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Archives for Extreme Poverty

NASA Earth Data Jumpstarts World’s Aspiring Researchers

Question: What do you get when you mix NASA data, USAID’s development expertise, and some of the best young scientific minds the world can offer?

Answer: Some of the most promising ideas to help solve the world’s biggest challenges

In early April, a select group of fellows for the USAID and NASA My Community Our Earth (MyCOE) program travelled to Washington D.C. where experts from the two agencies, the Association of American Geographers, and U.S. Universities and NGOs proffered advice and encouragement on continuing their research and their careers.

International students in MyCOE fellowship program pose with USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah. / Brandy Ajose

International students in MyCOE fellowship program pose with USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah. / Brandy Ajose

The MYCOE fellowship program supports the next generation of scientific leaders from developing countries to create innovative, science-based solutions to meet their countries’ development challenges. These students – who hail from some of the poorest, most climate-vulnerable countries in the world in East and West Africa, the Himalayas and Southeast Asia – used NASA satellite information to develop tools and approaches that bring higher incomes to those in poverty and help protect their country’s most vulnerable from potential disasters.

Their innovative solutions range from monitoring frost to improve tea crops in Kenya, to predicting glacier melting patterns to prevent catastrophic outburst floods in Nepal. Here are some highlights:

Helping Kenya’s Tea Fight Frostbite

(1) SERVIR in Africa is installing Wireless Sensor Networks in Kenya to help tea growers fight crop-killing frost.  / Servir

SERVIR in Africa is installing Wireless Sensor Networks in Kenya to help tea growers fight crop-killing frost. / Servir

Aberdere and Mount Kenya are among Kenya’s top areas for growing tea, a crucial crop for the region’s smallholder growers. Recently, frequent frosts in the region — a weather phenomenon that could worsen due to climate change — have led to severe crop damage and income losses for tea growers. Susan Malaso, a student at Kenyatta University in Nairobi is addressing this challenge head on. With support from NASA and USAID, Susan is using Geographic Information System (GIS) and remote sensing data to map and predict frost risk in the region. The project produces data on frost trends to help farmers plan their planting schedules, choose the most frost-tolerant crops, and select the safest locations for planting their higher value tea crops. The data will also inform crop insurance programs that will help smallholder farmers recover from severe crop damage. Ultimately, this will help a wide range of Kenyans employed by the tea industry and promote sustainable economic growth, even in the face of climate change.


Helping Thai Fishermen Weather a Changing Climate

Fish market in Gizo, Solomon Islands

Fish market in Gizo, Solomon Islands / USAID, CTSP, Tory Read

Jirawat Panpeng, a doctoral student at the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand, is researching the vulnerability of coastal fishery communities in the Laemsing district of Thailand. Laemsing has been affected by rising sea levels and associated soil erosion and flooding, a phenomenon linked to climate change. Using climate simulation and GIS software, Panpeng’s results are helping to raise awareness among both government officials and local communities on the need to develop adaptation measures such as improved infrastructure to adapt to climate fluctuations.


Protecting Burma’s Lake Ecosystem

Burma’s Inle Lake attracts thousand of tourists each year but its fragile ecosystem is in danger.  / Kelly Ramundo, USAID

Burma’s Inle Lake attracts thousand of tourists each year but its fragile ecosystem is in danger. / Kelly Ramundo, USAID

Khi Seint Seint Aye, another AIT student, is studying the impact of floating gardens on the environment of Inle Lake in central Burma. This lake attracts thousands of local and international tourists each year because of its scenic beauty and the rich ethnic and cultural diversity of surrounding communities, who live in stilt houses in and around the lake and derive their livelihood from aquaculture, fishing and floating garden aquaculture. Floating gardens are one of the highlights of the lake’s cultural heritage; however, the lake can sustain only a limited amount of such gardening without compromising its natural balance. Seint Seint will assess the impact of the gardens on the lake’s ecosystem using a participatory rural appraisal, water analyses, and remote sensing and GIS technologies facilitated by SERVIR. The results of her research will be used to conduct an awareness campaign with local and national stakeholders and to develop a mitigation plan to prevent the collapse of the lake’s ecosystem.

Ending Extreme Poverty with a New Model of Development

Tonight, 860 million people will go to sleep hungry. This year, 6.6 million children will die before their 5th birthday. And every day, 1.1 billion people around the world—more than the population of North and South America combined—live in extreme poverty on just a dollar-and-a-quarter a day.

Paschali Axweso Amnaay, chairman of the Mahande Rice Irrigation Scheme

Paschali Axweso Amnaay, chairman of the Mahande Rice Irrigation Scheme in Tanzania, along with many agri-businesses in the country, benefit from initiatives like Power Africa. Photo by: CNFA

Even after adjusting for the relative price of local commodities, this is a desperately meager sum. With it, families must make daily choices among food, medicine, housing, and education.

We know it doesn’t have to be this way. For the first time in history, we stand within reach of a world that was simply once unimaginable: a world without extreme poverty.

From 1990 to 2010, the number of children in school rose to nearly 90 percent, and around two billion people gained access to clean water. Child mortality rates have fallen by 47 percent and poverty rates by 52 percent. In 2005, for the first time on record, poverty rates began falling in every region of the world, including Africa.

We now have a clear roadmap out of extreme poverty that is driven by broad-based economic growth and transparent democratic governance. With the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals drawing near—and conversations on the Post-2015 Development Agenda well underway—the global community has an opportunity to pioneer a new model of development and shape an inclusive, results-driven agenda that will end extreme poverty.

The Busan High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness has built a strong foundation for this effort—tapping into the capabilities of governments, foundations, companies, and civil society organisations to solve the world’s greatest development challenges.

Through this new model of development, USAID is forging high-impact partnerships to harness innovation and scale meaningful results to end extreme poverty. This month, we launched the U.S. Global Development Lab, a hub of creative design and high-impact collaboration that is setting a new standard for development. Together with 32 cornerstone partners, the Lab will bring innovators and entrepreneurs from across the public and private sectors to answer the world’s most pressing development challenges through science and technology.

On April 3, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah unveiled the U.S. Global Development Lab.

On April 3, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah unveiled the U.S. Global Development Lab. Photo credit: USAID

Earlier this year, through our Development Credit Authority, USAID partnered with GE and Kenya Commercial Bank to help health care providers buy life-saving healthcare equipment, including portable ultrasound devices and Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines. For the first time ever, our private sector partner is covering the cost of the loan guarantee—making this program virtually costless for the taxpayer.

President Obama’s Power Africa initiative is another great example.

For most of the world, electricity allows businesses to flourish, clinics to store vaccines, and students to study long after dark. But for more than 600 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, these opportunities simply do not exist. Power Africa encourages countries to make energy sector reforms—while connecting entrepreneurs to investment opportunities that are created by those reforms themselves.

Less than a year since launching, more than 5,500 mega-watts of power projects have been planned—putting us more than halfway towards the initiative’s goal of expanding electricity to 20 million homes and businesses. Just recently, we celebrated three local engineers who are lighting up Africa with solar-powered generators and pay-as-you-go power home meters.

Increasingly, the best ideas aren’t just coming from development professionals who have been in the field for three decades. They are also coming from scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs around the world. That is why we launched the Grand Challenges for Development and created the Development Innovation Ventures fund—to enable problem-solvers to test their game-changing idea, whether it’s a mobile technology that boosts hospital efficiency or a $10 device that prevents the leading cause of maternal mortality.

A few years ago, we were lucky if we got half-a-dozen proposals in response to our solicitations. So far, these new kinds of open competitions have received more than 6,000 applicants—each with the potential to transform development. Even better, 70 percent of proposals are from inventors who we’ve never worked with before.

We look forward to strengthening this new model of development at the first High-Level Meeting of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation. Whether we work for a government agency or small local organisation, each of us can expand our emphasis on partnership and innovation. Each of us can deepen our focus on rigorous evaluation and scalable results. Working together, we can throw open the doors of development and engage millions of people in our mission to unlock a brighter future for all.


This post originally appeared on devex.com on April 11, 2014

USAID launches Global Development Lab

Today in New York, we launched our Global Development Lab, the new arm of our Agency that will foster science and technology-based solutions to help end extreme poverty by 2030.

Modeled on some of the most innovative and technologically advanced centers for discovery across the country, The ‘Lab’ as we are calling it, brings together a diverse set of partners to help us develop, test, and scale groundbreaking solutions to the greatest challenges known to man. Our goal is to reach over 200 million people through a new Lab-supported global marketplace of innovations in the next five years alone.

To focus the efforts of this talented community, we have outlined nine core areas where science, technology, and innovation can dramatically accelerate progress—from improving child literacy to advancing human rights to expanding financial inclusion through digital services.

And to help build the ranks of a next generation of talented development leaders, we also announced the first-ever class of 62 USAID Research and Innovation Fellows, who will deploy to more than 50 institutions across the world and examine everything from climate data in the Sahel to the impact of pathogens on child nutrition in South Africa.

But we can’t do it alone. If you are excited about the Lab’s vision and want to be part of this bold new approach to development, we want to hear from you!

FrontLines: The End of Extreme Poverty

FrontLines March/April 2014: The End of Extreme Poverty
Read the latest edition of USAID’s FrontLines to learn about the Agency’s plans for eliminating extreme poverty within the next two decades. Some highlights:

Improving Agriculture to Help Lift Nigerian Families Out of Poverty

Alex Thier (far left) looks on as a Nigerian farmer checks the starch level of his cassava crop. (Photo Credit: USAID)

Alex Thier (far left) looks on as a Nigerian farmer checks the starch level of his cassava crop. (Photo Credit: USAID)

Standing at the gates to the Nigerian cassava processing plant, Thai Farms, we held our breath while watching a local farmer anxiously weigh a sack of his latest cassava crop. Cassava, a starchy local staple crop, takes 12 to 24 months to grow, but begins to rot after only 48 hours out of the ground.  So for this local farmer, transporting and being able to quickly sell his crop is essential to getting a good price.

To determine purchase prices, cassava is weighed and then tested for starch content through a simple, yet ingenious method of submersing the cassava tubers in water to test buoyancy. The higher the starch content, the more cassava flour is produced and the more money the farmer earns per kilo. The farmer breathed a sigh of relief when the starch content turned out to be high enough for the factory to buy his produce, but not high enough to fetch the best price.  The farmer left relieved, but somewhat disappointed and hopefully inspired to plant improved varieties next season.

In Nigeria, more than 70 percent of the population earns their livelihood from agriculture and 70 percent of the MARKETS II farmers live on less than $1.25 each day. By giving these farmers the tools to improve their harvest and connecting them with buyers, USAID is helping the farmers earn a higher selling price that is essential to increasing their household income and lifting their families out of extreme poverty.

a fish pond

Fish swim in one of many fish ponds at the USAID supported Timmod Farms in Nigeria. (Photo Credit: USAID)

Thai Farms exemplifies the MARKETS II model of connecting local farmers to new markets and technologies. However, there are several other local agri-business enterprises boosting the economy in Nigeria. Timmod Farms, for example, is a Nigerian success story. The farm was established in November 2004 with just four ponds of fish and is now one of the leading fish processors in Nigeria. Timmod Farms produces a smoked catfish that is well-known in the local Nigerian market and has been recognized by the Federal Department of Fisheries in Nigeria. The extremely entrepreneurial owner, Rotimi Omodehin, keeps adding new parts to the business, but is also concerned about the potential for further growth. Every step on the value chain suffers from some fundamental constraints, especially reliable access to energy and credit. These producers pay three to five times the price of energy from the grid to power their enterprises with expensive diesel generators. This is necessary as the power supply from the utility is unreliable and surges can damage expensive equipment. Credit, meanwhile, is hard to get at all and often costs 20 to 25 percent annual interest making loans hard to get, very expensive and very risky. To really enable small famers and small enterprises to drive inclusive economic growth, these problems will have to be addressed.

USAID has the opportunity to pull farmers out of poverty by sharing best practices in agriculture activities and focusing on value chains as a whole. Let us know what programs have been most successful for you or share your local stories of success.

Partnerships and Opportunity: Reflections from the African Union Summit

Dr. Gatew displays bamboo fibers that have gone through the crusher. In this untreated state the flattened fibers still contain high levels of moisture, which can lead to rot, and naturally occurring sugars which attract insects. To reduce the decay factors, bamboo is either treated chemically or thermally. African Bamboo uses the more eco-friendly thermal modification.

Dr. Gatew displays bamboo fibers that have gone through the crusher. In this untreated state the flattened fibers still contain high levels of moisture, which can lead to rot, and naturally occurring sugars which attract insects. To reduce the decay factors, bamboo is either treated chemically or thermally. African Bamboo uses the more eco-friendly thermal modification.

In late January, when President Obama addressed the country, he spoke of our work across Africa “bringing together businesses and governments to double access to electricity and help end extreme poverty.” I watched, from Nairobi, Kenya, where I had just seen his words brought to life. The day before, I traveled to Baringo—a rural county in midwestern Kenya, where half the population lives in poverty and over 90 percent of people don’t have access to electricity. I was there to commemorate the groundbreaking of a new 12 megawatt power plant, one of the first projects supported by Power Africa, a U.S. Government initiative. The company developing this power project, Cummins Cogeneration Kenya Limited (CCKL), designed a biomass power plant that will take advantage of one resource Baringo has in abundance: the mathenge weed. The weed (known in America as mesquite wood) is an invasive species, introduced decades ago to combat desertification, but now wreaking havoc on farmers’ pastoral lands, livestock, and the natural environment. CCKL plans to train and employ 2,500 locals, mostly women, to harvest the invasive weed. Through biomass gasification technology, the mathenge weed will be converted into locally generated electricity—enough energy to power well over 12,000 homes. New access to energy will create opportunities in this rural county that suffers from severe energy poverty. Electricity means that farmers can increase their yields, and their profits; parents have safe alternatives to cooking over open fires, students can read after the sun sets; families can stay connected through cellphones that are easily charged at night. Ultimately, access to power leads to improvements in income, health, education, and general well-being.

I saw how these improvements take shape later that same week when I was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia visiting a local company with a new idea for powering agriculture.  Regions like Sidama and Bale Ethiopia, have an untapped reserve of over a million hectares of native highland bamboo. Currently, bamboo is sold at low prices for small construction projects like building fences and for fuel. But one Ethiopian company, African Bamboo, is pioneering a new technology to process native bamboo into high-value, commercial-quality wood panels. In order to minimize the environmental impact of the energy-intensive thermal processing, African Bamboo developed a processing technology powered by organic waste, like the husks of coffee beans. African Bamboo’s innovation won a $1 million dollar energy challenge grant from USAID to support research and enable the company to replicate its model. Through use of this technology, African Bamboo is not only increasing the value of bamboo for small-scale farmers, but creating economic opportunities along the value-chain: cutting, transporting, manufacturing and exporting bamboo to an international market. This translates to increased incomes and improved livelihoods for the 30 farming cooperatives and over 2,000 farmers who are partnering with the company.

These farmers and their families are the reason USAID is partnering with companies like CCKL and African Bamboo. Reliable, affordable electricity is essential for powering growth and lifting millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa out of poverty. USAID can be the catalyst that encourages this private investment in Africa’s energy future. As President Obama reminded us in the State of the Union last month, our nation’s leadership is defined by the “enormous opportunities to do good and promote understanding around the globe, to forge greater cooperation, to expand new markets, to free people from fear and want.”

To End Extreme Poverty, Tackle Fragility

One year after President Obama pledged the United States’ commitment to work with partners to end extreme poverty by 2030, the Center for American Progress convened a conversation as part of USAID’s think tank series on just what it will take to get there.

Nancy Lindborg is the Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. Photo Credit: USAID

Nancy Lindborg is the Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. Photo Credit: USAID

I was especially pleased to join the conversation having just returned from a very vivid and sobering visit to the Central African Republic — practically the poster child for why development matters and especially why inclusive, legitimate governance and security matter as part of development. Nearly 63 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty in this land-locked country in the middle of Africa, now riddled with spiraling violence.  And despite the enormous need for basics like food and shelter, the most pressing concern of everyone I met with was the need for security. Today’s insecurity—often called a religious conflict—has its real roots in the deeply connected issues of chronic poverty and the lack of an inclusive, legitimate government, without the strong, effective institutions essential to resolving grievances.

CAR provides a compelling case for the undeniable connection between extreme poverty and fragility, which is true for many countries stuck in cycles of conflict and dead-end poverty. If we take China and India out of the equation–which are rapidly reducing the poverty of their populous nations–roughly 70 percent of the world’s poor live in fragile states. And a host of studies show that in the coming decades extreme poverty will be even more concentrated in low-income fragile states such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Yemen, Chad, and CAR.

The mutually reinforcing relationship between fragility and armed conflict creates circumstances that perpetuate extreme poverty. Current data shows that states qualifying as “highly fragile” have made little to no progress against poverty reduction over the past 15 years and continue to lag measurably on progress toward the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  The clear takeaway is that actually ending extreme poverty by 2030 will require tackling fragility head on, which means addressing the intertwined goals of security, governance, and development.

Defining Fragility

USAID defines fragility as the extent to which state-society relations fail to produce outcomes considered effective and legitimate, with effectiveness and legitimacy being equal parts of the equation. When a society cannot count on its elected leaders to follow through on promises to deliver crucial services, basic needs go unmet. Where populations have been marginalized because of the absence of inclusive institutions, extreme poverty is more likely because the marginalized lack access to education, improved livelihoods, and opportunities for economic advancement. Without rule of law and a system that avails political participation, grievances go unaired and unaddressed, tensions simmer, and hostilities that inevitably emerge often result in conflict—the most pernicious disease in the system sure to roll back precious development gains.

Doing Business Differently

Since 2011, USAID has played a leading role in partnering with the international community and a group of 18 self-identified “fragile states” that proposed a new paradigm for engaging in these environments. Driven by fragile states themselves, the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States sets clear state building and peacebuilding goals as well as benchmarks for partnerships between the international community, civil society, and local governments to help these countries climb out of stubborn conflict and fragility.

At its core, this approach calls on local government officials, international donors, and civil society to work together to advance five fundamental pillars of strong societies: legitimate politics, security, justice, economic foundations, and revenues and services. We know that in most of the countries the road will be long and bumpy, but together we are making headway. Take Somalia, where the international community recently joined Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in endorsing a New Deal compact focused on moving all stakeholders toward the shared goals of governance, jobs, justice, and services. None of it will be easy, but the New Deal still represents the brightest potential for peace and prosperity in Somalia in two decades.

Going the Extra Mile

To eradicate extreme poverty in the next 20 years and fulfill the commitment made by President Obama, together, our collective development efforts must result in accountable, legitimate, inclusive democracies that can ultimately sustain our collective investments in health, education, and agriculture, protect fundamental human rights, and give their citizens a voice in their own future.

250 Million Children In The World Cannot Read And USAID Is Doing Something About It

Two hundred and fifty million children in the world cannot read according to the recently released Education for All Global Monitoring Report, Teaching and Learning: Achieving Quality for All; 130 million of them are in primary school. That’s equal to more than a third of the population of the United States. If these children do not learn to read they will have fewer opportunities and struggle with learning for the rest of their lives. Learning to read in the early grades is critical and hard work. It is not a skill that can be “picked up.” With the help of teachers trained specifically to teach reading, children learn to read over time by practicing and honing their skills. Strong readers perform better in all subjects, so children who learn to read in the early grades have a better chance of graduating from high school and getting a job or pursuing a college education.

At the State of the Union the other night, I was sitting in the gallery listening to President Obama say, “One of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is a world class education.” I was on my feet applauding. His words ring true here at home and in developing countries around the world.

I’m visiting Zambia and Malawi over the next two weeks where USAID is working hard with our partners to end extreme poverty and to promote resilient, democratic societies by investing in new, results-based reading programs that start with building capacity in the existing teacher corps and in training new teachers in the best practices of teaching reading.

Children in class in Kenya

Children in class in Kenya
Photo By: Derek Brown

In Malawi, USAID partners developed a phonics-based reading program in the Chichewa language, and provided Chichewa readers to students and accompanying scripted lesson plans to their teachers. Teachers received training on the use of the materials and extensive on-site coaching to help them use them every day in their classrooms. In 2012, after two years of the implementation of this program, the proportion of 2nd graders who could read at least one word in Chichewa had risen from 5.3 to 16.8 percent. The program is now in the process of being scaled up to all districts in the nation of Malawi.

Malawi and Zambia aren’t the only countries where we’re making an impact. In Kenya, USAID is sponsoring an initiative to improve reading outcomes in Kiswahili and English in 500 primary schools. The program has introduced innovative teaching methods, new, phonics-based reading materials for mother tongue instruction, and professional development to build the skills of educators and improve student literacy outcomes. In a recent study we found that children enrolled in schools using the USAID-funded program were up to 27 times more likely to read than students in schools outside the program. This program, too, is in the process of being scaled up to reach more schools in the future so that more children in Kenya will have access to a high quality education.

In the Philippines, USAID is supporting a program known as the Improved Collection and Use of Student Reading Performance Data. Each time a teacher participating in the program conducts a reading test (in either Tagalog or English), he/she submits the test results via SMS to a Department-of-Education administered database. Teacher supervisors from the department then use this information to provide timely feedback to the teachers on their reading instruction, based on the student results. This USAID program is heightening transparency about student outcomes and tightening the feedback between teachers and their coaches, leading to an increased likelihood that teachers will identify and assist children who are not meeting grade-level expectations in reading.

Through these programs children are learning to read and will have better lives thanks to the support of the American people, and USAID will continue to do more to get all children reading and access to quality education.

Cash-for-Work Builds Livelihoods

It invades the farmlands in the Kelafe district of the Somali Region of Ethiopia, and it has been identified as the single most important factor contributing to livelihood vulnerability of local communities. What is it? This invader is the Prosopis juliflora weed. Prosopis juliflora forms impenetrable thickets of low branches and thorns that prevent cattle from accessing watering holes. The weed uses scarce water, causes soil erosion and loss of the grasslands that form important habitats for native plants and animals.

A view of Prosopis juliflora. Photo credit: Save the Children

A view of Prosopis juliflora. Photo credit: Save the Children

The weed had taken over the community’s farmland to the extent that it displaced many households who relied on the farmland for their living. Due to frequent occurrence of natural shocks such as drought and floods, coupled with huge weed encroachment, the community had lost the ability to clear up its farmland without external support. USAID, through Save the Children, is now implementing a project to build resilience in the drought-affected districts of Gode, Adadle and Kelafe in the Somali Region. The project addresses rehabilitation and protection of productive farmland and diversification of livelihoods. One of the key interventions in this project is cash-for-work.

Cash-for-work helps local communities meet their basic needs and also revitalize communal resources such as farmland, rangelands, and communal ponds. Following a participatory planning process, the community in Kelafe district identified clearing the invasive plants from the farmlands as its top priority. Through cash-for-work interventions, the community successfully cleared more than 420 hectares. As a result, about 1,000 households gained access to farmland occupied by the weed for more than a decade. Each household was given the opportunity to cultivate a quarter-hectare of the cleared land, including Abdi Farole.

Abdi, the father of seven children (three boys and four girls), lost his farmland to the weed like many other members of his community and supported his family mainly on relief food assistance. “I was surviving by burning charcoal, collecting firewood or working for others on farm weeding. Most of the time, I was away from my family because I was out doing labour,” he said.

After the land was cleared, he planted maize and sesame in his quarter-hectare using intercropping and, in 2013, had his first harvest from this field in more than a decade. He kept some of his harvest for his family’s consumption, loaned some to relatives, and sold the remainder. Since the harvest, Abdi’s family’s living condition has considerably improved. “My family’s life has significantly changed after my first harvest. I am now able to feed my children three times a day with diversity of diet that I was not able to do before. My children go to school dressed in uniforms and having their own books, pens and other learning materials, which they were lacking before,” said Abdi.

But Abdi’s story doesn’t end with the first harvest. He has already started irrigating his farm for the second season, planting sesame with the seed from his first production. While irrigating his plot, he enthusiastically expressed his interest in keeping his land cultivated as he knows that keeping the land cultivated prevents the invasive shrub from reappearing.

The cash-for-work scheme has also helped the local community to meet their basic needs and, at the same time, regain their key source of livelihood from the invasive plant. Moreover, the project is reducing the community’s vulnerability to future shocks. Abdi’s success demonstrates how community livelihood recovery can revitalize a traditional economic social support system, leading to improved community resilience.

Helping Bright Ideas Shine Through Spotlight: Brian Gitta, Makerere University, Uganda, ResilientAfrica Network

USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) – a multidisciplinary research and development effort led by seven universities working to evaluate and strengthen real-world innovations in development – recently spotlighted young academics and their creative approaches to development challenges during TechCon 2013, the first annual HESN meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia. As part of a contest, more than 40 students and researchers presented innovations designed to help communities in developing countries.  

Winner Brian Gitta, from Makarere University in Uganda, invented  a tool that can diagnose malaria without the need for blood samples and a laboratory. This is the story of that innovation.

Brian Gitta wasn’t in the mood to get stuck by another needle – he was already getting injections three times a day to fight off a foodborne illness. But as his fever spiked and the pain in his joints worsened, he suspected he was suffering yet another occurrence of malaria, the disease he’d contracted as a child and currently kills one child every minute in the developing world.

A nurse at a local clinic confirmed his suspicion by drawing blood using a needle and syringe. “I hated the needles and kept thinking of ways people could be diagnosed without pain,” Gitta recalled.

Brian Gitta, from Makerere University in Uganda pitches his winning idea that uses cell phones and light – not needles and blood samples to test for malaria. Photo Credit: Cynthia Kao-Johnson/USAID

Brian Gitta, from Makerere University in Uganda pitches his winning idea that uses cell phones and light – not needles and blood samples to test for malaria. Photo Credit: Cynthia Kao-Johnson/USAID

That puzzle was still on Gitta’s mind weeks later as he began his studies in Computer Science at Makerere University and started thinking about ways technology could be used to improve malaria detection. The standard method of determining whether someone has malaria is drawing blood and viewing it under a microscope, which requires health workers and facilities that are scarce in many low-income communities.  For Brian, the goal wasn’t just to alleviate momentary pain; eliminating needles and the need for a lab would not only limit the risk of infection but allow for diagnosis in communities that had no medical centers.

Gitta shared the idea with his friend Joshua Businge and they began researching new ways to detect malaria.  They learned that for years, light sensors have been used to read the blood’s oxygen content through the skin. This seemed like a promising avenue to explore, so the pair recruited Josiah Kavuma and Simon Lubambo, students skilled in engineering hardware.  Together, the team designed a prototype that plugs into a smartphone and can detect malaria using only light. Results are available in seconds and the smartphone can email them and map them for epidemiological purposes.  They named the device Matibabu, Swahili for medical center.

By coincidence, Makerere University was launching an initiative called the ResilientAfrica Network (RAN) as part of HESN and an upcoming launch event in Uganda would give local innovators an opportunity to demonstrate concepts for solving public problems.  The team demonstrated their prototype to Alex Dehgan, director of USAID’s Office of Science and Technology, RAN director William Bazeyo, and Deborah Elzie from RAN partner Tulane University.  “I was very impressed,” Elzie said. “When we talk about innovation, people are often just improving on something that’s already out there…These guys really found a whole new way of looking at how to determine if someone has malaria.”

RAN searches for creative minds like Gitta’s and helps them overcome obstacles that often keep bright ideas from making it to the marketplace.  RAN gave Gitta’s team a workspace, training on writing business proposals, mentoring, and the resources needed to make a better prototype.

They teams hopes to a commercially viable product and plans to partner with an established organization working against malaria.

Reflecting on his innovation, Gitta noted, “as long as you put your mind and hard work to it, you can accomplish anything at any age.”

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