2023 — Elevating Innovation Amidst the Global Food Crisis

WFP Innovation Accelerator
8 min readDec 15, 2023

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As we approach the conclusion of another year full of unprecedented challenges, we reflect on our collective journey in fostering innovation for global food security and tackling other Sustainable Development Goals. In 2023, amidst stretched donor resources and multiple humanitarian crises, WFP recognized the indispensable role of innovation and technology in making emergency response more efficient and effective and also ending hunger globally.

In the words of the WFP Country Director of South Sudan, Ms. Mary-Ellen McGroarty: “Investing in innovation to reduce humanitarian needs is an imperative to deliver on our commitments to the people we serve.”

Many partners and supporters have stepped up their commitment towards innovations and new partnerships, investing in new technology and business solutions that will amplify their impact for efficiency and effectiveness, but also recognizing the transformative nature of innovations.

WFP Innovation Accelerator team│Photo: WFP/Julia Dalibor

The startups and innovators in the WFP Innovation Accelerator portfolio, WFP Global and all Accelerator staff, partners, and supporters have achieved tremendous results creating positive impact for some of the most vulnerable people across the world. A special commendation goes to WFP’s 23,000 staff worldwide, who have consistently spread the seed of hope in the face of adversity.

As we marked the 8-year milestone of the WFP Innovation Accelerator this year, we are eager to share with you eight key inspirations and highlights from 2023 that truly capture the essence of some innovation highlights:

#1: Supporting Global Humanitarian Efforts

In 2023, the WFP Innovation Accelerator championed innovative solutions for humanitarian responses during crises. Amid the Haiti crisis, more than 200,000 people found themselves displaced across the country. The Clean Cooking Haiti project, implemented by the Haiti country office with support from the WFP Innovation Accelerator, introduced Heat Retention Bags (HRBs) to affected communities in Haiti. These innovative bags save 70 percent less fuel for cooking, and store food for as long as 12 hours, easing the impact of the crisis on people’s daily lives. The Sudan conflict displaced 330,000 people, leaving them in need of protection and livelihoods.

Clean Cooking Haiti School Demo in Cap Haitian│Photo: WFP/Maria Tavares

EYouth, an interactive website with 1.6 million users, including 910,000 learners and 200,000 successful job matches, addresses these needs in the Middle East and North Africa region by enhancing skills and safeguarding livelihoods for young refugees and host communities.

The Humanitarian Innovation Accelerator focuses on enhancing emergency management and service access through innovations in Artificial Intelligence, data science, space technology, health tech, and logistics. Participants include Speetar, a telemedicine platform supporting post-conflict communities in Libya that has benefitted over 30,000 conflict-affected individuals in 2023, and Bleaglee, which utilizes drones to identify poorly disposed waste. This reduces environmental impact, enhances livability in displacement camps, and prevents crises like flooding due to waste buildup.

Humanitarian Innovation Accelerator Pitch Event June 2023 │Photo: WFP

#2 Promoting Efficiency Gains

The pursuit of efficiency gains has been at the forefront of the WFP Innovation Accelerator’s mission. In 2023, several innovations have contributed to the goal of making humanitarian efforts within WFP faster, cheaper, and more efficient. Optimus, an alumni innovation that optimizes food basket design, sourcing, and distribution, enables WFP operational teams to create tailored scenarios, factoring in operational constraints. Notably, Optimus has been used in 44 country offices, resulting in more than US$50 million in savings to date, with further growth expected.

Zelanjae and her family (including her daughter Sabosao), General Food Distribution beneficiary, after the distribution│Photo: WFP/Tsiory Andriantsoarana

PlugPay, a digital payment solution, streamlines the often complex and time-consuming process of Cash-Based Transfers. Plugpay has reached over 600,000 people in Zambia and Sri Lanka, transferring more than US$7 million and reducing transfer fees by 80 percent. In November, the Google x WFP Innovation Accelerator welcomed UN AI-Mobility, a vital part of the UN Booking Hub with 7,600 vehicles from 12 UN Agencies. It serves 1.2 million customers in 103 countries, allowing users to book trips in one click and promoting carpooling for efficiency and reduced CO2 emissions.

#3 Driving Localized Initiatives for Climate and Food

Our commitment to localization materializes through transformative initiatives. Earthshot Prize-winning Boomitra pioneers remote soil monitoring, supporting regenerative land management globally. S4S Technologies, another Earthshot Prize winner, empowers female farmers in India with solar dryers to transform waste agricultural produce into value-added products, facilitates market access, and offers financial and quality assurance training.

People from the Odisha state government, WFP, and the local community take part in a traditional blessing, for the new Solar4Resilience initiative │Photo: WFP/Shyamalima Kalita

Sustainable Fuel for Cooking addresses deforestation and energy security by training over 800 women and youth and providing 5,600 individuals in South Sudan with water hyacinth briquettes. Kitchen in a Box (KIAB), offering secure and sustainable kitchen spaces for schools made from recycled containers, has been a notable collaboration between WFP and the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology in El Salvador and has benefitted over 3,100 students so far.

Additionally, the Agricultural Innovation for Climate Resilience Programme supports local solutions in Sub-Saharan Africa, featuring EnergyAssured’s solar-powered pumps in Nigeria, Mechro’s water monitoring tool in Malawi, and ANKA’s green-energy access in Madagascar. These initiatives underscore our commitment to lasting, positive change in the communities we serve.

#4 Employing Technology for Humanitarian Actions

In 2023, the WFP Innovation Accelerator led initiatives harnessing innovative technology to improve our humanitarian approach. GeoTar is a WFP innovation that improves targeting in humanitarian operations by using Artificial Intelligence. Demonstrating remarkable efficiency, GeoTar presents potential cost savings of up to US$300,000 per Country Office. The Rapid Response Connectivity Carrier, a tethered drone solution flying 24 hours a day, provides continuous Internet access over a 3-square-kilometre area during natural disasters.

ShareTheMeal, WFP’s fundraising app that allows people all over the world to provide children with vital nutrition through a simple tap of the phone, reached the 200 million meals milestone in November. In July, Bernhard Kowatsch, Head of the WFP Innovation Accelerator also shared his insights in an interview with CNN on Artificial Intelligence.

Bernhard Kowatsch, Head of WFP Innovation Accelerator in an interview with CNN on Artificial Intelligence in July 2023 │Photo: WFP

#5 Strengthening the Innovation Culture at WFP

In the past year, we continued the efforts to weave innovation into the very essence of WFP. This journey involved careful investments to nurture the growth of Innovation Hubs and Units globally, bolstering our knowledge base, and extending direct support to Country Offices. Through collaborative endeavors with several Country Offices, we offered tailored assistance by facilitating exchanges and workshops, incorporating innovation into their unique contexts and strategic planning.

Within this initiative, Kenya Country Office’s innovation unit emerged as a trailblazer, notably spearheading the expansion of Meza, an Artificial Intelligence solution utilizing Optical Character Recognition technology. In collaboration with the Kenyan Ministry of Health, Meza addresses challenges in remote health centres lacking access to electricity and the internet, which has been hindered by the use of an Electronic Medical Records system deployed in the country. Meza ensures accurate and timely reporting on health treatments for managing acute malnutrition, achieving 97% accuracy in information dissemination and timeliness, and actively monitoring over 200,000 health indicators. With the steadfast support of WFP Kenya, Meza has been successfully implemented in 79 health facilities.

In addition, teaming up with the WFP’s South South and Triangular Cooperation (SSTC) Unit, we introduced the inaugural 2023 SSTC Innovation Challenge. Recognizing innovation as a key enabler, the WFP Innovation Accelerator, in collaboration with the Office of the Executive Director, will also spearhead the 2024 WFP Innovation Roadmap, a blueprint that aims to build WFP’s innovation readiness and to create robust innovation governance and infrastructure needed to scale high-impact innovations and strategic partnerships.

#6 Catalyzing Innovation with Private Sector

In 2023, we proactively mobilized the private sector to become part of the innovation journey. This pursuit led to the formulation of the Innovative Finance Strategy for 2023–2025, a roadmap designed to revolutionize funding mechanisms. Together with the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF), the WFP Innovation Accelerator launched WFP BRIDGE, a funding mechanism that aims to diversify the overall funding pool for businesses and forge new partnerships between WFP and public and private sector partners. For the first time, WFP can now provide loans and guarantees through partnerships with UNCDF.

In addition, SheCan boosts economic opportunities by incentivizing Microfinance Institutions to provide affordable, gender-responsive financing to smallholders and micro-entrepreneurs. With funds from individual impact lenders and WFP donors, SheCan promotes sustainable financial inclusion and women empowerment.

SheCan supports smallholder farmers like Silvia, who runs a rose farming business in Peru. When her business suffered setbacks due to COVID-19, SheCan provided Silvia with an affordable loan and technical assistance, allowing her to reactivate her business│Photo: WFP

#7 Forging Distinctive Collaboration

In the past year, we forged distinctive collaborations that expanded the horizons of our impact. A significant milestone was achieved through the Adaptation Fund, where we proudly joined as an implementing partner for the Climate Innovation Accelerator small grants programme at COP28. With a grant of US$10 million, the WFP Innovation Accelerator is now positioned to administer and aggregate small grants, amplifying innovation in climate adaptation globally.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator showcased disruptive solutions for climate action at COP28. In the photo, H.E. Mohammed Al Ameeri, Assistant Undersecretary for the Food Diversity Sector, UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment; Saliha Dobardzic, Programming and Innovation Team Lead, Adaptation Fund; Paul Garaycochea, Director for Sustainable Supply Chains, Agricultural and Food Systems, German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ); Gillian Hinde, EY Global Corporate Responsibility Leader; Brigitte Hoyer Gosselink, Director of AI & Sustainability, Google.org; Bernhard Kowatsch, Head of World Food Programme Innovation Accelerator. November, 2023 │Photo: WFP/ Jenny Wilson

This year’s acknowledgment and support from Google.org marks another noteworthy achievement, underscoring the success of collaboration between private and public entities. Building on a history of mentorship, Google.org heightened its commitment in 2023. With the successful acquisition of a US$2.8 million grant, we co-initiated an accelerator programme that centers around innovation, leveraging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing, and data analysis.

In addition, the WFP Innovation Accelerator engaged in the inaugural Moonshot for Development Innovation (M4D) Challenge within the dynamic M4D community which comprises representatives from innovation arms within International Financial Institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Bank.

#8 Continuing to #disrupthunger in 2024

As we set our sights on 2024, we are eager to continue our journey toward cultivating innovation across the entire organization through the strategic implementation of the WFP innovation strategy. Exciting initiatives, such as the Innovation Roadmap generously funded by John Deere, the Adaptation Fund, the WFP Innovation Challenge Relief and Resilience, and the Digital and Green Innovation Accelerator are on the horizon, as well.

Our heartfelt appreciation goes out to the innovators and startups collaborating with our WFP Innovation Accelerator team, alongside our global WFP colleagues, partners, and supporters, for their unwavering dedication and creativity. Together, we steadfastly uphold our commitment to advancing innovation and shaping a resilient future for the most vulnerable individuals worldwide.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.

Find out more about us: http://innovation.wfp.org. Subscribe to our e-newsletter. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn and watch our videos on YouTube.

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WFP Innovation Accelerator

Sourcing, supporting and scaling high-impact innovations to disrupt hunger.