Prizes and Challenges Open Agency’s Doors for New and Local Partners

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Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Prizes and Challenges Open Agency’s Doors for New and Local Partners

What would development look like if solutions to persistent and complex problems were sourced and delivered from the ground up? To see the potential of this approach, just look to USAID’s Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation, where the Exploratory Programs and Innovation Competitions (EPIC) team casts a wide net to incentivize, find, nurture, and fund development innovations through Agency competitions, tapping into out-of-the-box solutions from a host of new, nontraditional, and local partners.

Prizes and Challenges Open Agency’s Doors for New and Local Partners
Gham Power’s solar water pumps provide a viable and reliable means of irrigation to rural farmers, who rely on unpredictable, seasonal monsoon rain and/or expensive diesel pumps for irrigation.

Since 2008, the EPIC team has championed over 40 competitions, including prizes, challenges, hackathons, and grand challenges, and these Agency competitions often have some key differences from traditional USAID procurements—differences that can make them appealing and accessible to new partners.

First, a trademark of the EPIC team’s approach is to provide opportunities for co-creation, or idea-sharing, throughout the process: from the problem definition phase to the application and evaluation stages, and ultimately during implementation of the project. This ongoing back-and-forth helps ensure that new, local, and nontraditional partners address and incorporate USAID requirements while still delivering innovative solutions. 

Second, the EPIC team incorporates high-touch assistance from their office to support new partners’ understanding of USAID rules and regulations, helping to guide them through some of the steps that can discourage new partners.

“The reason why these competitions are accessible is because they are purposely designed to lower the bar to entry by streamlining application processes, utilizing user-friendly platforms, limiting the initial application to five pages, simplifying application language so it is accessible, and even using local languages in some instances,” said EPIC Acting Team Lead Lorin Kavanaugh-Ulku. 

This open, collaborative approach provides an on-ramp for potential partners who might have innovative ideas but may not otherwise engage with the Agency, such as startups, academia, and smaller local companies and civil society organizations. The EPIC office often begins its challenges by working with in-country media to publicize the challenge in the local language, alongside issuing a standard Agency solicitation in English. Local communications campaigns like these help to get the word out to organizations that might not track USAID solicitations.

As a result of these tactics, EPIC’s prizes and challenges have been successful at funding local solutions and partners, a key Agency priority. For example, EPIC supported the design, development, and implementation of the BetterTogether/JuntosEsMejor Challenge, which supports Venezuelans and Venezuelan migrants in 10 countries across Latin America. Nearly 83 percent of the organizations that received BetterTogether/JuntosEsMejor Challenge awards were local awardees, and over half were considered new partners to USAID. The challenge was open from October 2019 to October 2020, and it led to 34 innovations in the region, with much of the implementation still ongoing. 

One example of a successful project under the BetterTogether/JuntosEsMejor Challenge is a gender-based violence (GBV) hotline run by the Rape Crisis Society of Trinidad and Tobago (RCSTT), a new USAID partner. RCSTT received support to build out its existing hotline to offer bilingual services in the crucial evening and nighttime hours, when GBV is most likely to occur. Recognizing the importance of this expanded service, a local mobile phone service provider, Digicel, chipped in with unsolicited co-financing of the hotline for its first year. This unanticipated local collaboration increases the likelihood of longer-term sustainability for the hotline service.

Once new organizations begin to engage with USAID through these nontraditional channels, they become more plugged in to USAID’s processes, more capable of competing for traditional types of awards, and more connected with other Agency partners. 

“Even when they do not receive an award, organizations that compete for prizes and challenges raise their visibility, expand their networks, and increase their awareness of USAID opportunities and requirements, driving more success in the future,” noted Open Innovation Advisor Meredith Perry.

For example, Gham Power in Nepal is a social enterprise that sells solar pumps, solar microgrids, and solar installations. They were selected as a finalist for Feed the Future’s 2017 Data-Driven Farming Prize, for their software to help farmers manage their energy use, inputs, and sales. Although they did not receive that initial prize, that work became the foundation for their winning entry in a subsequent 2019–2020 Asia EDGE Prize. In turn, technical assistance, winnings, and partnerships from that prize contributed to their success in becoming a 2021 Water and Energy for Food Grand Challenge grantee.

These prizes and challenges are an often-overlooked way that the Agency is reaching out to new, nontraditional, and local organizations and advancing their capacity to partner with USAID on future projects. The competitions bring forward exciting new ideas, regardless of an organization’s experience with the Agency—and, in doing so, they are making a difference for development around the world and for the numerous nontraditional and local organizations that seek to contribute their innovative solutions to global development challenges.

Interested in exploring whether a prize, challenge, or innovative sourcing method is right for your goals? Contact EPIC at

Last updated: November 03, 2021

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