Six Innovators Pivoting to Face COVID-19
For the past ten years, USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) has supported innovators who are developing creative, scalable, and cost-effective solutions for the world’s most intractable development challenges. Many of these innovators are pivoting their business and service models to respond to the current global pandemic.
Innovation is vital to adapt to unexpected challenges. The complexity and uncertainty of a pandemic highlights the pressing need for widespread innovation to increase global preparedness and rapid response. DIV grantees are at the forefront of this challenge by developing creative solutions, pivoting their approaches, and adapting to immense change. The flexibility of these organizations helps to ensure that they will continue to meet the needs of their communities and customers as well as their own operational survival.
In the face of the COVID-19 outbreak, DIV’s innovators continue to demonstrate ingenuity by adapting their delivery models to withstand the global crisis, diversifying their work, and developing critical resilience. Innovations that DIV supported for one specific purpose –– such as safe and reliable transportation on demand –– are now crucial to delivering necessary services, food, and supplies.
Here are six DIV-supported innovators that are adapting to COVID-19 in their countries.
Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia
About: VisionSpring provides vision screening services and affordable eyeglasses to people living on less than 4 dollars a day. Through partnerships with governments, health providers, and some of the largest garment manufacturers in India, Bangladesh, and Vietnam (including major brands like Target and Levi Strauss), VisionSpring has produced and delivered more than 6.8 million pairs of glasses globally.
New Problem: Global supply chain interruptions and lockdowns have made basic goods difficult to find for many communities that VisionSpring serves. Health workers around the world face shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), and essential infection prevention and control items, like cloth masks and handwashing stations, are in short supply.
Pivot: With the onset of COVID-19, VisionSpring has harnessed its partnerships and expertise to meet new demands by using its supply chains to: 1) distribute PPE to health workers and hospitals across South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, 2) commission a factory and collective of female artisans to produce cloth masks in Bangladesh and India, 3) deploy teams to provide accurate information about COVID-19 to communities in India, and 4) distribute food kits and COVID-19 prevention and hygiene kits containing five masks, an information leaflet, soap, and detergent to impacted communities.
Impact: VisionSpring has already distributed COVID-19 prevention kits to over 4,000 households in India, and have commissioned over 125,000 cloth masks and 30,000 safety glasses that are en route to protect health workers in Bangladesh. They have also distributed 7,000 food kits to truckers and transport workers in Delhi.
Looking Forward: VisionSpring will continue to distribute PPE, cloth masks, essential supplies, and prevention information while preparing for a new normal in global eye care. For instance, after learning that water and soap for handwashing are largely unavailable in their partner countries, VisionSpring began testing a handwashing station prototype modeled after units created during the Ebola crisis. They plan to distribute the stations to health facilities, pharmacies, and communities in India and Bangladesh, and continue to provide prevention training. As lockdowns are lifted, VisionSpring will gradually return to their mission while applying lessons from the pandemic to keep their teams and customers safe.
Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria
About: SafeBoda is a service that trains motorcycle taxi drivers to operate their vehicles safely –– using safety vests and helmets –– and provides a mobile app to connect drivers with customers. SafeBoda received a DIV grant in 2015 and has since grown to more than 15,000 drivers and one million customers across Uganda, Kenya, and Nigeria.
New Problem: In March 2020, Uganda temporarily closed all forms of public transportation, including motorcycle taxis, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Shelter-in-place orders made it difficult for people to venture out to buy essential goods, such as food and household items.
Pivot: To respond to the needs of the community, SafeBoda added a feature to its app to enable customers to order essential items from market vendors for delivery by SafeBoda drivers.
Impact: SafeBoda expects more than 800 vendors –– traditionally excluded from the digital economy –– to sign up for distribution of essential items using their app, and 50,000 customers to order deliveries from 18,000 drivers daily. Without this new service, these customers would not have safe and easy access to food and other essentials, and drivers would not have a source of income. After a few weeks, market vendors have reported increased sales because they can now reach new customers. The first market vendor to sign up saw her sales triple after two months.
Looking Forward: SafeBoda will continue to sign up market vendors in Kampala, Uganda, and Nairobi, Kenya as they scale their grocery delivery features in the near future.
About: doctHERs is a digital health platform that uses technology to match the underutilized capacity of female doctors with patients who need care. Since receiving DIV funding from 2015 to 2017, doctHERs has built a regional network of more than 2,000 licensed female doctors, pharmacists, and psychologists, which has enabled more than one million patients across Pakistan to access affordable healthcare.
New Problem: Essential resources in clinics are overstretched as they care for COVID-19 patients. Simultaneously, people who need primary and specialized healthcare are avoiding clinics and medical centers due to fear of viral transmission, resulting in lower provision and use of essential health services.
Pivot: In response to the challenges impacting traditional health services, doctHERs is scaling its digital health platform to connect more patients to healthcare providers. By enabling patients to receive essential care from the safety of their homes, doctHERs improves access to health services while maintaining physical distance. Between 2020 and 2021, doctHERs will hire, train, equip, and deploy more than 1,000 female frontline health workers to directly combat the pandemic across more than 1,000 underserved villages in 36 districts across Pakistan. These health workers have already started conducting door-to-door mobilization, educating communities on COVID-19, and conducting video and audio consultations.
Impact: The doctHERs network has already detected several COVID-19 patients through health workers or self-reports and ensured that these patients were admitted to hospitals. Their model, based on early detection and population-based health intervention, guarantees that patients have access to timely and targeted care.
Looking Forward: Through December 2021, the doctHERs network plans to continue its education and early detection work in communities, and health workers will distribute COVID-19 care kits containing masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, and educational materials in local languages. These products will be delivered in part through corporate partnerships, such as Unilever’s last mile distribution system. doctHERS anticipates the demand for health worker-assisted telemedicine to grow exponentially in the near future and will continue adapting its digital tools to respond to the need for timely community-based healthcare.
South Africa, Rwanda
About: Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator builds tools for businesses and young jobseekers to tackle the challenge of youth unemployment. Working closely with the government, private sector, and civil society, Harambee has built a multi-channel platform to support over 750,000 youth and 500 businesses across South Africa.
New Problem: A weak healthcare infrastructure and limited public capacity to respond to economic shocks challenges South Africa’s ability to respond quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic. The government and private sector need partners to help coordinate health and economic solutions.
Pivot: In partnership with the government of South Africa, Harambee is leveraging its platform and call center technology to support the Unemployment Insurance Fund to distribute unemployment benefits and relief funds to workers and businesses and to collect real-time data in poor communities. Harambee has also launched the 6 Million campaign engaging millions of young people during the lockdown and helping to inform the government’s rapidly evolving health crisis response.
Impact: Harambee has trained more than 500 call center agents and is answering over 25,000 calls per day to help employers access the COVID-19 benefit under South Africa’s Unemployment Insurance Fund. Harambee has already received over 500,000 calls. Through the 6 Million campaign, Harambee partnered with over 250 organizations to help almost 5 million young people increase their understanding of the crisis and what they can do to stay safe.
Looking Forward: As South Africa re-opens, Harambee, along with government and industry partners, is launching a Return2Work Initiative that disseminates information on how to safely re-open businesses and protect employees. Harambee will continue to guide young people toward available opportunities and plans to increase its online learning offering.
Kenya, Uganda, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone
About: Living Goods provides training, supervision, mobile technology, and compensation to over 10,000 government community health workers (CHWs) to deliver doorstep healthcare to their neighbors, covering 8 million people across Kenya and Uganda. They also assist ministries of health across multiple countries to support sustainable, government-led community health systems.
New Problem: COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing have interrupted health services globally. In Africa, the overburdened health systems acutely feel the lasting impacts of the crisis. CHWs are vital to ensure that families have access to basic health care services and that preventable deaths do not rise exponentially. Research shows that more than 2,000 children per month could die in both Kenya and Uganda due to interrupted services.
Pivot: Due to the global interruption in health services, Living Goods helps to protect healthcare workers by providing them with PPE and training––such as on “no and low-touch” protocols––to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while they continue to provide essential health services. Living Goods has adapted the mobile phone application used by CHWs to include a workflow for COVID-19 screening and increased airtime allotments to enable remote counseling. They also provide free health products to sick children through their own supply chain to reduce the burden on the public sector while continuing to provide essential services, such as immunization counseling and referrals and malaria testing and treatment. Living Goods has donated PPE to governments, established handwashing facilities and triage tents for health facilities, and deployed nearly 40 staff to support the ministries of health in Kenya, Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Burkina Faso.
Impact: Living Goods has influenced the development of government policies and guidelines that enable CHWs to continue working safely using adjusted protocols. In addition to providing COVID-19 training to their staff and CHWs, Living Goods has trained an additional 12,700 CHWs across Kenya and delivered 2.4 million text messages with health information to 15,700 Kenyan CHWs and 7,700 Ugandan CHWs, and the families they support.
Looking Forward: Living Goods will prioritize the delivery of essential services while continuing to adapt to meet the new demands of COVID-19 and ensure that CHWs have sufficient PPE. As national protocols evolve, they expect CHWs to support contact tracing and other COVID-19 response efforts. Living Goods will also continue to assist governments to use mobile technology for an effective pandemic response, explore ways to support the integration of COVID-19 data into government health databases, develop an e-learning platform for CHWs, and experiment with customizing other software, such as two-way text message platforms to facilitate communication between communities and CHWs. Through all this, Living Goods participates in global advocacy groups and captures their learnings in position papers and other publications.
Bangladesh, Lebanon, Uganda
About: Every Shelter improves shelter conditions for forcibly displaced populations worldwide through collaborative human-centered research, designs, and solutions, such as a modular, easy-to-install, non-permanent flooring tile product called Emergency Floor. Emergency Floor tiles can be easily sanitized to halt the transmission of COVID-19 and other diseases. Every Shelter, previously known as Good Works Studio, received a DIV award in 2015 and their solutions have since served over 12,500 vulnerable people around the world.
New Problem: More than 35 million refugees and displaced people live in densely populated settlements and lack reliable access to sanitation and hygiene resources needed to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.
Pivot: Due to the lack of available resources, Every Shelter is now working with partners to deploy Emergency Floor as a front-line response in isolation centers and primary health centers, as well as individual shelters.
Impact: So far, Every Shelter has distributed hundreds of their Emergency Floor products to health centers and individual families across refugee camps in Lebanon.
Looking Forward: Every Shelter plans to extend the distribution of the tiles throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The demand for clean floors is now significantly greater, and they are seeking funding to expand their distribution of sanitizable flooring. A new, strategic regional manufacturing partner will facilitate a rapid and cost-effective response to COVID-19 in health facilities. Every Shelter is also building strategic public-private partnerships across the housing industry to facilitate private sector support and foresees this operational shift will persist beyond COVID-19 to ensure that life-saving products are always available to those who need them most.