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Our HIF Innovation Adviser, Cecilie Hestbaek, reflects on the dilemmas, risks and potential of one the HIF’s largest grants: the aid agency start-up Field Ready.

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View of the mountains outside the Kathmandu Valley.

Imagine that an earthquake or flooding happens close to where you live. Thousands are killed, and many of your neighbours’ homes are destroyed. They take refuge wherever they can, including in big emergency camps put in place by NGOs. You are lucky; your house and small business selling farming equipment are untouched by the damages seen in other areas.

Now you see the international aid workers starting to come into the area; and that’s when the trucks and planes, boxes and pallets full of aid supplies start to arrive. You wonder why thousands of plastic buckets are being flown in—you have been selling buckets for years and have a small manufacturing plant for plastic items. Maybe you couldn’t have supplied the 200,000 buckets needed in the first few days, but you could have produced at least a quarter of that in less than 48 hours—as well as a range of other aid items in the following months. In the process, you would have created jobs for many of your neighbours.

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Andrew Lamb from Field Ready demonstrating a 3D printed otoscope for a remote health post in the mountains.

This scenario is common in humanitarian aid: INGOs stock aid items in warehouses across the world and ship them into disaster areas when needed. One aid agency, however, wants to change this: Field Ready, one of the HIF’s Scaling grantees, supports local manufacturers to produce aid when and where it’s needed. This significantly decreases the cost of the items and the time it takes to produce them—and enables local people to produce exactly what’s needed by the local community—rather than what’s in the INGOs’ standard aid package. Using new technological innovations, they train local ‘makers’ to do R&D and prototyping of aid items in the field, to build moulds for mass production and to organise using local factories for that mass production.

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Ram Chandra from Field Ready demonstrating how to do 3D printing in the field, connecting the printer to a car battery for power.

Field Ready’s scaling plans are incredibly ambitious: they want to transform the global humanitarian supply chain so that all aid items that are possible to produce locally, are—making aid faster, cheaper and better, and boosting local economies and livelihoods. This is a truly paradigmatic innovation; not only do Field Ready need to show how that can be done, they also need to advocate for the sector to want to change.

When I recently visited them in Nepal, where their biggest country programme is currently located, I saw just how big both the challenges and potential are for Field Ready.

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A local entrepreneur’s stock of innovative stove fittings for which the design was developed using 3D printed plastic prototypes with the help of Field Ready. The fittings ensure an easier and less polluting cooking process, reducing the negative health impact for poor households of cooking with wood-fired stoves indoor.

Meeting with their senior management and various partners throughout the week, I learned about the dilemmas and trade-offs this teething organisation faces. How can it best use its scarce resources? Should it invest heavily in expansion of its deployments but risk not spending enough time on fundraising activities and therefore long-term survival? And what about the advocacy—how important is it to influence decision-makers in the sector versus getting ‘boots on the ground’ and demonstrating results? Is its technology so complex that waterfall development, rather than a ‘lean start-up’ approach is called for? How can it secure the necessary upfront, capital investment needed to begin big scale mass production—when partner NGOs have very little money and don’t procure items in this way? And, importantly, how can it balance the need for management steer against the desire to be led by the local makers?

With another 1.5 year to go of the HIF Scaling grant, these challenges aren’t all going to be solved in a flash—and some of them will be ongoing tensions for the organisation to negotiate. But seeing what’s possible in Nepal, and speaking to Field Ready’s partners, such as NGO World Vision, it’s clear that if this innovation scales, it could completely change the world of humanitarian aid!

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