Written by Temesgen Geremew

From August 30 – September 3 I was invited to join the ideation and project creation bootcamp Austrian Red Cross hosted in partnership with Uganda Red Cross. The bootcamp was held in collaboration with SINA Social Innovation Academy in Mpigi, Uganda, where individuals and enterprises are mentored to come up with a solution that fits a particular problem in society.  For this workshop 8 (5 male and 3 female) branch managers and 4 (1 female and 3 male) people from HQ participated. At the end of the 5 days the participants had to pitch their project ideas to a panel of experts who rated the ideas and decided who would move on to the next round of proposal writing with their ratings.

Retrospective Thinking to kickstart the bootcamp week

cartoon of a man thinking, question marks are left and right of his head and a thinking bubble that contains a ligh bulb

Retrospective thinking occurs whenever one remembers something from the past, but one can also think retrospectively about hypothetical future events, by imagining that the event has already transpired and then working backward in the mind from the future toward the present.

Based on this, each branch was invited to present how the implementation of cycle 1 MP went and which learnings they identify as per the following blocks:

1) Liked:

  • The bottom-up approach
  • Innovative solutions (just thinking out of the box)
  • Project thematic areas (gender is part and parcel of all project ideas)
  • Community engagement and accountability
  • Capacity building for branch on project idea formulation
  • Partnerships and looking for local solutions

2) Longed For

  • Documentation and sharing learnings
  • Working on attitude change

The main takeaway from this session was that project sustainability is all about bringing people onboard and making them the center of the solution.


Checking in on Energy Levels

Another fun exercise was the drawing of our energy levels throught the year of implementation. With all the ups and downs we all experienced this past year, the mood and energy levels of the staff varies at every month. The participants were encouraged to draw their level of energy throughout the year and see how it fluctuated over the months. Afterwards the participants were asked to reflect on what caused their energy to drop and what lead to an increase again.

Graph showin the level of energy fluctuating throughout the year with the lowest point in may 2021
Cause of energy drop:
  • Movement and gathering restriction because of COVID-19
  • People’s resistance to change
  • A lack of cooperation and coordination form stakeholders

What raised people’s energy then?
  • In the beginning the project start-up
  • Budget released and implementation commenced
  • Virtual field visit and experience exchange between Ethiopia and Uganda branches
  • Regular support and mentoring from HQ

Asking for help is not a crime!

People waste their precious time and other scarce resources to figure out an already available solution and finding overly complicated ways to solve the problem. Meanwhile, it could be so simple: just ask for help and easily solve your problem.

group of people standing in a circle made up of yarns. in the front someone is trying to get out a gate blind folded, not knowing how and where the gate opens

The picture shows how people are struggling to get out of a circle tied with a string while they are blindfolded and have no previous experience on how to find the gate that would let them out.  The lead facilitator of the session mentioned that there is only one way to get out of the circle and if you couldn’t find the gate you can ask for help at anytime. However, only few used the chance to ask for help to get out of the circle and went out easily. The large majority were struggling by themselves, wasting their time and losing their resources and themselves. It shows how much easier it would be if one would just ask for help and share experiences with others! The exercise inspired and forced me to see my own problem-solving experience.

Next up: Associative Thinking


 Associative thinking is the ability to form associations between seemingly unrelated ideas. As am exercise, participants were encouraged to list out the resources, assets, skills and potential customers they have in the specific area and link e.g. the resource they have with the needs of potential customers. 

clipart showing a brain with a light bulb in the middle and arrows pointing in different directions

The main objective of the session was to inspire people to see their projects as a business where people could get interested to be engaged in depending on  how the solution addresses their dire needs.  It is not about a solution being novel or innovative. What matters is how it best fits the target groups’ current pain.

some water bottles are placed on the floor in the middle of a room, people are standing around it, talking to each other

Getting to the core: The Innovation Challenge

In its simplest term, innovation is using new or novel ideas and approaches to solve existing problems. Innovation also means being creative. While an increasing number of donors want to know how innovative an organization or project is, it is often unclear what exactly donors regard as innovative projects. For myslef, innovation means:

“improving existing solutions which have been tested somewhere for a similar type of problem faced and contextualized with local problem solving. So, always I encourage people to propose a solution with a value that makes it unique from other project ideas which also fits the problem affecting most of customer/ beneficiary and which makes the project successful and a champion.”

Temesgen Geremew

PMER and WASH Support Manager, AutRC country office in Ethiopia

Additionally, the innovation challenge made use of the principles of human centered design. This is an approach to problem-solving commonly used in design and management frameworks that helps develop solutions to problems by involving the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving process. For project ideas to come to action, they need to put people at the center, and individuals’ needs are part and parcel of the idea for proposed solutions to fit. 

The Pathway to Change

Before the participants started working on their concepts they were introduced to one final concept – the pathway of change. The essence of this concept is that all projects are designed and funded for purposes of achieving a positive change in the lives of the intended beneficiaries or community. 

graph visualizing the pathway of change

Source: Fryirs et al. (2019), modified from Morgan (2014). Use of this image is supported by the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license. See: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/

Whatever type of project idea you have, you can see it as a business and market idea. A donor, investor and anyone who has interest to provide inputs like funding wants to understand how your project idea makes profit. In the context of humanitarian and non- profit organizations, the profit is not seen in monetary terms but in how effectively and efficiently allocated resources bring change in the lives of end users of your project idea.

From Concept to Concrete Idea

Finally, based on the concepts mentioned above, the participants were invited to come up with concrete project ideas that fits the burning problem of their target communities. Accordingly, all branches came with their project ideas and the facilitators as well as the other participants could share their comments and feedback for all the ideas. The final project idea was then presented to the team as a practice run before the final part of the bootcamp – the pitching deck. 

The Grand Finale: The Pitching Deck

In this session the branch representatives were invited to present   their project idea to a panel of experts who were nominated to evaluate the project ideas objectively based on some predefined criteria. Some of the criteria are: a project should have a WASH result and also comprise at least one other predefined thematic area; it should be innovative and clear; it should indicate a sustainability scheme with an exit strategy. Based on the rankings from the panel, a decision is made on which branches will move on to the next round and develop full proposal with further guidance from SINA. 

laptop on a table showing an online meeting with an ongoing presentation

For me it was a great opportunity to take part in this bootcamp where I contributed on the project ideation process explaining especially on some technical matters regarding WASH components particularly on sanitation and hygiene promotion including menstrual hygiene management and PGI integration with WASH. Moreover, It was interesting for me to exchange with peers in Uganda on project implementation modalities and knowing individuals with immense life experience. 


Images courtesy of Temesgen Geremew unless stated otherwise; cartoon drawings are our own