Innovation set to transform humanitarian response in conflict zones and COVID-19

$17.5 million dollar fund focused on improving access to safe water and sanitation; energy; life saving information; and health supplies and services

WFP Innovation Accelerator
12 min readSep 25, 2020

by Kenneth Tong and Zeba Tasci

Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge supports innovations that will save or improve the lives of the most vulnerable and hardest-to-reach people impacted by humanitarian crises caused by conflict, in a world now further exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The second round of Innovation Acceleration Weeks in collaboration with the World Food Programme’s Innovation Accelerator, gets underway on 5 October 2020, where 27 innovation teams will join in a series of expert presentations and structured activities to help our innovators dive deep into challenges, generate solutions, and refine their project plans around project design, human-centred design, and lean startup innovation. Following this, teams will hone their proposals and present their ideas for humanitarian innovation in a live online Pitch Event on Thursday 29 October 2020.

Sign up to watch the Pitch Event here.

Meet the teams, grouped according to four humanitarian priorities: Safe Water & Sanitation, Energy, Life Saving Information, and Heath Supplies & Services.

Photo Credit: The Rainmaker Enterprise.

Safe Water & Sanitation

Upande Limited. Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) services in displacement camps are often strained and difficult to monitor and prioritize for repair. Upande Limited proposes an offline Internet of Things (IoT) platform for humanitarian agencies in conflict settings to monitor key water, sanitation and hygiene indicators, such as water level, flow, chlorine. This plug-and-play, affordable offline tool, allows local partners to maintain it without external support, and enables humanitarian partners to make data-informed decisions based on current on-the-ground information.

Bureau Diocésain des Œuvres Médicales. Many hospitals in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) function without potable water or electricity. Bureau Diocésain des Œuvres Médicales has developed an integrated water purification and electrical power micro-facility for rural hospitals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The system will include a solar chimney-driven water distiller and an embedded electricity generator, for renewable off-grid potable water and electricity resources at community medical centres.

World Vision Canada. World Vision Canada, with WAGTECH Projects, will implement an early warning system to inform water provision for internally displaced peoples and refugees in Somalia. The system harnesses hydrological and meteorological data collected remotely using 3G water loggers and mini weather stations.This system will be useful in Somalia which has been subject to the El Nino Southern Oscillation resulting in five years of below average rainfall in the country.

Bremen Overseas Research and Development Association (BORDA). In conflict settings and emergencies, sanitation infrastructure in camps are often constructed overlooking the long-term needs such as safe containment and disposal of faecal matter. BORDA proposes a pre-fabricated, foldable membrane septic tank kit suitable for displacement camps that is designed to be set-up in 1 day, serve 400 people, biologically stabilize and store the sludge for up to 6 months, reduce de-sludging needs; capture biogas; and reduce odour nuisances. The kit will improve access to safe sanitation, reduce the risks of water-borne diseases, odours, nuisances and reduce the frequency of dislodging, providing a healthier environment for affected populations.

Texas A&M University — San Antonio. In many conflict-affected contexts, large populations are dependent on pit latrines and groundwater resources, which puts people at risk of contracting disease outbreaks, and contaminating groundwater. Texas A&M is developing breathable, laminate-lined pit latrines to protect the groundwater from fecal contamination, while allowing evaporation, without compromising safe excreta disposal. These laminates will provide an alternate sanitation solution to fully-sealed cesspits in high water table areas.

Photo Credit: Nuru SARL.


Nuru. In conflict-affected areas of the Democractic Republic of Congo (DRC), only 5 percent of people report having energy access. Nuru seeks to provide 3.7 MW of hybrid mini-grid energy to three at-risk neighbourhoods of Goma, with the intention to set a foundation for the further development of a value network that would support job creation, growth, security and community development.

Power Blox.* Off-grid power systems for populations in conflict areas are usually established via generators, which can be costly and require fossil fuels or technicians with specialist knowledge. Power-blox uses ‘swarm’ technology to provide flexible, expandable and universal energy solutions. This solution enables the use of any electric-powered application without special knowledge, especially for hospitals, schools, agriculture, local business and more.

Mandulis Energy. Because of the limited distribution of expensive briquettes and solar lamps among refugee camps in Uganda, trees are often cut for cooking fuel. Madulis Energy seeks to address this issue by turning agricultural residues into a baseload of electricity for microgrids in rural farming communities. Mandulis Energy purchases agricultural waste from refugee farmers, after providing them with high grade agri-processing services. The waste is then transformed into electricity and clean cooking fuel, improving public health and air quality, reducing deforestation and providing additional income streams

Prado Power. In rural Nigeria, food shortages occur because of a lack of electricity for post harvest processing, irrigation farming, and storage. Prado Power Limited aims to bridge this divide by providing power for irrigation farming, post harvest storage and processing for products in Nigeria. The modular solar energy systems and machinery (including solar water pumps, grinding machines, threshing machines) will support agriculture in areas with no grid-power, eliminating the need for expensive grid power extension and providing a sustainable approach to reaching the millions without access to power.

Solar Freeze. In refugee regions of Kenya, food and other essential items are wasted because the cold-storage chain is essentially non-existent due to high equipment cost and unreliable access to electricity. Solar Freeze provides portable, solar-powered “pay-as-you-store” refrigeration services for refugee and host communities in Kenya at affordable pricing. The model includes women-led micro-franchises and training of young women aged 20–35 years as repair and maintenance technicians, providing skilled jobs at the refugee level.

Photo Credit: The Sentinel Project.

Life Saving Information

Sealr. In a time of uncertainty, when it’s important to verify and secure imagery from conflict affected areas, Sealr is an easy-to-use mobile phone application that captures verified imagery by harnessing Artificial Intelligence and blockchain. Designed for use in remote and conflict-affected areas, the innovation will improve monitoring and evaluation of projects; decrease fraud, waste and abuse; and empower local beneficiaries to make unimpeachable reports about what their needs are and how they are being met.

Sentinel Project: WikiRumours.This enhanced WikiRumours software will enable geographically distributed teams to collaborate on monitoring, verifying, and countering the spread of harmful rumours and misinformation that contribute to intercommunal conflict. This technological work will support the scaling up of the Hagiga Wahid project in South Sudan and the Kijiji Cha Amani project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which are mobile phone-based information services that engage communities in building peace by managing misinformation.

Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.* Models of infectious disease outbreaks are essential to optimize health crisis response, especially in complex and conflict-affected environments. The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative will use a Visual Response Simulator to help respond to infectious disease outbreaks and forecast the effects of epidemiological intervention strategies It will give responders the means to conduct rapid, multi-level contingency planning and provide solutions that realistically address threat and logistical difficulty so that even the most vulnerable and hardest to reach are equally considered.

Avigo Health L.L.C. Obtaining birth data is often a challenge in low-resource settings, especially in conflict or other fragile settings. Avigo Health L.L.C. intends to create a digital birth-reporting system that provides reliable birth data in settings with large, internally displaced populations. The community sourcing of birth information will comprise 3 elements: a trusted community leader (“mai angwan”) who reports births via mobile phone; automated verification of birth reports that leverage Nigeria’s new biometric national identity management system; and minimal phone credits as rewards for verified reports.

Norwegian Refugee Council. The traditional approaches of delivering legal aid services to conflict-affected groups are limited by time, resources available, access constraints and geography. The Norweigan Refugee Council intends to create a dynamic, self-service digital platform that provides tailored legal aid to vulnerable populations based on users’ needs, location and profile, improving the delivery of legal aid services and allowing NRC staff more time to devote to those unable to self-service their needs..

Stichting Elva: Camp Forecast. Annually, $1.3 billion of humanitarian aid funding is wasted due to outdated supply management practices in refugee camps. The Camp Forecast tool is an Artificial Intelligence-driven demand forecasting tool developed for humanitarian settings to allow for faster, more accurate, and cost effective supplies management. The project will be especially beneficial for children, pregnant women, and people living with disabilities or special needs — who are most vulnerable and dependent on humanitarian supplies within camp settings.

Translators Without Borders. Needs assessments are often inaccurate and slow in multilingual contexts, resulting in aid efforts designed on incomplete and inaccurate data. Translators Without Border will build on cutting edge text and voice-based language technology in languages of northeast Nigeria to capture, understand and analyze questions and concerns from conflict-affected people quickly and accurately. Automated language support has the potential to dramatically speed up the feedback cycle, reduce costs for data collection, and improve the quality of the data used to inform humanitarian decisions. Ultimately, it will improve two-way communication between humanitarians and conflict-affected people.

Kobo, Inc. Toolbox. In the current humanitarian response system, more nuanced insights require the use of robust qualitative methods, but severe language barriers and lack of resources make proper transcription almost impossible in conflict and disaster settings. Kobo, Inc. Toolbox is a natural language processing (NLP) toolkit for systematic recording, transcribing, and translating of interviews between humanitarian organisations and conflict-affected persons. The toolkit helps overcome language barriers to improve humanitarian response planning and accountability, by capturing and understanding community feedback in a more meaningful way.

Photo Credit: Community Innovation Hub, Sehat Kahani.

Health Supplies & Services

Pragmatic Innovation Inc. Properly treating blunt force trauma wounds is a huge medical challenge in low-resource conflict zones. To address this problem, Pragmatic Innovation is building a low-cost manually powered vacuum pump to help accelerate the treatment of large wounds. An air-tight dressing is placed over the wound and attached to a manually operated suction pump and drainage tube. Vacuum or negative pressure wound therapy significantly facilitates the healing of acute and chronic wounds, while preventing infection. Pragmatic Innovation’s apparatus is designed specifically for use in conflict-settings, at a fraction of the cost, without electricity, and in patient’s homes.

The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).* Nine years into the Syrian Civil War, the mental health needs of children ages 5–18 across Syria are immense. SAMS intends to increase access to care amongst vulnerable children by leveraging community-based resources and training and supervising Syrian women to deliver essential and much needed mental healthcare. This solution empowers women technically and financially while reducing the gap in access to mental health services in Syria.

École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne: Smart PPE. Frontline and healthcare workers fighting Ebola in conflict affected areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are not well-equipped with proper personal protective equipment (PPE) for their working conditions. SmartPPE is the world’s first single piece, ventilated, and reusable PPE for healthcare workers. Its integrated ventilation system prevents the buildup of excessive heat, humidity and fogging inside the PPE, thus reducing exhaustion, extending working shifts, and creating a more visible, human interaction with patients.

SUNY Korea. People living with disabilities are one of the most affected populations of humanitarian crises. SUNY Korea proposes the development and testing of 3D printed customisable ‘shoes’ for crutches and canes, to provide mobility assistance in challenging terrain. The alternative design will be customized to the local environment, adapting mobility aids for mud, sand, and other grounds found in conflict or refugee camp settings.

Action Against Hunger Canada: SMARTplus.* For the last decade, Somalia has suffered from one of the highest rates of emergency-level malnutrition and the lack of quality data prevents humanitarian aid workers from responding appropriately and in time. SMART plus will provide end-to-end digital infrastructure to provide fast, cheap and accurate child body measurements to address malnutrition. Data from 3D scanning is analysed for quality assurance, is aggregated into a central database, and results can be visualised on a public dashboard down to sub-regional level, to help inform humanitarian response.

Bridge to Health Medical and Dental USA & MedGlobal. Diagnostic imaging is rarely accessible in Yemen, leaving healthcare providers with little support. Bridge to Health Medical and Dental USA, with MedGlobal, aims to strengthen the healthcare system in Yemen by training local healthcare providers to use novel point of care ultrasound with cloud-based monitoring, focusing on pneumonia, trauma, and complications of pregnancy, for remote viewing from experts.

Body Surface Translations, Inc.: AutoAnthro. Manual measurement to determine malnutrition has been the standard for decades, with challenges like cumbersome equipment and inaccuracy. AutoAnthro is a 3D scanning system which captures measurements of the human body, enabling easier, faster, and more accurate data collection. The device is intended to improve detection and outcomes for child malnutrition in conflict zones.

Community Innovation Hub: Sehat Kahani — Story of Health. Mass exodus due to conflicts and insecurity have made it impossible for internally displaced persons, especially women and girls, to have access to basic health care. Sehat Kahani proposes a telemedicine solution that connects women doctors and specialists to the hardest-to-reach and most vulnerable communities, including internally displaced persons, in Pakistan.

The MENTOR Initiative. The MENTOR Initiative will pilot insect repellent “envelopes” to combat the rise of Cutaneous Leishmaniasis and other insect-borne diseases in conflict settings. Made of World Health Organization (WHO)-approved transfluthrin, these single sheets of thin plastic are hung up in the home, to provide a portable, simple and stable tool for protection against flying insects.

* Finalists shortlisted for funding.

Follow each project’s progress at the Innovation Acceleration Week starting on Monday 5 October 2020, followed by the innovation pitch event on Thursday 29 October 2020. Updates will be posted on Twitter @HumanitarianGC and @WFPInnovation.

About Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge

Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge is a partnership of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, with support from Grand Challenges Canada. USAID, the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, and the Government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands have contributed US $32.5 million for Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge, which was launched in 2018 to enable local organizations, humanitarian agencies, and the private sector to work alongside affected communities to respond more nimbly to complex emergencies, address the unprecedented magnitude of suffering around the world, and empower people to create better lives for themselves.

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About the World Food Programme (WFP) Innovation Accelerator

The United Nations (UN) World Food Programme (WFP) Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-impact innovations to achieve Zero Hunger. Based in Munich, Germany, we provide WFP employees, entrepreneurs and startups with funding, hands-on support and access to WFP’s global operations. Through the Innovation Accelerator, WFP is leveraging unprecedented advances in digital innovation — such as mobile technology, artificial intelligence, big data and blockchain — and new business models to transform the way we serve vulnerable communities across the world. Building on WFP’s legacy of innovation, the Innovation Accelerator was launched in 2015 to pilot new solutions and scale promising innovations to disrupt hunger. In just five years, we’ve supported more than 80 projects around the world, with 11 innovations scaling up to reach 1.4 million people in 2019. In 2020, we were one of 10 organisations worldwide to receive Fast Company’s 2020 awards: “Best Workplace for Innovators” and “Innovation Team of the Year.”

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WFP Innovation Accelerator

Sourcing, supporting and scaling high-impact innovations to disrupt hunger.