Opinion: 3 lessons learned on integrating innovation into the Uganda refugee response

Stakeholders convene with the Response Innovation Lab to discuss challenges being faced in delivering clean energy solutions in the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda. Photo by: Response Innovation Lab

The creation of the Response Innovation Lab in Uganda has been a rich journey full of trial and error. Launched by Save the Children in 2018, the main focus of RIL in Uganda is to support the increase of innovation in the refugee crisis response.

The Ugandan context has a high potential for social entrepreneurship and innovation. The amount of creativity and ideas alongside incubators and makerspaces that have popped up in recent years has been a strong indication. From our initial mapping of the humanitarian ecosystem, we have found many innovations that could improve humanitarian response.

Our team — composed of Ugandans, innovators, expats, and humanitarian workers — established our motto as "solving humanitarian challenges through innovation for Uganda in Uganda."

While COVID-19's arrival has held back some of our programming, the importance of focusing on localization has illuminated and highlighted the brilliance of local innovations — such as Ali Kabona's design of a solid soap dispenser for community water points to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Through the establishment of RIL in Uganda, our team has learned a few lessons on integrating innovation into the humanitarian context that we are sharing in a supportive effort around localization.

1. Be a translator and connector

The Response Innovation Lab is a global initiative founded by World Vision, Save the Children, Oxfam, and Civic to support other implementers and funders with challenges and solutions in humanitarian responses worldwide. Our website offers free resources on building evidence for innovation and is a place for subject matter experts, innovators, and humanitarians eager to work in new ways to connect and highlight local innovations in various responses.

To learn more about our labs, subscribe to our newsletter or contact our team.

Innovators, humanitarians, and development practitioners often don't understand each other. Moreover, innovators — such as social entrepreneurs — are unaware of how humanitarian markets, like refugee settlements, function. To bridge this gap, RIL supports innovators with context analysis, as well as safeguarding and ethical guidance to equip them with the tools needed to succeed in these new markets. For example, in Uganda’s Bidibidi refugee settlement, we helped clean energy startups set up and start serving new customers — the refugees — by understanding the specific needs in this environment, and we supported the innovators with skills and learning development.

Another aspect to consider is that Uganda's innovation scene is incredibly active, and it takes time to screen innovations with the most promise for the response context and programming. RIL has simplified access to past learnings to better support busy humanitarians and connect them to relevant innovations, in an effort to not reinvent the wheel. The Matchmaker is a function and tool of RIL that connects humanitarian challenges with the right innovations.

2. Localization is the process, not just a part of the process

As responders, we tend to think we know the challenges, but we often don't understand them to the degree needed. Engaging local communities and actors with ears wide open to listen and learn has been integral to solving challenges with lasting solutions. For instance, we have found the uptake of clean energy solutions in refugee camps is as much about communications and financing schemes as it is about developing the right technology.

Humanitarian innovation tends to first look for the solution rather than truly understanding the problem and then aligning the challenges — probably because defining challenges takes more time and conversation, and both are not always available when responding to a crisis.

Starting with a bottom-up challenge analysis is highly recommended. A good example is a recent call around localized innovation by the Dutch Relief Alliance Innovation Fund. The call gave the Ugandan innovation and humanitarian ecosystem a predominant role in selecting and addressing challenges and new projects to be funded.

Next comes the selection of a solution that genuinely responds to the challenge. This process requires time and support. Rarely does an NGO or a startup have a ready-to-go solution up its sleeve, or if a solution exists, it takes time to find and contextualize it.

Additionally, working locally does not mean isolating from global expertise. On the contrary, one of the key areas of support to the local humanitarian ecosystem is connecting innovators to cutting-edge technical experts from humanitarian, development, and other professional backgrounds.

This work also requires smart investments by donors — which, in our case, includes Danida in Denmark, and the government of Norway — seeing value in strengthening local systems to improve response delivery.

3. Investing in local ideas and ‘skilling’ innovators

Strengthening local innovators' capacity with the skills, tools, and funds needed to mature their ideas leads to the most relevant and radically different solutions. This may require a rethink of current investment strategy for a long-term optimized outcome.

Investment in capacity is needed to ensure the local innovative company or NGO is growing adequately and introducing the right checks and balances to sustain the supply to the demand. As such, investing in an innovator’s growth, and not solely the solution, allows the individual to develop alongside the scale of the solution — for example, RIL is helping with capacity building among the innovators at SafeBangle to develop a wearable technology in the form of a bangle that can send emergency alerts to trusted contacts when a woman or girl feels threatened.

While investing in capacity may not yield results immediately, doing so enables the best potential for scale and sustainability for affected populations, especially the most vulnerable.

We see a great wealth of social enterprises flourishing in Uganda. As we push forward on localization goals, some of the best support to local innovators is connections to markets — such as the humanitarian market — and supporting pilot projects with testing and scaling. We must remember that the nature of humanitarian work means we are serving populations at difficult times, and they may never be able to afford innovations directly.

While localization enables market growth, there is still a need for NGOs and public services to inject funding that ensures vulnerable populations continue to have access to needed solutions. Simultaneously, we must be wary of not creating a new wave of grant-dependent innovators.

To conclude, building an effective innovation ecosystem in the humanitarian space to thrive and be sustainable takes time and concerted effort from humanitarian partners. Problems and challenges along the way are inevitable, especially in conflict and disaster settings. As implementers, if we take a user-centered focus when solving challenges, remain adaptable, and focus on longer-term sustainable efforts led by local innovators, then programming can evolve to fit better, do better, and deliver better for affected populations.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Charlene Cabot

    Charlene Cabot is the manager of the Response Innovation Lab in Uganda. As manager in Uganda, working with a cross-sectoral team of technical specialists at Save the Children, she breaks non-traditional partnerships and identifies innovative solutions that can accelerate the impact of assistance programs for vulnerable refugee and host communities. She has a background in international relations and sustainable development and has authored a comparative study of linkages between climate change and agro-pastoral conflicts in three Sub-Saharan African countries.
  • Emma Pfister

    Emma Pfister is an advisor on marketing and development at the Response Innovation Lab’s Central Support Unit, hosted by World Vision International. She is one of two team members at the RIL’s Central Support Unit charged with backstopping the labs in their marketing, communications, and fundraising activities, as well as collaborating with global partners on these areas. Previously she worked at UNICEF USA, Water For People, the Global Water Challenge, and is a masters graduate from the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.