Looking Back and Leaning Forward, Lessons Learned from a Tumultuous First Year of the Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator

Taylor Conger and Danielle Keiser

In February of 2020, when we officially launched the Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator (DUIA) with our first cohort of six social entrepreneurs, we had so many plans. Two incredible institutions, Duke University and UNICEF, had come together after years of conversations to identify, assess, develop, and scale sustainable solutions to the most pressing challenges facing children and youth around the world today. Our first cohort, made up of groundbreaking social enterprises expanding education and access to menstrual health and hygiene (MHH), are tackling many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals across East Africa. The excitement around this partnership and the impact we hoped to achieve for children was immense.

The Duke-UNICEF team began planning for our week-long, in-person retreat in Durham, NC, where we would culminate the social entrepreneurship bootcamp-like sessions with a celebration of the first cohort alongside our UNICEF colleagues, the Duke community, and the general public. We took out our calendars and carved out time over the summer to make field visits to Kenya, Tanzania, and Burundi. By early-March, of course, all of our well-laid plans were completely out the window. So, in the face of a global pandemic, we, alongside our six social enterprise teams, did what everyone had to do – we pivoted.

The Accelerator curriculum, much of which was meant to be in-person, shifted to completely online. Our social innovators refined their business models and theories of change, created plans for scale, and mapped their ecosystems via Zoom. They met with their hand-picked mentors early in the morning or late into the night because of wildly different time zones, talking through current obstacles and receiving world-class guidance and support. In lieu of bringing the first cohort together at Duke, we organized a Virtual Forum on Social Innovation to further explore social impact, work together to solve critical challenges, and showcase the cohort’s work to attendees all over the world. We discovered opportunities to engage and build community in a completely virtual world.

While initially shocked, the DUIA social entrepreneurs were determined not to let the pandemic interfere with their impact. Grace Francoise Nibizi, of SaCoDé, continued to manufacture and distribute reusable sanitary pads while also making PPE for the Burundian government. Ian Tarimo and his team at Tai Tanzania created lively educational videos on keeping safe amidst COVID-19. 

As for what it was like on the ground for our cohort, Florence Akara of Femme International summed it up best: “This year has been very confusing and overwhelming. Nothing that previously worked did (at least not the same way), productivity was low and morale was low,” which was where the DUIA team did our best to come in. Of the Accelerator’s role in helping to cope with COVID, Flo writes, “I am certain that being part of this cohort kept me constantly reminded why the work I do at Femme is valuable. I kept trying each day; trying every day to figure out new ways to improve our programming. With DUIA’s help, I was able to think differently, and from the challenges the whole cohort faced, learnt how I could conquer my own issues.”

Through it all, our first cohort continued to grow their businesses and create positive social change. MacGregor Lennarz, of Lily Health, says that “the program helped us take a more strategic approach to our business and mission. As a result, we successfully pivoted to a more scalable and more sustainable business model during our participation in the program. As a startup, this was the ultimate step forward.” 

Hyasintha Ntuyeko of Kasole Secrets improved many of her company’s operations systems and more fully established its social media presence with the help of our team and Duke students. She says “I feel so empowered, but also my teammates are significantly empowered. I’m amazed with the passion and hard working spirit my mentors are putting to us, allowing us to make a real impact in our community.”

This was also a year of momentous change in the field of MHH. Leading with the tagline ‘periods don’t stop for the pandemic’, the global menstrual health community worked hard to ensure that menstrual health still was a priority during COVID-19. In addition to a wealth of online content, webinars and reports that were produced around the importance of menstrual health, period product donation schemes were put into place to ensure girls and women had the materials they needed when they were locked down at home and/or unable to access products. 

2020 was a big year for MHH research and monitoring and evaluation (M&E) progress as well. With 72 chapters, written by 134 contributors from more than 30 countries, The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies was launched in 2020 as an open access, multidisciplinary and comprehensive exploration of menstruation across the lifespan. 

Dr. Julie Hennegan created the Menstrual Practice Needs Scale (MPNS-36), a set of self-report questions that measure menstrual experiences and the extent to which respondents’ menstrual management practices and environments are perceived to meet their needs. And last but not least, UNICEF’s ‘Guidance for Monitoring Menstrual Health and Hygiene (V.I)guide supports the development and/or improvement of MHH monitoring by highlighting basic principles (including ethical considerations) and example questions to monitor various elements of MHH.

On the policy front, more governments than ever took huge steps to push menstrual health forward. In Kenya, an official MHM Policy was launched by the Ministry of Health and partners on 28 May, 2020 to be integrated into current government programs that have MHM components. In November, the Kenyan Bureau of Standards also issued new guidelines for reusable pads. South Africa saw the launch of The South African Coalition for Menstrual Health & Hygiene (SACMHM), an alliance for collective action to strengthen coordination amongst stakeholders working to develop responsive MHH solutions in South Africa. The United States introduced a pandemic stimulus bill which included menstrual products. And lastly, from Scotland: a bill passed making period products free for all of those in need! More of these kinds of victories can be read here, compliments of the Menstrual Health Hub’s Menstrual Memo.

It’s been a challenging year, but one that has also brought immense opportunity. We are grateful to the nearly 50 mentors offering support to the Accelerator, our generous donors, and for the tireless advocacy of the UNICEF team. In 2021, we look forward to selecting our next cohort of changemakers innovating for the world’s children and continuing to support the scale of our first cohort.