Washington — India’s Accredited Social Health Activist program trains women in rural areas to act as health educators in their communities. Keeping this remote and diverse network up to date and organized has proven a challenge.
Dimagi Inc. is a Massachusetts-based company that has spent the last two and a half years developing a software platform for mobile phones to allow health care workers to collect data, monitor the health of new mothers and log household visits.
With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Dimagi is embarking on a pilot program to support health educators in India’s Uttar Pradesh province with its CommCare mobile software.
Dimagi’s application to the Accredited Social Health Activist program has been handled much more quickly than it would have been through traditional channels of development funding; the company has been able to leapfrog an often cumbersome process, thanks to USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) program. Announced October 8 by USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah (see the USAID website), the DIV program adopts the venture-capital model of private-sector innovation by using a competitive process to invest resources in high-risk, high-return projects that are often difficult to undertake through traditional agency structures.
Maura O’Neill, USAID’s chief innovation officer, and Michael Kremer, an economist from Harvard University, conceived of the Development Innovation Ventures fund as a way to bring solutions to USAID that the standard grant model would miss. They designed the program around two controlling ideas.
“First, great ideas come from all different people and places,” O’Neill said. “We wanted to have an easy mechanism for the world’s great ideas to come to USAID and for us to incubate them. Second, scale is what’s important. USAID and others working hard in development innovate all the time. But we don’t always think systematically, ‘How do we scale that across the globe?’ How do you build to scale in thinking about an idea from the very beginning?”
O’Neill points to the company SiGNa Chemistry’s E-bike as an example of innovation that might have slipped through the cracks if not for DIV.
The E-bike uses an affordable fuel-cell cartridge containing sodium silicide, which produces hydrogen when it comes in contact with water. Its only emissions are water vapor and air, and its byproduct is sodium silicate, a harmless substance found also in toothpaste. The E-bike can travel 100 miles on a charge and could be an affordable alternative to the motor scooters and their internal-combustion engines that are so popular in underdeveloped nations. Additionally, the fuel cell can be detached and used as a stand-alone power source for anything from cell phones to small pumps.
For other innovations, O’Neill said, the difference in DIV’s approach isn’t in the project so much as the speed with which it can be implemented. The University of California, San Diego, received funding to measure the effectiveness of a mobile SMS election-monitoring platform in reducing fraud in Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections in September.
“Could we have done this through a democracy-in-governance program?” O’Neill said. “Yes. Could we have had that idea come to us in August, contract it in September for an election that’s in September, and have results in the beginning of November? That is virtually unheard of.”
Proposals are being accepted for projects in Stage 1 (proof of concept), Stage 2 (building to scale and testing rigorously) and Stage 3 (scaling throughout a country or province and starting implementation in two other countries). Six of the first eight grants from the DIV program are going to Stage 1 projects. Depending on their success, they may or may not receive Stage 2 and Stage 3 funding.
“Just like in venture capital,” O’Neill said, “you seed a lot of things, but only some of them grow up to be the eBays and the Amazons.”