UNICEF's innovation team is leveraging partnerships and its vast supply chain to tackle the many challenges of the pandemic.

Combating the Pandemic and other Public Health Challenges with UNICEF’s Innovation Team: An Interview with Kidus Asfaw and Dr. Abou Kampo

April 7, 2021 – By Jared Mueller, Director – Mayo Clinic Innovation Exchange

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) was founded in 1946, and today works to advance the rights of children in more than 190 countries around the world — including by immunizing almost half of the world’s children from preventable diseases like polio. As the world’s largest single buyer of vaccines, with a vast and complex supply chain which reaches the most far-flung communities, UNICEF is now bringing its global operations to bear against the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization is working with industry, governmental, and NGO partners to bring billions of vaccine doses to low- and lower-middle income countries.

Mr. Kidus Asfaw leads UNICEF’s technology and innovation partnerships with companies. He is currently also responsible for corporate fundraising for UNICEF’s global rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. Since his first deployment to Uganda, Kidus has managed global product development and partnerships for UNICEF and has had the opportunity to work with over 40 country programs along the way. Before joining UNICEF, Mr. Asfaw worked at the World Bank, Accenture, and Google. Mr. Asfaw is a graduate of Princeton University and Duke University.

Dr. Aboubacar Kampo is UNICEF’s Global Director of Health Programmes. Dr. Kampo has served as UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan and Côte d’Ivoire and has held senior leadership positions across various International NGOs and UN Agencies over the last 14 years. An expert in development aid and humanitarian assistance, Dr. Kampo has worked as a physician/surgeon in hospitals and clinics in rural and urban areas in Africa and Asia.

In his recent tours as UNICEF Country Representative, he partnered with governments and industry leaders in taking innovative approaches to ensure access to education and health services for children in complex settings. Dr. Kampo is a medical doctor and a public health specialist, and is passionate about using innovations to address real-life community challenges and bridge the gap between communities and stakeholders. He is a national of Mali.

Q: How is UNICEF leveraging its partnerships — and logistical and technological capacity — in the face of the pandemic?

AK: The UNICEF is uniquely positioned to support the global COVID-19 response — which extends beyond rolling out vaccines. First, we have very deep relationships in the countries we operate in; from the Minister to the community organizer, the faith-based leader to the youth leader. This gives us an incredible pulse read on the needs and context of everywhere we work.

Secondly, we have an expansive global supply chain which flows vital goods from our award-winning humanitarian supply warehouse in Copenhagen, all the way to very remote communities. To give you a sense of the scale of our supply work, we procured over $3.8 billion of goods and services for children in 150 countries in 2019. Beyond life-saving vaccines, this also includes winter kits for refugees, school materials for students, and ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTFs) for acutely malnourished children.

With this context in mind, the global community has turned to UNICEF as the only organization with the infrastructure to deliver the COVID-19 vaccine equitably to the most vulnerable people everywhere. This said, we still need support from industry to do this quickly and effectively. The cost is insurmountably high to simply drop everything else we are doing and focus on COVID-19.

We still need to continue to provide basic services for children and respond to other emergencies — whether that is conflict, natural disasters, or other epidemics (like the most recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Guinea); we still need to work to get children back to school; we still need to protect children from becoming child soldiers or being cyber bullied. All of this work needs to go on, on top of responding to a global pandemic.

KA: This is why we are calling on industry to help fill our funding gap, so we don’t have to make choices between one life-saving operation and another. Logistics and transport companies are stepping up to prioritize our supplies for shipment and providing free services which can cut our costs by the tens of millions. We are also seeing support from the biomedical industry, which is donating COVID-19 test kits to countries that are in desperate need of them. Industry is also taking the call to simply fund our programs and close our funding gap; these range from multi-nationals funding our global operation to smaller enterprises funding a specific country.

Q: Kidus, you have spent almost seven years in UNICEF’s technology and innovation teams. Can you describe a typical UNICEF Innovation project?

KA: Well, quite a lot has evolved since I first joined UNICEF, compared to what Innovation looks like today at UNICEF. UNICEF has always been a pioneer in tech and innovation in the development space, being the lead sponsor and custodian of the Principles for Digital Development — a key accelerator for getting development actors well-oriented towards responsible and methodical introduction of new technologies into their programming.

Having said that, UNICEF Innovation was primarily focused on building tools (like RapidPro — an open source communication platform I led), then evolved towards scaling successful digital programmes like our flagship youth engagement programme U-Report. UNICEF has now positioned itself to mobilize both catalytic and multi-billion dollar infrastructure investments through the UNICEF Venture Fund and the school connectivity initiative Giga.

So to your question, each day in a UNICEF innovation and tech team will vary, but one common theme has been a very deliberate act to try, learn and evolve what we do. This has been what has kept our organization a step ahead to adapt to a changing world, and I am sure your readers will find UNICEF continuing to bring groundbreaking innovations towards creating a more just and inclusive world for children.

Q: What are some of the under-appreciated challenges of the pandemic that UNICEF is working to tackle, in addition to testing, contact tracing, and vaccination programs?

AK: What keeps me up at night about COVID-19 is that every passing day of a school closure or lockdown means yet another day a child is not having access to services that can keep her immunized from preventable diseases, well-nourished, protected, and on track with her learning development. These are all under-appreciated challenges that have our organization working day and night to fight this pandemic.

For example, our research has found that, in low-income and high-income countries alike, children have missed more than 39 billion school meals due to pandemic restrictions on in-person instruction. Hundreds of millions of children rely on in-school meals for their nutrition. As the executive director of the World Food Programme stated this year in a joint announcement with UNICEF, for many children, “the nutritious meal they get in school is the only food they will receive all day.”

It does not seem obvious at first why UNICEF — a children’s organization — is knee-deep in the response to eradicate COVID-19. Yes, we are the best to get vaccines to the hardest to reach places, but beyond that, we know an end to the pandemic means a proper resumption to our work to make sure every child in the world is healthy, safe, learning, and prosperous.

Q: What breakthrough innovations in healthcare delivery or technology excite you most?

KA: We are seeing more and more use of predictive technologies to detect the spread of diseases before they become outbreaks. We at UNICEF have been trialing such technologies since the Zika outbreak in 2015, but I think more investment and attention will be given to such tools in light of COVID-19 and the necessity for more robust contact tracing and detection.

AK: In our line of work, we make sure that government and civil society can take ownership of what we build and do. It’s a win when a country does not need us any longer. The same goes for what we do and use in healthcare tech and delivery. I am excited to see a tremendous amount of organization, resources, and support to get countries to own digital health tools. It might sound dull, but the moment I see more and more countries having the infrastructure to roll out and manage national-scale healthcare technologies will be my breakthrough.

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Views expressed by guests are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Mayo Clinic. As a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) charitable organization, Mayo Clinic does not participate in political activities.