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19 Ways We Innovate

Reporting in collaboration with Yadira Gutierrez.

More than 800 staff members in 47 countries cast a vote for their favorite innovation. Which is your favorite?

Photo: Erin Gray/Mercy Corps.
Photo: Erin Gray/Mercy Corps.

1. WINNER - People's Choice and Grand Jury: Smarter storage
Traditionally, Ethiopian farmers bury grain to keep it safe. Unfortunately, this also leads to rotten or pest-infested harvests. Mercy Corps staff partnered with the local community to design, manufacture and distribute underground grain storage bags which dramatically decreased the amount of lost grain. Farmers took to the idea and local tailors found work sewing the bags to custom sizes. Read more about this simple solution on Mercy Corps' website.

Photo: Mohamud Ali Mohamed/Mercy Corps
Photo: Mohamud Ali Mohamed/Mercy Corps

2. RUNNER UP: Make way for light
Companies selling solar products in urban Uganda don’t feel comfortable investing in rural, marginalized districts like Pader, where they suspect sales will be low. To demonstrate to the companies that local residents could and would pay for solar light, which would be a cleaner, safer and more cost-effective alternative to burning kerosene, Mercy Corps quantified the potential market and shared its findings. The team worked with solar companies to find local distribution partners and helped advertise the health benefits of the technology to pump up demand. After four months, 750 units were sold, and companies are now making additional investments on their own.

Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

3. FINALIST: There’s a map for that
In response to landslides and flooding, Mercy Corps’ team in Colombia developed a new technique for accurately identifying households affected by disaster. The team gathered satellite images of communities from Google Map, and asked community members to pinpoint on the map their own houses and neighborhoods that experienced the damage most severely. Equitably-allocated resources reduces the potential for conflict and speeds recovery - two for one!

4. FINALIST: Bridging the gaps
Mercy Corps staff work in more than 40 countries, so how do you bring together the knowledge of so many far-flung people? Live online learning events. The organization’s “Design, Monitoring and Evaluation” group bridged the gaps created by geography, time zones and cultures by convening a virtual Mercy Corps community dedicated to sharing expertise and measuring the impact of our global work. Sustaining a “many-to-many” web of relationships between satellite offices fosters more shared learning and peer support than a typical “one-to-many” relationship stemming from headquarters.

Photo: Erin Wildermuth/Mercy Corps
Photo: Erin Wildermuth/Mercy Corps

5. FINALIST: Microinsurance for all
Much of Haiti’s economic potential rests on small entrepreneurs, usually poor people who are knocked down time and time again by disasters, illness or any unexpected shock. But small insurance policies are expensive to manage, so most companies won’t go for it. Mercy Corps’ Haiti team partnered with other groups and came up with MiCRO, which now covers 57,000 Haitians in the informal economy with a financial safety net.

6. Fruit farmers branch out

Mercy Corps’ team in Afghanistan recognized that fruit farmers could increase their yields by pruning trees, but that the country lacked a market for these services. The team jump-started a sustainable market for pruning services by training pruners and giving vouchers to farmers to pay for initial pruning services.

7. Planning for peace
How do you reduce tensions when local communities are fighting one another over resource scarcity? If you’re the Mercy Corps staff in Arba Minch, Ethiopia, you gather input from all sides of the conflict, agree on a plan for the communal use of natural resources, supplement it with income-increasing programs and work on using scarce water most effectively. And if it’s all a success, you might even turn the process into a mini-documentary for Ethiopian television, which is exactly what the team is doing.

8. Turning on the tap
In the frantic atmosphere directly following the earthquake in Haiti, many nonprofits trucked in water to give to survivors in camps. But as the dramatic effects of the disaster became clearer, Mercy Corps understood that “emergency relief” would become the norm if long-term solutions weren’t created. So Mercy Corps staff circumvented the logistical challenges of trucking in water and instead gave out vouchers so survivors could buy water from local vendors, thereby supporting the local market to continue providing water long after aid organizations have left.

9. Mobile money in Haiti
Instead of distributing paper vouchers to Haitians to buy food after the earthquake, Mercy Corps staff gave out cell phones loaded with USD$50. Haitians used the phones to buy what they needed at the store of their choice with the push of a button.

10. Bringing down the sludge hammer
If you’re fortunate enough to have a latrine in crowded urban slums, you’re probably not fortunate enough to also have the septic tank regularly emptied. City waste removal trucks can’t maneuver through the crowded streets and residents can’t pay the extra fees charged for specialized equipment used by private companies. The Mercy Corps team put their heads together and came up with two new ways to deal with waste: a motorcycle sludge removal cart and a sludge pushcart, both of which can maneuver the crowded streets of Jakarta, moving sludge to a temporary holding spot for waste removal trucks to pick up.

11. Emergency credit
Due to violent conflict, thousands of households in southern Kyrgyzstan lost family members, homes, possessions and businesses. Mercy Corps’ local microcredit institution, “Kompanion,” created an Emergency Credit Committee and a Fund for Rebuilding Communities through micro-Enterprises to assist entrepreneurs in rebuilding their businesses, damaged from the conflict.

12. AltCity
Not enough jobs exist in Lebanon, and at current population growth rates, jobs will be even more coveted in the near future. Add to that a regional deficit in social innovation and social entrepreneurship and you’ve got a tough problem. To address it, Mercy Corps supported the creation of AltCity, or “alternative city,” a hyper-resourced, collaborative, media-friendly physical space that supports a broad range of activities for civil society organizations and social innovators. A citizen journalism group, for example, could learn marketing planning, relationship modeling, graphic design and financial management skills from other groups they may never have met otherwise.

13. A warm welcome
A harsh winter wiped out 20 percent of poor herders' livestock, sending many to seek a new life in provincial centers. As they searched for jobs, they found it difficult to adjust to the urban environment. The Mercy Corps’ Mongolia team partnered with a local psychotherapy association to provide support and vocational skills training for 1,600 participants. Not only did most trainees find full-time work, but some even started their own businesses and employers began to specifically seek out candidates who had gone through the training.

14. Use the stove, save the trees
In Myanmar, a cyclone seriously damaged mangrove forests, which was the main source of fuel for cooking. To avoid further deforestation of an already fragile ecosystem, the Mercy Corps devised a two-step strategy: market fuel efficient stoves and plant new saplings. The stoves are affordable, easy to maintain and reduce the amount of wood people need to cook by about 30 percent.

15. Show me the data
Rather than trying to compare apples to oranges, the Mercy Corps Pakistan team developed a sophisticated online system to manage tons of data from very different projects across the country, while fulfilling multiple donor requests for customized reporting. Not only does this system outdo the traditional notebook and pen by keeping things organized in real-time, viewed from anywhere in the world, it also lets staff upload photos of work-in-progress with GPS locations. Now that’s a cool way to monitor project impact.

16. Goodbye baby blues
It’s one thing to know a problem exists and quite another to have data to back up your claim. It’s known that many women in Tajikistan suffer from post-partum depression, but data is needed to convince health agencies and governments to fund appropriate care. Rather than come at the problem by funding a solution that might not be widely accepted, Mercy Corps took another route. The team developed a survey to get solid numbers of depression rates and shared it with local and national leaders, who are now addressing the issue with greater understanding and more effective treatment.

17. The littlest entrepreneurs
In Tajikistan, Mercy corps partnered with a Dutch organization to create a financial literacy program for youth and these kids are going way beyond just a piggy bank. Not only are youth learning to manage savings through individual and group accounts with local co-op banks and microfinance institutions, they’re also setting up their own social enterprises! They’ve got the passion to improve their communities and invest profits into school outings and school materials, and now they’ve got the skills, too.

18. Just swipe it
The turmoil created by the international financial crises has made cash in Zimbabwe sparse and coveted. The Mercy Corps team in Zimbabwe decided that cash vouchers would be the best way to provide families with the immediate assistance they needed while supporting local stores, but safety risks made the team turn to a swipe card as the distribution method. Beneficiaries received an ATM card to buy what they need securely, saving them time formerly spent waiting in line for vouchers and saving staff time, too.

19. Back on their feet
Farmers don’t begin their day at nine o’clock and end at five, and their business cycle isn’t a neat three-month period, like a microlender would prefer. In Zimbabwe, the Mercy Corps team figured out tweaks to the norm to produce a win-win: Loan periods based on the cycle of a farmer’s crop, rapid cash flow analyses based on typical farming incomes, lending models based on trust instead of physical collateral, and market linkages with commercial buyers. Each piece of the puzzle helps farmers repay loans and banks receive payment.

Curated news and insights about innovative, market-driven solutions to poverty explored through news, commentary and discussion.

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