12

[Editor's note: Today, March 22, is World Water Day]

New engineering technologies look to quench the world’s thirst for clean drinking water through cheap, green self-powered purification mechanisms.

Cleaning dirty water generally requires high energy and capital, placing clean water out of reach for many of the world’s poor. But new innovations are making clean water more accessible by lowering the financial and environmental costs of purification.

Want energy with your water? Use bacteria. Engineer Bruce Logan of Penn State University is perfecting a process by which bacteria in wastewater generate the necessary electrical power to clean the water.

Most wastewater contains bacteria, and by altering the chemistry and physics of microbial fuel cell systems, Logan capitalized on the idea that bacteria can produce electric currents under anaerobic conditions where electrons link up with oxygen molecules.

“You and I eat food and generate energy,” Logan told GOOD. So do bacteria. And when those bacteria are deprived of oxygen in a microbial fuel cell, the electrons they produce flow to the other side of the cell to find oxygen protons, creating an electric current as they travel.

Over time, Logan has improved the technologies of the process, including by combining the microbial fuel cell system with reverse electrodialysis, which captures the energy of ions as they flow through membranes from salty to fresh water. The fuel cell gives the energy boost for the reverse electrodialysis system, allowing the process to operate with fewer membranes and making the system cheaper to produce. The result is purified water that is free of bacteria and safe to drink.

So far, the amount of energy Logan says he can generate “almost matches the amount needed to process it,” according to GOOD. That means Logan is closer to his goal of cost-effective clean energy wastewater treatment, and households, companies, and farms are closer to having cheaper, cleaner, greener water.

Canadian engineers harness African sun: In Angola, solar cells are already producing cleaner water. Canadian technology company Quest Water Solutions has teamed up with the Angolan government to develop and install drinking stations called “AQUAtaps,” which use solar energy to purify drinking water inside used shipping containers.

Quest hopes that after a successful pilot program, the AQUAtaps will be manufactured locally throughout Angola.

The technology is “really quite simple and very low maintenance,” according to Quest’s John Balanko. The shipping containers, with solar panels on top, contain large batteries which store energy. That electricity pumps water from a nearby river through sand and filters, then sterilizes the water with the same UV rays that feed the panels.

The AQUAtap fits nicely with the Angolan government’s “Agua para Todas” (water for all) initiative. Quest sells the equipment, and a two- year maintenance guarantee, to the government for a one-time fee, but it then belongs to the villagers. Once the program expands, Quest envisions local production jobs as well.

For Angolans, the AQUAtap project can bring clean water and local jobs with virtually no carbon emissions in the process. Now there’s a solution people can raise their glasses to.

RELATED CONTENT: “Cheers to clean drinking water”

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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A street vendor sells apples in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea. The One Acre Fund is helping poor African farmers obtain microloans, training, and credit that helps them generate more income. (Luc Gnago/Reuters)

One Acre Fund helps Africa's small farmers keep in their fields

By Max MatternGlobal Envision / 03.21.12

After years of neglect, a new generation of lenders is making microfinance work for Africa’s small farmers.

Traditional microfinance has never been particularly well suited to agriculture. With variable incomes that typically rise after harvests and taper off during the off-season, farmers are unable to keep up with the inflexible payment schedules that come with most microloans. Additionally, external factors such as weather, disease or price volatility can severely constrain farmers' incomes and ability to repay loans.

So, you're a poor farmer and want a flexible loan that fits your income? Too bad, most [microfinance institutions] MFIs say, try opening a kiosk.

QUIZ: Think you know Africa? Take our geography quiz.

The result has been an uneven expansion of financial services to "microentrepreneurs," even as access to credit has dried up for Africa’s small farmers. But the focus on providing credit to microenterprises is helping to fuel an unsustainable explosion of "traders and hawkers" in urban areas. With farming becoming less attractive, the migration of rural Africans to cities and towns in search of new opportunities is leading to overcrowding, unemployment, and conflict.

In response, the One Acre Fund is proposing a new type of microfinance designed specifically for Africa’s small farmers. Named this winter in The Global Journal's list of the Top 100 Best NGOs in the World, OAF works with farmers across Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi to provide a package of agricultural goods and services that includes training, credit, access to inputs, and insurance.

"This is a comprehensive package that generates more income for the very poor," explained OAF employee Margaret Vernon. "With this spending power, farmers can choose for themselves how to improve their lives."

It works. The average OAF farm triples its harvest and doubles its profit after joining the program.

Far from being a handout, farmers that work with OAF must pay for its services. The organization provides flexible loans to farmers and supplies inputs to local markets, allowing farmers to purchase their own seeds and fertilizers. After providing training in cropping techniques and input utilization, OAF expects farmers to repay their loans at harvest time.

"Because we’re charging them for the good or service it means we can [ensure financial] sustainability as an organization," says Stephanie Hanson, director of policy and research at OAF.

The loan terms are what make the One Acre model work for farmers. Rather than forcing farmers to make regular payments, OAF allows farmers to repay loans at their own convenience. The only stipulation is that farmers must finish repaying their loans at harvest time. In the case of a major crop failure caused by drought, disease, or a natural disaster, OAF offers farmers the opportunity to purchase insurance. In extreme cases, the organization will even forgive the loan in order to allow farmers to feed their families.

Investments in African agriculture have the potential to spur rural development, but a lack of access to credit, inputs, training, and markets means small farmers continue to live in poverty. By designing its services specifically for smallholder agriculture in Africa, OAF hopes to change that.

"You can get a Coca-Cola, often cold, in nearly any rural village in Kenya," offers OAF founder Andrew Youn. "We want to make basic agriculture technologies, finance, and training every bit as ubiquitous."

Microfinance – when targeted to smallholder agriculture – can improve the lives of rural Africans, stem the tide of urbanization, and increase food security across the continent. OAF currently serves 75,000 farm families, and plans to expand to over 200,000 families in the next three years. With a 98 percent repayment rate on its loans in fall 2011 that rivals even the highest-performing MFIs, OAF is proving that microloans for agriculture are possible.

The question now is whether the One Acre Fund will inspire other MFIs to follow suit.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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A worker speaks on a cell phone as he sits under the solar panels of a new solar farm in the western Indian state of Gujarat. The solar farm is Asia's largest, according to its developer Moser Baer Clean Energy: 305 acres and expected to generate 52 million kilowatt hours of energy annually. A new report suggests that access to energy is a key to economic development in impoverished areas. (Amit Dave/Reuters/File)

Access to energy - necessary but not sufficient to cut poverty

By Rachel / 03.20.12

Every year, the UN chooses a social or environmental issue of global importance – such as biodiversity (2010) or microcredit (2005) or sanitation (2008) – to bring attention to the issue or issues, and to drive resources toward solving them. This year, 2012, is the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All.

The UN estimates that 1.4 billion people have no access to electricity, either because energy services are not available or because they cannot afford to pay for them. While that sounds inconvenient to people who can switch on a light bulb or charge their cell phones at any time, the need for energy is about much more than convenience.

Access to energy affects how much time a child can spend on his or her homework; it determines how a family cooks (which has implications for health – traditional cookstoves, for example, are big contributors to respiratory illness) and how much time is spent on this task; and it impacts a person's ability to earn income, whether it's light to keep a shop open at night or fuel to operate an irrigation pump on a farm.

This last piece is the focus of Poor People's Energy Outlook, a new report from Practical Action, a UK-based organization that uses technology to challenge poverty and puts out a major report on various aspects of energy access annually or every other year. The 2010 report focused on energy in the home, an area that covers lighting, cooking, space heating and cooling, and information and communications. The 2012 report focuses on the impacts that access to energy has on the ability of the world’s poorest people to earn a decent living. 

Ultimately, it argues that when poor people have the sustainable energy access that is necessary for enterprise activities, it becomes possible to escape the cycle of poverty that has trapped so many people around the world.

For examples of the crucial role that energy plays, the Practical Action report points to a grocery shop in Nepal where the owner makes his income from charging cell phones and selling, in addition to standard items like bread and candy, cold drinks from his refrigerator. But an energy crisis has brought cuts to the regional power supply, and the owner has had to close the shop early and cannot sell cold drinks, both of which have reduced his income.

Power cuts have also hurt Subash, who runs a small carpentry workshop in the same village as the grocery store. Since he can no longer support his family also because of power cuts, he said his wife and children have had to start rearing cattle and finding firewood to help out.

Stories just like this one are countless around the world, where if one piece in the larger puzzle of economic struggle is misplaced, the whole game is thrown off. If the income-generator of the family cannot make ends meet, responsibilities often fall to children, who then miss days of school, or an education entirely – one of the factors that makes poverty a hard-to-overcome cycle.

Albert Butare, Rwanda's former Minister of State for Infrastructure, drives this home further: East African economies are driven largely by agriculture and small enterprises, which are not major energy consumers.

"This makes it less attractive for private enterprises to offer services in this sector, which compounds the problem of having limited infrastructure available," he says in the report. "Without infrastructure (including clean energy services), it remains very difficult to persuade skilled people to move back into rural areas, leading to a shortage of trained teachers, nurses, engineers etc. in rural areas."

Drew Corbyn, energy consultant for Practical Action, explained that access to energy is not a miracle solution – that energy alone cannot solve people's problems, but that it's necessary before other steps can truly help.

"Energy is not the be-all and end-all. It is an enabler. To realize increased incomes, you need many other factors," he said, such as business skills, access to markets, appropriate policies, and regulations.

But the bottom line, he said, is "Energy access is a prerequisite for development. Energy is important for all development goals. It's required in the home, in enterprise, and community service."

And because energy is required in these different realms of life, Practical Action doesn't prioritize which energy needs should be met first. Instead, the organization advocates what it calls "total energy access."

This approach contrasts with that of other organizations that Corbyn said look at the supply side of the issue and define energy access in terms of grid electricity or use of kerosene, for example.

"If we only consider energy access as using, say, grid connection – so for example, you discount a solar lantern or a solar home system as having energy access – I think all of the money would then flow to areas which are easily connected to the grid," he said. "It would potentially mean that a lot of the efforts and resources aren't going into technologies which are actually a lot more appropriate for certain poor households and that can meet poor people's energy service needs.

"I think there is a danger if the definition of energy access is too narrow or too focused on grid electricity or just simply modern fuels – then the full range of benefits won't be realized," he added. "We're looking at the way that energy is used, in terms of the lighting and cooking, which actually brings you much closer to the potential development benefits."

Corbyn is optimistic that the UN's initiative this year will drive attention to the issue of energy access, which was not one of the Millennium Development Goals and has been left out of much of the global conversation around poverty and development. The Poor People's Energy Outlook report lays out a framework for action that Practical Action calls an energy access ecosystem. There are specific recommendations in the report for governments, civil society, international institutions, and the donor and private sectors. 

This article originally appeared at

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After neighbors helped care for her family while she was ill, Pam Washek founded the Neighbor Brigade, which offers free help – from preparing meals to running errands – to families with an illness or other crisis. 'Often recipients [of help] become volunteers,' she says. She hopes to expand Neighbor Brigade beyond Massachusetts. (Courtesy of Anna Mellones)

Pam Washek rallies a nonprofit Neighbor Brigade

By Contributor / 03.19.12

It was something Pam Washek says she’d never experienced before.

When Ms. Washek was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, she was thrust into a cycle of daily radiation treatments. Cooking meals and getting her three daughters where they needed to go were suddenly much tougher tasks. But Washek says neighbors and friends immediately stepped forward and took care of meals every day for her children and organized rides to get them where they needed to go.

“It was really heartening and comforting,” says Washek, a resident of Wayland, Mass., a Boston suburb. “It almost made me feel I wasn't alone in this journey.”

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Her friend, Jean Seidon, was also going through cancer treatment and experiencing a similar outpouring of support. Together Washek and Ms. Seidon were inspired to create the Wayland Angel Food Network, an organization helping families who had suddenly been thrown into a crisis and needed help with everyday tasks.

Washek says the organization had 35 members when it first began, mostly people who had helped her family.

As services expanded beyond cooking, the name was changed to Wayland Angels. Then, when Seidon died in 2006 and the organization had spread to other communities, Washek decided to rename it Neighbor Brigade. She currently serves as the organization’s executive director.

Through the nonprofit Neighbor Brigade, volunteers members in each community chapter make meals, give rides, run errands, and occasionally  do light household tasks like folding laundry or shoveling a driveway for families in crisis. The help is completely free of charge with no strings attached.

“We have many grateful recipients,” Washek says of the organization, which currently has 24 active chapters, all in Massachusetts, and 2,952 volunteers. “Often, recipients will become volunteers. It's their way of paying it forward.”

She said Neighbor Brigade is even more vital today when people may not know their next-door neighbors.

“People aren't as connected to neighbors as they were,” Washek says. “You're kind of on your own when you're hit with a crisis.”

Washek works to recruit leaders for new chapters and build relationships with hospitals, care centers, and other facilities in  Massachusetts communities, so that doctors and staff members may recommend Neighbor Brigade to their patients. The organization has started receiving calls from patients at large hospitals like Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, she says. Neighbor Brigade plans to expand beyond Massachusetts this year, she adds.

Neighbor Brigade is unique because it provides other members of your community to help you, Washek says.

“I think that's different from some companies that provide these services, because it's a neighbor” who's doing the helping, she says. “It's like extended family.”

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Jason Russell is co-founder of the nonprofit Invisible Children and director of the "Kony 2012" viral video campaign that calls for the arrest of Joseph Kony, the rebel leader of the Lord's Resistance Army militia group in Uganda. He agrees with skeptics who have called the film oversimplified, saying it was deliberately made that way. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Why 'Kony 2012' video grabbed 100 million views online

By Michael HoffmanThe Chronicle of Philanthropy / 03.16.12

The Chronicle asked Michael Hoffman, chief executive of See3 Communications, a consulting company that helps nonprofits use video for advocacy and fundraising campaigns, to share lessons from the success of “Kony 2012,” the video about the African warlord Joseph Kony. His essay follows:

 Invisible Children’s controversial “Kony 2012″ video has reached unprecedented heights for a social-cause video.

It has already received more than 100 million views on YouTube and Vimeo. The most amazing thing to many people is that the video is nearly 30 minutes long, which surely breaks the “rule” that online videos need to be short to be effective.

Starting From a Strong Base

It is important to understand that Invisible Children has been working for a decade building a strong, active, and passionate base of young supporters around the world. The San Diego advocacy group has one of the strongest social-media networks of any nonprofit in the world.

This video was pushed to and talked about by a massive wave of young supporters who used Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and e-mail to share it. As a result, the “Kony 2012″ video had a unique advantage.

But Invisible Children also created a compelling video that inspired those supporters to watch it and share it. Why did it work?

Here are three reasons:

•  The organization told its own story first, a story of how it developed passion for the issue, how its members came together, and why it is critical for its supporters to act. The video follows a storytelling pattern developed by Marshall Ganz, a lecturer at Harvard University and is taught by the New Organizing Institute. Mr. Ganz says this pattern uses three stories: the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now.

•  It made the story simple. The issues in Northern Uganda are very complicated. But Invisible Children chose to simplify those issues by focusing the video on the story of one bad guy: Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, operating in Central Africa. The video places a strong focus on emotion, which, in turn, inspired many viewers to share it and take action.

•  It made the viewer the hero. This video isn’t about Mr. Kony. It’s about the viewer and how that viewer can be the hero by taking action. In the video, Mr. Kony is portrayed as evil – as if he is a villain in a Batman movie. And if he is the evil villain, then you, the person fighting him, are the hero.

* View the Kony 2012 video here. This blog post originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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