Paul Smith Lomas
About Paul Smith Lomas
Paul Smith Lomas is the Chief Executive of Practical Action, a not-for-profit organisation that puts ingenious ideas to work so that people in poverty can change their world, which he has done since 2015. Prior to that he was Practical Action’s International Director, responsible for its programmes and policy influencing around the world.
Paul's professional background is as a mechanical engineer. He worked originally in the water treatment industry in the UK, before going on a VSO assignment in 1985 to Eastern Sudan, where he worked with the Government, setting up water and sanitation systems for refugee populations from Eritrea & Ethiopia. He then worked with ActionAid in the Nuba Mountains, focusing on public health engineering with rural communities.
After a brief spell in the commercial sector, Paul returned to the voluntary sector in 1991 as an engineer with Oxfam, based in the UK, and then in East Africa as a Regional Director, leaving Oxfam in 2010. He was awarded an MBE in 2000 for services to international development.
CEO of Practical Action, Paul Smith Lomas, joins Alberto Lidji to discuss market-based solutions for improved water sanitation and systemic change in Bangladesh.
Practical Action is an innovative international development organisation; their Patron is Prince Charles, HRH The Prince of Wales, and they partner with diverse organisations including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the IKEA Foundation and DFID – the UK’s Department for International Development.
The organisation is comprised of various entities, which include a charity running projects internationally, a publishing company and a consulting company as well – together they work hard to find ingenious solutions, capture and share learnings, and to bring about big change.
Practical Action works in about 12 countries at any one time. In total they have 600 staff and partner with many organisations. Their operating budget for charitable actives is about £30m annually.
They’re a very practical organisation and focus on farming that works; energy that transforms people’s lives; helping to build resilience; and making urban centres safer places for people to live in – particularly looking at water sanitation.
The thrust of the conversation with Paul revolved around Practical Action’s work in Bangladesh (where they have a team of approximately 100 staff) as it pertains to water sanitation. Paul is a water and sanitation engineer – so he gets very excited about this topic. He’s not shy to say that in the case of their water sanitation project work in Bangladesh, essentially, “we’re talking about poo”.
They’ve been working with marginalised, urban communities in slum areas in towns and cities around Bangladesh and helping them to improve their living conditions. Again, in his candid manner, Paul notes that a particular problem is “the problem of shit”. Many people have access to a latrine, which people use as their toilet – but the challenge they found was that emptying the latrines was a huge problem.
Across the whole of Bangladesh, something along the lines of 80,000 tonnes of human waste is produced every day, and over 90% of it remains untreated. What happens often is that emptying these latrines becomes the task of informal waste workers, literally emptying pits by hand and disposing of the sludge in open watercourses. We’re talking about something that fills the equivalent of 30 Olympic swimming pools every day.
This poses a terrible health threat to people living in these areas. The total population of Bangladesh is around 160 million people; of which perhaps 40% are living under the poverty level. Safe sanitation is a matter for the whole population – not just those living in slums.
Practical Action focused on developing a market system for sludge, working across the board with diverse stakeholders, including micro finance outfits, government representatives and foundations.
They tried to answer the question of: How do you get these pits emptied in a safe and reliable way?
Practical Action’s solution turned this activity into a business, in a sustainable way – in partnership with a broad range of actors, developing a workforce and turning sludge into fertiliser.
They worked with municipalities to license operators; they developed an app so city dwellers could order this service and leave feedback for a job well done. In turn, service providers got decent pay – and so the market works.
Their work started approximately 10 years ago, when they were working with WaterAid. They could see that while latrine coverage in the country was going up, the problem of sludge was not actually being addressed. So, they started piloting urban-based sewage treatment systems and things have progressed very well since then.
Paul’s key takeaway: It’s all about the team. If you have a motivated team that is ready and willing to work together for a common purpose, then you’re powerful!
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