FACTBOX-Innovative private-sector aid projects

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 26 January 2012 10:00 GMT

Mobile money, locally made food aid, refugee business advice and more

This article is part of an AlertNet special report on humanitarian aid: futureofaid.trust.org 

LONDON (AlertNet) - From telecoms to finance, online support to aid on the ground, companies are coming up with new ways to help people in humanitarian crises.

Below are some examples of innovative corporate aid projects, often done in partnership with aid agencies.

If you have other good examples, or your own ideas about how businesses could contribute to emergency relief, why not share them in the comment box at the bottom.


Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake destroyed a third of the country's bank branches, prompting the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. government to launch a $10 million incentive fund to jumpstart the introduction of mobile money for Haitians.

Local mobile telecommunications operator Digicel won $2.5 million from the fund for developing -- in partnership with Scotia Bank -- a service that let customers use their cell phones to make deposits and withdrawals at retail outlets, and transfer money between accounts.


Also after the Haiti quake, the country's largest micro-finance institution, Fonkoze, helped nearly 18,500 clients by giving free access to a catastrophe insurance policy it was developing.

The move effectively gave away cash indemnity payments to help people recover their livelihoods and offered relief on loans. Recipients had to complete education modules in disaster preparation, catastrophe insurance, risk mitigation and home repair and rebuilding.   


Vodafone Group has worked with emergency communications NGO Telecoms Sans Frontieres and technology solutions provider Huawei to create an ultra-portable mobile network. The equipment can be taken on commercial flights, fitting into three suitcase-sized boxes weighing less than 100 kg.

Once in the disaster zone, the network can be set up in less than 40 minutes to provide voice and SMS services. Vodafone says trials have proved successful, and it is talking to aid agencies about deploying the network -- either on loan or as a donation.


Silicon Valley tech company CrowdFlower was one of a group of organisations, including the Thomson Reuters Foundation, that helped survivors of the Haiti quake get help via text message. Some 80,000 messages were received via a free phone number (4636), provided by Digicel, mostly in Haitian Creole.

Workers and volunteers translated, located and categorised the messages via CrowdFlower's online "crowdsourcing" platform. The information was distributed to rescue and aid workers, directing teams to save hundreds of people and channelling the first food, water and medical relief to tens of thousands.


Much of the peanut paste for "Plumpy'Nut", a therapeutic food commonly used to treat malnourished children, is produced in European and U.S. factories. But UK-based alternative trade organisation Twin has set up a nut processing plant, Afri-Nut Ltd, in Lilongwe, Malawi, to provide the peanut paste locally. Its shareholders include the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi and the commercial agricultural company, Ex-Agris.

The Afri-Nut enterprise will also help tackle the common problem of nut contamination with aflatoxin -- a carcinogen produced by a fungus that grows on crops, often because of poor storage.


In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, aid groups -- especially local ones with limited resources -- often have to scrabble around to find the supplies and staff they need. India's Corporate Disaster Resource Network, launched three years ago, aims to speed up the procurement process by allowing government officials and aid workers to feed requests into a website.

Companies in fields from telecoms and transport to healthcare and food can respond through the system with offers of goods and services, including skilled volunteers. These can be provided as donations, at a discount or at commercial prices.


The IKEA Foundation brought in a businesswoman from Women on Wings, a Dutch company that works mainly with female entrepreneurs in India, to advise women living in northwest Kenya's Kakuma camp, home to around 80,000 refugees. The female refugees were making sanitary pads they were selling to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) for distribution in the camp, but sand kept on clogging up their machines.

The consultant recommended they install filtered air conditioning to keep the sand out -- an investment that was later recouped by lower repair costs and higher productivity.  


Two decades ago, Swiss-based firm Vestergaard Frandsen was a struggling manufacturer of uniforms, before its current CEO, Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen, hit upon the idea of turning unwanted fabric into blankets to sell in eastern Congo, then struggling with an influx of Rwandan refugees.

Today, the company's main business is producing devices that control the spread of disease in poor countries. It is best known for its LifeStraw, a portable water filter that looks like a large drinking straw and prevents diarrhoeal illnesses. 

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