COVID-19: Tackling the challenge with local solutions

June 6, 2020

By UNDP Ethiopia's Accelerator Lab team

To reduce the spread of the coronavirus Biruk Girma placed a washing station at the entrance of his restaurant in Addis Ababa to make sure that every customer washed their hands before they entered. 

However, he quickly noticed two things. Customers were using almost 5,000 litres of water in just two days since the water kept running waste for the 20 seconds people were lathering soap on their hands. Secondly, people in the community were using the washing station even if they were not coming into the restaurants because they didn’t have access to public facilities. 

To address these challenges, he considered motion-activated faucets but found them too expensive and required electricity which wasn't reliable. So, he created mechanically operated but regulated washing stations that could extend the two day supply of water to nine days and be used by differently-abled people. This model became so successful at his restaurant, that he has been donating to care centres for the elderly and hospitals while sharing his design with those that can make their own. 

Girma’s innovation and other home-grown, tech-driven solutions are what UNDP’s Accelerator Lab set out to discover through the COVID-19 challenge grant launched recently in partnership with the Ministry of Innovation and Technology (MiNT). We have learned through our exploration that for developing countries like Ethiopia whose economy is volatile and predominantly informal, the COVID-19 pandemic is more than a health crisis and has grave social and economic implications that require multiple innovative interventions at all levels. 

The journey of finding these solutions through the challenge grant started by engaging the tech and innovation community, finding out how technology can help us as well as on how they can leverage the existing tech community ecosystem to curb the pandemic. The main objective of the Innovation Challenge is to enlist Ethiopian innovators and the tech sector to develop home-grown solutions that can combat the pandemic focusing on, among other issues, health services (contact tracing, surveillance, etc), support to business continuity in the public sector and community mobilization. 

In addition to the innovation challenge, we wanted to create a space for innovators to get inspiration for their ideas and hold discussions on how innovation can help in a crisis like that we are in. To realize this we have partnered the Pears Program for Global Innovation in Israel and the Embassy of the State of Israel to host webinars on innovations in the health sector, government business continuity and tackling the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic, drawing from Israeli experts. In these webinars, practical experiences were shared for the benefit of Ethiopians in the tech community, entrepreneurs, academia and government officials. Among the key lessons learnt from these exchanges is the need fora strong public-private partnership in the delivery of service and the creativity and innovation that goes with this. It was interesting to see the curiosity from both sides and this is something we hope to facilitate in the futre. 


Empowering local innovatons
Given the importance of bringing many actors on board to contribute to the efforts being made nationally to combat the pandemic, the innovation challenge aimed to create an enabling environment for local innovators/researchers or businesses with ground-breaking close-to-market solutions to help tackle the virus with availing challenge funds, create a platform for quickly testing and scaling up their solutions.

Because of the situation we are in, the challenge grant was hosted online through a simple application portal and announced the call for solutions on local TVs, radios and different social media channels. The call was open for ten consecutive days and by the deadline we have received 446 submissions from different parts of the country.

Our partner MInT has established a national task force to lead the innovation challenge and set up a technical evaluation team that have 25 members from different institutions with enough representation of the private sector. At the end of the process, 12 finalists were selected, most of the solutions presented by the innovators are health-related and include automatic sanitizer dispenser and touch-free handwashing machines; mechanical ventilators; disinfectant booth and software solutions. The finalists will receive grant money and coaching support to further develop their prototypes into scale-able products.

It is important to note, however, that the innovators that are part of this challenge grant are individuals who saw a need in their communities and jumped in to create solutions. They were not asked to do so but volunteered themselves in using their skills to help find innovative solutions to the national crisis. The majority of the solutions that were submitted were already available for the public to use but needed some form of support to take them to scale.  

This is why, as an accelerator lab, we seek grassroots solutions to address development problems through our solution mapping strategy. Communities that are close to the issue more often than not can create solutions that work. Innovators like the ones we saw through the challenge grant are rallying together to address these issues at a larger scale, and this is where we can step in to provide the support.

What’s next?

We believe it is not enough to only make awards and grants but also ensure the sustainability and profitability of the solutions we are investing in. To this end, we are planning a couple of interventions to empower the innovators.

As a first step, our accelerator lab is bringing human-centred Design to the process. The plan is to introduce the selected innovators to the concept and help them test and refine their solutions using this process. human-centred design is a systematic method for acquiring a deep understanding of customers, their environments, and their routines to create innovative solutions to the problems that they face. This resulting in products that are usable with higher adoption rates and profitable business models. 

Most of the innovators are very young and don’t have much exposure to entrepreneurship and business management skills. Therefore, through collaboration with the Entrepreneurship Development Center (EDC), we are also working to put the innovators in an entrepreneurship training program to get appropriate skills and mentorship. 

In the end, connecting the innovators to relevant government agencies, innovations centres and other investors so that they can scale up their solutions quickly would be a good exit strategy. One of the positive insights that we have seen on this process is bringing different critical partners on board from the beginning who are interested in the issues to help us to know who is likely to take these solutions to scale. This is linked with ongoing government initiatives which create demand for the product or service line awarded. In partnership with MiNT, a national implementation task force has been established to support the scaling of the solutions.

We would like to thank our partners who have worked with us to address this crisis.