Veronica Buckets, MUAC tape, and 7 other humanitarian inventions you’ve never heard of

August 12, 2016
Written by Kristin Myers
Photo by Jennifer Nolan

Improving the health and wellbeing of communities doesn’t have to be costly or complicated. Often, the biggest changes come about through surprisingly low-cost ingenuities like these.

1. Veronica Buckets ($18)

Did you know that washing your hands can save your life?

A man washes his hands using a Veronica Bucket.

A Veronica Bucket in Sierra Leone. Photo: Kieran McConville

In much of the developing world, diarrheal diseases and other infections are a major cause of illness and death. The Veronica Bucket is a way to stop these diseases from spreading by making it easy to wash your hands properly. Invented by Veronica Bekoe, a Ghanaian biological scientist, the Veronica Bucket is a bucket with a tap near the bottom that is perched above a basin to catch runoff — plus soap. The whole setup can be made and maintained by communities themselves.

2. Counting Beads ($1)

Pneumonia is the leading cause of child death worldwide. But how can mothers and Community Health Workers (CHWs) accurately diagnose it?

A woman counts breaths with beads

A mother leader uses counting beads in Niger. Photo: Meghan Christensen

That’s where counting beads come in. For every breath a child takes in a one minute span, one bead is moved along the string. If a child has taken too many or too few breaths, the mother or CHW knows that the child needs medical attention. The strings are low-cost, easy to produce, and locally available.

3. Bicycle Ambulance ($110)

What would you do if you needed to take your loved one to the nearest hospital six miles away — but no one in your town had a car?

A man with a bicycle ambulance

Vincent Vundu is responsible for looking after this bicycle ambulance provided to his village by Concern Worldwide. The closest hospital is over six miles away, and the ambulance allows sick people to get there as soon as possible. Photo: Jennifer Nolan

For many in the developing world, this problem is an everyday reality, and it costs countless lives. Motorized ambulances are expensive, require frequent maintenance, and rely on costly fuel. In contrast, bicycle ambulances are low cost, low maintenance, and require only human pedal power to run. The trailer (pictured) allows a patient to be transported while lying down — a critical factor for someone who is very ill or injured. A bicycle ambulance can make a six-mile journey in a little over 30 minutes.

4. Tippy Taps ($2)

Q: What can some sticks, some string and a few containers make? A: A tippy tap!

A young girl washes her hands with a tippy tap

Saada Issa washing her hands with a “tippy tap” in Tanzania. Photo: Jennifer Nolan

Much like a Veronica Bucket, a tippy tap is a hand washing station that employs just a little bit more engineering. A can of water is hung from a branch and attached with some string to a stick on the ground. By stepping onto the stick, a user can tip the can and pour water onto their hands without needing to touch the container. Some soap is usually tied to a nearby branch.

The ingenious tippy tap

5. Gabion Walls (cost varies)

In the world of engineering, a Gabion wall is an “oldie but goodie.”

A gabion wall

A gabion wall built by Concern Worldwide to provide protection against flooding in a village in northern Afghanistan. Photo: Kieran McConville

From the Italian word “gabbione,” meaning “big cage,” gabions trace their history back to ancient Egypt where they were used to protect the banks of the Nile river from erosion. Because of their simplicity and low cost, gabions are still in use today. Box or cylinder “gabions” provide the structure for a wall which can then be filled with rocks and stones, or even sand or dirt. Gabion walls can be used to help prevent erosion or provide security. As long as the gabion (the cage that holds the rocks) remains intact, the wall will not fall apart. Gabion walls can last for decades.

6. Treadle Pump ($50)

It looks as if these ladies are having a workout — but in reality, they are pumping water!

Women pump water using treadle pumps

Women using treadle pumps to draw water from underground. The water is carried to water tanks which then gravity feed irrigation pipes. Photo: Gideon Mendel

A treadle pump is a human powered pump that sucks water from underground reservoirs. The water can then be carried to wells or fed into pipes to irrigate crops. For communities that depend on their harvest, the treadle pump can be a lifesaver.

7. Microfinance Box (approx. $10)

While it might look like all of these people are waiting on some kind of magic trick, what you actually see in this photo is a meeting of a village savings and loan program.

A village savings and loans group meets. In the center is their microfinance box.

A village savings and loans group meets. In the center is their microfinance box. Photo: Kieran McConville

The microfinance box in the center holds the money that community members are saving for their futures. By pooling together their money, they are also able to provide loans for members to start their own small businesses.

8. MUAC tape ($0.08 per tape)

Nearly half of all deaths of children under five are linked to malnutrition, which is completely preventable. But how do you know if a child is malnourished, or how severe the problem is?

MUAC tape around an arm

A nurse measures a little girl’s arm with MUAC tape. She is severely malnourished. Photo: Jennifer Nolan

The size of a child’s upper arm is a pretty reliable indicator of whether they’re getting enough food, and this can be quickly measured with MUAC (mid-upper arm circumference) tape. The color that appears in the window indicates how severe a problem is and whether the child should be referred for medical treatment.

9. Plumpy’Nut ($0.40 per packet)

After a health worker has determined that a child is malnourished, they are referred for further treatment, which often calls for a course of Plumpy’Nut.

Child eating Plumpy'Nut

A child eats some Plumpy’Nut. Photo: Concern Worldwide

But what is Plumpy’Nut? Developed by Concern and partners in the early 2000s, Plumpy’Nut is a nutritious peanut-based paste. It is rich in carbohydrates, fats, and protein, as well as the vitamins and minerals necessary to help a malnourished child recover. It doesn’t need to be cooked, nor does it require added water (which could be contaminated), and it stays fresh after opening. Best of all? It can be safely administered at home by the child’s caregivers.


Help Concern provide low-cost, effective tools like these where they are needed most: