USAID Impact Photo Credit: USAID and Partners

Archives for Innovation

A New Leader for the U.S. Global Development Lab

Since launching eight months ago, the U.S. Global Development Lab has rallied a global community of innovators around our shared goal of ending extreme poverty. Less than a year in, it is pursuing a diverse array of projects—like seeding start-ups through the Global Innovation Fund, preserving biodiversity in Brazil by harnessing advanced data analytics, and reducing child mortality in India through our new Urban Sanitation effort.

At the core of these efforts is a focus on working hand-in-hand with both global and local partners—enabling us to make an impact faster, cheaper, and more sustainably.

But in doing so, our Agency is focusing on doing business differently.

We are deepening our engagement with innovators—including co-creating through the new Development Innovation Accelerator, and hiring technical experts through flexible personnel authorities.

We are approaching challenges in new ways—crafting a statement of the problem, and then opening it up to the brightest minds around the world to solve. Using this public-facing approach, our new Ebola Grand Challenge generated more than 1,300 innovative proposals in one month alone.

We are broadening the scope of the partners we work with—like our Frontiers in Development innovation marketplace and the Higher Education Solutions Network TechCon, which brought together universities, corporations, and governments to share their best ideas in development.

We are embracing smart risk, iterating quickly, and learning from failure.And we are working to scale innovations with immense potential—likeelectronic payment systems—to millions of people in the world’s most vulnerable communities.

Today, we are thrilled to announce steps to take these efforts to a new level—as next month, the Lab will welcome Ann Mei Chang as its first Executive Director. With extensive experience in the technology industry, a commitment to public service, and a depth of expertise in development, Ann Mei will accelerate our Agency’s commitment to harnessing science, technology, innovation, and partnerships in every place we work.

Prior to USAID, Ann Mei served as the Chief Innovation Officer at Mercy Corps, where she focused on leveraging mobile technology to improve the lives of the poor. She also served as the Senior Advisor for Women and Technology at the U.S. Department of State—playing a key role in harnessing technology to improve the lives of women and girls in developing countries, and increase the representation of women in the technology sector. Throughout her career, Ann Mei has worked closely with USAID—including through the launch of the Alliance for Affordable Internet, a public-private partnership that aims to expand Internet access to one billion people.

Ann Mei has more than twenty years of engineering and leadership experience in Silicon Valley, including serving for eight years as a Senior Engineering Director at Google. At Google, she also led the product development team for Emerging Markets, with a mission to bring relevant mobile and Internet services to the two-thirds of the world’s population that is not yet online. In addition, Ann Mei has held leadership roles at several leading companies including Apple,Intuit, SGI, and several startups.

Under Ann Mei’s leadership, the Global Development Lab will continue to focus the world’s brightest minds on our biggest shared challenges—lifting millions out of the tragic cycle of extreme poverty.

Please join us in welcoming Ann Mei to our USAID family. 


The authors both served as Acting Executive Directors of the Lab. 

The Digital Development Opportunity

Bangladeshi farmer Jalal Kha talks over a mobile phone as he works in his paddy field. / AFP, Farjana K. Godhuly

Bangladeshi farmer Jalal Kha talks over a mobile phone as he works in his paddy field. / AFP, Farjana K. Godhuly

At last month’s Frontiers in Development Forum, we welcomed some of the world’s brightest minds and boldest leaders to discuss how to best partner to end extreme poverty. We not only heard from leaders like Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and Secretary of State John Kerry, but also from innovators who are creating mobile apps to fight human trafficking and using 3-D printers to build prosthetic hands in the field. It was a recognition that we live in a unique moment, one where new technologies and partnerships are redefining what is possible.

Above all, the Forum was a reminder that—as we near the 2015 deadline of the Millennium Development Goals—we must accelerate progress. For our Agency, new technologies and partnerships have created unprecedented opportunities to end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies.

From GPS to Skype to e-tablets, new innovations are fundamentally changing the way we communicate, work, learn, share and interact. Almost two decades ago, we launched the Leland Initiative, an effort to expand access to information and communication technology in more than 20 African countries. To build on this legacy, we teamed up with the U.K.,, and the Omidyar Network to establish the Alliance for Affordable Internet. Since then, the Alliance has grown to more than 65 members, from Facebook to the Government of Mozambique. Together, they are building global consensus around a set of policy and regulatory recommendations that will lower the cost of internet access—unlocking new opportunities for doctors, entrepreneurs, and local leaders across the developing world.

Much of this progress won’t happen at a desktop; it’ll happen in the palms of billions of hands. Today, farmers are using mobile payments apps to send payments and receive loans; entrepreneurs are selling their goods on the global marketplace; and health workers are treating more patients, at less cost, and without expensive equipment.


A mobile money user in the Philippines checks her balance on her phone. / USAID, Brooke Patterson

We’re also tapping into affordable, game-changing technologies with the potential to transform the way we work. In Uganda, we’re using mTrac, a tool that enables local health workers to send the government reports via SMS. Recently, the Ministry of Health used mTrac to survey 10,000 health workers on whether their health unit had a fridge that kept perishable drugs and vaccines cold.

The survey cost just $150 and took less than three days—providing the Ministry of Health with information from 1,862 health facilities. As a result, we learned that only about 70 percent of them have working fridges to store life-saving treatments. As Uganda ramped up its national campaign to eradicate polio, it used this information to target the most vulnerable populations and protect more children.

Technology we often take for granted is creating monumental changes in developing economies. In Senegal, rice millers buy expensive Asian imports, while local rice farmers are unable to sell their crops. To build up local supply chains and improve the quality of harvests, we are helping farmers share information through Excel and Dropbox. With this information in hand, rice millers can monitor local crops, schedule shipments in advance, and collect payments online. With 30 farming networks involved to date, this project is helping tens of thousands of smallholder farmers boost their sales and reach new customers.

We’re not creating technology for technology’s sake. There are too many apps that might look sleek, but are not transformative for the people who use them. That’s why we have helped publish a set of guidelines on best practices for development programs that utilize technology.

We call these principles the Greentree Consensus, and they are built on earlier sets of principles that draw on the insight of more than 300 NGOs with expertise in the field. Representing our commitment not only to innovation, but sustainable results, we’re thrilled to be launching these principles in partnership with over a dozen donors and multilaterals, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UNICEF, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the United Nations Development Program and the World Food Program.

This is just the beginning of a conversation. We must do more to take these insights into action.  Over the next year, we want to hear from the development community about your experiences in bringing technology to tackle development challenges—from promoting media freedom to solving water shortages. With our Agency’s new U.S. Global Development Lab at the center of this effort, we’ll be able to create, test, and scale breakthrough solutions like never before. In doing so, we can make strides towards a day when extreme poverty—like cassette tapes and dial-up internet—is a thing of the past.


Dr. Rajiv Shah is USAID Administrator. He tweets from @rajshah

Calling all Innovators to Help Fight Ebola

Saving lives at birth. Powering clean energy solutions in agriculture. Inventing new tools to teach a child to read. Across development, we’re calling on the world’s brightest minds to tackle our toughest challenges. In the last few years, we have helped launch five Grand Challenges for Development that have rallied students and scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs to tackle some of humanity’s toughest problems.

Today, we face just that kind of challenge—a global health crisis that is in dire need of new ideas and bold solutions. From Guinea to Liberia to Sierra Leone, Ebola is devastating thousands of families, disrupting growth, and fraying the fabric of society. The United States is helping lead the global response to the epidemic, but we cannot do it alone. That is why President Obama launched our sixth Grand Challenge. Fighting Ebola: A Grand Challenge for Development is designed provide health care workers on the front lines with better tools to battle Ebola.

To help kickstart this Grand Challenge, some of our nation’s most innovative problem-solvers will gather in DC today and tomorrow to work on this issue.  We’re also inviting people from all over the country to share their ideas. You can add your thoughts and see what other people saying here.

As the United States and the international community work to contain the worst Ebola epidemic on record, courageous men and women are performing critical tasks every day to save lives and prevent the spread of the virus. Personal protective equipment (PPE)—the suits, masks and gloves the health care worker wears—is their primary protection, but it is also the greatest source of stress. In these hot and uncomfortable suits, health workers must administer to the patients and remove contaminated materials.

Together with the White House Office of Science and Technology, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Defense, Fighting Ebola seeks new practical and cost-effective solutions to improve infection treatment and control and provide better care to those who need it most.

The first part of the initiative is an open innovation platform powered by OpenIDEO, one of the world’s top design firms. Through it, the global community can brainstorm, collaborate, and comment on new ideas that generate practical solutions to the Ebola epidemic. The strongest ideas may be encouraged to apply for funding later in the Grand Challenge. Our aim is to begin funding ideas in a matter of weeks.

Over the last several years, we’ve found that Grand Challenges not only generate inventive tools and breakthrough technologies, but inspire us to confront seemingly insurmountable challenges—and succeed.

Get started by joining the conversation. To learn more, please visit

Health workers in personal protective equipment (PPE) wait to enter the hot zone at Island Clinic in Monrovia, Liberia on Sept 22. 2014. PPE is their primary protection, but it is also the greatest source of stress

Health workers in personal protective equipment (PPE) wait to enter the hot zone at Island Clinic in Monrovia, Liberia on Sept 22. 2014. PPE is their primary protection, but it is also the greatest source of stress. / Morgana Wingard, USAID

The Power of Scientific Research Investment in Africa

On Friday, August 1st, Mr. Melvin Foote and Dr. Nkem Khumbah published an op-ed in the New York Times arguing persuasively that scientific and technological progress is the key to African development. In their words:

“Scientific and technological advancement will help eradicate poverty and promote homegrown economic development by providing Africa with the tools to address its own challenges and expand its industrial productivity.”

In the days before the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., Mr. Foote and Dr. Khumbah encouraged the U.S. Government to embrace “a science-led agenda in Africa” by pairing American higher education institutions, scientific research centers and tech entrepreneurs with African counterparts to spur economic growth and reduce dependence on aid.

Mr. Foote and Dr. Khumbah’s vision is one that USAID fully supports and has already taken significant steps to catalyze. Today, Africans are the architects of their development, not just beneficiaries. This new model for development focuses on partnerships — with African governments, businesses, universities and civil society.

USAID-related science programs assist in expanding training for women. / Zahur Ramji (AKDN)

USAID-related science programs assist in expanding training for women. / Zahur Ramji (AKDN)

Building lasting partnerships with African leaders, thinkers, entrepreneurs and innovators is at the core of USAID’s approach, which seeks to end extreme poverty by investing in Africa’s greatest resource: its people. Many of our newest initiatives reflect not only our renewed commitment to science and technology, but the central importance Africans play in global affairs throughout the 21st century.

USAID is constantly seeking new African partners in an effort to support great ideas from people all over the continent. Under efforts like USAID’s new Global Development Lab, which brings together diverse partners to discover, test and scale new solutions to chronic development challenges, we have identified 200 promising innovations that are currently being tested and evaluated.

Many of these solutions come from developing country entrepreneurs, including African entrepreneurs. A prescription medication verification and tracking system invented by Sproxil, a Kenya-based company (and USAID partner) has reached over 2 million customers in Ghana, Nigeria and East Africa by placing scratch cards on packs of medication. The scratch card reveals a numerical code, and when texted to a Sproxil-provided phone number, will verify whether the drug is genuine or fake. Dozens of similar innovations that have the potential to save millions of lives are currently being tested in Africa, including inexpensive chlorine dispensers in Uganda, Kenya and Malawi and stickers to encourage passengers to urge bus drivers in Kenya to slow down, thereby reducing traffic accidents and related deaths.

Site supervisor Haji Huessen Ngwenje of Symbion Power analyses cables at the Mtoni service station in Zanzibar, Tanzania. / Jake Lyell for the Millennium Challenge Corporation

Site supervisor Haji Huessen Ngwenje of Symbion Power analyses cables at the Mtoni service station in Zanzibar, Tanzania. / Jake Lyell for the Millennium Challenge Corporation

Power Africa is another example of USAID’s new model in action. Through the U.S. Government’s partnerships with African governments, private investors, developers and others, not only is Power Africa saving lives by, for example, bringing electricity to a rural clinic, but it is also spurring long-term growth by scaling new technologies, generating new jobs, and reducing the risks for foreign investment.

Power Africa may have been conceived by the U.S. Government, but the private sector has since taken the lead — the U.S. Government commitment of $7 billion in financing and loan guarantees has given both international and African businesses the confidence to invest in Africa’s emerging electricity sector to the tune of more than $20 billion to date.

As Mr. Foote and Dr. Khumbah note, it is critical to train the next generation of Africans in science and engineering. USAID supports a number of efforts to this end currently, and is hoping to do more in the near future. In November 2012, USAID and seven universities launched the Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) with the goal of bringing their intellectual power and enthusiasm closer to real-time development innovations in the field. This network currently collaborates with labs at four African universities to support studies of how communities respond to changing conditions such as urbanization, changes in local climate, and post-war recovery.

In addition, members of the network collaborate with and support existing S&T based African-led enterprises and emergent community led technology development. The Higher Education for Development (HED) program has supported dozens of partnerships between U.S. universities and African peer institutions. These partnerships typically last years beyond the U.S. investment and result in broad and deep connections between the U.S. and Africa.

Forest monitors in Western Tanzania receive training on how to collect field data using Android smartphones and Open Data Kit (ODK).

Forest monitors in Western Tanzania receive training on how to collect field data using Android smartphones and Open Data Kit (ODK). / Lilian Pintea, Jane Goodall Institute

Similarly, the Research and Innovation Fellowships (RI Fellowships) program and Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) program foster science and engineering partnerships on the individual level. RI Fellowships currently supports more than 60 African scientists to collaborate with U.S. fellows in applying their scientific and technological expertise to local development challenges. The PEER program funds scientists who see problems in their midst to do the in-depth research required for creative solutions, while simultaneously expanding research ecosystems in the developing world.

One hundred and fourteen PEER scientists around the world tackle local challenges with tenacity and intellectual vigor, guiding the local development agenda and building an academic foundation for progress. The recent 2014 PEER awardees’ meeting brought 39 PEER awardees from 10 African countries to Arusha, Tanzania to build new connections. As part of the conference, the Vice President of Tanzania, His Excellency Mohamed Bilal, delivered the keynote address in which he said, “Science, engineering and technology education in Sub Saharan Africa holds the key to unlocking the continent’s great potential that could propel sustainable growth and development.”

Mr. Foote and Dr. Khumbah are right on the mark that a new model of development for Africa must be inclusive, grounded in the latest scientific and technological advancements, and focused on African priorities. Working with counterparts across Africa is the best way to catalyze the technological and scientific change that will be necessary to make the continent’s economic growth sustainable far into the future. Great ideas backed by 21st century science and technology – many of them home-grown in Africa – are the surest path to lifting hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty for good.


Jerry O’Brien is the Director of the Center for Data, Analysis, and Research in the U.S. Global Development Lab. Follow the Lab @GlobalDevLab

Making for a Stronger Africa

This post has been cross-listed with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy blog

This month, the first class of the President’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Mandela Washington Fellows converged on Washington, D.C. for their inaugural Presidential Summit. During the Summit, many of the Fellows joined the US Global Development Lab and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy at Fab Lab DC to discuss the role of making in Africa’s economic and community development.

Mandela Washington Fellows gather to discuss how making will help shape Africa’s future. / Mike Star

Mandela Washington Fellows gather to discuss how making will help shape Africa’s future. / Mike Star

The Maker Movement is transforming the way we design and produce things – both here at home and overseas. At this year’s first-ever White House Maker Faire, President Obama described making as “a revolution that can help us create new jobs and industries for decades to come.” In recognition of the potential of young African visionaries to advance the Maker Movement, YALI is working to equip change-makers with the tools they need to foster progress across the continent.

 Community maker spaces are already springing up around the world, providing public access to tools and technologies like 3D printers, laser cutters, and low-cost modular electronics, which dramatically change the rules of invention – anyone with an idea can bring that idea to life. By democratizing the means to create, digital manufacturing lowers the barrier to entrepreneurship around the world, including in developing regions like Sub-Saharan Africa.

WoeLab inventor Afate Gniko with his e-waste 3D printer. /

WoeLab inventor Afate Gniko with his e-waste 3D printer. /

 In 2012, Togolese entrepreneur Sename Koffi Abdojinou founded WoeLab, a bootstrapped maker space and business incubator built on an ethos of community design and open-access hardware in low-resource settings. Illustrating the power of this philosophy in action, WoeLab member Afate Gnikou invented a 3D printer made primarily from discarded electronics, or e-waste, scrapped from landfills. The invention’s design has been openly published, so makers across Africa and the rest of the world can leverage his ingenuity to sow the seeds of digital fabrication in their own communities. This year at the Fab10 maker conference, WoeLab’s e-waste 3D printer was awarded the Global Fab Award.

Maker spaces like Abdojinou’s WoeLab promote hands-on STEM education; they empower ordinary people to develop local solutions to the challenges faced in their communities; they encourage entrepreneurship.  In October 2013, Togo celebrated its ten most promising young entrepreneurs. Three of them came from WoeLab.

The maker movement paves a clear path toward local problem solving and entrepreneurship, both hallmarks of the Mandela Fellowship, as we learned firsthand:

Fellow Abibatou Banda Fall helps women develop products to improve their livelihoods, like a low-cost thermal basket to keep goods warm as they’re taken to markets, in Senegal.

Lukonga Lindunda operates a co-working space to support innovative tech entrepreneurs in Zambia.

Selma Neves helps struggling single mothers lift themselves out of poverty through self-employment training and support in Cabo Verde.

Ruth Lukwaro pairs inventors with business students to build sustainable social enterprises in Tanzania.

Mutoba Ngoma turns agricultural waste into consumer goods like biodiesel fuel for local markets in Zambia.

Tatiana Pereira runs a business incubator for early-stage startups in Mozambique. “I can have greater impact on people’s lives by sharing knowledge and strengthening the ones around me,” she said.  “Success is the entrepreneurs that start and succeed.”

 The Fellows also had an opportunity to speak with Emeka Okafor, founder of Maker Faire Africa, who encouraged them to cultivate a culture of making. “Making is central to leading Africa where it needs to be: a developing, problem solving region,” he said. “It’s imperative that communities from Cairo to the Cape unfetter their populations with tools from within. Making is pivotal if this is to occur.” Maker Faire Africa showcases makers’ ingenuity and strengthen their pan-African network. Started in 2009, the organization has hosted events in four different African countries. The next Maker Faire Africa will be held later this year.

 Looking forward, makers in Africa are faced with a spectrum of challenges, ranging from amplified versions of those familiar to American entrepreneurs like gaining access to venture capital and low-cost manufacturing, to more frustrating hurdles like inadequate electricity and supply chain infrastructure. Daunting though these challenges may be, the gritty determination of young African leaders like Abdojinou is unwavering. Africa’s makers and entrepreneurs will help shape the future of the continent.  “Growth,” said Pereira, “comes from people who act and make things happen – entrepreneurs. Africa is full of opportunities and young people with great potential.”


Eric King (@eric_m_king) is an Innovation Specialist at the U.S. Global Development Lab.
Stephanie Santoso is a Researcher at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Kate Gage (@kategage) is an Advisor at the U.S. Global Development Lab at U.S. Agency for International Development.

Mobilizing ‘Makers’ for a Better World

Making, with a capital “M,” is a new term used to describe an ancient act: creating physical things. Far from old-fashioned, a perfect storm of cultural and technological advances is fueling a revolution in Making.

3D printers, modular electronics, and online libraries of open-source designs empower tinkerers and inventors to bring their ideas to life with groundbreaking speed and creativity. Thousands of community hackerspaces (and Fab Labs and maker spaces) are opening their doors to Makers all over the world. Crowdfunding and low-barrier manufacturing turbocharge the innovation pipeline from invention to market.

Developing air quality sensors for monitoring urban pollution in Africa. / Marco Zennaro

Developing air quality sensors for monitoring urban pollution in Africa. / © Marco Zennaro

Today, the President celebrates a “Nation of Makers” as a powerful force of innovation and entrepreneurship across the country. And beyond the impressive promise of revitalizing American hardware manufacturing, the Maker movement offers a truly unprecedented resource: global creation.

Great ideas can come from anywhere. How many times in human history must inspiration have struck those who lacked the means to create a prototype? How many of our great ideas have gone unrealized? By democratizing the means to create, the Maker movement is poised to unlock humanity’s power of invention.

Recognizing this potential, USAID is challenging Makers around the world to create sensor technologies that can improve the lives and livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable people. Our U.S. Global Development Lab has launched a “Sensors for Global Development” Fab Award in partnership with the World Bank, Intel Corporation, and the Fab Foundation.

Sensors for Development

Sensor technology is an integral part of the Maker movement. Sensors allow homemade robots to navigate through physical space. Wearable sensors like Shine give you feedback on your personal health habits. Birdi monitors the quality of the air in your home – it’ll send an alert to your phone when you should open the window. Information about our physical world is increasingly detected, analyzed, and returned to us as useful insights that can improve our lives. The development of this so-called “Internet of Things” is owed in large part to hackers and makers.

There is a vast hole, however, in the Internet of Things. Much of the developing world, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, is a sensors desert. Here, ironically, the world’s most vulnerable people stand to gain the most from improved access to critical information on essential issues like agricultural productivity and the availability of clean drinking water.

The Internet of Things: a map of connected devices around the world.  Notice the scarcity of sensors in Sub-Saharan Africa. /

The Internet of Things: a map of connected devices around the world. Notice the scarcity of sensors in Sub-Saharan Africa. /

Useful information streaming in from sensors in near real-time also may permit adaptive decision-making to maximize the effectiveness of USAID programs around the world.  Much in the way that the ubiquity of cell-phones has already transformed the global development enterprise, the promise of sensor networks presents a tremendous opportunity to leapfrog traditional methods of gathering important information and empowering individuals.

The Sensors for Global Development Fab Award challenges the Maker movement to get involved. We’ve called for Makers to focus their efforts on creating robust, low-cost sensor technologies that promise to help improve the livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable. By tapping into this pervasive cadre of solvers to take on society’s most fundamental challenges, we stand ready to bend the curve toward a more prosperous, resilient, and democratic global community.

Today, at the White House Maker Faire, we announced the six Fab Award finalists:

  • MoMo (mobile monitor) – a mobile device with a sensor that collects data to track infrastructure and improve accountability in the developing world. WellDone’s water MoMo identifies where village wells are broken and alerts repair teams to fix them.
  • Fresh Air in Benin – a network of air quality sensors being developed to monitor urban air pollution in Africa
  • GrowerBot – a smart sensor system for small-scale agriculture that monitors and tracks environmental conditions, providing customized guidance to help growers optimize their productivity.
  • Nano Plasmonics Biosensor – a nano-scale optical sensor for identifying organic molecules with a wide range of applications from medical diagnostics to detecting water contamination.
  • KdUINO – a low cost DIY sensor buoy system that empowers students and citizen scientists to monitor the environmental conditions of seas and rivers
  • Safecast – an open source vehicle-mounted sensor network system to empower citizens to collect and publish data, with a focus on mapping radiation levels

The finalists will compete for a $10,000 prize at the Fab10 Conference in July.


Eric King is an Innovation Specialist with the U.S. Global Development Lab’s Data & Analytics Team. Follow him @eric_m_king

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.

Mobile Persuasion: Can mobile phones and cutting-edge behavioral science improve lives?

An agri-economist we know starts his talks by being provocative:

Actually, the world doesn’t need to spend one more dollar on agricultural research. The truth is we have all the information we need to feed the world. What we don’t know is how to get people to use the agricultural products we already have.

We might not fully agree, but it has a key insight. All of us- including people living in poverty- have complicated, demanding lives. So simple availability doesn’t mean that even life-changing services like vaccines and HIV tests stay at the top of our minds.

Some real examples from Mozambique:

Farmers tell us they want to use fertilizer, but it’s a hassle because the dealer is 35 kilometers away and by the time planting season comes they have no cash.

Farmers and community members in Morrumbala, Mozambique. Photo by Bita Rodriguez

Farmers and community members in Morrumbala, Mozambique. Photo by Bita Rodriguez

People living with TB know they need to take their medicine. And they do, but as soon as they start to feel better- even though their treatment isn’t complete- many stop.

Jerome has multidrug-resistant TB, he has been undergoing treatment for over a month at the East Avenue Medical Center, Philippines. WHO/HM.Dias

Jerome has multidrug-resistant TB, he has been undergoing treatment for over a month at the East Avenue Medical Center, Philippines.

We know this gap between our intentions and actions exists because we live it out ourselves. Who doesn’t have a medical appointment they’ve been avoiding or an antibiotic regimen they gave up the moment they felt better? In the developed world, we design programs like automatic retirement enrollment to make decisions as easy as possible. Yet, in development we often fail to design programs with simple human behavior in mind.

What’s Possible

A growing body of evidence demonstrates that leveraging behavioral science can significantly improve our impact. Slight changes in the way we offer services can matter. A study in India showed that offering women an appointment with a family planning counselor while not in the presence of their male partner significantly increased use of family planning services.

Mobile Persuasion

At the same time as these advances, the mobile phone is revolutionizing our ability to communicate. With more than 500 million phones in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, there is a tremendous opportunity to combine behavioral science with the power of the mobile phone, or mobile persuasion.

Kenyan students play a mobile game. Credit: Ed Owles, Worldview

Kenyan students play a mobile game. Credit: Ed Owles, Worldview

Using mobiles to change behavior increases our reach, our knowledge, and makes services more accessible. We can remind people in rural areas to take their medicine, digitally track performance, and make follow-up information as easy as receiving a text.

So What Are We Doing?

In Mozambique, USAID is testing and applying mobile persuasion with a few key studies.

 Helping Farmers Save: Poor farmers have a shock of cash after harvest but very little at planting season, the critical time to buy inputs like fertilizer. We’re supporting a study on offering farmers the chance to save for fertilizer right after harvest with mobile money. The ultimate goal is to increase farmers’ crops and income. To do that, the study will answer critical first order questions: can we increase farmers’ use of mobile money (a new and under-used technology in Mozambique)? Would small incentives encourage farmers to save and keep those savings until planting season? Would offering their friends and families the chance to save via mobile money increase use of mobile money by introducing a new social norm? Would that use translate into decreased demands on farmers’ savings?

Helping People With HIV/TB: Sometimes we learn from good work that’s already on the ground. Absolute Return for Kids (ARK) and Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique ran an SMS study that reminded people living with HIV to come to appointments and take their medicine. In 12 months, this increased appointment adherence for new patients in urban areas by 10 percentage-points. USAID is supporting the continuation of these messages and sending messages with innovative personalization to a new group of patients, those co-infected with TB+HIV.

We’re excited to learn what works and what doesn’t. We’ll have results on the farmer study next month and will post the second part to this blog.

Our challenge is to take these insights and apply them to other thorny development challenges.  And, of course, to turn them inward to help USAID create the systems that make applying good science and user-centered design quick, easy, and transformative.


Eye in the Sky Moves Mountains in Development

THE WORLD IN HIS HAND: Him Lal Shrestha, a Remote Sensing Analyst at the USAID-funded SERVIR Himalaya initiative, explains how data is transmitted from a satellite and informs the Government of Nepal on how best to make use of their land. Photo by Richard Nyberg, USAID

THE WORLD IN HIS HAND: Him Lal Shrestha, a Remote Sensing Analyst at the USAID-funded SERVIR Himalaya initiative, explains how data is transmitted from a satellite and informs the Government of Nepal on how best to make use of their land.
Photo by Richard Nyberg, USAID

When Him Lal Shrestha wants to know what is happening on the ground affecting Nepalese farmers, he shoots a glance up—way up to an orbiting satellite. That great big white ball on the top of his building helps bring life-saving data down to earth. Here’s how.

Shrestha is a Remote Sensing Analyst at the USAID-funded SERVIR Himalaya initiative. He showed me around his facility and explained how satellite imagery can tell us what is happening to land in Nepal and across the countries surrounding the scenic Hindu Kush Himalayas.

Pointing to his screen, he explains how land cover, particularly in agriculture and forest, in many areas of Nepal is being depleted — a serious issue that will affect how local people plant, harvest and survive. It’s also a huge concern for government officials who are trying to thwart potential calamities that could make things tougher for people just trying to make ends meet.

Screenshot on the SERVIR Himalaya website shows land cover trends over time.

Screenshot on the SERVIR Himalaya website shows land cover trends over time.

Shrestha describes what he sees on his screen. “In the case of Nepal, from 1990 to the current year, we see remarkable pressure on the land cover changes,” he said. “Land cover is a function of population growth; because of population growth, there is urbanization. So ultimately there is pressure on the forest coverage,” he said, adding that the survey work is important internationally because “we are discussing reducing emission from the deforestation and degradation.”

Helping people understand forest cover and other development challenges at home and across borders is the goal of this USAID effort in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Some of the tools help people detect forest fires hidden behind mountain ranges and send SMS messages to firefighters so they can speed off in pursuit in less than an hour.

Dr. Rajiv Shah meets local scientists at SERVIR Himalaya.

Dr. Rajiv Shah meets local scientists at SERVIR Himalaya.

“It is hard to fix a problem that you cannot see,” said USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah during a recent visit to Nepal. Dr. Shah believes that by harnessing science and technology, “we can put critical information in the hands of the people most affected by natural disasters.”

Other tools keep a big eye on glacier melts leading to water flows and help monitor food production and estimate crop yields to better inform the Nepal government so they can make critical decisions ahead of time to avoid famine and all the suffering that comes with it. Similarly, other governments in the region can use satellite imagery of land conditions within their borders to make informed decisions.

Top: Imja Glacier in 1956.  Bottom: By 2012, the Imja glacier had receded dramatically, leaving behind a lake 110 m deep and containing over 60 million cubic meters of water.

Top: Imja Glacier in 1956.
Bottom: By 2012, the Imja glacier had receded dramatically, leaving behind a lake 110 m deep and containing over 60 million cubic meters of water.
Photo Credits: (Top) Erwin Schneider, Courtesy of the Association for Comparative Alpine Research, Munich. (Bottom) Alton C.Byers, The Mountain Institute

According to Bronwyn Llewellyn, Environment Team Leader at USAID Nepal, a lack of transparency in decision-making is an issue to tackle across the region. “Science and technology can help a lot with that transparency. It’s a tool that is accessed by everyone online. By creating tools that cross boundaries, you are creating a language of science that can be used across the borders. So everyone is looking at the same tool and making the same decisions.”

So what’s USAID’s vision for this science-based development mapping toolkit? Governments across the region need the big picture. And the satellite data it collects enables them to track global climate change and make more informed decisions about land and water use that impact their countries’ future.

World Water Day

As the Global Water Coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), I spend a lot of time thinking about water and figuring out ways to ensure we help more people have access to more water. It’s not an easy problem and one-size fits all solutions do not apply. Instead, I’ve found that the best solutions require catalytic problem solving and outside-the-box innovations, open collaboration and creative competitions. And it requires taking a closer look at previously overlooked sources of water.

 In Burma USAID and P&G partner to provide clean drinking water and promote sanitation practices for some of the country's most vulnerable.

In Burma USAID and P&G partner to provide clean drinking water and promote sanitation practices for some of the country’s most vulnerable. (Photo: Kelly Ramundo/USAID)

Last week, millions of people globally celebrated World Water Day and one of life’s most basic requirements – water.  A building block of life, water is also at the core of sustainable development and is linked to every major development challenge. The focus of this year’s World Water Day was the nexus between water and energy, underscoring the crosscutting nature of this issue.

World Water Day banner

World Water Day 2014

Today, I am pleased to say we are seeing greater emphasis on this “nexus” approach as more and more people focus on holistic, integrated approaches to water challenges; looking at linkages that include water and energy; water and health; and water and agricultural production and health.

We announced the launch of a couple of brand new efforts that I believe are redefining the way USAID invests in water. I’m particularly excited about the new Desal Prize, an innovative prize we are launching in partnership with the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of The Netherlands (MFA-NL) to identify small-scale, low-cost solutions to brackish water desalination.

Brackish water is what you commonly find in ponds.  It’s thick, it’s murky, and it’s not exactly something you’d want to drink. However, with estimates that two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in severe water stress conditions by 2025, brackish water is increasingly being considered a viable source of water for crops, livestock, and even human consumption.

The Prize, which won’t officially open to applicants until May, will award up to $500,000 in prize money and $75,000 in “seed” money to individuals or organizations that develop cost effective, energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable desalination technologies that provide safe water for drinking and for livestock and crops in developing countries.

Ten to 12 semifinalists will receive $5,000 as seed money to test or further develop their device. From this group, select finalists will receive an additional $5,000 to continue their project in the field before a judging panel selects the awardee(s) of the $500,000 grand prize.

The Prize is part of the $32 million Securing Water for Food Grand Challenge for Development. Launched at the 2013 World Water Week in Stockholm, Securing Water for Food aims to source, incubate, and accelerate innovative solutions to produce more food using less water around the world.

In addition to the prize launch, we also announced the 83 semi-finalists from Securing Water for Food’s first $15 million open call for innovations. The semi-finalists were selected from over 500 applicants from 90 countries, 70 percent of which were developing countries. The 83 semi-finalists are working on groundbreaking water technologies and new financing products to improve water access. You can go to to see the full list of semi-finalist organizations. Awardees, who will be announced later this year, will receive between $100,000 and $3 million in funding and business development assistance.

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