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Grand Challenges Africa: Innovation for WASH in Urban Settings


This request for proposals represents a partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UNICEF, Arm, and The African Academy of Sciences (AAS). African entrants located in African organizations should apply through the Grand Challenges Africa (a program of The AAS) portal; entrants located throughout the rest of the world should apply through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation portal. At The AAS, this request for proposals is funded in partnership with the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA).


While there are several dimensions of rapid urbanization that demand innovative solutions, we see the main area of need emerging in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). Billions of people worldwide living in densely populated informal and/or low income urban settlements suffer from inadequate sanitation; 4.5 billion people lack access to sanitation altogether, with as many as one billion people worldwide defecating in the open, and an additional three billion using toilets from which the waste is not safely managed – meaning that either it is not safely contained or, once emptied, is not safely treated. Over sixty percent of the human waste that is collected in the developing world is discharged untreated into the environment.

Clearly, there is a dire and pervasive need for awareness and information around: incidents of contamination, threats to delivery (e.g., from drought, heat waves, power outages), alternative approaches, emergency protocols, and overall monitoring of effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of the delivered service. Many solutions and delivery models already exist, and there is great opportunity to scale and redesign them to be effective in challenging urban contexts. Digital technology-based solutions can help bridge gaps and open doors – both online and on the ground – providing greater access to information, faster and more affordable communication, and expanded choices. For example, sensors placed strategically at different points in the value chain can collect and notify us of this type of information, whereas mapping platforms and ICT technologies can get that information to the right places for response and action.

When deployed in the right way, emerging and existing technologies can be critical in shaping cities to be centers of liveability, productivity, opportunity, and growth for children and their communities. We know that cities are hubs of diversity, growth, and innovation, and they should provide boundless opportunities for young people to survive, thrive, learn, participate, integrate, and reach their full potential.


How can we find solutions to make it easier to access safe, clean water and sanitation services for the urban poor?

We seek digital technology-based solutions that promote access to essential resources and services (clean water, sanitation) and can make a difference in reducing morbidity and mortality to promote healthy, safe, and productive lives. We know that technology does not automatically or inevitably improve people's lives; creative solutions must be contextually grounded and designed in response to on-the-ground needs of women, children, and families living in challenging urban environments.

What We Are Looking For:

Ideal solutions may target individuals, families, communities, urban planners, service providers, or WASH/ food infrastructure, networks, and systems. Solutions may include but are not limited to: services, models, or tools intended to improve overall access to WASH services and that apply a deeper understanding of our users' (customers/providers) needs when designing programs, services, and products/interventions.  We seek solutions that are interactive, contextual, scalable, and relevant to WASH systems strengthening. We are specifically interested in work targeting: clean drinking water, household sanitation and hygiene, and urban pollution.

Criteria for success include solutions that:

  • Provide data/evidence for effective solutions that 1) reduce the barrier to entry, 2) verify performance of municipal water or sanitation utilities, and 3) improve service delivery
  • Broaden the toolkit of local solutions for urban areas to encourage municipalities, utility companies, and entrepreneurs to participate in creating and expanding access to services
  • Develop a system that integrates with monitoring systems (i.e., community health, water quality, etc.)
  • Have the potential to build on existing Public-Private or Public-Academic Partnerships, which will be essential to achieve results at scale
  • Are cost effective

Potential solutions may respond to questions around how we might:

  • Monitor the level of environmental contamination, bacteriological contamination, or service failure across urban contexts and map trends in real-time
  • Create new ways to collect, recycle, and dispose of domestic human waste and improve access to adequate services that ultimately lead to safely treated waste
  • Connect low-income urban settlement populations with reliable and affordable sanitation service delivery models, including monitoring systems
  • Set up remote operation and maintenance of existing urban WASH assets
  • Establish awareness programming to improve understanding of sanitation-related risks amongst dwellers in low income urban settlements
  • Integrate hygiene promotion programs with urban activities (such as marketplaces, schools, etc.)
  • Monitor sanitation infrastructure construction and conditions (latrines, wells, treatment systems, etc.)
  • Design monitoring and incentive models to increase compliance with regulatory requirements within decentralized or distributed treat/pre-treatment systems
  • Conduct groundwater mapping in affected drought areas
  • Fill the data gap on measuring the proportion of waste emptied from pits and septic tanks and taken to treatment, including:
    • Tracking service providers (e.g., vacuum trucks, hand carts) from household to disposal site
    • Measuring sludge volumes delivered to treatment sites
    • Quantifying solids contents of sludge delivered to treatment plants
    • Quantifying treatment efficiency of fecal sludge treatment plants ("effective treatment")

Examples of types of solutions we want:

  • Technologies that help improve or strengthen WASH quality, accessibility, delivery, distribution, and awareness and will support the most vulnerable children living in cities
  • Tools/platforms that connect urban communities with the tools, services, and relationships they need to measure, alert, organize, and respond to specific urban concerns
  • Tech-enabled tools that expand urban planning and policy processes (specifically those related to WASH concerns) to include vulnerable populations, especially youth
  • Generative data collection + analysis methodologies to improve our sense of what specific WASH problems exist where and for whom
  • Solutions may involve deepening understanding (moving towards proof of concept), and/or experimentation, and/or evaluating promising ongoing programs
  • New solutions for influencing people to behave differently in relationship to their hygiene (preventative and treatment seeking)
  • Solutions may target gaps in knowledge, gaps in delivery systems to meet demand for care, or bottlenecks blocking those with knowledge and demand from seeking services (access, cost, stigma, taboos, distance, etc.)

We hope to see work that recognizes contextual constraints:

Social/Cultural Constraints High linguistic diversity
Low digital and basic literacy rates
Low involvement of vulnerable populations in planning and design processes
Political Constraints Possibility of prohibitive security concerns
Complexity of political systems can be hard to manage; need adequately designed policy frameworks
Economic Constraints Unequal and limited access to financial and banking systems
Budget uncertainty (for sustained operations) can be high when costs per person need to be low
Environmental Constraints Harsh environmental conditions are the norm in many vulnerable urban areas (e.g., earthquake risk, extreme heat and wind, highly polluted/toxic conditions)
Higher intensity and frequency of natural hazards
Infrastructural and Technical Constraints Brittle mobile cellular networks (WEF Global Risks Report)
Insufficient ICT infrastructure, systems, platforms, and standards
Low prevalence of mobile data plans


For more details please read the constraints section in the use case handbook UNICEF's Office of innovation developed on Innovating for children in an urbanizing world.

Priority consideration will be given to solutions that:

  • Address current inequities in access to WASH needs
  • Prioritize marginalized populations, considering specifically those marginalized by their physical/intellectual disability, economic status, race, ethnicity, religion, age, marital status, gender, caste, sexuality, profession, location, literacy or lack thereof, and access to media and communications
  • Address a diverse geographic range of urban environments (we hope to select solutions from different regions)
  • Consider UNICEF Office of Innovation's Design Principles:
    • Design with the User
    • Understand the existing ecosystem
    • Design for scale
    • Build for sustainability
    • Be data driven
    • Use open standards, open data, open source, open innovation (*if/where possible)
    • Reuse and improve
    • Do no harm
    • Be collaborative

To be considered, ideas must constitute transformative rather than incremental improvements in urban water and sanitation solutions and be low cost. We define low cost as interventions targeted for populations with individuals living on less than $1 per day, deliverable, and scalable in low- and middle-income countries. Proposals must (i) have a testable hypothesis, (ii) include an associated plan for how the idea would be tested or validated, and (iii) yield interpretable and unambiguous data in Phase I, in order to be considered for Phase II funding.

Geographic considerations:

We will prioritize selection of ideas that addresses WASH challenges in urban environments where all partners supporting this call actively work. This includes prioritizing WASH interventions in countries with high burden of open defecation and areas of substantial momentum in sanitation service delivery. For urban WASH, focus areas should support low income urban settlements, small towns, cities under protracted conflict, and cholera hotspots.

We will not consider funding for:

  • Ideas that are not directly relevant to low and middle-income countries
  • Projects that don't clearly consider the current context of available services/systems
  • Ideas that simply translate traditional approaches to an ICT platform (mobile, tablet, or web-based tools and aids)
  • Interventions that require our long-term financial support
  • Educational programs or campaigns without clearly articulated, measurable behavior outcomes or the ability to be taken to scale
  • Ideas for which proof of concept cannot be demonstrated within the scope of the Phase 1 award ($100k over 18 months)
  • Approaches that repeat conventional solutions without novel application
  • Basic research not directly linked to Urban WASH or measurable outcomes and focused purely on research tools for researchers and implementers
  • Ideas that do not address at least one of these specific areas: infrastructure interventions, education, campaigns, and models and tools to improve overall access to WASH needs that also apply a deeper understanding of our users' (customers/providers) needs when designing programs, services, and products/interventions
  • Approaches that present unacceptable ethical or safety risks
  • Projects earmarking foundation funds for lobbying activity (e.g., attempts to influence legislation or legislative action) or efforts to influence political campaigns for public office

Great ideas come from everywhere.

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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is part of the Grand Challenges partnership network. Visit www.grandchallenges.org to view the map of awarded grants across this network and grant opportunities from partners.
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