As GOOD reported this April, Devex asked thousands of global development and aid professionals, “Which of the leading organizations in development do you believe are the most innovative in the sector?” Based on the results of this poll, Devex—a hub for the international development and aid community—unveiled the Top 40 Development Innovators, a listing of the most innovative of the largest organizations in global development. But what about the scrappy startups doing great?
Here we bring you five groups that were too small for consideration in the Top 40 list, but are still making a big impact. These social enterprises and nonprofits, in fact, are emblematic of innovation itself.
Sproxil: using text messages to make medicine safer
Counterfeit prescription drugs can be a devastating and pervasive problem in the developing world. The World Health Organization estimates that 10 percent to 30 percent of drugs in the developing world are counterfeit, compared to one percent or less in industrialized nations.
Enter Sproxil, founded in 2008 by Dr. Ashifi Gogo, a Ph.D. at Dartmouth College and a native of Ghana. Using Sproxil’s technology, end-consumers can now scratch off a unique code from the medicine packaging and text-message it to the phone number provided, instantly receiving a confirmation of authenticity. If a drug is not authentic, the consumer is given another phone number to call, to report the counterfeit. Sproxil’s product benefits consumers, pharmaceutical companies and law enforcement officials. The only losers are the counterfeiters.
Medic Mobile (formerly FrontlineSMS:Medic): streamlining rural healthcare
Another cell phone innovation in the health arena also makes use of text messages, but in a very different way. Poor, rural communities located far from any hospital or clinic often depend on community health workers, who have basic medical training and coordinate with the nearest hospital—often many miles away. The ability for community health workers to communicate effectively with medical professionals is a key factor in improving health outcomes in rural areas.
Medic Mobile develops platforms that use text messages to transmit patient records, provide diagnostic information about patients, and coordinate care from extremely remote rural villages. During a 6-month pilot project in one Malawi hospital, the FrontlineSMS platform “saved hospital staff 1200 hours of follow up time.”
One Acre Fund: doubling poor farmers' profits.
Some of the poorest Africans live in rural areas and depend on their land to survive. According to One Acre Fund, 75 percent of East Africans are farmers. One Acre helps farmers increase their yield and their income by working closely with them throughout the farming cycle and leveraging many of the tools and practices small farmers in developed countries take for granted.
Field officers educate groups of local farmers on modern agricultural techniques and then provide them with high quality planting materials, like seeds and fertilizer. Once the crop is harvested, One Acre acts as a “bulk-selling agent,” enabling the farmers to reap higher prices than they could on their own. Part of the increased profit can then be invested in next year’s crop.
In just five years of operation, One Acre has reached 54,000 farm families (up from 12,000 in 2009). In 2011, One Acre verified that a test group of their farmers were, on average, doubling their profits.
Husk Power Systems: from rice to light
It’s not just health workers who have trouble reaching remote villages in developing countries. Electricity is often an inaccessible resource. In the poorest states in India, 80 to 90 percent of villagers are without power, according to Acumen Fund a Husk Power Systems investor. These statistics do however have far reaching implications. For example, on education outcomes—children can't study in the dark—and on environmental and health conditions—from the indoor use of kerosene and coal for light.
So Husk Power Systems searched for a solution for the millions in India without electricity and identified one resource the remote villages seemed to have plenty of: rice husks. Husks are an unused byproduct of rice production. But with HPS’s innovative technology, husks are turned into gas to power an electricity-generating turbine. In less than four years of operation, HPS has already provided 100,000 people with affordable, clean and renewable husk power. By 2014 they plan to reach one million households, create 10,000 jobs and save 72,000 tons of C02 emissions per year. (See our past coverage of Husk Power Systems here.)
VisionSpring: a model business model
Economic growth also requires vision. Literally.
VisionSpring provides hundreds of thousands of people in developing countries with affordable corrective eye-wear, and as a result, with significant gains in their productivity. VisionSpring engages “vision entrepreneurs” who sell the glasses in their communities.
These entrepreneurs are given a “business in a bag” sales kit, a few days of training, and directions on how to refer the more complex cases to others who can handle them. The organization provides a much needed, life-changing service in a sustainable way that empowers local entrepreneurs. Like many recently emerging social enterprises, this organization makes an impact by leveraging the time, talent and social ties of local community members.
Of course there are thousands of examples of small, enterprising start-ups leveraging innovative ideas to solve tough problems (GOOD readers suggested some organizations here). We invite you to share your innovative ideas in global development with us on www.devex.com.