D-Lab Humanitarian Innovation Uganda: Update



For two weeks in November, MIT D-Lab Founding Director Amy Smith and D-Lab Humanitarian Specialist Martha Thompson, returned to Uganda to follow up on and advance D-Lab Humanitarian Innovation work there.

Visit to Rhino Camp

During our visit to Rhino Camp, a refugee settlement in northern Uganda, we were able to confirm funding for a project with Kulika Uganda that includes a local innovation ecosystem in two refugee camps in the West Nile area of Uganda, Rhino camp and Mpevi beginning in 2020. This includes staffing two innovation centers, running Creative Capacity Building trainings out of them and including co-creation workshops for the next three years. Kulika is implementing the project and they will contract D-Lab Humanitarian Innovation to lead the co-creation activities in the camps with the innovation centers. They have also asked us to train their staff in setting up the local innovation ecosystem in the camps and to mentor their work on this.

After meeting with Kulika, we traveled to Arua to visit Rhino camp. We coordinated our visit there with the South Sudanese refugee-led organization, Youth Social Action YSAT led by John Jal Dak. YSAT was the coordination point for the CCB that Amy led in Rhino Camp in May 2019 and the IDDS Uganda in August and September 2019. Kulika will partner with YSAT in Rhino camp in the upcoming project. We met with a group of the IDDS participants and Stephen from Kulika and John Jal Dak to discuss how things have evolved since the IDDS. Stephen was spending a week there to provide technical assistance to the groups to refine prototypes. There were six teams in the IDDS and they produced the following prototypes:

  • bicycle-powered groundnut paste maker Mama Makina
  • machine to convert plastic bags to “plarn” for fiber to weave bags
  • composter that makes both liquid and solid compost from waster
  • machine to make sesame seed sweets
  • charcoal briquette maker
  • mushroom growing eco-system complete with irrigation

All machines had been used to generate income right away, but several had technical difficulties. The key need was sufficient resources to refine the prototypes so that they could function optimally.

PEARS Team Training

We had asked a representative group from Rhino Camp, (one from each team) to bring their machines down to Kampala with us to participate in a training for the Pears Foundation. We presented our participation tool to Pears groups, guided them through it, and then facilitated a number of activities with the Rhino camp participants and the Pears team on how to involve the refugees thinking through their prototypes. This gave the Pears team the possibility to learn different ways of getting information: questions, dialogue, sketch-modeling, etc. and see the different ranges and depths of communication that results from using each one. The Pears team reported that they learned a great deal from the refugees about context and culture, about how to facilitate participation and communication in the camps and about the capacity the refugees have for developing solutions.

Innovation Forum: Community-Led disaster response

The Pears Innovation Forum was a unique event in the Humanitarian sector, focused on spending three days discussing and learning about how the affected community can take more leadership and ownership of the humanitarian response. There were five workshops, each presenting a different approach, including D-Lab’s participatory innovation. These were complemented by a series of round tables to discuss the challenges and potential of increasing the participation of the affected population in the design, construction, and implementation of solutions to their situation.

We gave a workshop around D-lab’s participatory approach to humanitarian innovation, had the group practice using the participation tool as a way to assess levels and extent of participation, provided a chance for discussion with the Rhino camp participant, and presented on more participatory ways to get information such as sketch modeling. The Rhino camp participants held demonstrations for an entire day with their technologies.

The other methodologies presented through workshops included using film as a participatory vehicle, developing and working through community volunteers, a methodology for dialogue that puts communities in the driver’s seat and the community-led sanitation model.
The humanitarian world has of rhetoric has generated a lot of rhetoric around the participation of the affected population. There are formal commitments to increasing participation signed by UN NGOs and the international NGOs in 2015: The Grand Bargain and the Commitment 4 Change, but very little concrete progress has been made.

This Forum was unique in its sole focus on how to increase leadership and participation of the affected population. Although many NGO workers were clear that the top-down methods of providing aid, especially arriving with ready-made programs were not working, they felt trapped within their institutions’ modus operandi. The forum allowed a unique space for these kinds of frank discussions. The key barriers to increasing participation in the humanitarian sector that emerged were: mindset, bias, power dynamics, established practice, lack of understanding of how to promote participation, and institutional practice and funding policies. During the forum, you could see different people beginning to think about participation in a different way. People were very interested in D-Lab’s work and fascinated by the Rhino Camp participants' presentation.

Reflections and Takeaways

  • The Rhino camp participant showcase had a very significant impact on the NGOs staff present. First, it demonstrated the refugees’ innovative capacity, and secondly, the NGO staff were strongly impressed by seeing the refugees in the role of problem solvers, not beneficiaries. The Rhino camp refugees felt empowered and had a strong sense that their agency was recognized by the NGO staff in a completely new way. They reported being recruited by many NGO staff to hold trainings for other programs. This change in how the NGOs perceive refugees has been one of the key transformations we are aiming for by establishing local innovation ecosystems in humanitarian situations and this experience bore out the importance of that objective.
  • The work in Rhino camp has been successful in producing working prototypes, and it also demonstrated the absolute necessity of having both financial and technical resources for improving prototypes in a camp situation post- IDDS.
  • This represents D-Lab’s first chance to develop a Proof of Concept for establishing Local Innovation Eco-systems in refugee camps. The work in Rhino Camp and Mpevi will now be one of the focus areas for Humanitarian Innovation, we will send students there, it will be one of our class projects and a site for testing the co-creation toolkit.
  • The Pears training opportunity opens up a newer area of work that we are developing in Humanitarian Innovation: is training individuals and groups working in Humanitarian Innovation to increase the involvement of users in more stages of the design process in order to achieve a more contextually and culturally appropriate prototype.
  • The Innovation Forum gave great exposure to D-Lab’s work in Humanitarian Innovation and opened up some possibilities for working with different organizations.

More information

MIT D-Lab Humanitarian Innovation program


MIT D-Lab Humanitarian Innovation Team