Innovation Doesn't Need to Be High-Tech to Empower and Transform

July 10, 2018

UNICEF is implementing purposeful, efficient technology at scale to create opportunity and save lives in Guinea. 

If you want girls to go to school, drill a well. And if you want them to stay in school, build a latrine.

Meet 14-year-old fifth grader Agnes of Gouécké III Elementary School in Guinea's Nzérékoré region, not far from the Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire borders. I spoke with her two months ago, and she's amazing.

Before UNICEF installed four wells, girls walked 20 miles every day fetching clean water for their families in rural Guinea. There was no time for school. 

Before there was safe drinking water nearby, Agnes, her sisters and her friends walked 20 miles each day to fetch and carry clean water for their families. They left before sunrise and returned too late and too tired to go to school. There had been wells before, but they'd been installed by well-meaning organizations that didn't know much about the terrain or the weather. When the pumps broke, they were impossible to repair. 

Then UNICEF arrived. Working together with the local community, UNICEF installed four wells in Gouécké in 2016. All four wells are still working today, enabling Agnes to go to school. In fact, 120,782 people just like Agnes across 295 villages in Guinea have safe drinking water thanks to UNICEF, and only 15 percent of the pumps break. It's a significant return rate over other countries in Africa and Asia, where the break rate for pumps can be 40 percent or higher. 

UNICEF builds latrines so girls won't drop out of school when they reach puberty

UNICEF also built two new latrines, so that Agnes and her friends can stay in school. Most girls drop out of school after they reach puberty because there are no washing facilities available for them to clean themselves when they are menstruating. Agnes is super excited about her plans to become a doctor when she grows up. I'm rooting for her to get there.

It was inspiring to witness technologies that work, and work at scale, to save lives. After spending time with Agnes, I went to another village, Takoleta, where both its health center and drinking pump are powered by solar energy. The lack of grid infrastructure means that energy can't be stored for use in the evening, but the pump can work by day, and the health center can power two 250-watt bulbs. This simple set-up now services 77,000 people over a 16.5-mile radius. It took almost a year for UNICEF to find and test the type of solar technology and equipment that could withstand the heavy rains, winds and heat of such a remote and heavily forested area.

It took a year for UNICEF to find and test the right solar technology and equipment to power a local health center and water pump

Having a reliable health center also means that among many other benefits, the community can take care of pregnant mothers who in turn register their babies via mobile phone SMS (text messages). Registered babies make for powerful data: the type that qualifies a person for basic human rights, such as the right to a birth certificate, the right to go to school, the right to receive health services, the right to vote. You can't have any of those things if you don't exist. In a country where two out of three children in Guinea are non-registered, technologies that reduce this gap, and make every child count, are technologies that matter.

I'm proud to live in Silicon Valley, where so many of the world's most impactful technologies are invented. Yet I also see a number of so-called innovations that are solutions searching for problems. I've also seen cases where a bias toward the most cutting-edge technologies has led many worthy projects astray, because they're not designed for scale, or for sustainability as the core objective — or even with the end user in mind.

UNICEF's use of reliable, impactful technology at scale saves lives

It's why I'm humbled by organizations like UNICEF whose purposeful and efficient use of technology at scale saves lives. It's a reminder that innovation isn't about how high- or low-tech something is, but whether it genuinely empowers and transforms the people who use it. It's the lens by which all innovation should ultimately be judged. Just ask Agnes. 

To learn more about UNICEF Innovation, visit unicefstories.org

 

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Robin Kim is Vice Chair, UNICEF USA Northwest Regional Board. 

Top photo: UNICEF installed four wells in Nzérékoré, Guinea so girls like 14-year-old Agnes can go to school instead of walking 20 miles every day to fetch drinking water for their families. © Robin Kim