Humanitarian Innovation: Highlights from Round 3 and Trends from across the M4H Innovation Fund

In July 2019, with support from the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the GSMA launched the third round of the M4H Innovation Fund – offering grants and technical assistance for projects focused on forced displacement and complex emergencies within Asia Pacific, Latin America, MENA and Sub-Saharan Africa. Round 3 will be announced mid-2020. In the meantime, find out more about the progress of Round 1 (Disaster Response) and Round 2 Grantees.

For Round 3, we broadened the size of our grants offered from £50,000 to £500,000 (previously £150,000 to £300,000) as we are increasingly adapting to the fact that different partners, contexts and projects require different levels of funding and support through implementation lifecycles.

  Round 1 Round 2 Round 3
Objective Assist or protect individuals and communities affected by disaster and crises


Empower, assist or protect individuals and communities affected by complex emergencies and forced displacement Provide solutions to challenges associated with forced displacement and complex humanitarian emergencies
Eligibility & Criteria ·  Applicants submitted digital solutions in disaster scenarios

·  Applicants had to apply to Market Engagement or

·  Partnerships and match funding required


·  Applicants had to align with programme’s 5 key themes and identify which type of innovation

·  Partnerships and match funding required

·  Preference for projects demonstrating sustainable models, with local and diverse teams

·  Consistent with Round 2 criteria. In addition, applications applied to 1 of 3 funding categories suitable to their needs

·  Partnerships or engagement plans consolidated with an MNO required

·  Preference for projects which demonstrate sustainable models, with local and diverse teams

Summary 274 applications*
97 countries
£44.5M requested
264 applications*
77 countries
£55.4M requested
150 applications*
67 countries
£31.7M requested
* In Round 1, 199 of the 274 submitted applications were eligible for funding. For Round 2, this figure was 247 of 264 applications and in Round 3, 136 of 150 applications.


(1) Applicants are already working in a number of ways with MNOs to deliver services. 

Round 3 saw a relative increase in MNO engagement as official partners, and while this was expected due to the heightened focus in the selection criteria, it did highlight the breadth of roles that MNO partners play.

Of the 59% of applicants who have already engaged with an operator: 21% applicants had already contracted with an MNO, 15% were actively working with MNOs and another 23% had engaged MNOs in discussions and/or project plans. However, 40% of applicants were still in the planning stage of MNO engagement, of whom a minority named specific operators they intended to contact. Applicants who had a contract or were already working with an MNO were relatively more likely to be scaling a solution with proven potential for impact (27%).

(2) The role of Mobile Networks Operators in the Humanitarian Sector is highly diverse.

We now know there are often business cases for MNOs to operate in humanitarian contexts.

Applicants told us why MNOs play an important role in delivering humanitarian services:

  • MNO partners were primarily brought on to provide value added services (such as mobile health, mobile education/learning and Pay-As-You-Go electricity or water services) to provide connectivity/mobile data and mobile money.
  • MNOs were described as critical enablers for connectivity, service provision and mobile data especially for allowing access to internet. For instance, this helped humanitarian organisations and other applicants to crowdsource, provide real-time coordination and to power apps.
  • Finally, MNOs were essential providers of infrastructure for mobile disbursements, such as cash transfers.

We also asked applicants how they planned to engage with MNOs on specific topics and these can be broadly grouped into six buckets:

  • Provision of core services (e.g. SIM cards, mobile data, internet, (bulk) SMS, USSD codes)
  • Mobile financial services (e.g. mobile money, mobile payment solutions, e-vouchers)
  • Preferential discounts/zero-rating (e.g. free data on specific apps, toll-free hotlines, free SMS or discounted SMS bundles)
  • Technical support and tailored solutions (e.g. hosting, app development, bi-directional voice/SMS, short codes)
  • Marketing support (e.g. marketing, pre-installation of apps on devices MNO distributes)
  • Equipment and/or data provision (e.g. supply tablets/phones, share subscriber data)

Conversely, applicants also told us what value MNOs derive in delivering humanitarian services. We found four important segments for MNOs:

  • New customers
  • New revenues
  • Building reputational presence
  • Promotion of services
  • Recruitment of agents

We found these categories helpful to understand how to build and navigate strong and more resilient partnerships between MNOs and humanitarian organisations.

(3) Despite these emerging business cases, further funding is still needed to develop commercial or semi-commercial modalities of humanitarian service delivery.

It is understood that not all innovation can fit into neat categories, nor can or should all humanitarian services have purely for-profit goals. However, opportunities for sustainable models do exist and further funding is needed to establish which models are appropriate in different contexts.

Of Round 3 applications, 7 in 10 projects self-reported commercial or semi-commercial business models. Mobile enabled utilities, mobile financial services and digital identity projects were more likely to offer commercial or semi-commercial business models.

While this demonstrates a positive trend in the potential for sustainability, more analysis and investment is still needed to understand if these models will work longer-term and have the intended impact beyond project lifecycles whilst also leaving no one behind.

Overall we remain highly optimistic that the humanitarian innovation sector is heading in the right direction and that by continuing to crowd in the private sector, especially meaningful MNO partnerships, we will be able to reach more people affected by protracted displacement and crisis.

The full trends report can be found here. Special thanks to Vera Bersudskaya for her analysis work.

Read the report
This initiative is currently funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), and supported by the GSMA and its members.
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