WASHINGTON D.C. –- The United Nations (UN) Foundation works with entrepreneurs to help meet humanitarian needs around the world by using cutting-edge, innovative approaches to solve global development challenges.
“Entrepreneurs don’t see barriers,” said Elizabeth Gore, UN Foundation’s resident entrepreneur and chair of UN Foundation Entrepreneur Council, in an interview with Triple Pundit. “To an entrepreneur, barriers are merely challenges that you climb over, slip under, go around or push through. Many entrepreneurs think globally and understand the importance of having a thriving community around them — corporate social responsibility is part of their DNA. Working with entrepreneurs on solving world problems is a natural fit.”
Here is the UN Foundation’s selection of the top six global development inventions in 2013.
1. Ikea partners with UNHCR to develop new refugee housing shelter
Ikea teamed up with the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) to develop a refugee housing shelter that can be packed in flat pack boxes and easily assembled on site. The Swedish retailor designed an improved version of refugee housing shelter, which could last three years.
Olivier Delarue, UNHCR’s Head of Innovation, told The Guardian, “We also realized that Ikea had expertise in certain areas—such as logistics and flat packing—that we could learn from.”
The UNHCR currently uses two types of tent: “the canvas ridge variety,” resembling the conventional Scout tent, and a “lightweight hoop tent.” None of which are durable and long lasting.
“Our tents have not evolved very much over the years,” said Delarue. “They still rely on canvas, ropes and poles – and they usually only last for around six months due to harsh climate conditions.”
Ikea’s modular 5-men housing shelter is made of lightweight insulated polymer panels, which are mounted onto a metal frame. The shelters are fitted with solar panels and USB ports that provide the much needed electricity. It also includes a fabric-shading sheet with a metallic layer that reflects heat during the day and traps warmth at night. Just like any typical Ikea product, the panels are packed in a box with a bag of metal poles, connectors and wires and a manual.
“It is designed this way, like an Ikea bookshelf, to be easy to transport and easy to set up in the field,” says Johan Karlsson. The project manager of Ikea’s Refugee Housing Unit told The Guardian, “And the panels can last up to three years.”
With an estimated 3.5 million refugees around the world living in tents and shelters for an average of 12 years, Ikea’s new version of refugee housing is an important development contribution.
The UNHCR and Ikea Foundation, which is the Swedish company’s philanthropic arm, spent three years on developing a prototype. It was reported that the Ikea Foundation invested $4.8 million towards developing the new shelters.
“We were really enthusiastic when we saw it,” said Roberta Russo, UNHCR’s Beirut-based spokesperson, in an interview with TIME. “It provided solutions to so many issues — children can study homework at night, there is privacy and it’s easy to set up.”
Ikea’s alternative refuge housing weighs less than 220 pounds, and is easily transportable in its unassembled form.
“It’s a structure that can be taken with the refugees when they go home. It’s quite likely that when these refugees return to Syria, they won’t have a house to go back to, so this structure actually better facilitates their return,” Russo told TIME.
Ikea’s refugee housing is now undergoing field-testing. Fifty prototypes are being shipped to refugee camps and hot spots in Iraq, Ethiopia and Lebanon. The new, improved refugee housing will be mass-produced after the completion of its field test.
2. Project Loon: Connecting everyone with balloon-powered Internet
Project Loon aims to use its balloon-powered Internet to connect everyone online, including the rural communities in the developing world. Google estimates that two-thirds of the world does not have access to the Internet.
By placing high-altitude balloons in the stratosphere, it hopes to “beam Internet access to the ground at speeds similar to today’s 3G networks or faster.” Google described that each Loon balloon is designed to remain airborne for three trips around the globe.
“We believe that it might actually be possible to build a ring of balloons, flying around the globe on the stratospheric winds, that provides Internet access to the earth below,” explained project lead Mike Cassidy on the Google blog.
Currently, Project Loon is still at the research and development stage. Google launched an initial test with 30 balloons above Christchurch and Canterbury, New Zealand, which supplied Internet access through special ground receivers/ antennas on June 2013.
“We hope balloons could become an option for connecting rural, remote, and underserved areas, and for helping with communications after natural disasters,” continued Cassidy. “The idea may sound a bit crazy—and that’s part of the reason we’re calling it Project Loon—but there’s solid science behind it.”
3. Feeding the world’s hungry with a mobile app – Feedie
Imagine uploading a photo of your meal at various participating restaurants in the United States through Feedie, and the restaurant donates 25 cents, the cost of a meal for a child, to the Lunchbox Fund. Feedie is an innovative mobile app and the brainchild of a partnership between Topaz Page-Green, founder of Lunchbox Fund and world-renowned chef, Mario Batali.
“Feedie creates a wonderful symmetry between tech and philanthropy,” said Page-Green in her interview with ABC news. “It also nourishes the users of the app by giving them the opportunity do something incredibly positive.”
Feedie captures one’s passion of sharing food photos into sharing real food to feed hungry children in South Africa. The Lunchbox Fund is a non-profit organization that matches each Feedie photo to a meal for an underserved and hungry child in South Africa, where more than 65 percent of the children live in poverty.
Through the app and donations, the Lunchbox Fund has since served more than 12 million meals. The goal is to translate a small percentage of the multi-billion dollar restaurant industry around the world and accomplish what no other food app has done – philanthropy.
“The Feedie app is all about the sharing and the joy,” Mario Batali told ABC news. “There are a lot of people out there taking weird photographs of everything they do and putting them somewhere in the social world. The Feedie app takes our obsession with the delicious and beautiful food that we see in the restaurant and it transforms [it]into a donation to the Lunchbox Fund.”
4. Worldreader creates e-reader program to eradicate illiteracy
Worldreader made a significant step in combating illiteracy in the developing world by putting 721,129 e-books into the hands of 12,381 children in nine African countries. This is an important achievement, considering 50 percent of schools in sub-Saharan Africa have no books and the lack of access to books hinders a child’s learning and advancement into society.
The Worldreader’s e-reader program has been well received. The e-readers that are installed with reference materials, local textbooks, prize-winning stories and literature classics in the public domain have been a hit with its users.
Additionally, through a partnership with biNu, an app developer based in Sydney, Worldreader Mobile has reached out to more than 180,000 people who now have an opportunity to read books on a wide array of educational topics on their own mobile phone. Most of whom are using low-end, pre-paid Nokia phones, which cost around $50. Currently, Worldreader’s largest group of mobile readers are in India, with nearly 107,000 users, about 60,800 in Nigeria and 33,100 in Ethiopia, according to Forbes.
The growth of mobile markets in the developing world makes Worldreaders’ expansion to the mobile platform a crucial initiative.David Risher, a former executive at Amazon and co-founder of non-profit organization Worldreader, told Forbes that 10 percent of biNu’s 5 million-user base or 500,000 people have logged on the Worldreader Mobile app in 2012. Risher is aiming to reach 1 million mobile users by the end of 2014, according to Forbes.
5. Mastercard teams up with World Food Program to provide digital food aid for Syrian refugees
MasterCard partnered with UN’s World Food Program (WFP) in providing e-cards for 800,000 Syrian refugees in its efforts to help meet the urgent food aid needs of the Syrian crises.
Ann Cairns, MasterCard’s President of International Markets, strongly believes that “technology has the power to unlock innovation in food aid delivery” and it would promote greater impact and achieve the “vision of a world beyond cash builds a world beyond hunger.”
An estimated 300 retailers joined the digital food program. The cashless system replaced WFP’s paper vouchers and each family received an e-card with a monthly value of $27 per person, redeemable against a list of food items at participating local stores. The money, which was electronically wired to the cards, saved crucial time for the refugees who no longer have to wait in line to collect their entitlements. Another added advantage was that the e-card allowed them to buy fresh food, not typically included in the usual food rations.
Muhannad Hadi, WFP’s Emergency coordinator for the Syrian crisis, expressed his appreciation: “The e-cards also bring business to local merchants, and they make WFP’s operations more time and cost effective. This is a win for all of us.”
6. Aspire Foods: Edible insects as alternative food
Food insecurity around the world is sometimes due to the lack of access to affordable nutrition rather than the shortage of food. Aspire Foods, a social enterprise, marketed a farming business model for “affordable and sustainable insect farming technologies” in countries with “established histories of entomophagy, or insect-consumption.”
As edible insects provide an abundant source of protein, iron and micronutrients, the UN has endorsed human consumption of edible insects as an alternative food to conventional livestock since May 2013.
– Flora Khoo
Sources: UN Foundation, TIME, Business Week, The Guardian, World Reader, Forbes, BBC, World Food Program, Google, Gigaom, CNET, Google Blog, Feedie, ABC News, ABC News, The Lunchbox Fund, Innovation Excellence, Triple Pundit