2020: What an unprecedented and disruptive year, that was!

11 min readApr 6, 2021


AccLab team in Kenya (Caroline Kiarie, Victor Apollo, and Lillian Njoro) reflects on 2020; the challenges and opportunities to innovate for an inclusive and resilient future.

2020 brought many changes in terms of how we engage and interact including remote working, the use of facemasks in public spaces, regular use of sanitisers, and physical distancing among others.

2020 was unpredictable and a challenging year for humanity. Like many people across the world, for us at the UNDP Accelerator Lab in Kenya, 2020 was a year where we had to unlearn and relearn how to navigate life’s complexities, including adapting to new ways of working through virtual engagement and collaboration. We had to shift many plans and ideas to work within reduced operations across many sectors while balancing the social, economic, and political uncertainties created by the pandemic.

While youth unemployment remains our primary focus, the team and the Country office at large recognizes that COVID-19 aggravated the situation; increasing inequalities and reducing social and economic safety nets for the majority, particularly the young people. This prompted us to additionally explore the role of inclusion and social protection focusing on young people’s economic empowerment.

We worked with a range of diverse partners to explore the opportunities for innovative problem-solving, livelihood creation, and ecosystem growth for youth in Kenya.

As we look back to 2020, a year that has been termed as unprecedented and disruptive, we identify some key lessons and reflections that will without a doubt shape our perspective and inform our trajectory in 2021.

Below is a snapshot of our reflections.

Experimenting and learning through innovation challenges

Through partnerships and collaborations, we carried out and supported several innovation challenges addressing various development challenges. Appreciating that innovation challenges can be a possible mechanism for casting a wide net to harness innovations and solutions across a wider demographic scope, we leveraged popular social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, where we reached a diverse group of people (both targeted and non-targeted) from across the country. With each innovation challenge, we collaboratively identified gaps/challenges and mapped possible solutions for immediate and future interventions.

While this was the most adaptable means to engage in a context of reduced physical human interaction, we recognised that not everyone could access these innovation challenges due to various issues such as poor connectivity to the cost of being online for long durations of time.

As we look ahead towards 2021, we are keen to find ways to bridge the inclusion gap by for example designing targeted outreach campaigns that speak to a specific demographic and deploy tailored means of engagement to ensure more inclusivity, along with gender, disability, socio-economic, and geographical lines.

Innovation Challenges are in their essence designed to have a few selected winners. As proponents of accelerated development, we want to find ways of going beyond the event and announcement of the winners. We are therefore enquiring how we harness all the great ideas and solutions that come out of each innovation challenge and create possibilities of generating more value beyond the prizes awarded.

We are also interrogating other incentives that would be useful and relevant for other participants of these innovation challenges because we believe that innovation challenges should not just end with the winners but contribute to the growth of the ecosystem and innovative interventions that impact our communities positively.

We are hoping to bring more partners on board to support and enrich the process, such as, through the Huduma Whitebox, an initiative under the Ministry of ICT, Youth, and Innovation, where we can collaborate and help to match youth-led solutions to the relevant entities in the government to hopefully influence the design of interventions and policies at a national or county level.

The youth constituency is not homogenous

Since our launch in late 2019, the Kenya UNDP Accelerator Lab’s frontier challenge has been youth unemployment and we are intentionally engaging with young people as active participants in the solutions creation processes. So far we have undertaken a number of engagements including solutions mapping safaris in Wajir; ethnographic immersions in informal markets in Mukuru; financial access and social inclusion campaigns in Marsabit; engaging with waste collectors at a local dumpsite in Kitengela; experimenting with arts and design university students in Nairobi among many others. In all these engagements, it was apparent that the constituency of young people in Kenya is not homogenous, and each sub-group has its own identity, complexities, ambition, and challenges.

The Kenyan youth are not homogenous. In order for development interventions to work best for this demographic, interventions must be contextualised and informed by varied needs and ambitions. designing of development solutions should be through a participatory process

Therefore, for development programmes to work better for young people, interventions targeting the youth need to be contextually informed by a Capacity and Vulnerability Analysis at the design stage. It is critical to take the time to specifically identify these sub-groups as the first step towards their inclusion in an initiative and fulfilling the 2030 agenda of ‘leave no one behind’.

For instance, if the analysis revealed that young people in the most remote parts of the country are not able to participate by submitting their application for an innovation challenge due to lack of internet connectivity then the call for solutions could explore other numerous options that could possibilities for those with no access to still be able to submit their solutions. This analysis could help design tailored and targeted interventions that are context-specific for greater impact among young people. Diverse groups that need to be considered in all youth programmes include — but are not limited to — urban/rural youth, the youth of different age groups, young women, youth with physical, mental, or intellectual disabilities, incarcerated youth, those living with HIV, chronic illness or other health risks, ethnic, political or religious minorities, youth in conflict-prone areas and those who may be experiencing discrimination not relating to their needs.

If we are to exemplify ‘leave no one behind’ it makes sense to initiate projects that target disadvantaged communities, and then expand to privileged ones, where the proposed projects would easily work.

Through these engagements, we have learned that devising youth-centric solutions means moving away from informing — a most important first step to legitimate participation — to citizen control where young people handle the entire job of planning, policy-making, and managing a programme. Young people have shown that they can look beyond unparalleled challenges. After all, COVID-19 saw the growth of home-grown innovations with young people front and center in addressing challenges brought about by the pandemic.

Youth-serving agencies need to build on this momentum to foster the conditions that create much-needed jobs and new opportunities for young people.

We have learned that the dynamic and diverse nature of issues affecting young people needs to be looked at from a systems perspective. Additionally, a whole-of-society approach with coordinated and strategic actions across Government ministries and agencies, private sector, civil society, traditional and faith leaders can support solutions towards addressing the challenges facing young people.

The key to success is strong partnerships

Partnerships are a critical part of what we do as we strive towards working collaboratively to achieve greater impact. Building strategic and impactful partnerships are as exciting and challenging in equal measure. Enlisting the knowledge and resources of different and varying communities and stakeholders requires a human-centric approach. We immersed ourselves in understanding our partners and communities by establishing mutually beneficial and non-extractive ways of working together. Some of the partners that we have had the pleasure of collaborating with include UNICEF, UNESCO, Konza Technopolis, HEVA Fund, iHub, University of Nairobi, Association of Countrywide Innovation Hubs, Nairobi Design Week among others.

In addition to external partnerships, the Accelerator Lab has been able to work closely with colleagues within UNDP, at a national, regional, and global level. Tapping into the collective wealth of knowledge in the broader UNDP network helped us accelerate learning, achieve greater impact, embed, and demonstrate the value of the Lab practice and methodologies.

A clear example is the launch and deployment of the pilot initiative to integrate smart anti-epidemic robots in Kenya's healthcare system. The initiative funded by the Government of Japan under the COVID-19 Response Project jointly implemented with the Ministry of Health building on learnings gathered, through UNDP and the Accelerator Lab network, from similar UNDP-led initiatives in Africa. The robotic solutions will play an essential role in protecting frontline healthcare workers by limiting direct human contact, further supporting preventive measures and enhance public awareness of COVID-19 preventive measures and generate real-time statistics reports. With a network of 92 Labs supporting 116 countries, we envision more opportunities for knowledge sharing and collective learning. As the saying goes ‘if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together.’

As the saying goes ‘if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together.’

Making the case for the Accelerated development in Kenya
In 2019, Kenya was ranked the second-leading innovation hub in sub-Saharan Africa by the World Intellectual Property Organisation and is home to many innovations and incubation hubs that form the backbone of the innovation ecosystem. According to an ecosystem mapping done by GSMA in 2019, there are about 50 tech-related hubs in Kenya, which include incubators, accelerators, maker spaces, and university-based innovation hubs. Beyond the tech space, there are many more hubs spread across the country that support local entrepreneurs and innovators.

The innovation ecosystem is dynamic, fast-paced, and thriving with a myriad of innovations and solutions constantly being developed and launched into the market. As the youth unemployment challenge is multi-faceted and relevant, there is significant interest across multiple sectors to find different approaches to tackle this challenge. Introducing the UNDP Accelerator Lab within this context of a somewhat established innovation ecosystem has resulted in interesting dynamics. The Lab has in some instances been wrongly perceived as being just another incubation facility to fund and support innovators.

We gain our motivation from the ethos of the Accelerator Labs which is to accelerate learning that will help push us forward as we collectively tackle the complicated 21st-century challenges. We believe that the Accelerator Lab can help bridge some of the gaps currently arising from a fragmented ecosystem and hopefully result in an environment that is inclusive and beneficial for youth entrepreneurship in Kenya.

As a country, Kenya has always been at the forefront of innovation particularly within the African continent. While it may not be clear off the bat what the Accelerator Labs offer, we are excited to be joining such a dynamic innovation ecosystem and explore the clear value proposition of the lab and how we can leverage the various insights and tools to bring all the key players together and learn and implement faster, together.

We will harness the collective intelligence of the ecosystem by connecting the key players within the development space, Government, private sector, and the innovation ecosystem; map out and learn from grassroots innovation; tap into unique data sources; and, designing quick experiments to learn what works and what doesn’t.

Taking steps towards achieving long-term sustainability

Throughout our journey, we are constantly interrogating how we can ensure the Accelerator Lab practice becomes more widely adopted to eventually lead to transformative impact. One key ingredient of the Accelerator Lab scaling strategy is building partnerships and networks to support achieving at scale. As we worked towards building the Lab’s practice, we managed to introduce and put into action the Lab’s suite of methods by using collaborative and participatory approaches at every phase of our learning cycle. As a result, the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) appreciated the outcomes of the collective intelligence exercises and adopted insights from the ethnographic study in their subsequent engagements with informal sector workers; Youth Enterprise Development Fund (YEDF) adopted the issue mapping exercise as a youth engagement tool with young people. Applied learning did help to accelerate the adoption of these methods and we hope that these experiences will help spread the Lab’s approaches and hopefully lead to transformative impact. We have also learned that a particular scaling-up strategy will depend on the window of opportunity. Consequently, it helps to know that the Lab as a learning network can help provide a supportive ecosystem for scaling out.

COVID-19 allowed us to scan the horizon, learn from, and adapt smart anti-epidemic robots from our counterparts in Rwanda in support of Kenya’s COVID-19 health response. Three anti-epidemic robots were deployed at the JomoKenyatta International Airport, Mbaagathi Hospital, and Kenyatta National Hospital.

More details about each innovation challenge are outlined below.

The Great COVID-19 Innovation Challenge — this was a partnership with the Ministry of ICT, Youth, and Innovation through Konza Technopolis to unearth solutions addressing challenges in the categories of Food Systems; Health Systems, and Decent Work within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through this partnership, UNDP has been able to support 15 local innovators with seed funding of up to USD 3000 per start-up besides skills, and mentorship opportunities to help them refine further their ideas and explore the possibility of bringing to scale some of the solutions.

Generation Unlimited Youth Challenge — UNDP, through the Accelerator Lab, collaborated with UNICEF on 2019/2020 Youth Challenge to identify solutions from young people in the areas of Equity and Engagement; Education and Training; and Employment and Entrepreneurship. Through the global multi-sector partnership that is Generation Unlimited, five teams of young people were awarded funding of up to USD 20,000 and inducted into a global induction programme. One of these five teams is the Green Project Initiative, which is a youth-led social venture working with unemployed youth in Kenya’s informal settlements to convert organic waste to a clean, accessible, and affordable energy source.

The COVID-19 Detect and Protect Challenge — through a global partnership between UNDP, Hackster.io, and other tech partners, this innovation challenge was launched to map low-cost and low-tech solutions to manage the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Accelerator Lab collaborated with iHub to host a COVID-19 Makerthon event with young innovators to design and build these low-cost solutions and test them in the local community at public spaces like health clinics, supermarkets, schools, and churches.

Creatives Innovation Challenge — early into the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenge of information pollution emerged as a clear gap that needed to be addressed in order to support the behavioural change required by the public to facilitate the uptake of the COVID-19 safety protocols. The Accelerator Lab saw an opportunity to work with community-based youth groups to supplement the COVID-19 messaging and help address the misinformation challenge. The 9 youth groups harnessed their innovation and creativity to develop creative, engaging, interactive, and informative content to interpret and contextualise key COVID-19 messages and influence community behaviour change from the bottom up.

Disability Innovation Challenge — the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in exacerbating inequalities and challenges faced by people living with disabilities. Through a partnership with the Transcending Peace programme, the Accelerator Lab launched this innovation challenge to identify solutions that were user-led, accessible, and inclusive for PWDs. We are excited to be working with 5 innovative groups to facilitate prototyping, testing, and scaling of these solutions.




In #Kenya, UNDP works with the Government and communities towards inclusive and sustainable socio-economic and human development. https://www.ke.undp