COVID-19 Innovation Challenge to Reach Underserved Communities in Uganda

  • May 31, 2021

  • Kampala, Uganda

The COVID-19 pandemic has made funders more open to investing in ideas.

A number of innovation challenges are being organized, with a majority focused on harnessing digital technologies to address challenges presented by the pandemic. Yet, startups still find it challenging to take their innovations to market and make them profitable.

Launched in 2019, the UNCDF strategy of ‘Leaving No One Behind in the Digital Era’ aims to reach millions of underserved communities with digital solutions that will improve their wellbeing. Among other initiatives, the strategy involves supporting inclusive innovation that promotes human-centred design to empower people across the world with technology in their local communities.

In August 2020, at the height of the pandemic, UNCDF and Startup Uganda launched an Innovation Challenge to solve very specific problems close to the hearts of the partners of this edition. Beyond financial support, the innovation challenge aimed to provide technical support for the startups, work closely with them to refine their solutions, unlock access to additional funding and make their solutions profitable.

In this blog we present the three innovation tracks and the anchor partners focusing on these challenges as well as the process. In our next blog we will focus on the winners, you can read it here.

Financial Health for MSMEs supported by The Innovation Village through a partnership with Financial Sector Deepening Uganda

The economic effects of COVID-19 have exposed the financial fragility of individuals and businesses. Low-income individuals that do not have excess liquidity have been worst-hit. Financial Sector Deepening (FSD) Uganda’s analysis of the Finscope data reveals that at least 23 percent of the population that depend on daily trade and business activities, will be severely impacted. This innovation challenge track aimed to identify innovators that could develop digital solutions to improve the medium-to-long term financial health of micro and small businesses in Uganda. The competitors in this track worked with FSD Uganda to test and refine their solutions, ensuring that they meet the needs of the target communities.

“We have seen a lot of talent in this sector. FSD Uganda will continue to give technical support to all the participants to refine the business models to make a difference in the life of MSMEs.” -Juliet Tumuzoire, Head of Financial Services, FSD Uganda.

Leveraging Last Mile Distribution Networks supported by Makerere Innovation and Incubation Center, through a partnership with MobiPay and Ensibuuko

Working with UNCDF, Mobipay and Ensibuuko have set up a last mile distribution network of over 500 Digital Community Entrepreneurs (DCEs) in Northern Uganda. The network is distributing products such as solar solutions, airtime, mobile money and more to rural communities. The network of DCEs is seen as a distribution asset that can be leveraged by various innovators to avail digital and non-digital products and services to customers at the last-mile.

This innovation track aimed to build on the DCE model and develop appropriate distribution channels to reach people in the rural communities with the right products and services.

“We have seen unique propositions in all the ideas presented today. We would like to continue engaging all the participants and support them to scale their solutions.” -Paul Sselunjoji, Director Projects and Business Development Ensibuuko.

Digital Literacy supported by Response Innovation Lab through a partnership with Danish Refugee Council

Cash-based transfers are increasingly used by humanitarian actors to support refugees and their host communities rather than in-kind aid. These transfers are sometimes operated through mobile money. However, many recipients of this assistance have low levels of literacy, are first-time users of digital wallets, and may not be very comfortable using mobile phones. In an effort to ensure that these communities can manage their finances and be able to adequately and safely use these transfer services, it is critical to address the challenge linked to the low digital literacy levels in these communities. The Danish Refugee Council (DRC), the anchor partner for this track on digital literacy was looking for solutions to improve and accelerate trainings for members of refugee communities. The successful solutions were expected to encourage peer-learning amongst users for broader uptake. The competing teams spent time in the Kyaka refugee settlement in Western Uganda to learn about the needs of the refugees and develop solutions tailored solutions.

"While we had to choose one winner, we truly believe that all the ideas have matured and are able to apply user centric design to meet the needs of underserved communities.” -Charlène Cabot, Manager, Response Innovation Lab.

The Challenge Process

The Innovation Challenge process that led to a final pitch competition started with 150 nationwide applications submitted in September 2020. Startup Uganda evaluated the applications and selected 10 startups under each innovation track, that then qualified to the bootcamp stage.

Working with United Social Ventures, Makerere Innovation and Incubation Center, Starthub Africa and Iventure Africa, (all Startup Uganda members) the teams underwent a rigorous virtual three-day bootcamp after which they pitched to a panel of judges consisting of UNCDF staff and the respective anchor partners. This process led to a shortlist of three teams under each track:

Final Pitch Competition

The nine teams tussled it out in a final pitch competition on 21 May 2021 at Design Hub in Kampala. The judges (four for each track) consisting of subject matter experts from the anchor partner organizations assessed the solutions in a live pitch competition based on their ability to address the problem presented, the ability to address challenges faced by underserved communities and the sustainability model of the innovation.

Read about the winners in our next blog here