The Sapling Nursery

The Sapling Nursery helps MSF staff explore, develop and test innovative new approaches to challenges in our projects Caption
The Sapling Nursery helps MSF staff explore, develop and test innovative new approaches to challenges in our projects

Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) staff have the potential to revolutionise the way we work, in big and small ways.

The Sapling Nursery helps MSF staff explore, develop and test innovative new approaches to challenges in our projects, to ultimately give people better access to medical care. To do this we have developed the Exploratory Grants to provide applicants with mentorship and support, as well as opportunities to connect with individuals inside and outside of MSF who could contribute to building out your idea.

Exploratory Grants support award-holders as they explore, develop and test innovative approaches in response to challenges in MSF projects. It can often be difficult to explore problems and find their solutions to test them effectively, understand their impact and replicate solutions elsewhere, but ultimately this process leads to better access to medical care. To support you, the award-holder, in this process, the Sapling Nursery team will: 

  1. Guide you through Human Centred Design workshops, held across a period of three months, at a frequency and duration agreed with you when onboarding your project.
  2. Connect you with a mentor, from whom you can receive additional support for your own personal development while coordinating the innovation project.
  3. Support you in writing an application for further funding to test your idea if your exploratory workshops have helped define the problem and produced promising solutions.

Exploratory Grants offer support as an entry point – requests for funds are conditional on their being used for an exploration process and will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

2024 call for Exploratory Grant applications

This year, the Exploratory Grants will encourage applications that address the strategic topic of Paediatric Care. We are open to applications on all topics, but submissions addressing this strategic topic will be prioritised. 

Ideas to consider:

  • Adapting current services to the needs of paediatric populations.
  • Integrating family-inclusive strategies and zero-separation neonatal care practices. 
  • Improving paediatric case management pathways.
  • Adapting holistic case management strategies for paediatric nutrition.

Apply today

Applications for Exploratory Grants are open until 30 September 2024.

Download the application form here and send your proposal to: 

For any questions, or to discuss your proposal, you can contact

Examples of paediatric innovations supported

Noma Discharge Toolkit >

The Noma Discharge Toolkit aims to help caregivers look after their children after leaving the hospital.

Play Therapy Toolkit >

Play therapy uses play to help a child, or a group of children, explore and express their emotions and process and cope with difficult experiences.

Examples of previous Sapling Nursery projects

When Yaashe, a six-year-old noma patient from Borno state, and her family arrived at the Sokoto Noma Hospital, they felt isolated because they don’t speak the local language. 

The mental health staff helped them integrate with the other patients. Yaashe fell ill two months after Boko Haram killed her father and her family had to flee their village. 

“Yaashe was a healthy and happy girl, but then suddenly she got a fever and after just three days she developed a hole in her face. When I saw her coming out of surgery, I thanked God. I love her very much" remembers Yagana, Yaashe’s mother. 

Her daughter finally received surgery six months after arriving at the hospital. It’s the first of several operations she needs because of the severity of her injuries. 

Sokoto, Nigeria.
28 October, 2017.

Stories of change

How can story-telling help communities fight disease? Find out more from Kate Hughes.

Jaqueline, 72, in Bulengo IDP camp near Goma, North Kivu: She lives here with two of her grandchildren - their parents were killed in the late 2000s, near Bukavu. She has an injured leg and spine when she fell from a bridge near Bukavu. 

'It's very difficult to live here. We haven+t received any help at all. We have nothing. People spend the whole day searching for vegetables. If someone takes pity on us, they can give us a bit of 'fou-fou' or some beans. My grandchildren were sent away from school because we have no money for the school fees. We don't even have money for soap, to wash clothes. It's only if someone gives us a few francs that we can buy some soap. I can't cultivate with my injuries, I can't even carry a jerrycan of water...

Menstrual hygiene management

How do you manage menstrual hygiene in a humanitarian crisis? Chiara Domenichini attempts to solve the problem.  

Who can apply for the Sapling Nursery?

Any individual or group of MSF project staff (OCA, OCB, OCBA, WaCA, and OCP) can apply. If you have identified a problem but need support to explore it in order to frame and test a potential solution, your application will be eligible.

Q&A: Applying to the Sapling Nursery exploratory grant, opening June 2024

You are an individual or group of MSF staff that have identified a problem you want to resolve. You think you have a solution but need help exploring and framing the idea so it can be tested and adopted. 

This grant will help you further develop your idea and, if showing promise, help you access further funding opportunities to put your idea into practice.

The application needs to be endorsed by your functional and hierarchical line manager and project coordinator. This endorsement must include explicit approval (in writing) for time devoted to the Cuman Centred Design workshops.

If the application is successful, the work must start within 4-8 weeks of the approval date. If the work commences any later than this, we will discuss potentially rescheduling it to begin the following year.

You/the team members need to be available for the human-centred design workshops during the agreed three-month period. You will also need to dedicate additional time outside of the workshops each week to complete any tasks necessary to the exploration process.

You/the team members need at least one project location actively involved. This can be your own or another project location. This collaboration needs to be confirmed in writing.

The application must be led or co-led by a project staff member.

The application must be led by MSF staff currently in post.

Sapling Nursery staff are here to help. We can:

•    Support if you want to discuss your idea before applying.
•    Put you in contact with people you may need to fulfil the project.
•    Suggest development and management tools.

  • Innovation: Is your idea creative and unique in MSF or the context you work in?
  • Capacity: Do you have the skills, expertise, and time commitment to make your idea a success?
  • Quality of the project: Do you propose a solution to address a need or issue? do you have an existing relationship with necessary partners or collaborators? Does your proposal align with the strategic topic?
  • Value of the project: Does your idea bring value to a particular community, and/or address an internal need? Will your idea remove barriers to equity of opportunity or generate a more inclusive environment?
  • Sustainability: Does your proposal have the potential to allow MSF staff to develop a new set of knowledge and skills? Could this knowledge be transferred across MSF, to different projects, headquarters and operational centres, becoming a part of the normal way of working for MSF?


Always begin by clearly identifying a need or a problem. Then summarise your idea to address this need or problem. One key outcome to addressing the need or problem is that it demonstrates the benefit to MSF operations, and our patients and communities.

If you think you have a solution but need help to strengthen the proposal that is ok; Sapling Nursery staff are here to help you. We can work through your proposal for the problem and solution, and also provide support to search for alternative approaches if your initial idea is not workable.

Keep ethics in mind. Check the Ethical Framework for Innovation to see if your project requires research ethics oversight.

Good project management is key. Make sure you have good project management techniques in place.

Always seek to learn. Projects that fail to learn or share lessons are failed projects (evaluation, and sharing the evaluation, are key).

Be prepared for innovations falling short of their ambitions. The most important thing is that we can collate lessons learned and that the skillsets of those involved have developed in the process.

If you have questions or want support with writing your proposal, please contact us at