Shaping the future: Our strategy for research and innovation in humanitarian response.

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Epidemics are occurring more often and spreading further than ever before. Many disease outbreaks in recent years have required a humanitarian response. These include local or global outbreaks of cholera, Hepatitis E and Ebola, and most recently COVID-19.

With these, and other diseases spread by oral-faecal transmission, ensuring an effective WASH response is essential to prevent their spread. Treatment of faecal sludge represents an opportunity to prevent onward transmission in outbreak settings, with on-site treatment, in particular, presenting the greatest opportunity to reduce this risk.

The Problem

Although the importance of treating sludge to prevent onward transmission is recognised, there is a lack of clarity over what constitutes safe and effective treatment of infectious sludge for many pathogens. This is challenging in particular in densely populated humanitarian settings, where there is a high volume of sludge and little space to deploy traditional treatment methods. 

Whilst there are a range of sludge treatments currently in use in outbreak settings, there is no go-to tried and tested pathogen-specific guidance for on-site treatment of sludge containing the pathogens posing the biggest risks, such as cholera, Ebola, Hepatitis E (Grange, 2016). Studies to date have tended to be small scale with limited geographical scope, indicating different estimates for pathogen survival times (Fischer, 2015; Sozzi et al, 2015). 

Disease outbreaks in humanitarian settings add another layer of complexity, as they can be rapid onset, often in remote areas with few resources. Often, on-site treatment solutions are implemented by external actors for the duration of the outbreak, but not sustained after the outbreak is over as local staff are not supported with training or the resources to manage them. 

Waste water treatment in Kathmandu. Credit: Johannes Bousek

The Challenge

We are looking for faecal sludge treatment innovations for disease outbreaks in densely populated humanitarian settings.

Your innovation should focus on treating at least one specific pathogen that can cause disease outbreaks. We encourage solutions effective at treating multiple pathogens.

Your innovation can be an adaptation of an existing treatment solution or a new low-cost technology or approach.

Projects will be at the Invention or Adaptation stage of humanitarian innovation. Projects at the Invention stage will generate ideas and develop a prototype for early-stage testing. Those at the Adaptation stage will match an existing solution to a new problem and context.   

Get the full details in the Challenge Handbook

For further information about the Challenge, assessment criteria, expected deliverables and application timelines, as well as a glossary of key terms, please read the Challenge Handbook.

Read the Challenge Handbook

Challenge Handbook in accessible formats

The Challenge Handbook is also available in EPUB format.

If you require any Challenge materials in an alternative format please contact us.


How do I apply?

To apply for the Challenge, fill out the Expression of Interest (EoI) via our Common Grants Application platform.

Who can apply?

We welcome applications from any legally registered entity (eg, INGO, NGO, UN, academic, private company). Applications must include at least one operational humanitarian partner and one academic/research institution (this includes the lead applicants; ie, if the lead applicant is a humanitarian organisation, they will not be required to apply with another humanitarian organisation to be eligible, but they will be required to partner with an academic/research institution). At least one project partner must be from the country(s) or region(s) where your project will take place. This could be either the operational humanitarian partner, the academic partner or an additional partner. 

Applicants are not expected to have confirmed partnerships in place for the Expression of Interest stage, but will be expected to provide evidence to demonstrate partnerships by the Full Proposal stage.

For further information about requirements and success criteria, see Challenge Handbook.

Can I apply with an on-site faecal sludge treatment solution for COVID-19?

Currently, there are no known cases of faecal-oral transmission of COVID-19 and there is also little evidence on its survival in water or sewage. If at any point it becomes apparent that this line of enquiry is valid, then applications for COVID-19 research will be considered.

For any project, however, all necessary COVID-19 related precautions should be taken for any WASH activities, for example to prevent person-to-person transmission in sanitation workers.

What do you mean by disease outbreaks in ‘densely populated’ humanitarian settings?

Judged on a case by case basis, this is a setting where there is high-population density, limited space and large volumes of sludge requiring treatment in either urban or rural humanitarian settings. In these settings, traditional on-site treatment methods are difficult to implement and to scale up quickly to respond to large volumes of contaminated faecal sludge in the case of a disease outbreak. 

For this Challenge, we are particularly interested in innovations targeting health clinics or treatment centres (either urban or rural), but we are open to other densely populated settings as well. 

Please refer to the definition of humanitarian outlined in the Handbook. We do not accept applications for projects set in densely populated but stable/non-humanitarian contexts.

Is Covid-19 response considered a humanitarian setting?

We recognise that in existing humanitarian settings there may now be new or amended humanitarian programming to prevent and respond to COVID-19. Projects implemented as part of COVID-19 response activities in an existing humanitarian setting will be eligible.

Implementation as part of COVID-19 response activities outside of an existing humanitarian setting, ie in the general population of a country, is not eligible.

What is the total funding for the Challenge?

We have a total budget of 500,000 GBP available for this Challenge. From this, we envisage funding a selection of projects with varying budgets; ideally in the range of 50,000 to 250,000 GBP per project. We encourage projects to consider how they can offer the best value for money, and would need applications to be exceptional to justify going to the upper end of the indicated scale.

Each project is expected to last between 12 and 19 months; all projects must be completed by 31 October 2022  without the possibility of extension. The total duration of projects should cover all deliverables including problem recognition, adaptation/development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, as well as sharing learning and uptake.

The proposed budgets and timelines should align with the level of ambition of each project. Each application will be assessed on its merit, value for money and potential for impact.

Please note that the grant amount requested at EOI stage can be indicative. Detailed budget plans will be requested at the full proposal stage. 

What are the timelines?

The Challenge launches on 8 September 2020. The deadline for Expressions of Interest (EOIs) is 12 October 2020 (23:59 BST – check what this is in your timezone).

Apply via the Common Grants Application platform.

For further information about the application process and timelines, see Challenge Handbook.

What is the rate that overheads can be included at?

Overheads may be included up to 10% of the direct costs listed in the budget. They should not exceed this amount, nor be calculated as a percentage of both the direct and indirect costs combined.

For more information, please see the Eligible Costs Guidance document on our Application Guidance page.

Are you able to facilitate collaborations?

Where possible, we will support applicants search for partners, but we are not able to commit to securing partners for applicants. If you have a particular type of partner in mind, get in touch with us ( and we will see how we can help. 

Still have questions?

We’re here to help. For any questions that are not covered by the Challenge Handbook or FAQ section, please email us at, referencing ‘FSM Challenge’ in the subject line.

We will publish any frequently asked questions on this page on an ongoing basis.

Video: Everything you need to know 

Want to know more? In this short explainer video we’ll share:

  • An overview of the Challenge
  • What we’re looking for
  • Key criteria and how to apply
Play video

Banner photo: Staff from German and Austrian Red Cross filling a sample container with influent faecal sludge during a sampling tour of the first deployment of the IFRC Faecal Sludge Field Lab in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Credit: Lobke de Pooter / British Red Cross

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