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Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Innovation Comes in Many Forms

August 09, 2013

One of the things I’ve learned working in global health and development for the past 25 years is that innovation comes in many forms. Scientific breakthroughs tend to get the most attention. A new vaccine that saves children’s lives. A drug that tackles a killer disease.

Innovation also happens incrementally, often building on previous advances. In the fight to eradicate polio, the first effective vaccine was introduced more than 50 years ago. Since then, scientists have developed many new vaccines, typically more effective than their predecessors. 

The oral contraceptive introduced in 1960 was truly a transformative technology, but did not meet the needs of many women, and is used by relatively few women in places like Sub-Saharan Africa. So, researchers are improving contraceptive technologies to give women in all countries more options so they can plan their families.  

Empowering women in this way changes everything. Girls can finish school. Women are less likely to die from complications of pregnancy. Their children are healthier, better fed, and more likely to go to school.  

All of this seems obvious now, but it has taken researchers years to really understand the importance of culturally-appropriate contraceptive choices and to advance the science. It’s not just about breakthrough discoveries or incremental scientific improvements. Innovation is also about taking a fresh perspective.

For example, in most of Africa and South Asia, women do the majority of the agricultural work. Yet, because they don’t have equal access to information and supplies, the yields of their plots are lower than plots worked by men.  

To address this, we’re investing in career-building initiatives to strengthen the research and leadership skills of women agricultural scientists. We’re working with partners to introduce higher-yielding and micronutrient-enriched staple crops. And we’re supporting the introduction of labor saving devices such as the small mill and chipper that’s transforming agricultural processing of cassava in a Tanzanian village.

No matter what you call it – innovation, reinvention, or simply progress – bringing new things like this to the table are important to creating a cycle of good health and prosperity that can feed families and help lift communities and nations out of poverty.

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