How can we provide a dignified shopping experience to people living in refugee camps?
How might we empower those affected by humanitarian crisis in the design of innovative humanitarian solutions, thereby tapping into the great human potential available and increasing the overall impact and effectiveness of humanitarian aid?
The Greek island of Lesvos is a temporary home for 12000 refugees, forming the largest refugee camp in Europe. One of the biggest challenges identified by aid organizations is clothing distribution to refugees who often only have the clothes that they arrived to the island in. Even more frequently, refugees are not prepared for the cold winters on the island, where snowing is not unprecedented/unheard-of.
The current clothing distribution process is (A) painstaking slow: it can take weeks to receive clothes; and (B) offers limited choice and availability. In short, the current system is driven by supply rather than needs.
Why can’t refugees have a clothing shopping experience resembling what we have here in the Netherlands?
The Humanitarian Action Challenge (HAC) has provided an incubator and safe environment to address this clothing distribution challenge: PNGK and Movement on the Ground (MOTG) joined forces to transform the current supply driven clothing distribution system to a needs driven one. The team embarked on the challenge with the intention to cut weeks-long waiting times to days, and to create a freedom of choice and agency. The initiative is conducive towards MotG’s vision: transforming refugees to residents by creating a more dignified way of life, thus transforming camps into campuses.
Since there is no off-the-shelf solution to clothing distribution in the refugee context, we had to start from scratch: process mapping, system level design, and rapid testing of ideas and assumptions. This is an early stage, high risk endeavour which is rarely undertaken by for-profit companies, let alone non-profit organizations.
Without the unique opportunity provided by the Humanitarian Action Challenge we would have never dared to start on this project. In the program, we went through many iterations and multiple ideas landed in the dustbin after visiting the island, as we realized that some of our key assumptions were incorrect. After many struggles and long workdays, we sharpened our ideas with substantial support from the HAC organizers, who we considered as our team members after the second working session. Each member of our enlarged team brought a unique insight and skills which were all indispensable for the successful completion of the project:
- MOTG: extensive, hands-on experience on island of Lesvos with serving refugees, in depth understanding of the context and needs.
- PNGK: engineering and technical knowledge on available hardware and software solutions. A data, evidence, and results driven mindset.
- HAC organizers: in-depth knowledge in bringing innovation to the humanitarian sector and a combined multi-decade experience with humanitarian challenges.
Our final design is a clothing distribution system which can bring clothing shopping experience to refugees resembling what we have in the Netherlands. It relies on readily available technological solutions, which we adapted to the needs in refugee camps. For example, we plan to utilize deep neural networks to categorize images, which removes the need for manual data entry; and supply chain management software to connect all the components by tracking individual items and managing a database.
Movement Clothing Demonstrated
Throughout their stay at a camp, residents periodically receive credit to their account.
Instead of prototyping the technological components we decided to test the only component which can break the proposal on a fundamental level:
Do people living in refugee camps on Lesbos need a better clothing distribution system? Are their other needs are far more important that they are not concerned with clothing needs? How they would perceive a catalog based system? By how much would the envisioned system increase their satisfaction?
We photographed shoes, compiled a paper-based catalogue and then asked residents of the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos to select shoes from it.
So far everyone involved in this prototype, especially the refugees receiving shoes without having to wait in a line, were very satisfied.
There is still a long way to go until the full realization of the envisioned clothing distribution system but (1) we are through the most uncertain and risky phase; and (2) we generated evidence that our proposed system is needed, perceived well be refugees, and technologically feasible. We hope that we can maintain this initial momentum generated by the HAC and can scale up our prototype to create a dignified shopping experience for all refugees on Lesbos.
We are in search of partners to help us bring this prototyped idea to reality. For more information please contact us.