Innovation Lab

is changing the scenario

Fostering a hands-on, action-oriented approach to tackling the biggest challenges faced by society and people (in issues like employment, disability rights, and agriculture), laying a strong foundation for some of the brightest minds to come together and collaborate for devising some of the most innovative solutions in the country.

INNOVATION FUND

Engage and empower the whole of Bangladeshi society to co-create novel solutions to development challenges and boost their chances of making an or the impact at scale.

E-specialized services for people with disabilities

Rahim, a 14 year old blooming child suffered from a fatal accident at earlier age. His left side of the body has been paralyzed. “When I woke up, everything was the same except my body.” Rahim broke in tears. “I lost control over my body and all my dreams were shattered within moments” he added.

5,000+

Online Proposals

160 +

Awardees

22

Development Sectors

USD 3.1

Million Awarded

Innovators are faced with significant challenges

A tech-based startup wanted to design a technology that allowed students to access multimedia content in communities still off the electricity grid. A local non-profit social development organization, working with disability rights, wanted to convert national curriculum text books available in Bangla into accessible education content for visually impaired children and slow learners. A government entity wanted to automate the system for applying for and receiving environment clearance certificate. And a local innovator with his team wanted to develop their own version of 3D printers that could manufacture artificial limbs and any small scale prototype at much less time and cost than their foreign counterparts.

These innovative ideas faced a few common obstacles –

1. The innovators did not have the funds to develop complete prototypes
2. They could not test the efficacy of the prototypes with real users or beneficiaries.

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Service Innovation Fund as solution to these challenges

a2i’s Service Innovation Fund (SIF) was designed to address these challenges. It provides seed funds and incubates cost-effective, user-centric, home-grown innovations to solve some of the most important problems affecting undeserved communities.

SIF also sets itself apart from other ‘innovation funds’ by:

  • Co-investing with the innovators in bringing their ideas to life
  • Providing mentorship support and access to citizen-beneficiaries to refine the prototypes and make them more user-centric
  • Supporting innovators through liaising with relevant partners from both the public and private sectors for effective project implementation, successful scale up and sustainability

To date, SIF has attracted 3,835+ innovative proposals, using an online platform called Idea Bank and granted over a quarter million dollars to government agencies, development organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academic institutions, private companies and even individuals.

Whole-of-society doing development innovation

As a result, Bangladesh now has solar-powered multimedia classrooms being setup in all off-grid locations; DAISY standard multimedia talking books for use by visually impaired students and slow learners covering education content for classes 1 through 8; an online application system for Environment Clearance Certificate; and a 3D printer which has already been used to print artificial limbs for disabled children whose parents are too poor to afford conventional prosthetics.

See What Others Have Done

YOUTH INNOVATION

Harness the energy and creativity of the youth to develop innovative solutions to development challenges through competitions, co- creation and incubation.

Artificial Limbs using 3D Printer.

Sabrina, a former factory worker, lost one of her upper limbs in an accident. It has been four years she is unemployed and leading a miserable life. She neither can work at home nor get a job somewhere. She wants her normal life back but artificial limb implants are expensive and it has to be imported from abroad.

6000+ youth

already engaged in innovation

11 youth-led

projects funded for piloting

170 universities

sensitized to have innovation hubs

Challenges to Sustainability of Youth-led Projects

Asif Ahmed, a final-year engineering student at Khulna University of Engineering & Technology, understood the problems that cardiac patients and their relatives had to endure. He had a concept paper on developing a low cost wireless ECG monitoring machine but did not have a way to try out his idea.

In Bangladesh, more than 60% of the population belong to the youth segment (i.e. between 15-35 years of age) and a significant percentage of them constitute university undergraduates. As part of their regular curriculum, these students conduct research projects, but there is not much effort in transforming the few ideas that came up into tangible solutions, let alone making those available nationwide.

Tertiary education institutions do not have the scope or mechanism for providing seed funding for rapid prototyping of solutions. In addition, the nation imports expensive foreign solutions to solve local problems. An opportunity to develop frugal localized innovations by providing seed funding to university students may address this issue.

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Youth-led Innovation to Development Challenges

To make proper use of the students’ untapped potential, a2i has conceived a multi-pronged strategy for embedding the spirit of innovation among the youth and engaging them in identifying citizens’ problems and solving them.

As part of this strategy, a2i undertakes the following programs:

  • Solve-a-Thon: A multi-staged, team-based competition for students of public and private colleges, polytechnic institutions and universities. The contestant’s design and prototype innovative and implementable solutions to identified national problems.
  • Women’s Innovation Camp: A multi-staged, team-based competition for female students to propose and design innovative and implementable solutions to identified problems affecting girls and women. The two special features of this camp are its distinct focus on gender related issues and that girls are required to be the majority in each team.

In case of these competitions, the best prototype developers receive sponsorship and other kinds of support from relevant ministries and directorates. In addition, they can apply for a2i’s “Service Innovation Fund”.”

It was through participating in Solve-a-Thon 2015-2016 that Asif’s concept won the first prize and got assurance from a2i for implementation support through the relevant government agencies. Now young innovators like Asif have an opportunity to secure the support necessary to develop and test prototypes to solve national problems.

SKILLS FOR EMPLOYMENT LAB

Form the right linkages in the education sector to meet the goals of becoming a strong middle-income country based on local and international market demand.

Skills for Employment.

Shymol Kumar has a family of 8 members and he is the eldest son of his family. He had to take the responsibility of his family since his father died at an early age. As a result, he discontinued his study in class 8. To earn his family’s livelihood, he started farming.

9,800 Apprentices

in 250+ Trades

5,600 Minority Ethnic

People Skilled

16,350 Qawmi Madrasah

Students received Skills

200,000 Imams and

Muazzins in Imam Portal

Current education, training and employment scenario in Bangladesh

The education sector is often disconnected from the market. The skills developed by the former are often not demanded by the latter causing unemployment and underemployment of the so-called ‘educated’ and ‘trained’. At the same time, the former does not or is not able to produce skills that the latter demands leading to jobs in the market that the local labour force cannot fulfill. Such disconnection leads to wastage of national resources, frustration of the graduates at different educational tiers, and delayed achievement of national economic goals and SDGs.

With a total population of around 160 million and labour force of about 80 million, Bangladesh has a youth unemployment rate of 9.2% and an underemployment rate of 18.7% which are steadily moving in an upward direction, according to a 2015 World Bank report. 1.7 million are joining the job market every year whereas the government trains 1.2 million every year. However, the problem is that most of this training is inadequate, not demand-based, and does not include the new labour market entrants.

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a2i’s Holistic Strategy

a2i is the key driver from the Prime Minister’s Office of the government’s public service innovation agenda. Aligned with the importance of skills development in the context of Bangladesh and the high priority accorded to this issue by Honorable Prime Minister, a2i is working with a whole-of-government approach applying behavior change methodologies and leveraging the rapid expansion of technologies to create an enabling environment for the development of 21st century skills in Bangladesh.

a2i is spearheading efforts to 1) Increase remittance per capita, 2) Ensure decent work for everyone. a2i has developed a strategic framework on “Skills for Employment” identifying 4 priority areas:

Market Analysis, Forecasting and Prioritization: Labour force trained by the government training agencies for local or foreign market struggle due to inappropriate knowledge and skills. On the other hand, massive infrastructure projects in the country are in the process of creating huge employment opportunities for which labour skills development is not happening based on demand. To analyze demand and prioritize skills development, a2i and Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority (BEZA) are jointly conducting a study for the local market, whereas Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment is doing a study for the international markets.

Market driven skills development: a2i has partnered with various organizations to create the necessary linkages between skills development agencies and job providers to pave the way for the workers to get gainful employment in different industries. Some of the initiatives are as follows:

  • Skills development through apprenticeship and job placement in informal sectors in partnership with ILO in 30 Upazillas with 600 informal industries. A total number of 1200 rural employed youths are now taking on-the-job training as apprentices in 35 trades. It is also working to certify the “ustaads” or master craft persons.
  • a2i is partnered with the Skills for Employment Investment Program (SEIP) of the Finance Division and BGMEA to ensure ‘equitable’ access to customized skills development facilities and job placement for unemployed youth including ‘Plain Land Ethnic Minority Communities’. Piloting is currently ongoing in Sirajganj District in two trades – Woven and Knit Machine Operation. Youths who are aged between 18 and 35 and want decent jobs in Garment Industry can join the 2-month long training program. After successful completion of the training, the participants will get decent jobs in the Garment Industry.
  • a2i is exploring the design of an intervention to potentially revolutionize the mindset of youths in the ‘qawmi madrasa system’ in Bangladesh. The situation at present is one where millions of orphaned and under-privileged under the madrasa system are exposed to a curriculum that does little to impart useful education and knowledge. a2i aims to empower these thousands and millions of youths to turn around their lives. This intervention will create the scope for them to learn at least one skill that is in great demand in local and foreign markets.
  • Collaboration with Higher Secondary Stipend Project (HSSP) of Ministry of Education for integrating skills development with stipend programs. The piloting is going on in 10 upazilas and 200 disadvantageous college students are getting self-employment and income generating skills.
  • With an emphasis on the remotest and most under-privileged areas, a2i, SME Foundation, Bangladesh Women in Technology (BWIT) with support from the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs jointly targeted 3,000+ women from all over the country to develop them as ICT entrepreneurs/freelancers.
  • Partnership with Microsoft Bangladesh to create woman Hardware Technicians and IT Support Technicians in rural areas. As of December 2016, skills development of 3,500 rural women completed.
  • Collaboration with Strengthening Women’s Ability for Productive New Opportunities (SWAPNO) project of UNDP to initiate skills development and self-employment amongst ultra-poor women.

Coordination and standardization: There are 28 departments under 23 ministries directly involved in skills development or TVET. The National Skills Development Council (NSDC), led by the Honorable Prime Minister, has been founded to coordinate and accelerate the skills development initiatives to make a bridge between different organizations engaged in skills development and employment generation. a2i is supporting NSDC to:

  • Bring together all players from across the ecosystem
  • Drive the dialogue by discussing key issues, challenges and opportunities
  • Moreover, a2i and NSDC are jointly developing a ‘Skills & Employment’ dashboard to coordinate and monitor all the skills development initiatives of the country.

National Communication and Branding: Technical and Vocational Education and Training or TVET has a stigma associated with it in Bangladesh that this is for students who are not able to ‘make it’ in the mainstream education. Uplifting image of TVET through proper communication and branding is a major national goal. Media, including social media, is leveraged to create positive hype and awareness about TVET and how it can lead to personal prosperity and contribute to national economic growth.

a2i Co-Organized “Dhaka Summit on Skills, Employability and Decent Work 2016” held from 11-13th December 2016 along with Ministry of Labor and Employment (MoLE), Bangladesh Employers’ Federation (BEF) and National Coordination Committee for Workers Education (NCCWE). Considering the importance of the skills development in the context of Bangladesh and the high priority accorded to skills by the government, the private sector and the development partners, the summit had an overarching skills agenda towards promotion of decent work. The event was supported by the National Skills Development Council (NSDC), International Labor Organization (ILO), World Bank, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Canadian Government, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers & Exporters Association (BKMEA) and Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD).

Focus on SDGs

Skills for Employment initiative is a significant endeavor to increase remittance per capita and ensure decent work for everyone through appropriate planning, coordination and reshaping skills development. Only with a concerted effort will it be possible to stand up against unemployment and making meaningful contributions to attain SDGs 1 (No Poverty), 4 (Quality Education), 8 (Decent Jobs and Economic Growth), 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure), 10 (Reduced Inequalities) and eventually earning a strong middle income status in the world arena.

DIGITAL AGRICULTURAL LAB

Supporting ideation, development, enhancement and commercialization of agriculture focused innovations while protecting the intellectual property rights of the innovators.

Multimedia Classroom.

A buzz can be heard from a classroom, with 60 students organized in 10 groups as Mr. Abdus Salam is constantly in motion and moving around in the classroom, encouraging students to engage in peer and group discussions to raise questions and, at the same time, discuss among themselves on the given topic as a team.

3 mobile apps upscaled

for nationwide use by farmers

1 portal to give access

to all agriculture extension services

Enablers required for Citizen-centric innovations

Malek, an agriculture extension officer mobilized by the government in Fulbari, Mymensingh district, had an idea of developing a pictorial database of plant diseases to help farmers communicate their problems better; Ruhul, a water management engineer, wanted to develop a complete device setup to help solve irrigation crisis for farmers especially living in regions with frequent flood and drought; Rabbit’s Hat, a local software development firm, realized how important market access was to farmer’s livelihoods and wanted to develop an integrated system to link farmers with market.

These citizen-centric innovations which were meant to change the lives of common citizens had a few things in common like –

The innovators did not have the funds to develop complete prototype.
The opportunity was not there to test the efficacy of the prototypes with real beneficiaries.

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Challenges to the Innovation Process

The above mentioned innovators could materialize their proposed projects using a2i Program’s Service Innovation Fund. But, unfortunately, there are many unpublished concepts and unfinished prototypes out there which could not get transformed into finished usable products for primarily the following reasons:

  • The innovators do not receive proper mentorship and guidance on developing their ideas and concepts into workable prototypes.
  • There is no direct link between the innovators and the policy makers, as a result of which there is information gap among the innovators about the development priorities.
  • There is an inherent fear of idea being stolen or hijacked.
  • The innovators lack the means of transforming their working prototypes into a usable format ready for commercialization.

Role of Agriculture Innovation Lab+ as an Innovation Catalyst

The Agriculture Innovation Lab+ has been conceptualized and designed with this holistic approach of collaboration and co-creation to support ideation, development, enhancement and commercialization of innovative agricultural products and services while protecting the intellectual property rights of the innovators. This will act as a platform for the different stakeholders working directly and indirectly with the agriculture sector and its beneficiaries with the ultimate objective of improving livelihoods of farmers through solving local challenges using creative and innovative ways.

The overarching vision of the lab is to share the best practices, exchange ideas and develop similar networks to other resource-poor countries as part of South-South and global cooperation. The Agriculture Innovation Lab has already made some important partnerships, one of the most notable ones being with the Ministry of Agriculture, as a result of which its different subsidiaries can collaboratively identify the problems facing majority of farmers and developing low-cost, available and accessible devices and technologies.

DISABILITY INNOVATION LAB

Supporting ideation, development, enhancement and commercialization of disability-centric products and services while protecting the intellectual property rights of the innovators.

E-specialized services for people with disabilities.

Rahim, a 14-year-old blooming child suffered from a fatal accident at earlier age. His left side of the body has been paralyzed. “When I woke up, everything was the same except my body.” Rahim broke in tears. “I lost control over my body and all my dreams were shattered within moments” he added.

10,000

multimedia talking books delivered

107 curriculum text books

converted to digital & braille versions

1 telemedicine-based

privately owned rural service model launched

Story of a disability-centered innovation and its innovator

Vaskar Bhattacharjee, a visually impaired Bangladeshi working at a local NGO, had a difficult time at school trying to study with outdated braille books and scarcity of teachers who knew the techniques of teaching using braille books. His mother could not always manage time to read out texts from the regular curriculum books. Through his work with the NGO called YPSA, Vaskar got the idea of converting the regular curriculum text books into DAISY standard braille books and audio books which the visually impaired could not only touch, but also listen. But, the NGO itself could not have managed the necessary finance for project implementation and approval from the policymakers. Here came into effect a2i’s Service Innovation Fund which provided the startup fund required to do the piloting of the idea. The books were checked for quality conformance by the relevant government agencies and, on the book distribution day at the beginning of the calendar year, the Honorable Prime Minister to the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh officially launched the books.

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A holistic approach is necessary for successful disability-centered innovation

This story reflects how a2i has successfully used a holistic approach to:

  • Encourage Persons With Disabilities (PWDs)-centric innovation to come up from local organizations, especially those working with PWDs;
  • Provide the necessary fund to complement the piloting process;
  • Build an umbrella of essential stakeholders (around the project) who could provide mentorship support, share knowledge, and test the efficacy of the product;
  • Ensure protection of intellectual property rights of the product; and
  • Help promote the product to the policy makers and other important stakeholders to ensure its up-scaling and sustainability.

But, this was a one-off example of innovation and a2i has already funded multiple initiatives addressing almost all types of disability. In the meanwhile, a2i realized that institutionalizing its support to the PWDs can create the necessary sectoral level impact for the benefit of the majority of the PWDs in Bangladesh. So, a2i conceived of designing and developing a “Disability Innovation Lab” also known as DLab.

Disability Innovation Lab: Nurturing solutions for the PWDs

DLab is a platform where all stakeholders, working directly and indirectly to secure the rights of PWDs, can come together and work to achieve the common goal of ‘ensuring accessibility for the persons with disabilities so that the PWDs can live an independent life using their fullest potential.’ The DLab supports ideation, development, enhancement and commercialization of disability-centric products and services while protecting the intellectual property rights of the innovator. It not only provides the opportunity to ‘test’ the prototypes at local level to incorporate ‘PWD’s demand’ using participatory approaches, but also encourages the PWDs to solve their own problems and get involved from ‘idea generation’ to ‘upscaling’. Again, the DLab provides financial, policy/regulatory and business support to scale-up successful innovative solutions.  Going forward, the lab will share the best practices, exchange ideas and develop similar networks to other resource-poor countries as part of South-South and Global Cooperation. The DLab has already made some important partnerships, like that with the University of Chittagong for developing an inclusive university and a disability research lab for identifying problems of students with disabilities and developing low-cost, available and accessible assistive devices.

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