Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator

A group of adolescent girls participate in a menstrual health and hygiene activity in Ramgarh district, Jharkhand state, India.
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A partnership to advance social innovation

Housed at Duke University and in partnership with UNICEF, the Innovation Accelerator is an important hub for engaging faculty, staff, students and alumni around social innovation and entrepreneurship, global health, international development and civic engagement.

Through this partnership, UNICEF and Duke are helping social innovation entrepreneurs acquire knowledge, tools and networks to achieve maximum impact for children and youth.

While increasing the effectiveness, sustainability and scale of impact of the innovations selected, the Accelerator also seeks to:

  • build a pipeline of innovations with high potential to improve the lives of children
  • engage students and faculty in advancing these innovations
  • strengthen innovators’ capabilities to increase impact
  • enhance UNICEF’s capacities for innovation and market engagement 

Accelerator Cohort 1: Improving menstrual health and hygiene 

For its inaugural cohort, the Innovation Accelerator worked with six social enterprises to advance their innovations in menstrual health and hygiene (MHH) — a priority area for UNICEF as part of its global efforts to promote gender equity.  Innovations in MHH go a long way toward supporting adolescent girls to become healthy, educated and empowered women, able to direct the course of their own lives. 

As adolescent girls go through puberty and begin to menstruate, they face challenges at school and at home that can lead to stress, shame, embarrassment, confusion and fear. These challenges may include:

  • a lack knowledge about menstruation
  • insufficient access to menstrual hygiene materials
  • inadequate sanitation and hygiene facilities girls need to change in private and discreetly dispose of used materials

Poor mentrual hygiene management (MHM) has also been linked to reproductive and urinary tract infections. Interventions that ensure access to private facilities with water for MHM and that educate women about safer, low-cost MHM materials can reduce physical health risks while helping to keep girls in school.

The enterprises in Cohort 1 graduated from the program in October 2021 having achieved significant impact. For example:

  • 13,000 students were provided with access to modern water raps for handwashing across Burundi
  • Femme International brought over 16,000 safe and affordable menstrual hygiene products to rural women across Tanzania
  • Kasole Secrets LTD sold over 100,000 safe and sustainable pads across sub-Saharan Africa
  • Over 555,000 people around the world used the Lily Health app for sexual and reproductive health guidance
  • Over 1 million Tanzanians heard Tai TZ's health and safety PSAs on public transport

Throughout the Accelerator program, the inaugural cohort received critical support in scaling their solutions, even as the COVID-19 pandemic impacted communities and disrupted vital services across the globe.

Accelerator Cohort 2: Building sustainable markets for water and sanitation across Africa

Seven social enterprise teams from six countries where selected in May 2021 to join the Accelerator to develop and scale innovations that tackle challenges in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in Africa.

The innovators’ solutions – which range from soap bars made from recycled soap remnants, to innovative handwashing stations designed for children with disabilities – aim to strengthen access to vital resources in underserved communities. 

Water and sanitation are at the core of sustainable development and underpin poverty reduction, economic growth, environmental sustainability and health. Adequate sanitation is essential to childhood survival and development, improving children’s education, increasing productivity and building resilience in the face of disease and disaster. The Accelerator cohort will build on UNICEF's ongoing work with partners to strengthen WASH services in schools, households and community settings.

As noted in the Accelerator's 2021 annual report, the impact of Cohort 2's efforts so far include:

  • selling 3,000 toilet slabs to improve sanitation in Ethiopia
  • reaching over 9,000 children in Tanzania with improved hygiene
  • providing over 20,000 people in Kenya with safely managed sanitation
  • reaching over 175,000 children in Nigeria with a safe sanitation campaign
  • distributing 21 million bars of recycled soap

Accelerator Cohort 3: Advancing adaptive and climate-resilient WASH solutions in East Asia and the Pacific

In 2022, UNICEF and Duke began recruiting its next cohort of social entrepreneurs to help tackle critical issues in water sanitation and hygiene across East Asia and the Pacific. The goal is to advance innovations that will contribute to futureproofing WASH systems, making them adaptive or climate resilient. 

Learn more about the Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator.

Top photo: Adolescent girls in the Ramgarh district of Jharkhand state, India, participate in a body-mapping activity, part of a UNICEF-supported program to improve menstrual health and hygiene and help girls stay in school. © UNICEF/UN0214896/Vishwanathan