Solving Development Challenges through Hackathons

Pandemics highlight the need to better the working conditions of sanitation workers who are highly vulnerable to health risks. Photo credit: ADB.

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Published: 29 June 2023

A hackathon in Nepal nurtured innovative tech solutions to improve sanitation practices in the country.


Hackathons bring together computer programmers, engineers, and others involved in software development to create code for new software or improve on an existing one. Initially, these competitive coding events challenged participants to solve programming problems or create applications using specific programming language or platform.

These events have since evolved to find innovative solutions to a given problem or challenge. A diverse group of individuals—typically including developers, designers, engineers, subject matter experts, students, and academics—collaborate to brainstorm, prototype, and produce functioning products within a short period of time, from a few hours to a few days. Industry experts often assist participants in refining their projects as mentors and coaches.

A hackathon can also be used to create social impact, such as an event organized under Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) regional technical assistance Accelerating Sanitation for All in Asia and the Pacific. It sought to foster a collaborative environment where participants could devise practical solutions and leverage technology to improve sanitation practices in Nepal.

As a result of the hackathon, the technological solutions that will be developed and piloted in two towns in Nepal are (i) an advanced septic tank cleaning vehicle; (ii) a unit to sort and process urban waste; (iii) a robot to effectively clean and disinfect draining systems; and (iv) an intelligent robotic pair of hands to easily collect sewage and waste materials. Apart from taking a look at the selection criteria and winning solutions, this article also identifies factors that have made the hackathon successful.

Developing Solutions for Safety, Social Issues

Sanitation workers perform a critical but frequently underappreciated role in maintaining public health and hygiene. They deal with hazardous substances, often work in unsanitary environments, and are exposed to physical and health risks, which increase in times of emergencies and pandemics. In some countries, they face other challenges, including poor working conditions, lack of safety equipment, and limited access to modern technologies. In Nepal, sanitation workers are neglected and are at the lowest end of the sanitation value chain.

A 3-day hackathon held in Kathmandu in April 2023 focused on harnessing the power of technology and innovation to address the daily safety challenges faced by sanitation and waste workers in the country. It also aimed to promote the dignity of sanitation workers by encouraging innovative solutions to reduce social stigmatization, provide better working conditions, and enhance their overall well-being.

Multidisciplinary teams composed of startup companies and students worked collaboratively to develop prototypes and solutions tailored to the unique needs of sanitation workers. These solutions encompassed a wide range of areas, including protective gear, waste disposal systems, cleaning vehicles.

Stakeholders from diverse backgrounds, including sanitation workers, scientists, policymakers, students, academics, central government and municipal officials, and representatives from nonprofit organizations exchanged ideas, experiences, and expertise.

Cost-effectiveness, Sustainability, and Scalability of Solutions

Of the 26 applications received, eight startup companies and two student teams were selected to participate in the final event boot camp and idea pitch, together with a demonstration of physical mini models and computer simulations. A jury identified four winning solutions based on a set of criteria that includes innovativeness, cost-effectiveness, team strength, potential for business development and scaling up, and responsiveness of the proposed solution to the needs of sanitation workers in Nepal.

Hackathon participants were urged to think about cost-effectiveness, ease of implementation, and long-term impacts. This strategy ensured that the proposed ideas were viable and could be implemented in the Nepal context, as well as potentially across South Asia, where sanitation and waste workers face similar difficulties. The development of devices that cost significantly less than those available in the market, as proposed by some of the winning startup companies, can also help scale up adoption of new technologies across urban local bodies in the region.

The winning solutions from startup companies will receive initial support for product development under ADB’s Technical Assistance and will be piloted in Bharatpur and Nepalgunj.

Pilot Solutions

Four solutions were selected for further development and for pilot implementation in the towns of Bharatpur and Nepalgunj.

Smart Septic Tank Cleaning Vehicle. Butwal Sanitary Pvt. Ltd. thought of deploying an advanced septic tank vehicle equipped with silenced pumps, global positioning system (GPS) tracking, automatic off-switching, and high-pressure water jet to improve the efficiency of septic tank cleaning, reduce manual labor, enhance safety, and minimize environmental impact.

Sustainable Urban Waste Handling Unit. Mantra Incorporation Pvt. Ltd. wants to develop a tech-embedded solid waste management prototype that handles, sorts, and processes urban waste, thereby creating value out of otherwise discarded material.

Drainage Cleaning Robot or Drainage Bot. Baliyo Ventures Pvt. Ltd., in collaboration with a student team finalist, Dipawoli Malla, designed a robot to clean and disinfect drainage systems. It will be equipped with a camera and powerful cleaning mechanisms that effectively remove blockages and maintain the smooth flow of wastewater and rainwater.

Augmented Hands. Nechno Technology Pvt. Ltd. proposed to create a multipurpose and multifunctional intelligent robotic pair of hands with complex mechanical modeling that has embedded sensors and extension capabilities. This will make it easier to collect sewage and waste materials and help sanitation and waste workers reach complex spaces.

Key Success Factors

The success of the hackathon that served as a platform for collaboration, knowledge sharing, and capacity building can be attributed to the following:

  • Awareness-raising campaign. Community engagement platforms on Facebook and LinkedIn and an event website were created to promote the hackathon and encourage participation. As a result, there was widespread interest in the hackathon among students, academia, the scientific community, government officials, industry, media, and banking professionals. Nepal’s local and national media recognized and reported these efforts.
  • Use of existing academic networks. Event co-host Nepal Academy of Science and Technology and event management company Robotics Association of Nepal helped reach out to students and faculty members through their links with academic institutions.
  • Strong support, participation, and ownership by the government. The Government of Nepal, particularly co-hosts Department of Water Supply and Sewerage Management, policymakers, and municipal officials of Nepalgunj and Bharatpur, were actively involved in the hackathon event.
  • Youth engagement. More than 100 participants, mostly young people, participated in the hackathon. The age of participants ranged from 18 to 40 years, with the majority below 30 years old. They came from various parts of the country–from east to west, including Madhesh, Lumbini, Far West, and Bagmati (which includes Kathmandu), and brought varied perspectives, experiences, and innovative solutions.
  • Women participation. Two out of the five jury members are women. A solution developed by a young female student was also selected as one of the winning solutions.

The hackathon aimed to make sanitation workers in Nepal safe and dignified, which is a significant step toward improving their working conditions and transforming societal perception.

The innovative solutions developed during the event have the potential to revolutionize traditional sanitation practices, making them more efficient, environmentally friendly, and worker-centric in Nepal, and may later be scaled up across South Asia. This, in turn, could improve sanitation services for citizens and contribute to accelerating the implementation and achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 6.2, which targets adequate and equitable sanitation for all and aims to end open defecation by 2030, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.

The hackathon paves the way for a future where sanitation workers are respected, protected, and empowered to perform their crucial role in ensuring public health and hygiene.

Hackathon events can also be used in a variety of sectors and have a great deal of potential to generate creative solutions to development problems.

Saswati Ghosh Belliappa
Senior Safeguards Specialist, Office of Safeguards, Asian Development Bank

Saswati Ghosh Belliappa joined ADB in 2017 as a safeguards specialist. An urban and regional planner by training, she specializes in social safeguards and social development.

Kathleen Dela Paz Aquino
Operations Assistant, Water and Urban Development Sector Office, Sectors Group

Kathleen Dela Paz Aquino is an Operations Assistant at ADB's South Asia Urban Development and Water Division. She focuses on project loan and technical assistance administration and processing for the South Asia region. She holds a master's degree in Community Development from the University of the Philippines and an undergraduate degree in International Studies with a Development Track and a Minor in Gender Studies from Miriam College.

Shiva Prasad Paudel
Project Officer (Infrastructure), Nepal Resident Mission, Asian Development Bank

Shiva Prasad Paudel joined ADB in 2012 and supports the design and implementation of urban development, water supply and sanitation projects, and technical assistance in Nepal. He leads policy dialogues with the government and development partners on institutional and policy issues. He has a master’s degree in Urban Water Engineering and Management from the Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand, and an MSc in Municipal Water and Infrastructure from IHE Delft, Institute for Water Education, the Netherlands.

Shanker Dhakal
Social Engineering Consultant, South Asia Department, Asian Development Bank

Shanker Dhakal is a consultant with ADB on technology and infrastructure projects related to water supply and sanitation in Nepal. He is an interdisciplinary civil/structural engineer specializing in multi-hazards, disaster mitigation, and sustainable infrastructure planning. His academic background and expertise are in earthquakes and vibrations, integrated settlement planning, and WASH and health facilities, spanning several countries, including Australia, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Nepal.

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