Record number of startups applied for the WFP Innovation Challenge 2022 for climate action

WFP Innovation Accelerator
4 min readOct 25, 2022

By Gulia Rakhimova

Nyayuit collects water plants for fuel in South Sudan. WFP is piloting an innovation project, Sustainable Fuel for Cooking, that creates cooking fuel from water hyacinth, a low-cost, readily available raw material in South Sudan’s waterways. Photo: WFP/Eulalia Berlanga.

The World Food Programme (WFP) Innovation Accelerator provides US$100,000 in funding and support for each innovative startup or entrepreneur who can advance global food security and Sustainable Development Goals.

This year’s WFP Innovation Challenge aimed to strengthen our support for startups and innovations that help communities adapt to climate change. This call was more urgent than ever ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference 2022 (COP 27). 2021 was the third-costliest year for climate-related disasters, with US$329 billion in economic losses. Climate change is no longer a look into the future but a daily reality affecting people’s ability to get food and live healthy lives. It is one of the leading causes of the unprecedented current rise in global hunger.

The global call invited innovative proposals from startups, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, academic institutions, and government agencies striving to solve this challenge. We received a record-setting 822 applications, with projects ranging from clean energy and low-tech climate solutions to cutting-edge forecasting and agricultural technology. Let’s take a closer look at the applicant pool.

Applications came from 97 countries, with Nigeria leading the pack

Applications came from 97 different countries worldwide, led by Nigeria with 124 applications (15 percent), Kenya (14 percent), Uganda (10 percent), India (4 percent), and the United States (3 percent). Most applications were from emerging markets and countries where WFP operates, offering the potential to reach people in areas most affected by the climate crisis and hunger.

Most applications came from the Sub-Saharan African region

Submissions came from all regions of the world. More than two-thirds (70 percent) of applications came from countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, 9 percent came from Europe and Central Asia, and 7 percent from South Asia. The remaining 14 percent were distributed across the Middle East and North Africa, North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, East Asia and the Pacific regions.

More than half came from lower-middle-income countries

By county income level, a large proportion of startups applied from lower-middle-income countries (52 percent, e.g., Nigeria and India) and low-income countries (25 percent, e.g., Uganda and Rwanda). This aspect is noteworthy. While climate change touches every inhabited region, not all are equally affected. In developing countries, extreme weather events have more than doubled since the 1990s. The impact of climate change is felt most acutely in low-income countries, which also have fewer resources to cope with the consequences.

We have seen that homegrown innovations can be highly successful as they are grounded in lived experiences of innovators and a deep understanding of challenges in their communities. Investment in regional innovation in these countries will be critical to driving climate adaptation and catalyzing long-term development and resilience.

One-quarter of applications came from women-led ventures

The WFP Innovation Accelerator, whose team is 66 percent female, is dedicated to advancing gender equality and paving the way to gender-transformative innovations. Innovation and technology sectors are still male-dominated. Studies show that women are underrepresented in startup founding, and women-led startups are less likely to obtain venture capital than men-led startups. Research also shows women are heavily underrepresented in patenting, but when they patent, they contribute different technology than male inventors, illustrating the importance of diversity in innovation.

In the WFP Innovation Challenge application, we asked teams to indicate the gender of their team leads and the proportion of women employees. Overall, 26 percent of the applications came from innovation teams led by women, 73 percent by men, and the remaining applicants reported as non-identifying.

The highest number of applications (42 percent) came from teams where women comprised 25–50 percent of employees. This data tells us there is much room for improvement in gender balance, and we will keep encouraging gender-diverse applications in our sourcing campaigns.

Applications by innovation focus areas

When we called for applications, we listed WFP’s four priority areas for innovations in tackling the climate crisis, as shown in the below chart, including nature-based solutions, sustainable energy, preventive action, and financial safety nets. Climate action requires innovative solutions addressing these four areas, but indeed not every contribution has to cover all of them. In addition, teams with innovations that do not directly fall under these specific categories could still apply.

Almost half of the submissions pertained to nature-based solutions and climate-resilient infrastructure, ranging from vertical farming and innovative regenerative soil techniques to using artificial intelligence for climate monitoring. Nearly 20 percent of submissions addressed sustainable energy solutions in schools and communities, such as innovations in solar energy, eco-friendly refrigerators, and clean cooking technologies.

What’s next

Selected teams will get to participate in the next in-person or virtual WFP Innovation Bootcamp and pitch their idea to potential investors and partners. The results are expected in November 2022. The most promising projects will be considered for the WFP Sprint Programme and receive up to US$100,000 each to pilot in WFP’s humanitarian operations.

Thank you to everyone who applied and helped spread the word about this WFP Innovation Challenge. Together, we can transform challenges into solutions!

Ready for a new challenge?

We have just launched the next WFP Innovation Challenge calling for innovation projects worldwide to help address the global food crisis. Read the call for applications to find out more.

We run innovation challenges regularly also for solutions that can contribute to other SDGs; follow our channels below to stay informed.

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.