Grassroots innovators for inclusion

UN Development Programme
6 min readDec 1, 2022


Jamila Mammadli in Baku, Azerbaijan. Photo: Sid Lee/Nation of Artists

Our world is currently facing shocks from a cascade of interconnected crises. From climate change to COVID-19, the war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis, billions of people around the world are experiencing a drop in human development, significant hardship and an uncertain future.

We know in times of crises it is the most vulnerable who are disproportionately affected, and this includes persons with disabilities. They are more likely to experience poorer health outcomes, lower levels of employment and education and higher poverty rates. This means that when crisis hits, they are also among the most excluded and left behind.

Yet, persons with disabilities are also coming up with innovative solutions that are indicating an unmet need within their communities. By mapping these grassroots initiatives, the UNDP Accelerator Labs Network draws on a wider network of innovators to help surface the unmet needs of the people we serve.

This method used by the Accelerator Labs is part of a wider approach called collective intelligence which can increase people’s ability to participate in tackling social problems and can help stakeholders, experts and affected communities make more inclusive decisions.

Agents of change

Jamila Mammadli works to improve access to transportation for wheelchair users in Baku, Azerbaijan. Photo: Sid Lee/Nation of Artists

To mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we are shining a light on three inspiring women with disabilities who are bringing about real change in their communities to help ensure no one is left behind.

From improving access to transportation for wheelchair users to fighting gender-based violence, Jamila Mammadli in Azerbaijan and Andrea Mosquera in Ecuador have developed home-grown solutions to the barriers they face. And in Rwanda, Sumaya Rebecca has shared her first-hand experiences of living with a disability to ensure innovations fit the needs of those who will use them.

Fighting for accessibility in Azerbaijan

Access to the subway in Baku, Azerbaijan is a challenge for persons with disabilities. Photo: Sid Lee/Nation of Artists

Jamila Mammadli is a writer and disability activist in Baku, Azerbaijan. She was featured as one of five innovators in “for Tomorrow: the Documentary”, a feature film on the work of the UNDP Accelerator Labs and the power of grassroots innovation.

“My innovation, if I have to call myself an innovator, starts from trying to do something more accessible for all people,” Jamila explains. “I want to show the world that I can live my life if you give me some options to live my life more smoothly. I know it might lead to a brighter future for wheelchair users.”

Guided by the principle “nothing about us without us”, UNDP Azerbaijan and its Accelerator Lab is joining its efforts with national counterparts to engage persons with disabilities and their organizations in developing and deploying new solutions in self-employment, innovation and human rights

Jamila saw the lack of accessibility in her nation’s capital as a major obstacle for people with disabilities to participate in society. By using her social media platforms to inspire change, she helped improve access to the subway system for people with disabilities using an app.

Jamila Mammadli helped to improve access to subway transportation in Baku, Azerbaijan using social media and mobile technology. Photo: Sid Lee/Nation of Artists

She currently advises the city of Baku in its efforts to create a more inclusive subway system.

“As a person who did all these things by herself, why should people listen to me? Because when I talk about something, I talk with experience,” she says. “I consider myself a soldier, I just fight for something I believe in. I use my knowledge, I use my words, I use my confidence to fight.”

Protecting women from gender-based violence in Ecuador

Oso and Paola of “Project Violet” train to protect women and other vulnerable people in Ecuador. Photo: Fundación ARNUV

“My story is not easy to tell, but it has a nice ending. 10 years ago, I had a bitter experience in my life,” explains Andrea Mosquera. Andrea is a woman living with cerebral palsy, and one day she was assaulted in a park by a man who had been following her.

“I tried to scream and push him away, but he was stronger than me,” she says. “That is when an angel showed up.”

When she was knocked down to the ground, a dog suddenly approached them and barked insistently to the point that the attacker had to let her go.

“The man got scared, and the dog kept growling at him. He was defending me. That is how I was able to run away from that man who was hurting me,” she says.

She is now an activist for women with disabilities and works with a foundation that trains street dogs to protect abused women and other vulnerable people.

Andrea Mosquera, an activist with the foundation ARNUV (Non-violence Rapid Action) and their “Project Violet”, tells her story to help others. Photos: Fundación ARNUV

“We train and teach them to protect women who may be victims of gender violence. That is my calling in this life,” Andrea says.

Earlier this year she finally shared her experience as part of the “Human Library” event, organized by the UNDP Ecuador Accelerator Lab. Through the “Human Library”, UNDP Ecuador is working to build dialogues, humanize information and reconnect with empathy in the search for innovations and solutions.

Hand in paw, “Project Violet” in Ecuador trains street dogs to protect abused women and other vulnerable people. Photo: Fundación ARNUV

Andrea’s solution was also the recipient of the 2020 Global Honey Bee Network Creativity & Inclusive Innovation awards, which recognizes inclusive innovation from and for the grassroots level.

Leveraging technology to support the visually impaired in Rwanda

Sumaya Rebecca of Masaka, Kicukiro District in Rwanda uses her Smart White Cane, a new innovation for visually impaired persons. Photo: UNDP Rwanda

Sumaya Rebecca, a resident of Masaka, Kicukiro District mostly relies on her child’s guidance for movement. Even with her walking cane, getting around hasn’t been easy, and she often depends on the support of well-wishers who sometimes pay rent, buy food and other necessities for her.

“I cannot move from home when my daughter is at school, I have nobody to help me access a nearby shop. I always rely on my daughter, even when I want to go to the toilet,” the 29-year-old says.

UNDP Rwanda, powered by its Accelerator Lab, organized design thinking sessions with members of the Rwanda Union of the Blind and a solution provider to help understand some of these challenges and learn how visually impaired persons are trying to address mobility issues.

Based on discussions with members, they began to experiment on what features could help persons with visual impairment to move freely and safely.

At the launch of the Smart White Cane at Masaka Resource Center for the Blind, 40 locally developed ‘smart cane’ devices were handed over to persons with visual impairment. Photo: UNDP Rwanda

The result was the launch of the Smart White Cane, a high-tech white cane which is the first of its kind to be made in Rwanda. It uses ultrasonic ranging technology to detect obstacles 1.2 metres away and alerts the user through vibrations and sound. It has sensors to help differentiate day and night.

GPS identifies the geographic location of the user and can also track the cane in case it is lost. Reflectors inform other road users that the cane user needs special assistance. For the launch, 40 locally developed smart white canes were handed over to persons with visual impairment.

“I will use this smart white cane to go wherever I want to,” said Rebecca. “I will be able to join my friends wherever they are. It will end my isolation.”

What can the future look like for persons with a disability?

The SDGs’ promise to ‘leave no one behind’ brings with it the need to involve marginalized individuals and communities in development initiatives. Recognizing their lived experiences and the diversity of perspectives in addressing the SDGs can play an important role in empowering citizens and distributing power.

By learning to see the ingenuity and listening to the experiences of changemakers, we can see what the future can look like. Their stories show us that it is the people faced with problems who hold the most relevant knowledge for developing solutions and engaging people whose voices are often not counted is key towards building a more inclusive approach to development.