Sudan Students Apply Innovation to Solve UNICEF’s Challenges in Sudan
KHARTOUM, 18 March, 2013 – There was an unusual buzz in one of the lecture halls at the Sudan University for Science and Technology today. Students were following closely the findings of a small group of colleagues who’ve been hard at work to help UNICEF break through some of the challenges of delivering humanitarian interventions in one of Africa’s largest countries.
The students were showing off their work on a new vaccination monitoring system, which will be put to use in the field to reduce the time and cost it takes to record vaccinations in far-flung areas of the country.
The work started last year, when UNICEF Sudan turned to college students at two campuses to help find solutions to monitor the distribution of school kits as well as improve immunization coverage. Innovation labs were quickly established at the University of Khartoum (Faculty of Mathematical Sciences) and Sudan University of Science and Technology.
The Sudan labs were guided not by any formal agreement on paper but by sheer determination and goodwill, said Gada Kadoda, Project Coordinator and Technology for Development Consultant at UNICEF Sudan. UNICEF provided some financial assistance for transport, communication and other costs.
“Now I can see how my work can be applied in a real life setting. It’s given me more confidence in myself and I have a chance to serve my country.”
Part of a Global Initiative
Promoting innovation has been a key priority of UNICEF for quite some time now. Many country offices are searching for ways to apply innovative approaches to not only save time and money, but to also improve the lives of beneficiaries. In Sudan, the lack of access for aid agencies and a lack of proficient partners in the field cry out for new ways to do business.
The innovation lab initiative is part of a global scheme developed by UNICEF in partnership with universities to build local technological capacities for humanitarian development.
Started in October 2012 and lasting four months, the Sudan project is based on UNICEF’s Innovation Lab “Technology for Development” approach, meant to capitalize on improvements in telecommunications and the rapid uptake of mobile technologies to support development work. Despite its isolation and widespread poverty, Sudan has very extensive mobile phone coverage and the penetration rate is high – making it a natural candidate.
The way the students explain it, an innovation lab is a physical space that allows for collaboration among academia, government and non-governmental organisations, and the private sector. Once established, they become national facilities for building local technological capacities to support humanitarian development efforts.
Practical Applications in the Field
The project teams are utilising RapidSMS - an open source software - to improve information flows and access as well as provide real-time data monitoring capabilities. The SMS flow is two way – allowing messages from the field to be acknowledged.
Sudan University students said the RapidSMS system they developed could remind mothers of their vaccination appointments for their newborns and thus reduce the number of so-called defaulters. They explained that community health workers in the field would be the ones to send and monitor the SMS texts.
One team showed with great enthusiasm how UNICEF education kits can be tracked from the warehouse right down to the receiving school. The system will help prevent a host of problems – from pilferage and theft to delays and shipping damage. “At any one time we have thousands of education and recreation kits in the country,” said UNICEF Sudan Education Chief Louise Mvono, adding that she can easily see the applicability of the monitoring system in Sudan.
Added Safa Mohammad Ahmed, campus coordinator from Khartoum University: “Now I can see how my work can be applied in a real life setting. It’s given me more confidence in myself and I have a chance to serve my country.”
Aside from feeling astonished at the enthusiasm of the students, a newcomer might be thrown off balance by the gender “imbalance” of the teams – male students are decidedly a minority here. “These are the two top universities in the country and to gain admission you need really good grades,” explains Kadoda. “And the girls get better grades than the guys – not because they are more intelligent but because they have fewer things to do (socially) in this country.”
Local media has been covering the teams’ work and a special Facebook page has been created to keep the outside world informed.
Kadoda said she hoped the innovation lab work would not come to an abrupt end: “The main thing is that, if we can provide some kind of support, we can take advantage of their hunger for knowledge and desire to really make a difference. Now they all feel that have discovered something new – that technology for development will be the way to make a difference.”