Awarding fresh ideas in young innovators

17 October 2017
The winning team DigiHealth developed a mobile and web solution to support collection and real-time data analysis during health outreaches. Photo: UNFPA/Mina Nozawa.

Noelle Aryanyijuka is known as the “pad girl” across rural communities and refugee settlements in Uganda. She is the Chief Executive Officer of EcoSmart Pads, a youth-led Ugandan startup that makes biodegradable disposable sanitary pads from sugarcane residue.

 “I wanted to create an impact in rural communities and for girls coming from low income backgrounds,” Noelle explains about her innovative idea.

Although EcoSmart Pads plans to roll out its products at half the average market price of Shillings 3,000 (USD 83 cents), their current business model cannot cater for the least resourced girls and women in Nakivale refugee settlement who can only afford Shillings 200 (USD 6 cents), for a pack of sanitary pads.

Funded by UKAid from the British Government and implemented by the Ugandan innovation hub Outbox, the UNFPA Up Accelerate programme has supported Noelle and 25 other young entrepreneurs from seven youth-led startups to develop and refine products in sexual and reproductive health and roll them into the market.

On 5th October, four of the young startups who have taken part in the programme presented their products at the Up Accelerate Demo Day held at Imperial Royale Hotel in Kampala. The event provided the young entrepreneurs with the opportunity to raise follow-on funding and explore new partnerships that can enable their products access the market.

Innovative business proposals presented to over 150 representatives from the private sector, development partners, academia and young people included a low-cost chest drainage system to remove excess fluid accumulations in the lungs (iDrain) and a low-cost and effective device to follow up fetal development inside the mothers’ womb in resource scarce environments (M-Scan).

The winner that evening was DigiHealth, a mobile and web solution to support collection and real-time data analysis during health outreaches, selected by an independent panel of judges as being the most integrated and market ready solution.

The power of eHealth

At the event, speakers called for enhanced support for youth entrepreneurship and development of innovative solutions to improve health care through e-health innovations:

“eHealth can be a revolution for the (Ugandan) healthcare system if we take it up and make it work for us”, said Dr. Anthony Mbonye, Director General of Health Services at the Ministry of Health.

Increasing access to sexual and reproductive health services, especially among vulnerable populations, requires all stakeholders to “continue supporting […] already developed innovative solutions and those yet to be developed” said Ritah Nakigudde, Health Advisor at DFID.

In addition, young people must be enabled to be part of the vibrant ecosystem for social entrepreneurship in Uganda, said UNFPA Representative, Mr. Alain Sibenaler in his remarks.

“The young entrepreneurs that bring us together today for the Demo Day of the Up Accelerate program are part of that vibrant new generation of Ugandans who are seeking to reinvent the society they live in. It is my pleasure, as representative of the United Nations Population Fund in Uganda, to accompany them in their journey of innovation and business development,” he said. 

The long journey of leadership and innovation

The UNFPA Up Accelerate programme seeks to support the next generation of young Ugandan entrepreneurs to succeed in the long journey of leadership and innovation for social change. While the programme has focused on developing market-ready solutions to persistent sexual and reproductive health bottlenecks in Uganda, Up Accelerate results have been multifaceted:

“Working with young people is not just about getting a product out there, but also about developing human capital,” explained Richard Zulu, Outbox Lead and implementing partner for the Up Accelerate program.

UNFPA commits to continue supporting innovation and creativity in sexual and reproductive health as one of its key work areas with young people, with the purpose of creating a conducive ecosystem for social entrepreneurship that can lead to sustainable development in sexual and reproductive health.

By Mina Nozawa and Raquel Palomino Gonzalez