It has been a year since the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Philippines launched an initiative that explored the opportunity of enhancing the local manufacturing of the personal protective equipment (PPE) and other various medical consumables and devices needed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Responding to the SOS of medical front liners, who at the onset had to resort to wearing trash bags due to the shortage in the global supply of PPE, UNDP started mapping the opportunity to tap and capacitate the local garments manufacturing sector to address the supply gaps in addressing national and sub-national demand for such products. This has given birth to EMPOWER PH (which stands for Enhanced Manufacturing of Protective Wear and Equipment for COVID-19 Response in the Philippines), a digital matchmaking platform that links garments manufacturers with prospective suppliers of raw materials and more importantly, individual and institutional buyers of such products.

As UNDP completes the handover of the platform to its institutional home – the Department of Trade and Industry’s Competitiveness Bureau (DTI-CB) – it is worth looking back at the experience of implementing an initiative amid an ongoing pandemic and contemplate on the learnings that the project team has acquired in the process of creating a novel solution from scratch. Not only does this exercise record the institutional memory of the initiative, but it also provides valuable perspectives that can be considered in rolling out similar solutions in the future.

 

Strategic institutional partnership paved the way for more public partnerships to materialize and for long-term sustainability. 

Formalizing the partnership with the DTI Competitiveness and Innovation Group (CIG), under the leadership of Undersecretary Rafaelita Aldaba, was a critical strategic undertaking that facilitated access and linkage to other agencies involved in the broader national PPE supply development response, such as the Department of Health (DOH), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Bureau of Philippine Standards (BPS) and the Philippine Accreditation Bureau (PAB). The formation of a technical working group involving these offices provided the project team with strategic guidance and insight in framing the architecture and workflow of the platform that aligns with laws, regulations, standards and guidelines.

The foresight to identify the institutional home of EMPOWER PH at the start further supported its sustainability. UNDP’s full handover of the platform became possible because of DTI-CIG’s provision of resources and establishment of a team within the agency instituted long-term management and stewardship of the initiative. Moreover, this unlocked potential integration of EMPOWER PH withing the agency’s overall COVID-19 response offerings, particularly in potentially linking small and medium enterprises in the public procurement domain. Ongoing efforts to include the EMPOWER PH in the 2022 budget request of the DTI also presents a promising future for its continuity and expansion to include other COVID-19 related products, such as RT-PCR testing services and vaccines (when they start to become commercially available).

 

Extensive research and stakeholder consultation provided a robust foundation for the solution. 

EMPOWER PH could be considered a novel solution at the time of its inception. The Philippines was not originally a global manufacturer of PPE and supply has been primarily import-driven. The abrupt exponential increase in demand for such products started conversations on optimal technical design and construction, as well as alternative raw materials that can achieve similar protective functions while enabling faster and accessible sourcing.

The decision to conduct a robust research on the local supply chain situation in the Philippines and to examine literature from various global and local medical authorities was crucial in establishing the platform’s push to ensure quality protective products. Consultations with government agencies further confirmed definitions that needed to be carefully adopted and adapted to avoid conflict with existing regulations.

I believe that EMPOWER PH’s Resource Center – a repository of all non-medical use PPE and community mask manufacturing definitions, best practices, technical design packs and digital patterns – has been one of its greatest and most EMPOWER-ing contributions. It has democratized information such that neighborhood sewing groups that seek to find alternative sources of income may simply access these sources for free to learn about techniques of producing such products and undergo its vetting process to ensure product quality.

 

Adopting design thinking principles and structured user feedback gathering enabled quick identification of areas for improvement. 

Creating a novel and complex online solution at a time when physical meetings are restricted (if not discouraged) entailed numerous challenges to the project team. Relying primarily on technology gadgets, internet and same-day delivery service providers to connect with various internal and external partners, building a platform from scratch during an ongoing pandemic required more creative and practical approaches to implementation. 

 

Virtual collaboration in an ongoing pandemic: The UNDP and DTI project teams built the EMPOWER PH platform primarily through virtual channels. Hundreds of Zoom conference call hours were spent to discuss development plans, resolutions to challenges and ways forward. The photo above was taken during the conclusion of UNDP’s handover technical assistance to DTI.

 

Perhaps one of the most helpful strategies undertaken by the team was to use design thinking in the development process. Creating the prototype and testing it with a controlled number of participants, backed up by a dedicated stakeholder support resource, enabled a phased roll-out of the different functions in the platform, identifying technical glitches that need to be addressed and verifying effectiveness of conceptualized workflows before introducing the solution to the broader public. For instance, it was through the guided test-run of the vetting process that the project team confirmed that the remote vetting option for community face covering (CFC), where manufacturers can submit their video recording of the different required quality tests, proved to be more challenging to mount among manufacturers that do not have the tools, technology and skills to correctly perform the steps.

EMPOWER PH, despite achieving its current substantial form, is still subject to continuous improvement in its architecture design and data infrastructure. This would not have been possible if the team did not institute design thinking and structured feedback gathering during its set-up phase. The openness to recognize the pitfalls and shortcomings of the initial design enabled the project team to address them upfront. At the end of the day, the platform’s engagement is only as good as the seamless experience that it can offer its target users. And this will only be possible through a feedback- and user-oriented approach to development.

 

A digital solution requires a diverse set of skills and capabilities to execute the ideas and to sustain its management in the long run.  

The experience of building the EMPOWER PH platform from bottom up also revealed best practices in designing and implementing such initiatives. With limited institutional experience of co-developing a novel digital solution with government partners, the initiative provided project management learnings that can be applied to other similar projects in the future. While it looked like a straightforward undertaking, constructing a completely new local manufacturing and supply chain digital solution would require a village to make the complex development process happen.

Robust technical knowledge of the industry and policy ecosystem where the solution will operate would be a pre-requisite to any future undertaking as this would provide the core foundations of entire solution. User experience and user interface due diligence proved to be a highly necessary step in improving overall user interest and engagement sustainability. Constant coordination with design and data counterparts from the partner agency further facilitated to alignment with government regulations and guidelines. Dedicating a centralized contact support facilitated quick response to user challenges and gathering of formal and informal feedback on the experience, thereby immediately triggering user-oriented improvements.

 

 

It had not been a perfect implementation process, but the experience of committing mistakes and recognizing the necessary solutions straightforwardly enabled the team to improve sooner and to incorporate such experience in making subsequent decisions. Solutions that require long-term sustainability and scalability need to undergo the proof-of-concept testing before scaling up.

 

And if there is an important lesson that I would take from this experience, it is the importance of figuring out the “who” of every initiative and bringing the right talent into the team before making any significant strategic or directional decision.

 

As we handed over EMPOWER PH to the DTI-CB and continue the technical assistance for its extension and expansion efforts, I am excited to see the initiative seeing its full potential in providing Filipinos with a viable digital solution for its various COVID-19 needs. It had been truly a challenging, exciting, humbling and rewarding experience for me as Project Coordinator who oversaw its conceptualization, prototype development and expansion. At the same time, I look forward to applying the learnings from EMPOWER PH and realizing new engagement techniques in expanding the initiative more broadly in the country and bringing in more BARMM-based sewing groups through UNDP’s EMPOWER BARMM!

 

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Jules Falzado currently serves as Project Coordinator for the EMPOWER PH initiative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Philippines and the Department of Trade and Industry – Competitiveness Bureau (DTI-CB). EMPOWER PH is an online platform that matches prospective buyers of personal protective equipment (PPE) and community masks with local manufacturers, and provides local garments manufacturers with resources and product vetting support to ensure compliance with standards, guidelines and best practices.

 

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