Vihara Innovation Network: Driving Behavioral Research and Design for Covid-19

July 21, 2020

Established in 2002, Vihara Innovation Network is a social impact firm dedicated to building and scaling innovations that enhance human health, well-being and social equity under the unfolding horizon of technology and climate change. It has two complimentary parts; an innovation oriented consulting for development and impact sectors and an accelerator for impact start-ups.


It has led over 200 mid to large innovation programs with Aid Agencies, Corporations, Nonprofits & Government Institutions across the globe with most of its work spread across 21 countries in the Indian Subcontinent, South-East Asia and Africa in partnership with the likes  of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, AusAID, UNDP, Google, Nokia, BBC Media Action, Eko, Tata, NIUA, Google, and Sectoral State Departments


A majority of Vihara’s portfolio has focused on bringing rich behavioral insight, human centered design and the use of iterative and collaborative development to innovative products, services and strategies in order to increase the quality and efficacy of public health services, boost demand and coverage, improve trust between service providers and receivers and enable healthful behaviors in low resource environments. 


Accelerating vaccinations for millions of vulnerable people across India

VaxNow is bringing together the Government, Private Sector Organizations, Community leaders, NGOs and the Media to accelerate the vaccination of vulnerable people in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Bihar. These partners will collaborate to reach the unreached through an agile, geographically contextualized plan which will help overcome barriers for vulnerable communities. The criteria for selecting these communities is: people with the highest access barriers, the highest chance of contracting COVID and people living in overcrowded places.

Team CAC caught up with Divya Datta, Divya Bhardwaj, and Pratyusha Barua of Vihara, to learn about their COVID-19 response.



What have been your key actions, initiatives and outcomes around the COVID-19 response?

We have developed Post-Lockdown propositions focusing on the re-building of demand and de-risking of mainstream service delivery, new rapid response services and behavioural enablement focusing on covid-sensitive RMNCH practices through communication, low-cost DIY products and infrastructure fixes both in rural and urban low income settlements. 


Vihara conducted a short study on socio-economic impact of Covid-19 on the lives of low income families and how it has affected their access to healthcare as a layer on top of the existing long term Pathways research, a project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation. The participants interviewed from Bihar, UP and Delhi had met the researchers conducting their interviews (with personalised discussion guides) in the past. This increased trust and honesty rooted the findings in the larger context of their lives. The study revealed insights into the socio-economic experience of the pandemic and how it has affected family dynamics, livelihoods, gender, social networks and the community’s perception towards health services. The insight deck can be viewed through this link. This deck has been presented to key global partners and has received much appreciation. The contextual learnings and behavioral insights from this study have enriched Vihara’s knowledge and knowhow in shaping more projects to address/understand Covid-19 and it’s impact.


We are having an ongoing dialogue with Niti Aayog and WCD around restoration of routine health services, de-risking of Anganwadis, and adoption of safer behaviors. Additionally, we are exploring work  focused on urban RCCE interventions with UNICEF. We are also in discussion with World Bank teams across India, Kenya, Malawi, Bangladesh, Maldives and Nepal for ensuring continued quality MNCH services. 

Vihara has also become part of the Creative Collective of India (CCI), an initiative by the Lopez Design Studio to standardise the design of communication material for Covid-19 in India. The collective is used by the members to make collaboratively develop design guidelines and peer review content. 



What are your biggest learnings/challenges?

With the pandemic disabling all field movement, teams at Vihara have been quick to turn around with new methods of data collection. At Vihara, primary research is defined with the use of participatory tools and human centered design methods to deepen socio- behavioral insights in data and the effort of translating highly interactive in-person sessions into digital and telephonic medium has been both a challenge and a great learning experience.

Vihara has long been an advocate of using spatial redesign in community spaces as well as homes for behaviour change and this pandemic has further reinforced the relevance of such an approach. Although there have been concerted efforts to create awareness of safety measures and good practices, the uptake of such advice is non uniform and needs improvement. With almost all funding directed at immediate relief and emergency services, it has been challenging for Vihara to bring attention to the behavioural aspects of communities related to the pandemic that need to be addressed to ensure higher adoption of desired behaviours.


Any stories/insights emerged from the field or from your work?


Many stories emerged from the Pathways research; accounts of the pandemic’s experience from husbands, mothers, Front Line Workers and informal medical providers. These have been quintessential in building our understanding of the actual on ground experience of the Pandemic in low income groups and in drawing out the behavioral variations in nutrition, availing RMNCH+A services and care seeking that have come to exist in a before-after scenario.


How did you leverage the COVID Action Collaborative? How do you plan on doing so in the future?

CAC is a great initiative that has brought together a variety of partners from grassroots organizations to technical experts and knowledge partners. Vihara is very grateful to have become a part of this as it has been an excellent opportunity for us to connect with more partners and get to know their work better. With Swasti as a great facilitator; open minded to establishing new connections to build a stronger, interdisciplinary partner ecosystem, we see this as a long term engagement that will allow us to broaden our partner network and continue to generate impact through design and innovation together with them.

Vihara is also engaging parallely with Swasti on a short project to design BCC solutions to safeguard factory workers from Covid-19. The design team will work closely with Swasti’s onground team to understand the context and target users in order to design and test solutions effectively.


Resources from the organisation:

Behavioral Design for Covid-19 in UP & Bihar 

Systemic Response to Covid-19 

COVID Response in Urban Low Resource Informal Environments

PATHWAYS India Covid-19 Impact Study


Written by Pratyusha Barua

Pratyusha is a design research consultant with Vihara Innovation Network since 2016. She has worked on various projects across the RMNCHA spectrum and has designed and participated in a number of HCD projects using methods like participatory research, co-design and prototyping and iterative user testing.

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COVIDActionCollab is not merely an aggregation of partners, but is an aggregation of capacities, through which we have developed key high impact initiatives. We have drawn upon our one year’s experience at CAC and engagement with our large constituency of partners to put together a menu of initiatives for funders/investors to support which will save lives and livelihoods, and enable vulnerable communities to 'bounce forward’. Support these initiatives to build resilient communities