Bold Innovations Helping People in Conflict: The Ideas Behind the Solutions


Categories: Innovation

3D printed lower-limb prosthetics for refugee children, keeping medicines and food cold using the power of the sun, providing essential COVID-19 and health information with a chatbot, and making water safe to drink – here are how Humanitarian Grand Challenge supported innovators’ creative solutions are helping conflict-affected people around the world.

Innovation in the Humanitarian Space

What if humanitarian organizations and responders could text in their needs in real-time? What if food and medicines could be stored in cold refrigerators, without using any electricity? What if children had access to 3D printed lower-limb prosthetics? What if we had technology to keep water clean and safe for consumption in refugee camps around the world? Innovators supported by Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge are making these ‘what ifs’ a reality. 

From aggregating on-the-ground needs in real time, to locally manufacturing essential personal protective equipment, Humanitarian Grand Challenge supported innovators are creating real impact and change in the humanitarian system, reaching the hardest-to-reach people affected by humanitarian crises caused by conflict.

Millions of people around the world continue to require essential humanitarian assistance, yet are often unreachable by the traditional humanitarian system, it is clear that we must find more effective and efficient ways to meet and address the needs of conflict-affected populations. Humanitarian innovation is a process of problem-solving, generating new and improved ways of operating, ultimately contributing to positive changes in how essential assistance is delivered. This involves questioning existing structures, working to overcome gaps in knowledge, and working to improve local resilience. 

Innovative solutions come in all forms, and can be sparked by the need for more efficient ways of doing things, or a necessity that seems to be completely overlooked. On World Creativity and Innovation Day, we’re highlighting a few Humanitarian Grand Challenge supported solutions that are creating real impact and change in the humanitarian sector. From locally printing 3D prosthetics for children, to harnessing the energy of the sun to keep food and medicines viable, learn more about the ideas that sparked the innovation.


Team members of Field Ready and Lira NGO Forum wear face shields received through NeedsList online registry.

Photo Credit: Lira NGO Forum


Communicating, Aggregating and Responding to Humanitarian Needs in Real-Time | NeedsList

How can we create solutions to make humanitarian action faster, more sustainable and more equitable? “That’s really the question that started NeedsList,” says Natasha Freidus, co-founder and CEO of NeedsList. In 2015 Natasha was living in France, supporting local organizations responding to and supporting Syrian refugees. “I was stunned by the mass chaos and the massive amount of changing needs. There was no streamlined crises response, and I just thought we needed better tools to communicate, in real time, what was needed.” While there was an influx of support and people wanting to help, Natasha found that there wasn’t any way to clearly communicate what was needed and what needs had already been met. “We ended up with duplicates of some items, lacking in other items, it was really messy. So I finally ended up using a wedding registry as a way to communicate what we needed to our volunteers.”

Natasha saw first-hand the challenges that volunteers and organizations had in communicating with each other, which in turn, meant inefficient ways of getting what was needed to people who needed it, all prompting her to create NeedsList. With a background applying human-centred design for social good, Natasha, along with co-founder Amanada Levinson, have created enterprise-level software that matches needs and offers, allowing organizations who are coordinating response to aggregate what the needs are from local organizations on the ground. “Whether its supply needs, funding needs or information needs, it will match those needs with offers that could be available from other organizations.” This solution is working to create more efficiencies in how organizations communicate their needs and have those needs met – reducing some of the waste and inefficiencies, by procuring or producing things more locally and building local capacity. “A lot of needs can be found locally with no cost. So instead of donors buying and shipping items, which is costly and time-consuming, we’re finding local organizations respond faster and at a lower cost. Information matching like this is invaluable.” NeedsList’s solutions are collaborative, tech-enabled and grounded in the dignity of local populations.

NeedsList is currently working with Field Ready and HumanitarianOpenStreetMap Team to support humanitarian responders match COVID-19 related needs to local manufacturing capabilities in Kenya, Uganda, Iraq and Bangladesh. “The potential impact of this project for humanitarian efficiency and supporting local capacity cannot be underestimated. And we’re already seeing results.” Field Ready is currently using the NeedsList software to collect data on manufacturing capabilities, mapping the requests and matching them to local manufacturers. The NeedsList software has recently provided 2200 face shields to Uganda based Lira NGO Forum. The face shields are being put to use immediately, distributed to local health workers across northern Uganda to aid in their efforts to fight COVID-19.


Boxes full of essential medical equipment and personal protective equipment.

Photo Credit: Lira NGO Forum


Safe and Healthy Water for Refugee Camps Around the World | Safe Water Optimization Tool

Access to clean water is a right. Yet millions of people around the world continue to lack access to safe and healthy drinking water. “Water-borne diseases are one of the leading causes of preventable mortality and morbidity during humanitarian crises”, says Dr. Syed Imran Ali, Founder and Lead of the Safe Water Optimization Tool (SWOT). “Safe water is essential for protecting public health in refugee and displaced persons camps around the world. But too often we find that the water people get in camps lacks chlorine protection and is unsafe to drink.”

The SWOT helps aid workers by unlocking life-preserving information from routine water quality monitoring data. The SWOT uses innovative machine learning and numerical modelling data analytics to generate site-specific and evidence-based water chlorination targets that keep water safe to drink until the last cup is consumed. This game-changing innovation will reduce the spread of water-borne diseases such as cholera, and ensure water is safe to drink, no matter where you are.

“We started working on the SWOT in response to a major Hepatitis E outbreak, an incurable water-borne disease, in South Sudan. There we saw that the water treatment guidance used globally in humanitarian response was not based on any field evidence and didn’t reliably ensure water was safe to drink in refugee camps,” says Dr. Ali. “Now the SWOT is helping shift best practices in the humanitarian sector toward a more evidence-based way of doing things.” 

The SWOT is currently being deployed in Bangladesh, Nigeria, Tanzania, Syria, and elsewhere by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF/Doctors Without Borders), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), and other humanitarian response organizations. 


Members of Doctors Without Borders test water samples.

Photo Credit: Safe Water Optimization Tool


Energy Access and Reducing Food Waste in Kenya | Solar Freeze

Billions of people around the world lack access to reliable, affordable and clean energy. This lack of reliable electricity is not only absent from homes, but also from key infrastructure including hospitals, schools, as well as food and medical storage units. In countries such as Kenya, postharvest losses are as high as 80% and the cold-storage chain is virtually non-existent due to the high cost of equipment and unreliable access to electricity. Because fresh produce can perish in a matter of days under ambient temperatures, temperature control alone can extend the shelf life of food and essential medicines by weeks or even months. 

“If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Over a third of all food produced is wasted, and much of it is because there is a lack of refrigeration,” says Dysmus, Kisilu, Founder and CEO of Soar Freeze. “I stared Solar Freeze, to offer a practical solution to the challenge of lack of proper preservation for temperature sensitive products both in health care and agriculture in remote refugee camps and rural areas of Kenya.” 

Solar Freeze is pioneering mobile cold storage units powered by renewable energy for rural smallholder farmers, to help them reduce the huge challenge of post-harvest loss. Solar Freeze is filling a key gap in the supply chain, increasing smallholder income and supporting food security through replicable practices. Solar Freeze is providing access to affordable, solar-powered cold storage for refugees in Northeastern Kenya, including Kolabeyei and Kakuma refugee camps.


Two men stand in front of the Solar Freeze solar-powered fridge, holding fresh produce.

Photo Credit: Solar Freeze


Locally manufacturing PPE for COVID-19 response in Syria | The White Helmets

Over 10 years of conflict in Syria has devastated the country’s health system, leaving hospitals and health centres ill equipped to manage and keep healthcare professionals, civilians and humanitarians safe from the advancing COVID-19 pandemic. “There’s been over 10 years of systemic attacks on hospitals and health centres in Syria. The doctors don’t have the protective equipment they need to stay safe or to treat those infected with COVID-19. Millions of people in Northwest Syria continue to live in precarious conditions,” says Muzna Dureid, White Helmets Liaison Officer. 

“We saw a massive gap in what was needed and what health professionals actually had. With the supply chains down, it was even more challenging to get supplies into Syria. We knew then, we could fill that gap by locally manufacturing the PPE ourselves, by transforming our garment manufacturing plant to make PPE.”

Working in Northwest Syria, the White Helmets offer the necessary response to the lack of PPE by locally manufacturing personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and citizens – the first organization to manufacture PPE for COVID-19 response in Syria. The country’s protracted conflict and humanitarian crisis have destroyed homes, hospitals and healthcare settings, and have disrupted supply chains leaving over four million people in northwest Syria living in precarious conditions that don’t allow for proper distancing, isolation, or hygiene measures.

Members of the White Helmets work to locally manufacture essential personal protective equipment (PPE) in Northwest Syria.

Photo Credit: The White Helmets


3D printed lower-body prosthetics for refugees in Kigoma | CCBRT

Persons with disabilities are disproportionately affected in humanitarian crises. They face multiple barriers to receiving resources and support. “People in need of prosthetic limbs cannot access specialized prosthetics and orthotics services for a number of reasons, including financial, material and human resource shortages,” says Ruth Onesmo, a Tanzanian healthcare provider. “Without the appropriate assistive devices or care, people struggle to complete day-to-day tasks, like traveling, collecting food and water, or earning a living.” While working in the refugee camps, Ruth saw many young children with missing limbs. 

“They couldn’t play the same way with other kids, and it was very expensive for their families to get them the prosthetics they needed.” With Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation Tanzania (CCBRT), Ruth and her team work to provide low-cost, locally manufactured prostheses to refugees. “Very few projects make 3D printed prosthetics in or out of refugee camps, and even fewer are making lower-body devices. We’re working to develop the technical capacity of local prosthetics production so that we can meet the needs locally.” As supply chains and access to remote and low-resource settings is disrupted, this local solution is meeting the needs of persons with disabilities in Kigoma, in a fast, cheap and efficient way.


 A man works to complete a lower-limb prosthetic in a CCBRT lab in Tanzania.

Photo Credit: CCBRT