The Sapling Nursery

The Sapling Nursery

Drones: A helpful humanitarian tool Caption
Raphael Brechard, MSF geographical information systems manager, explains to the local community the flight plan of an unmanned aerial vehicle in Makhanga Island, Malawi.

Ideas from our staff have the potential to revolutionise the way MSF works, in big and small ways.

The Sapling Nursery is a fund to help MSF staff develop and test innovative new approaches to challenges in our projects, to ultimately give people better access to medical care.

Twice a year, MSF staff can apply for up to 50,000 Euro to turn an idea into a real way of improving MSF's impact in our projects.

Two projects were funded in the last round of applications. Read on to find out more about them or if you’re a member of MSF staff, you can jump to find out more about the application process.

Sapling Nursery projects

"Active” cool boxes

An MSF medic and a Royal College of Art designer are exploring available technology to develop “active” cool boxes.

In places like Central African Republic (CAR), blood samples belonging to people with HIV under our care sometimes need to be carried over 1,000km for viral load testing.

To be useable, the samples must be kept cold throughout the journey, despite the country’s tropical climate.  

The process of keeping things cool in transport is known as a "cold chain". The simplest way to maintain a cold chain is to pack the samples with icepacks.

But CAR doesn’t have a reliable supply of icepacks, and any delay in the journey can mean the ice inside them melting in the tropical heat, leaving the samples useless.  

MSF Measles Intervention Bera Caption
A measles vaccine arrives in a "passive" cool box in Bera village, Central African Republic.

These “active” cool boxes that the team are looking to develop will generate power on the go to actively maintain specific temperatures, no matter the climate.

This would be a change from "passive" cool boxes, like those relying on icepacks, which can’t be temperature controlled and don’t respond to the external climate.

Smarter water for MSF

In a crisis situation like a natural disaster or during a disease outbreak, clean water is vital for saving lives. But ensuring a ready supply of clean water is not an easy task.

Providing water is a vital aspect to all humanitarian responses, and it’s something MSF does on a huge scale across the world.

A team made up of people from across MSF projects across the world is developing a system of connected devices that acquire information such as water depth, pressure, flow rate and quality in real time. 

These devices could be installed wherever MSF’s water is sourced, treated, stored or transported, whether that’s in underground boreholes, tanks or treatment systems.

The data from the devices will be sent to a dashboard where it will be displayed for MSF's water and sanitation specialists and will be able to generate alarms for prompt intervention where there are critical issues.

Our teams will be able to better monitor, maintain and develop these vital water systems. 

Ultimately, this system could help MSF reach more people with clean, safe water, freeing up staff time to work on the next vital task, and saving donor money that could be spent on life-saving work elsewhere.

Innovation stories

Read more about the projects funded by the Sapling Nursery

Information for applicants

The Sapling Nursery fund is available to MSF OCA and OCBA staff from all departments; both in the field and in headquarters. However, if your idea requires testing or collaboration with field staff or patients, you need to be in the field to apply, or to have a field team on board from the outset.

Proposals are judged on the following criteria:

  • Will your idea improve the care we provide or give people better access to care?
  • Is it an innovative new approach for MSF?
  • Can you develop and test your idea within six months and a budget of 50,000 Euro?
  • Does your line manager support your proposal?
  • Does it need research ethics oversight? Check the Ethical Framework for Innovation  

We'll also judge your proposal on your ability to manage and present your project. Make sure your proposal is well-written and developed.

If you are successful, you choose how to manage your project.

As long as your responsible and transparent, you can spend the funds on whatever makes your idea work. This can be materials, expertise, research, services and personnel.

We can support you with guidance and resources throughout the project.

We can:

  • Mentor you 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 

If you can't start the project immediately, you can delay the start of the project by up to three months. This won't affect the six month limit.

There's a lot of competition for funding. If your proposal is not successful, you'll receive feedback from the selection committee. You can use this feedback to apply again in future rounds.

Define a clear problem: Your solution should then benefit our field operations and our patients

Seek to learn: projects that fail to learn or share lessons are failed projects 

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

Be prepared for failure: innovations can fall short of their ambitions

Good project management is key: make sure you have good project management techniques in place

The eighth round of the Sapling Nursery closed in October 2020.

We hope to open the ninth round in the first half of 2021.

Click the button below to download the application form, fill it in and send it to the email address indicated on the form.

Apply now >

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

Apply to the Sapling Nursery fund

Click the button below to download the application form, fill it in and send it to the email address indicated on the form.