WFP’s COVID-19 Fast Track: Sourcing humanitarian innovation at speed and scale

WFP Innovation Accelerator
6 min readMar 16, 2021

By Gulia Rakhimova and Dhani Spiller — This story was updated on 9 December 2021 to include details about the Rainmaker pilot, which launched in April 2021.

How long does it take to get to your nearest grocery store? For some residents of Masquil Alto, a rural village in Mozambique, buying basic groceries required two hours of tedious walking over unpaved roads. When the World Food Programme (WFP) innovation project Retail in a Box set up new stores in the village, 9,000 people were finally able to shop for locally-sourced groceries closer to home. Using WFP food vouchers, the villagers can choose which food to buy. This puts purchasing power in people’s hands and contributes to market price stabilization, building resilience and enabling economic recovery in times of great uncertainty.

Retail in a Box in Masquil Alto, Mozambique. Photo: WFP/Nuno Pedro.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator was looking for this kind of solution when COVID-19 started spreading: an innovation that could scale rapidly to respond to the pandemic and, at the same time, lead to lasting change.

WFP’s field offices across the globe have faced extreme challenges during the pandemic’s early months. Unprecedented disruptions in agricultural production and supply chains hindered the provision of life-saving food assistance. All the while, deepening hunger and the pandemic’s particularly devastating impact on countries struggling with conflict and climate shocks threatened to push more than a quarter of a billion people to rely on food assistance.

A fast track through uncertainty

The new face of hunger required us to innovate at speed and scale.

In April 2020, the WFP Innovation Accelerator launched a unique innovation challenge — the COVID-19 Fast Track to accelerate the sourcing and roll-out of existing solutions and serve communities affected by the pandemic. In cooperation with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we created a swift and result-oriented process that matched demand, supply and funding for COVID-19 specific innovations.

The programme ran in South Sudan, the world’s newest independent country — and one of the hungriest. A landlocked nation in an arid region in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Sudan faced its highest food insecurity levels since it declared independence 10 years ago. Innovative solutions are critical for the country, where COVID-19 exerted additional pressure on an already fragile situation troubled by years of conflict, climate shocks, pests, diseases, prolonged displacement and chronic economic hardships.

More than 60 percent of South Sudan’s population are increasingly hungry during the pandemic. Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua.

COVID-19 Fast Track in South Sudan

To understand where the innovation was needed most, we kickstarted the programme with the Problem Identification Workshop among WFP field staff. In South Sudan, food supply chains and logistics have been disrupted due to travel and transport restrictions, unclear and fast-changing COVID-19 physical distancing rules, locust infestations, localized conflicts and a widening funding gap.

More than half of the country’s population was expected to face severe food insecurity between May and July 2020. Innovative solutions were needed to address problems spanning four critical areas: domestic food production, food supply chain and logistics, humanitarian programme delivery and food distribution, and data collection.

The new face of hunger required us to innovate at speed and scale

The next step was launching an open Call for Innovations. It sought solutions with scalable business models that would embed in humanitarian operations more rapidly. The COVID-19 Fast Track strived to skip intermediary steps such as achieving proof-of-concept or prototyping that new ventures require. Teams whose projects could implement quickly in South Sudan were encouraged to apply.

After evaluating the applications and matching proposed solutions to the problems previously identified, we ran the Problem-Solution Workshop with innovators. This three-day virtual bootcamp provided innovation teams with insights into the South Sudan context and relevant problems on the humanitarian front, helping them develop work plans to implement their projects.

Three pilot projects — Retail in a Box, Cockpit and Rainmaker — finalized the design phase and will be fully embedded in WFP field operations in 2021. We are excited to introduce these innovations here.

Retail in a Box

Retail in a Box brings pop-up stores to communities in need while observing COVID-19 safety practices. Photo: WFP/Nalifa Mehelin, Retail in a Box in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Retail in a Box that has proven its value in WFP operations in Mozambique and Bangladesh, will now kickstart retail networks in remote areas of South Sudan.

With South Sudan’s dependence on imports, COVID-related border closures and transportation restrictions negatively impacted food supply chains with a ripple effect on prices. Simultaneously, a lack of adequate retail infrastructure restricted WFP from implementing cash-based transfers to people in need of humanitarian assistance.

Retail in a Box is bringing innovative pop-up stores to the communities in need, starting in Gorom refugee camp. The customizable package provides capacity-building support, retail operational guidance and shop blueprints and layouts. The pilot will work with local retailers and wholesalers to enable the implementation of cash-based assistance, ensuring a resilient supply chain — critical during the pandemic.


WFP‘s school feeding programme in South Sudan, in collaboration with the Ministry of General Education and Instruction, provides regular and nutritious meals to thousands of school children. Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua.

Cockpit takes a different approach to support the most vulnerable; children who benefit from the school feeding programme. WFP’s school meals provide a lifeline to health and nutrition for over 500,000 children in South Sudan; for many, they are the main source of food.

The school feeding programme produces a massive amount of data stored in multiple digital and paper-based systems. Because of such fragmented data, WFP staff need a lot of time to access, gather and analyse information to draw results and design future school feeding activities. Data collection was hampered by lockdowns and movement restrictions, low or no connectivity, and low literacy levels in rural areas. All these factors hinder informed decision-making, critical during emergencies and crises like COVID-19.

Cockpit will provide WFP field staff with access to automated, integrated and visualized data analyses, leveraging existing WFP analytics platforms such as Tableau, School Connect and COMET. These analyses will incorporate COVID-19 cases as new data become available, enabling more accurate and timely decision-making.


Rainmaker provides solar-powered water pumps and services to improve water security and food production in South Sudan. Photo: WFP/Bak Ngor (left); WFP/Mathok Kur (right).

The Rainmaker team believes that South Sudan has the untapped potential to meet its critical humanitarian needs with over 3,000 average sunlight hours, abundant agricultural land, and a large unemployed population. The project implements climate-smart solutions that make the best use of these resources to support communities whose access to water and livelihoods have been disrupted by conflict and COVID-19.

Smallholder farmers have year-round access to water owing to Rainmaker’s solar-powered water pumps and sensor-driven drip irrigation systems installed in villages around the country. For example, a solar-powered water supply system near the rural community of Thiet delivers water for safe drinking and agriculture to nearly 3,000 people.

Rainmaker’s farm also employs community members, and young people learn to operate solar irrigation equipment. The pilot project has introduced an affordable tractor-for-hire service model to further enhance local food production. Rainmaker will continue to work with communities and scale up these solutions throughout South Sudan.

Learn more about the innovations and technology allowing WFP to maintain operations and to step up to COVID-19:

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.