From idea to impact: WFP CODA’s humanitarian innovation journey
CODA grew from an idea to a digital innovation that has transformed malnutrition management and can inspire innovators striving for social impact
By Gulia Rakhimova and Federico Naccarato
When we think of innovation, our minds jump to Silicon Valley and high-tech companies. Yet innovation is also happening in the humanitarian and development sector, at an increasing pace, continuously, and at scale.
The United Nations World Food Programme (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, the WFP Innovation Accelerator continues to embrace this ethos by leveraging forward-thinking technologies and know-how to help transform our humanitarian operations across the world.
How can innovations emerge and grow within a large and complex humanitarian organization like WFP? CODA is WFP’s cloud-based technology that digitizes humanitarian interventions such as malnutrition programme management. It started as an idea born in El Salvador five years ago and has scaled to serve over 60,000 people across six countries. CODA’s path to scale can inspire humanitarian intrapreneurs and external startups striving for social impact; let’s take a look at it in four parts: Ideation, Pilot, Growth, and Scale.
In June 2016, the team in WFP’s Country Office in El Salvador thought of a digital system that could track the health information of malnutrition patients and replace paper-based booklets that were in use. These paper booklets created information silos, were prone to errors, and were easily lost or destroyed during the rainy season. With this process digitized, health workers would no longer need to collect and access records manually, saving time and making information accessible instantly.
The El Salvador team then submitted their idea to the WFP Innovation Accelerator; but even the most promising ideas don’t come fully formed. The team participated in a week-long WFP Innovation Bootcamp that helped them deep dive into the problem, ideate solutions, and refine their initial plan to develop a viable business concept.
Following the innovation bootcamp, the team and their Project Manager at the WFP Innovation Accelerator in Munich continued to work remotely. They started building their minimum viable product (MVP) — a model of the innovation that would be ready to pilot in field operations. Developing a social innovation MVP within a humanitarian organization comes with unique benefits. The field staff can build on their first-hand knowledge of the challenges faced by the communities they serve. Because WFP has stringent standards on what interventions can be used in humanitarian work, the MVP must live up to these high standards; it is safe by design.
Innovators can achieve more significant social impact by putting people at the centre of the design process
To speed up the development of a safe MVP, the team researched WFP’s existing corporate systems that already complied with safety protocols. As a result, they built an MVP on the backbone of SCOPE — WFP’s existing beneficiary identity management system — and CODA (Conditional On-Demand Assistance) was developed.
CODA operates on a mobile device equipped with a smart card and a proprietary application that allows patient information to be recorded, tracked and individually monitored. The CODA mobile solution was put into place on secure Android mobile devices with security protocols to ensure that only authorized health clinics could access the patient records.
In 2017, CODA ran a six-month pilot in El Salvador with support from the WFP Innovation Accelerator. The pilot was an opportunity to field-test the MVP and measure its effectiveness in real-world conditions. In doing so, the team sought feedback and consultations with key stakeholders — from organizing a workshop to gather insights from frontline workers, to leveraging the in-country network of government officials and representatives of local social safety net programmes.
A crucial step after launching the pilot was monitoring the results and effectiveness of the project. The pilot demonstrated the real value of CODA:
- The application reduced the cost of malnutrition monitoring per patient by 74 percent, freeing up time and resources to provide humanitarian assistance to about 17 percent more patients; making it possible to help more people for the same amount of money.
- The digital database allowed monitoring of the effectiveness of nutrition interventions at an individual level, and disbursement of humanitarian assistance on a conditional and on-demand basis.
- The algorithm instantly detected double registrations of a patient; something that would have previously gone unnoticed in manual entry and created efficiency to get humanitarian assistance to the right people at the right time.
The WFP Innovation Accelerator and WFP Nutrition Division continued supporting further development and adaptability of the tool to make it available to the broader organization.
Innovation is like a muscle; it can grow stronger through exercise. The successful pilot of CODA in El Salvador set off a chain of scoping missions to test the tool in new field locations — South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. The team focused on human-centred design, building a solution that addresses real-world problems by incorporating feedback from the end-users of the innovation.
In South Sudan, the first testing ground, CODA met 80 percent of the requirements, compared to the 20–40 percent that existing systems met. It was clear that the solution had potential beyond one WFP Country Office context.
Innovation is like a muscle; it can grow stronger through exercise
From one field location to another, the field staff highlighted what worked and what could be improved depending on their specific context. The CODA team started seeing different angles of the problem with recurring trends and discovered an opportunity that other similar tools missed: the need for offline functionality.
Subsequently, CODA has developed into a hybrid offline-online technology. Health workers could log records, provide assistance when an internet connection was not available, and then sync data once the connection was re-established. This feature made CODA workable in emergencies and remote areas with poor connectivity or intermittent electricity supply.
Design thinking didn’t stop with scoping missions. When new pilots launched in South Sudan and Uganda in 2018, the team organized tailored one-week training workshops for frontline health workers and to test the tool in controlled environments. Testing involved different user personas (fictional characters representing patient types), real-life scenarios, and a mock health centre to imitate the field settings. The workshop enabled frontline staff to feel more comfortable with the new technology and, in turn, enabled the innovation team to address any issues detected ahead of the pilot launch.
After successful pilots in South Sudan and Uganda, CODA has seen an increasing interest in the tool from other field offices and started planning to scale for more impact and reach. Critical to this process was working with other WFP operational divisions. Programmatic guidance from WFP’s Nutrition Division experts and continued integration with WFP’s SCOPE beneficiary management system allowed CODA to begin its transition from a pilot project towards a WFP corporate solution. To do this, the team established a dedicated CODA tech support desk and strengthened the project oversight capacity at the field level by assigning project managers and nutrition experts in each WFP Country Office.
CODA’s path to scale was backed by these solid in-country relationships and strategic partnerships. The solution extended its reach to Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, and Tajikistan — engaging stakeholders early on through training and lessons learned workshops with existing users.
Rolling out the innovation in Afghanistan was more tricky with the restrictions on movements and supply chain created by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, with the experience of augmenting the solution to other contexts and users, the CODA team was able to adapt the software quickly to comply with World Health Organization pandemic guidelines and launched the Afghanistan chapter fully remotely.
Innovation requires more than just a good idea; it is an ongoing mindset. CODA was designed with the endurance of systems and processes in mind, addressing challenges faced by frontline health workers every step of the way. By continuously listening to and fine-tuning solutions with actual end-users and stakeholders of our innovations, we can help everyone embrace the change and co-create a better future for all.
The WFP Innovation Accelerator has supported more than 90 projects in 46 countries, with 14 innovations scaling up to achieve significant impact. Read more about scaling innovations at WFP:
This article is written in collaboration with Federico Naccarato, who was CODA Global Project Lead at the time of the interview. Federico shared his experience working on CODA for the past four years, since the beginning of the project during his time as CODA Project Manager at the WFP Innovation Accelerator. Federico and his team developed and implemented CODA in over six countries across the globe, adding it to WFP’s stack of corporate tools that can bring us closer to Zero Hunger. He hopes this experience will inspire other humanitarian innovators and encourage them to continue their work towards greater social impact.
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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