How Bangladesh funded a citizen’s vision for refugee ambulances

By Ng Yi Ming

Interview with Mustafizur Rahman, Project Director, Bangladesh A2I.

Two years ago, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing violent persecution in Myanmar arrived at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, only to find health services being delivered on foot or rented ambulances that were too bulky for the chaotic camp paths. To improve healthcare services provision to hard-to-reach areas like this, a local garage mechanic invented a light and low-cost ambulance.

This ambulance is one of many inventions funded by the Innovation Lab (iLab) of Access to Information (a2i). a2i is a flagship government innovation project run by the Prime Minister’s Office of Bangladesh, with support from UNDP and USAID, and its iLab supports citizen ideas that have wide societal benefits through grants and product development support. “There are wonderful ideas, lots of potential by social innovators, but often they lack the skills to commercialise these ideas. So filling this gap is iLab,” says Mustafizur Rahman, Project Director of a2i.

With 12 funding rounds completed and BDT 420 million (US$ 5 million) distributed to support 247 inventions to date, GovInsider caught up with Rahman to find out more about these inventions and how citizen inventors are being supported.

Impactful inventions from iLab

iLab supported the development of the low-cost ambulance as there is a “tremendous shortfall in emergency medical services in rural areas, where critical patients risk their lives due to the lack of affordable ambulance services,” and there is still only one ambulance for every 20,000 citizens as of 2019, Rahman explains.

Invented by Mizanur Rahman, the ambulance has a capacity of three passengers, a base price of BDT 350,000 (US$ 4000), and is powered by a motorbike engine. By offering lower operational costs and easily available spares, it enables rural villages to transport patients to healthcare services elsewhere. To date, eight of these low-cost ambulances and one emergency supply pick-up have been purchased by the United Nations Population Fund and delivered to support UN Rohingya camps operations at Cox’s Bazar.

Another key healthcare intervention coming out from iLab is EPIC, the Emergency Portable Infant Incubator. It was developed to address infant mortality in rural Bangladesh, where more than one in ten of 3 million infants are born prematurely each year, and almost one in hundred under five die directly due to preterm issues.

The incubators are equipped with battery and solar-powered heating and ventilation systems to optimize infant life support, and are portable so they can be carried to the nearest hospital. “Sometimes you may have power shortages, you have hard to reach areas that are off-grid, so these low-cost incubators which can run on solar energy can be quite effective and even life-saving in those situations,” Rahman explains.

On waste and environmental pollution challenges, iLab also funded and supported a startup that converts used cooking oil to energy-efficient biofuels. Abdulla Al Hamid, who founded Biotech Bangladesh, was motivated by the huge amount of waste generated from cooking oil and the lack of practical methods to handle it.

Today, Biotech Bangladesh has built a reactor that makes 1,000 litres of biodiesel daily and has established a steady supply of waste oil through deals with international fast-food chains like KFC and Pizza Hut to sell their used cooking oil. “This innovation is easy [to implement], environmentally friendly and uses a low-cost chemical process through which, in a small space, we can produce biodiesel that is 4% more efficient and with 30% less carbon emission than diesel,” Rahman says.

Partnerships to support inventors

To help innovations scale further, iLab is connecting innovators with start-up accelerators and funding, international NGOs, and academics from Bangladesh’s universities. iLab has partnered with all 137 public and private universities in Bangladesh to engage their expertise to refine prototypes and solutions.

iLab also has a collaboration with Startup Bangladesh, a national entrepreneurship ecosystem of entrepreneurs, investors, and mentors, to support innovators who wish to commercialize their products. This is because iLab currently only funds up to BDT 2.5 million (US$ 30,000) maximum per project for the development of a functional prototype. However, as many of these innovations have “amazing scope for business”, iLab partners with Startup Bangladesh “for commercialization of the innovations to increase the number of start-ups in Bangladesh,” Rahman tells us.

Going forward, iLab is pursuing a partnership with UNDP Youth Co:Lab, an international United Nations programme that works with governments to incubate youth-led social enterprises that address social and environmental issues. “This is something really exciting that we are hoping to actuate in the next couple of months, so that we can matchmake Bangladeshi social entrepreneurs, especially youth-led social enterprises, with venture capitalists from the Asia-Pacific region,” he says.

Together with a2i’s numerous other national innovation efforts such as Digital Bangladesh, a nation-wide programme that has brought digital government services to rural areas by establishing more than 5400 digital centres, and the Service Innovation Fund that funds and supports innovations within public ministries and services, Bangladesh is well positioned to innovate new possibilities for its future.

Images obtained from a2i’s website.