Seeking Innovation in Humanitarian Contexts (@Africa @Refugees)

February 2019 | Humanitarian Innovation Global |Africa| Rosie Afia

Late 2018, I undertook due diligence visits with shortlisted applicants for my work as a grant manger (Innovation Fund). Here are a few reflections from my visits:

1. Opportunities for Mobile Money in humanitarian contexts are prolific – and we’re still at the start.

The potential for humanitarian cash and voucher assistance (CVAs) to have meaningful impact through mobile money continues to be a vision worth pursuing.

However, according to our discussions with applicants, significant challenges remain for organisations aiming to disburse aid via mobile money in East Africa.

Examples include:

  • Lengthy contracting processes on both sides (humanitarian organisations and mobile operators)
  • Challenges in finding and engaging with “the right contact” within a mobile operator
  • The need to demonstrate value for money to donors, for example; putting pressure on humanitarian organisations to negotiate for bulk discounts

As a result, humanitarian organisations are sometimes working with aggregators (more info here) who are small enough to quickly adapt internal systems and meet the complex needs of humanitarian organisations.

2. A Gradual Transition: “Refugee” to “User” to “Customer”.

While we know the private sector cannot provide for all humanitarian needs, why shouldn’t refugees benefit from competitive, good quality goods and services, such as PAYGO solar energy, water, financial services, clean cookstoves, micro-insurance, and rural connectivity?

While living conditions in refugee settlements/camps remain incredibly challenging for most, they are also home to vibrant and healthy marketplaces in Uganda, particularly in areas where refugees have been living for more than 2 years. Although only a very small ‘sample sizes’, we spoke to people during my visits who told me they want better quality services and would be willing and able to pay if only they had access.

For start-ups or organisations attempting to plug this gap by providing vital services to refugees, the reality is that financial sustainability is really challenging or untenable, particularly in the short-term. A common barrier I saw was how to set appropriate pricing structures to ensure sustainability while not excluding more vulnerable community members.

  • For example, entities might be able to operate on a cost recovery model as opposed to for-profit models, or use dual market approaches, serving more lucrative markets at the same time.
  • Humanitarian organisations might benefit from wider support around pricing strategies appropriate to rapidly changing situations.

3. Innovate, Iterate and Do No Harm.

It is possible to innovate ethically within humanitarian contexts, however careful planning is required and it is important that organisations abide by humanitarian principles, which is one reason we ask applicants to apply as part of a partnership. This helps bring different expertise – humanitarian, commercial, and technical – to the table.

While Silicon Valley-style innovation is rarely appropriate in these contexts, the principles of build, measure, learn, iterate are still highly relevant in the humanitarian landscape. It’s also important to apply ethical frameworks to ideas and adapt so we can ensure users (especially the most vulnerable) are at the heart of the innovation as it changes.

In particular:

  • Innovate, iterate and do not harm requires starting small and measuring impact regularly.
  • In order to test new models and willingness to pay it’s critical to take small risks in controlled environments (where possible) and ensure those risks align with humanitarian principles.
  • Mobile technology can play a powerful role in supporting the analysis of such initiatives and lead to better outcomes and better accountability mechanisms for innovators.

To find out more about this work or the Fund, follow me on Twitter @RosieAfia


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