Evolving innovation

Private sector firms and non-profit agencies are joining forces to develop new technologies offering faster, cheaper and more efficient solutions to a wide range of humanitarian problems

When the mothers of Ngombe, on the outskirts of the Zambian capital Lusaka, gathered under a shaded canopy late in the summer of 2010, they did so to help save the lives of their present and future children. Over the course of an informal hour, they took the opportunity to share first-hand views on diarrhoea-related child deaths, the scourge of communities the length of the African continent. A handful had suffered the heartache of watching helplessly as a child succumbed to the preventable disease, while all had spent scarce finances treating the country’s third biggest killer of children under five. Now the women had a chance to contribute directly to a solution.

The Kit Yamoyo, meaning ‘kit of life’ in the local Chichewa dialect, is an oral rehydration package that is the brainchild of Simon and Jane Berry, co-founders of global non-profit organisation ColaLife. Their award-winning idea was to develop an anti-diarrhoeal kit that could slot into Coca-Cola crates, piggybacking the world’s most desirable distribution chain and proving that if Coca-Cola could reach the remotest parts of Africa, then so too could much-needed medicines.

The Berrys approached affected communities in Zambia to formulate a culturally relevant design that would be effective, affordable and accepted by its intended recipients. “A key thing we did was to involve the end users right at the very beginning,” recalls Simon Berry. “It was during that process we realised that measurement was a critical issue. Aid organisations were providing communities with 1-litre sachets yet a single child will only drink about 400ml. The end-users didn’t know what a litre was and even if they did, they had nothing to measure it in.”

Happy with their eventual design, the couple approached their private sector partner, Pharmanova, to investigate whether a simple plastic container carrying the World Health Organisation (WHO)-recommended quantity of anti-diarrhoeal treatments (oral hydration salts, zinc, and soap) could also serve as a measuring and mixing device, while still having suitable dimensions for Coca-Cola crates.

“Collaboration with the private sector was absolutely crucial,” says Berry. “We had no implementation capacity ourselves because we didn’t want to become a part of the local infrastructure. We want to bring people together who are already here to do what needs to be done.”

The Kit Yamoyo, which affords a minimal margin to the manufacturer and a profit for rural shopkeepers, retails at the same price as a bunch of bananas, making it affordable for mothers. While saving lives through creating value from a profit chain, the innovation also shows what can be achieved when private sector expertise is harnessed for humanitarian causes.

Collaborative practice between public and private sector players to innovate for social good is no new concept, but such partnerships have never been more in-demand. Traditionally opposed actors are coming together to design mutually beneficial low-cost, effective products and processes. While the private sector has historically been absent from the humanitarian sphere due to the assumption that aid should be provided by governments or related agencies, attitudes that now ‘crowd in’ in commercial companies, rather than crowd them out, are prevailing.

“I think there is gradual shift, but I still encounter some scepticism,” says Alexander Betts, professor at the University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre, and director of the Humanitarian Innovation Project. “That comes from a view of the private sector as being profit maximising and therefore purely driven by a motive to make money, something often seen as antithetical to humanitarian response.”

However as crises around the globe –both humanitarian and financial – develop, and the need for critical funding soars, both sides are stepping outside of their traditional roles and recognising the mutual benefits and possibilities that can come from collaborative innovation.

“I think there’s a recognition from the commercial sector of their responsibility for global health,” explains David Kaslow, vice president of PATH, a Seattle-based non-profit organisation that pioneers sustainable health solutions. “Likewise there’s a shift from those in the public health sector to realise the value that the commercial sector can bring to bear. It’s going to be difficult for the public sector to redundantly replicate what the commercial sector does really well and it actually doesn’t make a lot of sense so, if there’s a way of working together, then it’s a win-win situation.”

With the rise of information and communication technology and other response processes, humanitarians are looking more and more to experts in the private sector to co-develop and invest in new solutions. “The private sector plays a fundamental role in humanitarian response generally,” explains Kim Scriven, manager of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF), which supports the development, implementation and testing of innovation in humanitarian contexts. “However it has a particular role to play in developing innovation, bringing in new ideas, new technologies, and new processes.”

“When you have simple, inexpensive technology with the right partner, you can really get that innovation scaled up”

He highlights a recent partnership between the HIF, UNICEF and a global software company, Thoughtworks, to build an open source mobile phone and data storage application aimed at speeding up the process by which separated children are reunited with their parents in emergency situations. RapidFTR (Rapid Family Tracing and Reunification), which is still in its pilot phase across several locations in Asia, Africa and South America, allows aid workers to input vital information from displaced children into a mobile phone, effectively streamlining the current antiquated process, which relies on time-consuming paperwork and leaves children vulnerable to exploitation. RapidFTR is presently being rolled out in Tacloban, the Philippine city worst affected by the recent Typhoon Haiyan. Other simple innovations such as PATH’s SoloShot syringe, which brought together non-profit and private actors in the name of innovation, have changed the lives of millions. The design, which was created in collaboration with BD, one of the world’s largest syringe manufacturers, was aimed at curtailing the spread of infection by preventing needle re-use. Recent studies suggest that of the annual 12 billion injections administered globally, more than 40 per cent happen with unsterilised syringes, predominantly in low-income communities. Recognising a problem that could be effectively and affordably addressed (the SoloShot currently retails at $0.02 more than disposable syringes), the organisations developed a syringe that would auto-disable once its contents had been delivered.

“It was originally introduced in the early 90s,” explains Kaslow, “and it is estimated that 6 billion vaccinations have been delivered through the SoloShot syringe in 40 developing countries since. So when you have simple, inexpensive technology with the right partner, you can really get that innovation scaled up and outdoors where it’s needed.”

From a development perspective, such innovation is sorely needed. At a conference in July last year Valerie Amos, the United Nations undersecretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, highlighted the fact that many of the tools and processes which are currently deployed in humanitarian crises were developed decades ago and consequently are no longer fit for purpose. She also stressed the need for ongoing investment and innovation in the humanitarian space.

“In terms of child mortality if we continue at the current rate of progress it will take more than 100 years for child survival rates in sub-Saharan Africa to get to the level they already are in Europe today,” warns Simon Berry at ColaLife. “That’s why we need innovation, because steady progress at current rates is not going to solve the problem for literally a century.”

And although access to affordable, lifesaving technology is of obvious benefit to the aid sector, the for-profit partners gain too. For the private sector, such work is not only an effective brand-marketing tool but also an opportunity for greater profit margins in high-volume markets. Commercial multinationals are profit-making not philanthropic, but as Scriven points out; “Humanitarians will be doing things their organisations are designed for and the private sector will be doing things in their interest. It’s when those things are mutually beneficial that there is scope for successful collaboration.”

With acknowledgement among the world’s largest intergovernmental organisations that funding is becoming progressively limited, private sector support is a valuable option. “If you can innovate for, say, the 43 million displaced people in the world,” explains Betts,  “you are in turn effectively innovating for the bottom 2 billion who live on less than $2 a day. That may be an exaggeration, but it highlights a very real business motive.”

For all the opportunities that may follow, it goes without saying that innovation by definition carries a risk of failure. Although many organisations have a desire to develop new tools for the humanitarian sector, they may shy away from carrying that risk alone. Add to this the natural caution of regulatory bodies, and progress can be slow.

“Some of that [risk aversion] makes sense,” says Kaslow at PATH. “However some of that is a conventional way of thinking and we need to break out of that. If they are too risk-averse they slow down the development of products for people who really need them, so there’s an opportunity cost linked with that delay.”

While conscious of the need for due diligence, humanitarian organisations are keen that this should not act as a barrier to change. “The humanitarian system is risk-averse but it is becoming less so,” says Scriven at HIF. “We’re creating spaces that allow organisations to form new partnerships and take risks in ways that protect beneficiaries and users, but also allow the organisation to fail and try new things.”

While it is agreed that more room must be made for measured risk, humanitarian organisations are quick to emphasise that this should not open the door to untested practices and technologies. One of the most important factors on which experts are unanimous, is the need for a ‘bottom-up’ methodology for innovation, where from the very start the design is made in consultation with the end-user.

“It’s one thing to take a product design and show that it works technically, but it’s another to identify that it is going to be used and seen as appropriate by the community,” explains Betts at the University of Oxford. “There is a graveyard of attempts to develop products outside of consultation with communities. I visit exhibition fairs where companies are trying to sell products to the humanitarian world. They may have done a three-day trip to Haiti to look at the post-earthquake environment; the assumption is that they can design a product to sell to international organisations. It doesn’t work that way.”

Maintaining a constant dialogue with the communities for which the product is designed is critically important, and organisations agree that when there is a clear line of sight, the stages of development have a much higher probability of success. Nevertheless, emergency situations do not always afford the luxury of time. “In theory a humanitarian aid agency that’s developing a new programme should be as focused on the users as Apple is when they’re developing a new iPad,” says Scriven, “In practice, that’s not always the case; the imperatives to move quickly and the incentives from donors don’t always align to make that happen.”

Despite these hurdles, it is clear that collaboration between the private and humanitarian sectors will drive much of the in-field technology of tomorrow. That a simple idea such as ColaLife could be named by PATH as among 10 innovations that could save the lives of 1.2 million children and mothers by the end of 2015, is testament to the impact of innovation – and to the mothers of Ngombe.

Case study: The IKEA Foundation prototype shelter  

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has the capacity in an emergency to assist 600,000 people within 72 hours. However, as a consequence of the unfolding crises in Syria and the Philippines, and countless other humanitarian emergencies, the organisation is being pushed to its very limits.

Collaboration between UNHCR and its largest private sector donor, the IKEA Foundation (which recently pledged a funding commitment of $95m over three years), has resulted in a solar-powered prototype shelter for emergency housing – an innovation that could make all the difference to displaced communities and refugees.

Currently in the pilot phase, the IKEA shelters could soon be a viable replacement for UNHCR canvas tents. Potentially transitional and therefore fit for UNHCR purpose, the homes that are currently being field tested in the refugee camps of Ethiopia and northern Iraq are made of lightweight polymer panels that attract solar energy, provide UV protection, and are thermally insulated, keeping them cooler during the day and warmer at night.

“The shelters will be a better solution against the heat, rain and dust,” says Olivier Delarue, who leads UNHCR’s partnership-building efforts with the corporate sector. “For the first time, it will offer a solar electrical source for lighting and phone charging. This is a tremendous development when you realise that almost all the camps are not on an electrical grid and therefore are pitch dark after 6pm. It will provide an opportunity for children to study at night and also some dignity and protection.”

The partnership brings together UNHCR, Swedish social enterprise organisation the Refugee Housing Unit (RHU), and the charitable foundation of corporate giant IKEA. With its partners’ help, the IKEA Foundation has been able to mass-produce the shelters, and drive down the unit cost from $7,000 to $1,000. “Each [partner] adds something unique,” explains John Spampinato of the IKEA Foundation. “RHU is nimble, flexible and super innovative. UNHCR has tremendous competence and global reach. And the IKEA Foundation plays the classic non-profit role of offering financing to overcome a market failure.