Last week, I had the opportunity to speak at the Social Innovation Summit 2014. During the session “Beyond Doing Good: the Role of Innovation in UN Partnerships”, I was honored to share our work about “what’s next in public-private partnerships”, together with a distinguished panel of speakers, including activists, sociopreneurs, private sector leaders and UN colleagues. Here is my presentation.

Zhiyao Ma, from the Innovation Unit ​in New York, speaks at the "Beyond Doing Good: the role of innovation in UN partnerships". Credit: Mima Stojanovic, UNICEF Innovation Unit, NY 2014
Zhiyao Ma, from the Innovation Unit ​in New York, speaks at the “Beyond Doing Good: the role of innovation in UN partnerships”. Credit: Mima Stojanovic, UNICEF Innovation Unit, NY 2014

I’d like to present today a partnership we established recently, which we think could be what public-private partnerships look like in the future. This partnership first arose due to a specific need was identified by our country office in Uganda to address challenges in education.


In Uganda, teachers in rural schools cannot read and write English fluently. Teacher absenteeism is ranked the highest in the world at 35%, with teachers guaranteed to miss at least two days of work each week. 40% of children drop out of primary school. Even for students who stay in school, there is no certainty of actual learning outcomes.


Existing “school in a box (a box full of school supplies)” is a UNICEF core product for areas with out good learning infrastructure. It currently can serve 40 students at a time. To upgrade “schools in a box” and address the some of the biggest challenges in the education system (teacher absenteeism, poor instructions, lack of learning content etc.) in the digital era, UNICEF colleagues in Uganda created MobiStations (or digital school in a box). Each MobiStation is built around a solar-powered laptop with Internet connectivity, a projector, a speaker, a document camera and other peripherals. They can be set up as temporary schools or community centers even in places where there is no electricity or internet connectivity, so that teachers and students have access to quality education content.

In order to do this, the country office hired one engineer to design and hand-produce these digital schools. They procured items (i.e. luggage, laptop, speaker, projector etc.) from different producers and one man assembled them into a luggage by hand. The process can be hazardous and limited R&D resources hinder the initiative from leaping forward. Therefore, the country office became interested in exploring collaborations to produce a technology innovation.

Honghe and MobiStation 

Based on a mapping of partners, we identified Honghe Technology Group as a potential collaborator. This is because Honghe has been a leading company in education technology; its existing product line, which includes projector and document camera, is aligned with the needs of MobiStations; and it has extensive resource network for the container and peripherals.

The partnership between UNICEF and Honghe aims to (1) Modify the design of existing MobiStations to increase performance and durability; (2) Manufacture and deploy upgraded MobiStations in primary schools in rural Uganda; and (3) Conduct user-testing based on which to further improve the design of MobiStations.

In this collaboration, UNICEF shared existing MobiStation designs and results of past pilots; UNICEF and Honghe had weekly calls to discuss technical details and design requirements. Up till today, the first batch of prototypes have been shipped to Uganda, and the country office is organizing deployment and user-testing in the field, potentially together with Honghe engineers.

Research output will be open source and publicly available. For example, user testing reports will be documented and shared; all technical specifications and prototypes will be in the public domain, with open source licenses. The research collaboration does not imply procurement by UNICEF.

A prototype of MobiStation designed by Honghe Technology in collaboration with UNICEF Innovation Lab Uganda. Credit: Guocheng Luo, Honghe Technology Group, Beijing
A prototype of MobiStation designed by Honghe Technology in collaboration with UNICEF Innovation Lab Uganda. Credit: Guocheng Luo, Honghe Technology Group, Beijing

This non-traditional partnership is innovative because it taps into the company’s core business and expertise delivering mutual benefits to both partners that will not be able to be delivered through traditional philanthropy or CSR, It allows UNICEF to

  • Leverage private sector technical expertise, network, production capabilities
  • Have the ability to create solutions closely aligned to the needs of UNICEF programme beneficiaries
  • Stay relevant in an era of information, technology and innovations
  • Shape the discourse and direction of the future, by amplifying the voice of users/market for the bottom quintile
  • Create public goods
  • Avoid complicated procurement process

It engages the private sector company to work on

  • Better understand their users and use cases
  • Gain insight on vast hard-to-reach markets that will be impactful to their business in future
  • Utilize and develop core business expertise
  • Diversify the ways to engage their employees
  • Tap into UNICEF network and improve public profile

We see a few principles of partnerships emerge: 

  1. Use Open Standards, Open Data, Open Source, and Open Innovation: All work that UNICEF produce or contract to produce must be open source and available in the public domain. This would allow us to produce public goods, and increase adaptability and scalability.
  2. We have to consistently engage end users in partnerships. This keeps both UNICEF and partners means and objectives closely aligned with end users or beneficiaries.
  3. Design for scale allowing the partnership to benefit broader audience than the project of immediate concern. This entails employing a “systems” and iterative approach to design, be customizable to multiple contexts, and keep products/services at low cost.
  4. Document the whole process and share in the public domain

Zhiyao Ma
Analyst, Innovation Unit, UNICEF NYHQ



Related stories:


Narrative of a partnership: Open source hardware in Uganda

UNICEF–Honghe innovation research collaboration to support Ugandan education

Learning anywhere and everywhere with Raspberry Pi technology