Developing High Impact Innovations

Development Innovation Ventures funds and supports ideas that can turn into large-scale, cost-effective global projects with high social impact.

By Paromita Pain

July 2022

Developing High Impact Innovations

Pratham, a recipient of DIV grants, developed a method called Teaching at the Right Level, which gives primary school students the required teaching support to align with their current learning levels. (Courtesy Pratham Education Foundation)

There can be no dearth of ideas and innovation in a population that has historically created numerous change makers and thinkers. But it is not always easy to identify those few ideas that would stand on the firm ground of scientific evidence, have a framework that can produce high social returns, and have the potential of being scaled to reach large communities.

Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) is one of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) open innovation programs that fund breakthrough solutions to complex development challenges. DIV provides flexible grant funding to entrepreneurs, researchers and organizations, both for profit and not-for-profit, devoted to solving intractable social problems through innovation.

The program funds innovations across all sectors and geographies where USAID works. DIV is always open to applications and so are its funding rounds. “What we’re looking for is high impact, cost-effective, scalable and financially sustainable solutions to the problems that are persistent in global development,” says DIV chief Sasha Gallant.

By funding innovation and focusing on rigorous evidence, DIV projects have the potential to impact millions of lives at a fraction of the usual cost. Since 2010, USAID/DIV has funded more than 250 innovation grants in 47 countries. Around 60 of these innovations are from India. Pratham Education Foundation and Dimagi, Inc. are two DIV award recipients.

Funding innovation

Dimagi developed CommCare—a mobile system for frontline workers in health care, among other sectors, to aid in decision-making, online registrations and dissemination of critical information. Dimagi is based in Massachusetts, with offices in New Delhi, India and Cape Town, South Africa. The CommCare system is so effective that it has been adopted by organizations in 80 countries and employed by millions of frontline health care workers.

In India, Dimagi is working with organizations across the country to implement numerous CommCare projects. The mobile phone-based software platform has helped strengthen community health worker programs and improve community health care and service delivery to millions. In Bihar, CommCare has enabled health care workers to monitor women participants in a nutrition-focused conditional cash transfer program. The CommCare application allowed workers to register beneficiaries, calculate children’s weight status and keep track of the availability to and utilization of services by beneficiaries each month, improving health care.

Jonathan Jackson, CEO of Dimagi, says its DIV grants have been vital to the organization’s growth. “Unlike most funders, USAID/DIV allowed us to take a bet on turning our innovation into a product, and our product into a business model,” he says. “They encouraged us to scale and raise our targets every step of the way.”

Recently, the project secured a $100 million grant in follow-on funding from the Gates Foundation to scale in Bihar along with a total follow-on funding of $300 million to scale globally.

Pratham, a nonprofit organization with offices in New Delhi and Mumbai, developed a method called Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL), which gives primary school students the required teaching support to align with their current learning levels. TaRL has been shown to cost-effectively improve student learning outcomes in short periods.

Besides reaching over 900,000 children in over 21 states across India, Pratham’s “learning camps” indirectly impact 15.7 million students through partnerships. As of 2021, the model has been replicated by national government partners in over 10 countries in Africa, South Asia and Latin America. “One of the challenges, but also real benefits of working in India, is the reality of scale,” says Gallant. “When we are working with institutions and innovators in India, the number of people that can be impacted by the work, when it really works, is quite tremendous.”


Pioneering solutions
One of the things that really captured DIV’s attention was Pratham’s focus on scale from the start. “They deeply understand the systems they’re working in and they’re working to complement those systems, ensuring that when they find something that works, it’s not just going to work in a small, controlled setting, but it is something that can work at a larger scale,” says Gallant.

As an organization, Pratham is also committed to testing its approach. “There is this alignment of evidence generation and innovation that is so important,” says Gallant. “Pratham has used research to iterate on its innovation in order to keep making it better, more effective and more scalable.”

Devyani Pershad, head of international collaborations at Pratham, says, “Starting with support of critical Randomized Controlled Trials (RCT) designed to test the TaRL approach in India to supporting the scale up of the first international collaboration in Zambia, USAID/DIV has been a significant support in the TaRL journey enabling foundational skills for children.”

Dimagi was among the earliest projects that DIV funded in India. Dimagi applied for a DIV award in its early stages and has been working with them since 2010. “They’ve been really able to iterate and adapt with a focus on impact, scale and usability that’s allowed them to reach and actually bring meaningful change to the lives of millions around the world,” says Gallant. Jackson credits the DIV grants Dimagi received for its unprecedented scale and growth over the last 10 years.

Scalable and cost effective
Applications for DIV grants must meet three important criteria: impact, cost-effectiveness and scale. “We are looking for solutions to problems that impact millions of people around the world,” says Gallant. “We can’t fund smaller scale innovations and interventions that only meet the needs of a particular community. We must think broadly about the difference the project could make.”

Context is also important. “We’re looking for innovations that are contextually appropriate,” she says. “We are hoping to fund innovators who really know the context in which they’re working.” Pratham, for instance, has been working within the Indian context in multiple states for a very long time. “It is not about parachuting in and dropping a solution,” says Gallant “but really understanding what it will take to make a difference.”

Paromita Pain is an assistant professor of Global Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.


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