8 inspiring innovation facts at WFP
Dive into 8 insights from our work in humanitarian innovation as we mark the 8th anniversary of the WFP Innovation Accelerator.
By Gulia Rakhimova
Since pioneering the first humanitarian airlifts 60 years ago, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has had an eye for innovations that can help disrupt global hunger and advance the Sustainable Development Goals.
Eight years ago, in 2015, the WFP Innovation Accelerator was launched to identify, support, and scale such innovations, aiming to make WFP’s emergency response more efficient and effective. As the first start-up accelerator of its kind within the United Nations, it combines the best innovation practices of the private sector with our heart for humanitarian work. Innovation, today, continues to be deeply embedded in WFP’s DNA, as underscored by the priorities of WFP Executive Director Cindy McCain.
With an initial investment by the German and Bavarian governments that continues to this day, the WFP Innovation Accelerator is now joined by several other government partners, foundations, and private entities such as the United States Agency for International Development, Austria, Czechia, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Innovation Norway, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google, and the John Deere Foundation, among others.
From its base in Munich, Germany, the Accelerator serves as WFP’s global innovation unit, working with WFP’s Country Offices worldwide and Innovation Hubs and Units based in Regional Bureaux and Country Offices. We support WFP innovation teams, NGOs, start-ups and the broader private sector to co-create impactful innovations using a variety of innovative approaches, from agricultural innovations to artificial intelligence, blockchain and innovative supply chain models.
So, as we light up the candles to celebrate the WFP Innovation Accelerator’s 8-year journey, join us in discovering 8 inspiring facts about our work in innovation:
#1. INNOVATION CAN BE LOW-TECH
When we hear “innovation,” we often think of cutting-edge tech and futuristic concepts. But at its core, innovation is about discovering new and improved ways to solve challenges.
Take WFP’s Clean Cooking, an innovation that transforms upcycled plastic waste into heat retention bags. This innovation has been piloted in Haiti and Chad, where school canteens tend to cook on open fires with firewood or charcoal. The heat retention bags offer a simple yet effective solution that can save up to 70 percent of energy needs in school canteens. It significantly reduces cooking time from 5 hours to 30 minutes, preventing cooks from being exposed to smoke.
Clean Cooking reminds us that solutions don’t always need to be high-tech to be innovative; low-tech innovations can be just as impactful.
#2. A FOCUS ON LOCALLY-LED INNOVATIONS
In addition to being driven by dedicated leadership from the top, innovation at WFP is also significantly bottom-up.
Since the inception of the WFP Innovation Accelerator, we have emphasized locally-led solutions, working closely with WFP’s Country Offices worldwide to identify the challenges they face and linking them with innovative solutions, all guided by a human-centered design methodology. Furthermore, WFP’s Innovation Community has organically expanded since 2015, comprising Regional Innovation Hubs for Eastern Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean and Innovation Units based in Country Offices in Jordan, Kenya, Tanzania and South Sudan, which drive innovation from some of the world’s most strategic regions.
Our approach ensures that innovations get to the heart of the problems they aim to solve, creating a vital link between start-ups and real-world challenges facing WFP Country Offices.
#3. FALL IN LOVE WITH THE PROBLEM, NOT WITH THE SOLUTION
At WFP, we believe that to create an innovation that has a significant impact, it is first essential to understand the root problem and the actual needs of the people it serves.
This is why the WFP Innovation Accelerator adopts the best practices from Silicon Valley to maximize social impact and bolster the efficiency and effectiveness of WFP’s operations. Our innovation process incorporates well-established methods such as human-centered design, which prioritizes real user needs, and the lean start-up methodology, enabling rapid iteration guided by user feedback. Innovations are designed alongside the communities they serve and piloted at an early stage to ensure impact and maximize cost-effectiveness.
For example, WFP’s SMP PLUS embraces this principle and is the first global school menu creation platform that involves communities in the menu design process. Available online and completely free to use, this AI tool optimizes menus, creating more affordable, nutritious, and local meals, serving over 3.4 million children.
#4. ACCELERATION PROGRAMMES FROM PILOT TO SCALE
Innovation at WFP isn’t left to chance; the WFP Innovation Accelerator has developed a systematic approach to fostering it. Since 2015, the WFP Innovation Accelerator has grown to become the largest social impact start-up accelerator, offering 15 acceleration programmes each year to address a wide range of global challenges, from hunger and climate change to primary healthcare, gender equality, and emergency response.
We identify promising start-ups, NGOs and internal WFP innovations through regular innovation challenges. Selected teams are then invited to attend innovation bootcamps to fine-tune their solutions. The most viable ventures then work directly with WFP Country Offices or units, piloting their innovations — all the while receiving our financial, project management, and mentorship support. Recognizing that bringing solutions to more people is what truly makes a difference, WFP’s Scale-Up Enablement Programme provides tailored support for advanced innovations, including additional funding and strategic planning to expand their reach and impact.
To expedite our efforts in achieving a world without hunger, WFP’s SDGx Acceleration unit also provides custom acceleration programmes to ventures tackling challenges across a range of interconnected SDGs.
#5. ON THE FRONTIERS OF INNOVATION
Since 2016, WFP recognized and integrated AI’s potential. As part of our Frontiers Innovation Programme, we offer direct support and a platform for start-ups and innovators to develop, launch, and expand AI-driven solutions that complement our global initiatives. Using AI, we can assess damage after emergencies, provide more targeted assistance, and make better decisions with real-time awareness. And that’s not all — our colleagues at the Technology and Research, Assessment and Monitoring divisions and other teams across WFP continue to actively explore different applications of AI that can add value to humanitarian operations.
#6. LEVERAGING PRIVATE CAPITAL FOR SOCIAL IMPACT
Many promising businesses aiming for social impact face a tough reality: without adequate funding, they can’t scale or sustain their impact. To address this challenge, we have been actively collaborating with public donors, philanthropies, development banks, and impact investors to explore new forms of innovative, sustainable financial solutions.
As part of our efforts to increase private capital for social impact innovations, we have launched a new funding facility called “WFP Bridge” in collaboration with the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF). This new funding facility will provide loans and guarantees to innovative businesses, start-ups, and NGOs that are contributing to our shared mission of promoting food security. The WFP Bridge is set to launch in 2023. Stay tuned for more updates!
#7. SERVING MILLIONS
At the end of the day, innovation is about creating lasting value for the people we assist.
Over the years, the WFP Innovation Accelerator has hosted 191 Innovation Bootcamp teams and funded and supported 123 innovations as part of our portfolio driving impact for Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger. Today, 22 innovations are scaling up to achieve significant impact across WFP’s operations and Country Offices globally. In 2022 alone, our portfolio of innovations has positively impacted 37 million people in 88 countries. You may have heard of Payment Instrument Tracking, Optimus, the Farm to Market Alliance and other WFP’s own innovations that have become an integral part of our operations.
Check out the WFP Innovation Accelerator Year In Review 2022 to learn more about WFP’s innovation portfolio.
#8. HOW CAN YOU GET INVOLVED
As we look toward the future, our goal is to positively impact 100 million lives through innovation by 2025. We can’t achieve this alone.
Let’s disrupt hunger, together:
- Explore our innovation Knowledge collection to find case studies, videos, toolkits, and insights that can find a role in your work.
- Subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on X (Twitter) and LinkedIn to stay tuned for announcements about upcoming innovation challenges. Who knows? You could soon be in Munich or one of our Innovation Hubs or Units, taking the stage as our next innovator!
- If you are our colleague at WFP, join the Innovation Champions Community — a community that empowers WFP colleagues to become agents of change and drive innovation by allowing members to participate in knowledge-sharing sessions, training and networking opportunities.
- Are you or your organization looking to support innovations that contribute to SDGs? Explore our SDGx Acceleration programme.
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.