Transferring products directly to new markets may sound like a good idea – taking an opportunity in a new market, accessing potential for growth for a business. How can we be sure that the new market wants the product or service? Has it been adapted to suit the new needs and environments? Making sure the products or services are designed to specifically meet the needs of the new and emerging market is the first and most important aspect of ensuring successful application.

Minor adaptations may not be enough. The concept of innovation provokes the idea of adapting, testing and taking ideas to new places, in a better and more targeted way. Properly serving new problems, markets and people in their everyday lives.

IDEO, a design and innovation company, has taken this idea to new boundaries with its innovative approach to social design. Design that matters to people, targeting and adapting to specific needs and markets. It sounds obvious, but there are so many cases where poorly thought out entrants to new markets fail or have negative knock on impacts through the lack of systems thinking and targeted design.

Tim Brown the CEO of IDEO discusses “designers thinking big” in his Ted Talk below
IDEO have two great initiatives that stimulate this way of human centred designing – one is the “Human Centred Design toolkit”, giving guidance for facilitating design for society, taking into account the users and environments the designs are targeting.

The second is a process for iterating concepts to find the best solution. Facilitated by “open IDEO” - inspirations, concepts and evaluations of ideas are worked through in a collaborative way. Innovation concepts to use public voices such as crowdsourcing and crowdfunding have already enabled great new achievements in global business and livelihoods… IDEO are demonstrating the use of these crowd concepts and proving that their “open innovation” is a collaborative and sucessful method to meet new and pressing global issues.

Louise Bloom
Communication technologies are evolving rapidly in all sectors. Not only are the advancements in technology vast, but also the uptake and application into markets is phenomenally changing the way we live our day to day lives.

Even in the humanitarian sector, pilot tests and the use of new technologies is being adopted. There is an air of interest and excitement in trying new devices and processes, with the hope that these technologies will improve the effectiveness of agencies programmes and impact on the lives of populations they are working in.

Some illustrations of this are given in a 2009 report from the Applied Technology Working Group exploring how humanitarian agencies can make the most of new technologies and The Cash Learning Partnership reviews technologies specifically for cash transfer programming.

Alongside this growing fascination in the aid community, large disasters, such as the Haiti earthquake in 2010, appear to create a breeding ground for ideas and provided an opportunity to put new concepts to the test.

It is ever easier to find reports and examples of how humanitarian agencies have used new communications technologies, but what about the use of these technologies by local entrepreneurs and communities?

In a lessons learnt report from mission 4636, Robert Munro reflects that despite the recognition humanitarian agencies have got for taking on new technologies, application in Haiti really reflects how affected communities made use of existing resources themselves. Communicating and overcoming their own challenges in the aftermath of the disaster.

As discussed in another article by Paul Currion he questions whether the humanitarian sector is ready for the change in power balance, between communities and agencies, which access to information may bring.

Whoever makes use of these technologies or claims recognition, similar challenges in difficult and ever changing environments still remain:

Financial investment in personal equipment and national infrastructure
• Network stability and communications infrastructure
• Limited local availability of technical expertise
• Personal security posed by sharing of data and information transmitted, and limited controls in place to lower the risks
Legislative regulations in place by governments

It leaves us thinking about what can be done to overcome these challenges to enhance self-reliance in humanitarian response and refugee populations?

Louise Bloom
This is a follow-up of Kampala Report 1. In this blog, I shall write on potential livelihood opportunities for refugees in the business sector in Kampala.

Highly skilled professionals or informal trader?

During the fieldwork in Kampala, I talked to several bilateral donor agencies, government organisations and NGOs which are involved in the private sector development. I discussed with them about potential areas where refugees can seek livelihood opportunities in the local business sector. Their responses normally fell into following two categories. First, they pointed to an increasing demand for skilled experts (i.e. financial analysts, ICT experts, language instructors, teachers and doctors/nurses). This is understandable since service sectors in Kampala have grown up rapidly for last several years. But how many of refugees have qualifications and skills for these jobs? Perhaps, not many.

Second, many of these interviewees indicated the informal trade sector as an area where refugees without specialised skills can seek business opportunities in Kampala. Informal markets nevertheless seem to be already saturated due to a large number of Ugandan vendors. Is there sufficient room to absorb thousands of refugees in these local markets? This question requires further investigation.

Innovative approaches for creating livelihood opportunities

Apart from finding jobs either in skilled labour market or informal trade sector, are there any ways to help refugees seek economic opportunities in the local business sector? To think about this question, we need to be creative. Let me introduce two innovative initiatives led by the private enterprises in Kampala.

The first example is proposed by the company named Technology for Tomorrow (TfT), which was established by Ugandan scholar at Makerere University. This company employs both Ugandans and refugees to produce sanitary pads called ‘MakaPads’ (see Photo 1) and sell them to UNHCR to be distributed in refugee settlements in Uganda. Previously, these sanitary pads for refugees were imported from China to Uganda. By producing them in Uganda, however, TfT has succeeded in making employment for both locals and refugees. What is insightful about this approach is that TfT has not created any additional business demands to employ them but generated new livelihood opportunities by changing the supply side of sanitary pads. This model might be applied to other imported necessities for refugees.

Photo 1: ‘Makapad’ by Technology for Tomorrow  

Another example is the business model presented by Green Bio Energy (GBE). GBE is a private company which aims to assist income-generating means of poor people through the production of briquettes from organic wastes or charcoal dusts. The participants of GBE’s programme can earn income by collecting organic wastes/charcoal dusts, carbonising them into briquettes, and selling them to GBE (see Photo 2 for final products). GBE will eventually sell these briquettes produced by participants to local vendors for profits. Currently, beneficiaries of GBE programme are poor Ugandan people in Kampala. But refugees in the capital and settlements could benefit from this business model. 

Photo 2: Briquettes made by participants of GBE’s programme

Future research agendas   

The preliminary fieldwork in Kampala gave me a lot of homework for future visits. First, as written above, while stakeholders in the private sector highlight high-skilled and low-skilled labour markets as economic opportunities for refugees, aren’t there any labour demands for semi-skilled refugees? If yes, what are these areas? Second, similar to GBE and TfT, there seem to be other social enterprises working on poverty reduction in Uganda (The magazine, African Business No. 388 did a feature on innovations in Africa including Uganda). It will be interesting to map out all of these companies and to examine the applicability of their business models for refugee contexts. Finally, it is important to understand whether there are any common livelihood challenges between refugees and local poor people in Kampala. If their problems are similar, we can think of assistance that can benefit the subsistence of both locals and refugees.  

Support from UNHCR and refugees during the fieldwork

Before finishing off Kampala Report 2, I would like to thank staff members of UNHCR and a number of refugees who assisted the fieldwork. Interactions with UNHCR staff members gave me a number of important insights about refugee livelihoods (see Photo 3).

Many refugees facilitated the fieldwork as research assistants and translators. Throughout the fieldwork, I frequently had conversation with them about my research questions and methodologies and their suggestions were extremely useful to me. They were more like my research ‘partners’ rather than research assistants.     

                                                                                                                                                                         Naohiko Omata

Photo 3: UNHCR staff members in Kampala  
As we “look outwards” in our search for existing and potential products, processes and business models for humanitarian application – I find myself at the Small is…Festival. The 4th annual event hosted by Practical Action and Engineers Without Boarders UK bringing together inspiring individuals with a common passion and wealth of experience in "using technology to challenge poverty".

The festival held workshops, debates and demonstrations on a vast range of technological and social initiatives with application in developing countries. An opportunity to build awareness of the role technology has to pay in an international context and explore examples of appropriate technologies.

As I take part in the events ranging from setting up a solar panel to learning how the on-site compost latrines work, I am led to explore what these ideas could really mean for those living as refugees in a humanitarian response, or protracted refugees faced with longer term problems. Two examples are described below.

3D digital printing
Digital printing is a term used for printing from a digital image or design. 3D digital printing takes a digital image and prints the image in 3D using different materials. The example on show at the festival was this open source design of a printer that heated plastic and created 3D models by building up layers of the plastic.

Picture 1 - the 3D printer and bio-degradable plastic wire being fed in


Picture 2 - The cog made on the 3D printer

Could this idea be used in a humanitarian context?

This design does require some technical expertise to build and maintain, but it is a cheap and very accessible way to create parts that would otherwise need to be manufactured in large factories with dedicated machinery.

Could the technology be taken up by a local entrepreneur? Used for building cheaper spare parts for water pumps? So far there are no published examples of this application in a humanitarian context but discussions have begun by the engineers who have used this open source design on how it can be applied in remote areas with limited resources.

The open source design means that anyone can take the design and make it themselves. This is an important element in many new innovations that intend to reach a wide audience and have wide application in challenging environments.

The Simple Hand-Pump

This simple hand-pump was built in 30 minutes at the demonstration. It uses existing concepts of water pumps but is built of basic materials that can be found in most remote locations – some pipes, small blocks of wood and some rubber.

The simple mechanism is made up of one narrower pipe put into a larger pipe. The narrower pipe is moved up and down creating suction in the larger pipe and drawing up water through a wooden block at the bottom with some holes in it.  The wooden block with holes and a rubber cover (acting as a valve) stops the water escaping back through the wood once it has entered the main larger pipe. This pump has been used to pump water up to 5m.

Knowledge transfer of designs such as these is not formally in place – designs are replicated years later without any knowledge they have been made before.

Could this idea be used in a humanitarian context?

The simple design shown in the demonstration was developed in a refugee camp and has been used on many occasions to pump water out of water storage tanks. It is made of locally available materials and only needs simple tools to construct.

Clearly, the success of a technology is not only in its physical design. The term appropriate technology implies that the design must be suitably applied for the cultural, environmental and social context. Following the design, the application of a technology may take place informally and in many different ways - impacting local markets and the wellbeing of its communities.

Locally available materials play an important role in this case for the simple pump, but maintenance mechanisms are also vital. Maintenance options may include local government structures, community ownership or dedicated maintenance structures and business models.

Innovation using existing technology

Perhaps the next steps are innovating how available technologies are manufactured, applied, taken to market or maintained in new ways. Designs can be used as part of new social enterprise business models, or adapted by private sector actors to specifically meet the needs in a humanitarian response. What then are the barriers to entering the markets in refugee camps and areas having to respond to a humanitarian crisis? Perhaps these are some of the gaps that humanitarian innovation has a space to fill.

                                                                                                                                                                             Louise Bloom