Social Innovation

A call for a new crop of innovators

Nigerian start-up ColdHubs is using solar power to reduce food waste and boost suppliers' profits

Nigerian start-up ColdHubs is using solar power to reduce food waste and boost suppliers' profits Image: ColdHubs

Hala Hanna
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A shared, connected future built by scalable innovative solutions could be the answer to some of the most pressing global issues, including how citizens and communities can create shared prosperity and how cities can help promote their inhabitants’ health.

It is commonly understood that pushing for systemic change, scaling solutions proven to be effective, and expanding public-private partnerships are all key prerequisites for making progress on these global issues.

We must also keep an open mind when it comes to finding these new sources of innovation. World-changing ideas can be found in communities all over the globe; not just in the governments and major corporations but in the small tech start-ups, academic projects and non-profit organizations working on the ground. Oftentimes it is these lesser-known social entrepreneurs who best understand their communities’ challenges and context.


When this community insight is combined with technology, its impact can be catalytic. If adopted by all - and especially by underserved communities - technology has the power to address political, economic and cultural barriers within our society. We need this kind of human-centric tech innovation because it can find new ways to solve problems, it can create new applications for existing tech, and it can decrease costs, enabling expanded access to these solutions.

New ways to solve problems

One of technology’s biggest promises is that it will take what is currently possible and then expand on that to continuously create new opportunities. If we invest in new ideas, therefore, we can find ways to move the status quo on stubborn issues. For example, cities all over the world experience pipe leaks, which wastes on average 20% of clean water. In the US alone, severe water leaks cause $200,000 worth of infrastructure damage per incident. Yet up until recently, there has been no scalable or cost-effective way to find these leak - until now.

US-based start-up WatchTower Robotics has designed and built a small robot that inspects water pipes from the inside. The robot can detect leaks as small as one gallon per minute, enabling towns and cities to perform routine inspections to find leaks throughout their infrastructure before they get to the point of critical failure.

New applications for existing technology

By taking existing technologies and applying them creatively, social entrepreneurs can find new ways to impact their communities. For example, most communities in Africa’s Niger-Delta region are off the grid. Because there is no electricity to refrigerate fish, only one-third of the fish harvested there can be sold fresh.

ColdHubs, a Nigeria-based startup, has applied solar energy technology to provide fishermen with cold rooms in which to refrigerate their fish. This new application of technology gives fishermen more time to sell fresh fish at a higher price, which increases their income.

Lowering costs to increase accessibility

If there is any hope of achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals within this generation, we must find ways to lower the cost of innovations so that solutions become more accessible to disadvantaged communities. Consider this: most commercially available medical devices fail to meet the constraints - such as a lack of funding and continuous access to power - that are imposed on of 85% of the world’s population in emerging markets.

Nearly 3 million newborns in low-resource settings do not survive their first month because health workers don’t have access to the right tools. Gold-star monitors used in high-resource hospitals are prohibitively expensive and inadequately designed. To address this issue, a startup called Neopenda has built an affordable neonatal vital signs monitor specifically for low-resource settings, where continuous power and wireless connectivity may not be available.

Expanding the impact of innovations

WatchTower Robotics, ColdHubs and Neopenda are at the forefront of solving issues for their communities. Yet they must overcome tough business, regulatory and political challenges in order to scale their impact. MIT Solve, which serves as a marketplace to connect innovators with the resources they need to solve global challenges, is working to surmount these obstacles.

Exposure and accolades help, as do mentorships and access to a diverse support network for advice, inspiration and a clearer path forward. However, funding is what helps global innovators the most. In fact, MIT Solve's cross-sector community has committed more than $7 million in funding to Solver teams.

Have you read?

And each year, Solve issues four Challenges to find the most promising Solver teams, building the partnerships these entrepreneurs need to scale their impact.

Solve is now seeking solutions to our 2019 global Challenges:

1. Circular Economy: How can people create and consume goods that are renewable, repairable, reusable, and recyclable?

2. Community-Driven Innovation: How can citizens and communities create and improve social inclusion and shared prosperity?

3. Early Childhood Development: How can all children under five develop the critical learning and cognitive skills they need to reach their full potential?

4. Healthy Cities: How can urban residents design and live in environments that promote physical and mental health?

Be part of the change. If you’re interested in getting involved, you can join the Solve community in one of three ways: support the Challenges, join Solve as a Member, or submit a solution to the 2019 Challenges.

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Related topics:
Social InnovationSustainable Development
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