The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is a United Nations program that functions to provide humanitarian assistance to children and mothers in developing countries. It has stepped up again to the good cause by launching the UNICEF Innovation Fund. The Innovation Fund is a venture that makes investments in open source solutions, technology startups and emerging markets bearing the promise and potential to improve the lives of children all around the world. The investment is centered around three portfolio areas :
- Products for youth under 25 to address a range of needs including learning and youth participation,
- Real-time information to strengthen the systems, improving monitoring, transparency, and accountability, and,
- Infrastructure to increase access to services and information, including connectivity, power, finance, sensors, and transport.
Christopher Fabian, UNICEF’s Innovation Co-Lead states : “We’ll be identifying opportunities from countries around the world including some that may not see a lot of capital investment in technology start-ups. We are hoping to identify communities of problem-solvers and help them develop simple solutions to some of the most pressing problems facing children”. Hence , UNICEF will be funding companies that are working to develop affordable mobile connectivity, blockchain in childhood development, technology to help improve literacy skills and data collection in maternal care.
The first portfolio of investments includes the following five start-ups that will each receive a fund of $100,000 from UNICEF:
9Needs (South Africa) – 9Needs is a platform having a mission to get more effective human development technologies to where these are most needed; to make services more personalized, preventive and predictive; to enhance people’s capabilities and opportunities to meet their own developmental needs, and to grow the Networked Society. It employs blockchain technology to improve Early Childhood Development (ECD) services in South Africa. With the help of the blockchain infrastructure and smart contracts, 9Needs has prototyped a system that will strengthen the current registration, contracting, information and management systems.
SayCel (Nicaragua) – SayCel is an open source cellular system that provides affordable, scalable, low-cost cellular networks and emergency 911 services for poor rural communities in such regions of Nicaragua where access to communication services is unavailable or prohibitively expensive. Over the 12-month investment period, SayCel will be working to improve the low-cost open source GSM communications suite used to run cellular networks in rural regions, to develop an open source web and phone application to provide connectivity on the open source GSM networks provided and will create a data backhaul connection from the Fiber Optic collocation to pave the way for future installations in Pearl Lagoon and other rural regions.
Somleng (Cambodia) – Somleng functions to provide efficient and low-cost Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and SMS platform, to be integrated into the RapidPro platform in order to extend its reach to communities with low literacy levels. This set of software tools will outstretch the reach of UNICEF’s investment in RapidPro to even more users by allowing the less literate multitude to inexpensively access content without needing to read text messages.
Rah-e-maa, IPAL at Information Technology University (Pakistan) – Innovations for Poverty Alleviation Lab (IPAL) has developed an interactive voice response (IVR) system that serves as a toll-free maternal care hotline. The hotline uses interactive storytelling to provide information to fathers to engage them as informed decision makers in healthcare during pregnancy and delivery. By using keypad numerical inputs, the caller will be able to navigate through various menus, tips, and stories categorized according to pregnancy trimester and topic. Over the course of the 12-month investment period, IPAL will be redeveloping local technology stack that allows the hotline to be run on a local service. The system will be updated with new vetted health content in additional languages and piloted in Lahore.
mPower (Bangladesh) – mPower has developed the Open Smart Register Platform (OSRP), an integrated digital registry platform that seeks to improve data collection and efficiency for frontline workers providing reproductive, maternal, newborn and child services. Combining data collection, case management, and community reminders, it aims to support health workers to improve vaccination rates among children and coverage of antenatal care services for women in Bangladesh. The platform will have the ability to register pregnancies and birth, access and update vaccination records and to send reminders via RapidPro service to mothers.
UNICEF’s Innovation Fund, which has raised $9 million so far including investments from academic institutions, private sector, and governments, will help innovators in developing countries to take their projects to the next level. Up till now, over 650 firms have applied for receiving the funding and according to UNICEF, around 50-60 companies are to be funded under this scheme. The next round for submitting applications to become a part of this scheme is now open and the deadline for application is January 1, 2017.