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Paul Scott Matthew

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Simplicity, Innovation and a Refurbished Blue Box

Posted: 09/17/2013 11:24 am

At age 45, Edward has been traversing crowded African corridors for more than 25 years. As a long-haul truck driver from Malawi, he spends 26 days a month on the road and occasionally faces hazardous situations, from accidents to banditry.

"Being a truck driver is a tough job," Edward said. "I recently came across some hijackers that wanted to steal my truck. Fortunately, they didn't succeed. I fought and overpowered them. But they did manage to cut off my finger with a knife during the struggle."

Edward and other African drivers like him face a much broader set of issues that are, however, rarely part of the stories they share. Like in many regions around the world, truck drivers suffer from a range of ailments linked directly to their mobile lifestyles. Endemic diseases like diabetes and hypertension can be easily compounded by regional epidemics ranging from malaria to HIV. Without adequate care these diseases take a tremendous toll on drivers, their families and the communities where they live and work.

In the mid 1990's, while working for South Africa's Road Transport Industry Education and Training Board, I began to notice that many South African drivers were becoming sick and leaving the industry. At the time, HIV and AIDS was still largely under the radar in South Africa and so, unaware of the issue at hand, I decided to park my car at a busy truck stop one evening to see if I could figure out what was happening.

For the next few evenings, I returned to the truck stop and spent time speaking to the drivers who had parked there and to the sex workers who came to the stop in the evening from a nearby community. It didn't take long to understand that the convergence of these two groups was not only taking a tremendous toll on the health of the drivers, sex workers and the nearby community, but that the very mobility of drivers meant that the issue was not isolated. As goods were allowed to move from truck stop to truck stop across the continent and beyond, diseases like tuberculosis, malaria, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, were moving with them. Meanwhile, few health care facilities were accessible that could help intervene -- especially as drivers spent much of their month crossing borders.

With a background in logistics (and not health care or epidemiology), the solution seemed simple enough: bring health services to the drivers and community members who needed them. With this idea in mind, a little help and limited resources, we transformed an old blue shipping container (which was pretty much all we had available to use at the time) into a clinic, recruited local medical professionals and dropped it off at the truck stop. And people came.

By 2005, the program had caught the attention of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) who, along with their partner, global express company TNT, had recognized that the same issues were affecting their ability to deliver food aid to communities not just in South Africa but throughout the region. To address the issue, a new organization called North Star Alliance was founded and a commitment was made to build a network of clinics (in blue shipping containers) along major transport routes across the continent.

Six years ago, there were few places drivers like Edward could go to receive medical treatment. Today, a simple idea and a growing group of partners have resulted in a network of roadside clinics that's delivering health care to some of Africa's most hard-to-reach people across 13 countries. For drivers like Edward, a network of roadside clinics not only means that the goods he transports will continue to reach the communities who depend on them, but that his health, and the health of his family and community is protected.

Across Africa and around the world, similar stories are taking shape. As we keep rolling out "Blue Boxes," simple but incredibly innovative concepts are being developed that are reshaping the way we think about issues from health and education to environmental sustainability and economic security. What's more, they're often coming from the places and people you'd least expect. As we continue to strive to meet pressing development objectives and create more sustainable environments, it's important that the public and private sectors make space for these new ideas and for the social innovators who dream them up. This will not only foster further innovation, but also create a sense of shared value in their success that will benefit all parties involved and society as a whole.

 

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