Cardboard bed slashes disaster aid costs

It really is a demonstration of what happens when you think outside the box. Two Spanish industrial designers have brought innovations from packaging to design a better, cheaper and faster solution for beds to be used in disaster relief or humanitarian aid. It’s made of cardboard, is twice as strong as the beds NGOs most commonly use, and can save up to 80-90% of the purchase price of beds. Not to mention that it is much cheaper to ship by air.

Barcelona-based Juan Sanz and J. Alberto Paniagua founded Humanitaria with the aim of using their 20+ years of industrial design experience to improve the response capacity of NGOs in humanitarian situations. The bed is their first product, and the first few hundred units are being readied for testing during rescue operations planned by the Spanish Red Cross the (Northern Hemisphere) autumn of 2023.

In designing the bed, Humanitaria benefitted from assistance by the UNICEF Lab acceleration program, was a finalist in the Red Cross Humanitarian Technology Awards and was selected as one of the six social innovation proposals aspiring to the prestigious 2022 Magellan-Elcano Humanitarian Innovation Award.

Why does this cardboard bed matter? Because in 2022, there were more than 100 million forcibly displaced people on the planet – an all time record. Yet  the UNHCR global budget for humanitarian aid barely covered 46% of needs before the current crisis, and the deficit was a record US$20.5 billion in 2022. Only 46% of humanitarian emergencies worldwide receive aid from international NGOs. 


And if the money for humanitarian aid isn’t increasing, something has to be cut to stay within the budget. The trick is to make cuts that don’t affect the way people are helped. “By reducing the cost and increasing the efficiency of the equipment, we make it accessible to as many organizations as possible, who will be able to help more people. We are just one part of a whole,” said Sanz.

They started with beds because beds are the largest item in the annual budget of NGOs, which use camping beds that each cost on average between €100 and €200 (US$110 to $220), each take between five and 20 minutes each to assemble, and are not suitable for transport in large quantities.

“The cost of 1,000 beds for a refugee camp ranges from €100,000 to €200,000 (US$110 to $220) and it takes up to two weeks to produce them, another two weeks to ship them (by land or sea) and more than 24 hours to install and set them up”, says Juan Sanz, Humanitaria’s CEO.

By comparison, he explained, “… with Humanitaria, 1,000 beds cost €16,000, can be shipped folded by plane and can be set up in 20 minutes.” Its cardboard bed can support up to 350 kilograms, more than double camping beds.

In terms of production, the cardboard bed represents a cost reduction of 90% compared to the price of other humanitarian beds. The cost per unit is around 16-17 euros and is 99% more efficient than any of the solutions commonly used by NGOs around the world. “It is equipment designed from scratch with a single purpose: to offer maximum efficiency at minimum cost, to multiply the resources of humanitarian organizations,” says Sanz.

Victor Fuentes, New Atlas

Cardboard is the cheapest structural and durable material there is. It lasts long enough to cope with a humanitarian emergency. “It is a fast, versatile and cost-effective solution. It can double the approved strength of a humanitarian bed and provide comfort and shelter in a time of high vulnerability. People can’t believe it when they see five people standing on our bed,” says Héctor Muñoz, head of manufacturing.

“Those who question the durability don’t understand the approach of this product. It is the fastest, most pluralistic and most economical solution. It was not in our plans to design a product that would last 10 years in perfect condition. Even so, we doubled the approved resistance for a humanitarian bed,” Muñoz adds.

The bed’s material and design takes advantage of packaging technology: simplicity, speed of assembly and a high rate of manufacture.

“With the Humanitaria bed, we have a production speed of 1,000 units per hour in 24-hour shifts. Thanks to the automation of the packaging industry, any average factory can manufacture these beds at a rate that is light-years ahead of any other solution. This allows us to respond to any peak demand without stock-outs or impossible lead times, as happened with the Asian supplier network during the pandemic,” Sanz points out.

The speed of assembly is a record in the social sector: a system that starts from an extra-flat sheet and transforms into a bed in less than 5 seconds, a task that a single person can perform autonomously, without tools or prior training. “It is between 60 and 200 times faster than any alternative used in humanitarian emergencies, greatly shortening the time it takes to set up a field hospital, reducing the number of staff and associated costs. A single person can set up 700 beds in one hour,” says Sanz.


The ingenious cardboard bed. New Atlas, Sep. 29, 2023

Low-cost humanitarian basics. Humanitaria

Revolutionizing humanitarian aid with ingenious cardboard bed design Optimist Daily, Oct 6, 2023

Cover image: Humanitaria