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How Covid-19 has catalysed local innovation

by Susana Fnu
15 June 2021

A new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on local innovations in response to Covid-19 in low- and middle-income countries, highlighted three real-world examples of achievements from local innovators and change agents in India, Peru, and Kenya. The examples showcase alternative models for innovation by local actors in the absence of funding, design, and project delivery support from high-income countries. At their heart, they all embody the core elements that make local innovations work: hyper-locality, pre-existing networks, needs driven, and an increased sense of ownership and agency.

Are these local innovators better at providing support to those affected by Covid-19 than so-called experts?

Necessity is the mother of all inventions

Maker’s Asylum, an open space makers’ community in Mumbai, used social media to launch the #theM19Collective open-source design campaign to make high-quality masks in response to an insufficient supply for frontline health workers. Within 49 days, it had activated 42 makers and supplied over one million face shields. The initiative is currently working on sourcing frugal oxygen concentrators and low-cost powered respirators through crowdfunding. The group’s innovations, which creatively use radically simplified solutions, focus on meeting the needs of communities in the shortest time possible. The egalitarian solidarity behind the open-source design principle that the community adopts, alongside the scarcity of resources, enable the solutions to be specific, clear, and time sensitive.

In Nairobi, Kenya, 50% of people (mostly workers in informal economy) rely on ’matatus’ (minibuses) for transportation. In response to Covid-19, the Matatu Welfare Association worked with  Data Integrated Limited (DIL) to create its own contact tracing system by adapting an existing local mobile app that people use for bus ticketing, scheduling, or digital payment. The app tracks future cases and clusters and sends warnings to exposed passengers. DIL built on their previous work with SMEs to develop a user-friendly feature in the existing app that is quick, low cost and easily accepted by bus users. Its success prompted the Kenyan Government to review policy changes around the collection and use of public transportation information.

The Peruvian government made a request for citizens to report the safety and welfare of almost half a million elderly and vulnerable populations during lockdown. In response, two UN expert volunteers working in the country mobilised an online volunteer scheme alongside government departments and international and civil society organisations. Within 48 hours of their appeal, 20,000 young people from an existing network of volunteers had participated.

In Indonesia, low testing capacity is a headache for public health administrators. A team of scientists from Gadjah Mada University stepped up to the challenge and developed GeNose C-19, a simple breath analyser test to electronically detect Covid-19 infection in under two minutes. The test is intended to serve as screening alternative to diagnostic tools such as PCR test and, at a cost of $0.70­–1.70, is 11–140 times cheaper. The government openly supported and adopted the invention and within nine months the team had conducted clinical trials, mass registered the protocol, received national standardisation certification and obtained a distribution license. State-owned public transport operators have adopted Ge-Nose C-19 as the on-site test requirement for passengers and will soon roll it out more broadly.

Common elements contribute to the success of these cases

  • Hyper locality: When borders are closed the community needs to rely on themselves to respond to an emergency. Local change agents who work with and for the local community delivered clear and specific solutions despite scarce resources.
  • Pre-existing networks or civil society organisations are key – their accumulation of knowledge and trust among locals enables them to leverage reach and impact.
  • Interventions are needs driven. Local civil society organisations do not have the same bureaucratic procedures as large, formal organisations and can move more quickly in terms of matching needs to interventions.
  • Finally, local actors’ sense of ownership and agency drives solidarity and pride to contribute to solutions to the community’s problems. This also feeds into self-funding mechanisms, such as donations or crowdfunding, which gives these actors freedom to design and innovate without outside intervention.

Should the international community be involved at all?

Scaling up local innovations is an area of concern. The OECD report identified obstacles including difficulties in meeting scientific and quality standard compliance and a fragmented technological portfolio resulting from highly localised and custom innovations. The international community may be able to act as brokers and facilitators when investing in locally led innovations – such cooperation may help them to realise their potential.

The examples cited affirm the powerful roles social entrepreneurs play in responding to humanitarian crisis situations with the limited resources at their disposals.  The report notes that international organisations tend to fall into the trap of over-engineering interventions or designing programmes loosely related to their missions (mission creep). This makes them unnecessarily complicated, exclusive, and bureaucratic – the antithesis to what makes local innovation thrive in the first place.

One model of support with less intervention/participation is Global Innovation Exchange, a platform where social entrepreneurs can meet and fundraise by submitting proposals. Its COVID19 innovation hub lists 894 innovations from across the world – from the Village Reach programme in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to solar-powered oxygen delivery in Uganda. As evidenced in the above examples, the international community must put its trust in local organisations to develop creative and original forms of support systems. This is the future for fully localised responses.

Susana Fnu is a Master’s degree candidate at Elliott School of International Affairs, the George Washington University, Washington D.C.

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