UNICEF makes venture capital investments in emerging market tech start-ups

UNICEF press release

15 November 2016
UNICEF Product Project Management Technology Lead Clara Palau and UNICEF Science and Technology Data Scientist Naroa Zurutuza work together at UNICEF House.

NEW YORK, 15 November 2016 – UNICEF today announces its first portfolio of investments in open source technology solutions including tools that improve connectivity, real time data collection, identity technology and learning.

The UNICEF Innovation Fund applies a venture capital approach to source solutions for issues like transportation, identity, wearable technology, finance, and personal data. In addition to announcing first investments UNICEF has also opened the next round of applications from technology start-ups.

“The UNICEF Innovation Fund is a new way of doing business at the UN; combining the approach of Silicon Valley venture funds with the needs of UNICEF programme countries,” said Cynthia McCaffrey, Director of the UNICEF Office of Innovation.

“Using UNICEF’s 190 offices and 12,000 staff, the Fund will help us source and support companies that might be overlooked by traditional investment vehicles,” McCaffrey added. “The Fund allows us to prototype technology solutions, as well as expand our networks of open source collaborators to improve children’s lives.”

The first portfolio of investments includes the following five start-ups, with an eye to investing in 20-40 additional companies in 2017:

• Saycel (Nicaragua): provides affordable mobile connectivity to communities that are not on the traditional information grid in rural areas.

• mPower (Bangladesh): create a digital registry platform to improve data collection and delivery of maternal and child health care.

• 9Needs (South Africa): uses blockchain and advances in identity technology to create better management systems for early childhood development services.

• Innovations for Poverty Alleviation Lab (Pakistan): creates stories and information that can be played over a simple mobile phone to help fathers (who may be semi-literate) support their families for better maternal and newborn health.

• Chatterbox (Cambodia): provides a fundamental technology layer to be integrated into UNICEF's RapidPro platform to extend its reach to communities that are low literacy, particularly in Cambodia, but eventually globally.

The UNICEF Innovation Fund is inviting technology start-ups to apply for investment and become part of this growing portfolio of open source solutions. The next round of applications for investment from the Fund is now open. Information about who can apply and how to submit Expressions of Interest is available at www.unicefinnovationfund.org. The deadline to apply is 1 January 2017.


Notes to editors:
Progress made by portfolio projects are monitored in real time and displayed in detail at: http://www.unicefinnovationfund.org/

More information about the companies receiving investment from the UNICEF Innovation Fund:
• SayCel (Nicaragua): provides affordable, scalable communications solutions for poor rural communities. The team is working to improve the low-cost open source GSM communications suite used to run cellular networks in rural regions. With the Innovation Fund investment, SayCel will expand access to its communications solution to new regions in Nicaragua.

• mPower Social Enterprises Ltd (Bangladesh): Investment from the Innovation Fund will help expand pilots of a digital registry OpenSRP platform that runs on rural health workers’ own tablets and allows them to improve data collection and timeliness of maternal and child health care. Combining data collection, case management, and reporting workflows, the platform aims to support health workers to improve vaccination rates among children and coverage of antenatal care services for women in Bangladesh.

• 9Needs Pvt Ltd (South Africa): developed a self-sovereign identity and contracting system that will digitally enable South African early childhood development  programmes. Using blockchain infrastructure and smart contracts, the system will help strengthen the current registration, contracting, information and management systems.

• Innovations for Poverty Alleviation Lab, Information Technology University (Pakistan): uses interactive storytelling over mobile phones to inform and equip fathers to make safer decisions around maternal health care, actively support pregnant mothers in seeking care and in preparing for childbirth. By using keypad numerical inputs, the caller will be able to navigate through various menus, tips, and stories, categorized according to pregnancy trimester and/or topic.

• Chatterbox Dating Mobile (Cambodia): Chatterbox is building a set of software tools that will extend the reach of UNICEF’s investment in RapidPro to even more users by allowing less literate populations to inexpensively access content without needing to read text messages.  This technology will be incorporated into the larger RapidPro stack.

Media contacts

Harriet Dwyer
Tel: +1 917 244 2215

Additional resources

UNICEF Product Project Management Technology Lead Clara Palau and UNICEF Science and Technology Data Scientist Naroa Zurutuza work together at UNICEF House.

UNICEF resources for media


UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.

For more information about UNICEF and its work for children, visit www.unicef.org.

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About UNICEF Innovation

UNICEF Innovation is an interdisciplinary team of individuals around the world tasked with identifying, prototyping, and scaling technologies and practices that strengthen UNICEF’s work. We build and scale innovations that improve children’s lives around the world. For more information about UNICEF’s work in innovation, visit: www.unicef.org/innovation and www.unicefstories.org. Follow UNICEF Innovation on Twitter.