Cutting the edge of hunger: 6 ways that WFP drives humanitarian innovation

WFP Innovation Accelerator
7 min readMay 2, 2022

By Gulia Rakhimova

WFP Innovation Bootcamp participants in Munich, Germany, February 2020. Photo: WFP/Paul-Guenther.

It costs only 80 cents (US$) to feed a child for a day with the World Food Programme (WFP).

What if more people were aware of this, and it was easy for everyone to donate small amounts frequently to help fight hunger? That’s what Bernhard Kowatsch and Sebastian Stricker thought in 2014 when they launched ShareTheMeal, WFP’s crowdfunding app. We could end world hunger if enough people joined in to “share the meal”; and so far 8.7 million smartphone users have donated 148 million meals through the app.

This novel approach allowed WFP to massively increase its reach.

WFP has a long-standing culture of innovation, from its first airlift in 1962, to pioneering the use of email in humanitarian emergencies in the 1990s, and distributing aid through e-vouchers in the early 2000s. Today, we are tapping into blockchain, digital cash, and artificial intelligence to enhance humanitarian assistance. Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua.

WFP staff are generally innovation-minded, but what would it take to systematically identify, support and scale up innovations to benefit the communities we serve? With the success of ShareTheMeal and financial assistance from the German and Bavarian government, the WFP Innovation Accelerator opened its office in Munich in 2015 to create this space where innovation can thrive.

Since then, the team behind the Accelerator has grown from five to more than 60, and Accelerator-supported projects helped 9 million people in 2021 alone.

In this blog, we gather six essential steps that we take to embrace innovative solutions on the road to zero hunger.

1. Innovation sourcing

We actively invite proposals for high-potential solutions that can enhance humanitarian work. Whether it is a WFP staff member who has a great idea, or a social entrepreneur who strives to contribute to a better world, we want to hear about it. The same goes for a company with a product that could be exactly what we need.

WFP staff, start-ups, non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, and government agencies can submit their proposals at any time on the Accelerator website. On top of that, we run a number of Innovation Challenges each year, which invite proposals on specific innovation priorities, such as Food Systems or the COVID-19 response.

Our growing network of Innovation Hubs, Innovation Champions and partners help us spread the word and reach local innovators in all parts of the world.

Each submitted project proposal undergoes a detailed assessment to ensure that it addresses an existing food security need in at least one of WFP’s operations across 117 countries and territories. Besides their level of innovativeness, applications are evaluated for team strength, business model, current traction, and the potential to scale — to truly create value for the people we serve.

2. Ideas turned into workable solutions

Having a good project proposal is only one side of the equation — knowing the right problem to solve is the other. This is why most successful proposals from innovation challenges start at WFP’s Innovation Bootcamps.

For their work to be relevant, innovators need to understand their users’ needs and circumstances; they must be aware of the context in which they operate because of the high level of uncertainty and complexity inherent in humanitarian operations.

In a week-long intensive program, innovation teams receive guidance, mentorship and pitch training to refine their project plans to be field-ready. We leverage the external expertise of startup mentors who advise on user research, prototyping, market access, storytelling and other areas. Humanitarian practitioners support innovators to take a deeper look at field conditions. The goal is to go beyond incremental improvements and maximize impact in the real world.

Networking is key. Bootcamps culminate in a Pitch Event, where the teams present their ideas to a group of potential funders, partners, and social entrepreneurs who may be in the position to support.

Since its foundation in 2015, the WFP Innovation Accelerator has hosted 40 innovation bootcamps with 387 participating teams. Photo: WFP/Paul-Guenther.

3. The power of iteration

At WFP, we evaluate the viability of innovations early on and iterate based on input from end-users.

Following the bootcamp, early-stage projects are tested in WFP’s humanitarian field operations for six months as part of the Sprint Programme. Innovation teams receive up to US $100,000 in funding, hands-on support from an experienced project manager, and access to our global network of mentors to implement their project.

By applying frameworks such as lean start-up methodologies and human-centered design, innovators work together with the end-users, the people whom we serve, to ensure the project’s relevance in addressing real needs on the ground. Take the example of CODA, which grew from an idea to digitize patient booklets in El Salvador — to WFP’s cloud-based technology that has transformed malnutrition management. CODA saw a series of iterations as it was deployed in diverse field locations, incorporating feedback from end-users along the way.

This approach allows for constant learning, rapid iteration and adaptation of high-potential projects before committing significant resources to implement them at a large scale.

Hani Mohamed uses her mobile phone to redeem WFP’s cash assistance and order food from WFP’s online e-Shop at a food distribution Centre Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo: WFP/Ismail Taxta.

4. Taking proven solutions to scale

We look at each innovation to see how it can support more people facing hunger. Sprint projects and other initiatives that have demonstrated value with potential to reach 1 million people can broaden their impact through our Scale-Up Enablement Programme.

Planning for growth includes an early-stage assessment workshop among stakeholders to identify gaps and design a clear path to scale. The programme provides tailored strategic planning, fundraising, communications, knowledge management and mentorship support throughout.

Pathways to scale vary by solution. We are increasingly aware that many innovations face similar challenges and barriers to scaling. We capture and share the lessons learned on how to manage bottlenecks and what has worked across different geographic and operational differentials.

The ultimate goal is to create innovations that can walk on their own feet and improve humanitarian work. Some innovations moved beyond individual projects and became part of WFP’s regular operations. One of them is Building Blocks, which evolved from a 100-person pilot in Pakistan to the largest implementation of blockchain technology in the humanitarian sector, serving more than one million people each month.

5. Creating impact across all SDGs

WFP is a key player in efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2: Zero Hunger. While our initial focus was on integrating innovation to end global hunger, we came to realize that progress cannot be achieved in isolation, since all the 17 SDGs are linked together.

Through our SDG Acceleration Programme, we hope to accelerate systemic change by breaking down silos and finding new ways of engaging with like-minded organizations. The programme is designed to stimulate knowledge exchange and collaboration spanning all areas of our expertise, including innovation sourcing, piloting, and scaling support.

Germany’s BMZ digilab, for example, engaged the Accelerator to co-design the Digital Health Accelerator Program, which aims to enhance pandemic preparedness for health systems (SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being) at a time when COVID-19 pushed 272 million of people to hunger. We’ve also worked with Creating Hope in Conflict: a Humanitarian Grand Challenge to enable innovations in areas affected by conflict ⁠ — the single greatest challenge to achieving zero hunger ⁠ — while contributing to SDG 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions.

Daniel is a student in Kitwe, Zambia, where WFP has set up a hydroponics garden to support the local school meals programme. “I’ve been looking for ways to replicate the greenhouse made by WFP…finally I made it and built my own greenhouse.’’ Photo: WFP/Andy Higgins.

We believe that knowledge sharing is integral to harmonizing efforts across the SDGs, maximizing efficiencies, and saving millions in operating costs. One of our scaling projects, H2Grow, has created a digital platform that supports this approach. It documents best practices that allow others to implement hydroponics solutions and share lessons learned — benefiting the broader humanitarian and development community.

6. Breaking path into the future: Innovative Finance and Frontier Innovations

The Accelerator has built proven strategies for incorporating innovation into humanitarian operations in its first six years. Nonetheless, with 811 million people still going hungry every day worldwide, we are undertaking our own path to scale up.

Lack of long-term funding is a major barrier for many humanitarian innovations. We are working to address this problem by creating new forms of sustainable financing. One of these initiatives is WFP’s US $100 million Impact Investment Fund set to launch in 2022, which will expand investment funding for innovation projects at all levels.

Project AHEAD is WFP’s collaboration with the German Aerospace Center (DLR), to test all-terrain trucks for remote operation, so that we can safely deliver assistance to areas affected by natural disasters, conflict, or outbreaks of disease. Photo: WFP/Hugh Rutherford.

The Accelerator’s research and development arm, Frontier Innovations Programme, explores emerging technologies and strategies that may find a role in humanitarian response. Whether it’s working with academia to operate amphibious all-terrain vehicles remotely or cultivating innovation ecosystems to address urban food security in Global South megacities, we continuously look for new ways to ramp up our operations.

With less than a decade left to accomplish the SDGs, we must pool our resources and co-create a better future for everyone, one innovation at a time.

Find out more and explore our portfolio of innovations in the WFP Innovation Accelerator Year In Review 2021.

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.

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WFP Innovation Accelerator

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