Sanku. | Photo: WFP

WFP innovation lessons learned 2023: Harnessing local potential

WFP Innovation Accelerator


Co-create, harness local knowledge and stay agile

By Gulia Rakhimova

The journey of innovation is marked by its trials: the pivots, the failures, and the inevitable changes that challenge our strategies and assumptions. Yet, it is precisely these experiences that lay the foundation for growth, inspire innovative thinking and catalyse further advancements. This blog series presents an overview of the key lessons learned by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Innovation Accelerator throughout 2023, offering insights that can be useful for other innovation teams and organizations working towards social impact.

We start our series by exploring how involving local communities, collaborating with governments and leveraging agile strategies can lead to sustainable and scalable innovations. The second blog offers takeaways from our work on innovative finance mechanisms, frontier technologies and scaling strategies that propel lasting impact. In the final piece in this series, we share what we learned about the value of backend processes, knowledge sharing and strategic collaborations that lay the groundwork for innovations to thrive.

Localizing innovation to enable those we serve tap into their potential

Involving communities in the innovation process increases the likelihood of solution adoption

Employing human-centered design in community-based initiatives leads to greater community involvement, ownership and sustainability of the solution in the long run. Consider the case of ‘Sustainable Fuel for Cooking’, an innovation in South Sudan which introduced a sustainable alternative cooking fuel made from the locally prevalent water hyacinth plant. From the start, it involved the community at every step, starting with initial testing of the locally produced water hyacinth briquettes, the production of the prototypes and the further iterations until the final prototype was validated. The solution’s next steps focused on optimizing the production process and training community members in briquette production and usage for cooking. This iterative approach based on continuous feedback from the community ensured the solution was well-suited to their everyday needs. Surveys revealed high satisfaction and adoption rates: 98 percent of participating households would recommend briquettes to others, with spontaneous adoption noted even among non-participating households.

Key Takeaway: By involving communities and sharing knowledge into the production and innovation process (i.e., testing, measuring, and validating the solution) we can bolster community resilience and promote the adoption of the innovation in their daily lives.

Collaborating with the government enhances the sustainability and scalability of country-specific innovations.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator has been working with the WFP Iraq country office to systematically leverage innovations to support the reconstruction of the country in areas such as climate change, water scarcity, marshlands revival and livelihoods. Our approach involved conducting a series of needs assessment workshops with diverse stakeholders in the ecosystem (government, other UN agencies and startups) where representatives of the government ministries were co-creators of innovation initiatives. This co-creation model allowed bringing in perspectives around sustainability from the government’s experience while increasing strategic alignment and resource mobilization that can contribute to the overall holistic development of the country. The goal was to avoid isolated projects that do not contribute to the local ecosystem development, ensuring the long-term viability of innovation efforts and alignment with existing government initiatives, thus facilitating systemic development and the scaling of solutions across the country.

Key Takeaway: Co-creating solutions with government and other key local stakeholders from the start lays the foundation for innovation that is rooted in local needs and expertise; it creates community ownership and ensures the solutions are designed with a multifaceted understanding of the challenges they aim to address.

Cooperation with local stakeholders amplifies innovation visibility and knowledge exchange within the ecosystem

Securing buy-in from local stakeholders, especially in relevant governmental ministries, is paramount for driving innovation forward. One example comes from Medtrack, a venture supported by WFP’s SDGx Acceleration Programme. In Ghana, Medtrack deployed electronic health records in a health center and two hospitals within hard-to-reach communities of the Gomoa East Health District. The success and high adoption rate of their solution caught the attention of the Ghana Health Services’ Gomoa East Health Directorate. Inspired by the impact seen in these initial facilities, the directorate approached Medtrack to expand their solution to 31 additional health facilities under their management. This initiative not only allowed Medtrack to double their reach during the pilot phase but also highlighted the importance of internal knowledge sharing within the local ecosystem, as the directorate’s awareness and subsequent collaboration stemmed from observing the solution’s effectiveness elsewhere.

Key takeaway: Collaborating with the public sector can significantly extend the reach and impact of innovations, where knowledge-sharing among local stakeholders and the visible success of an innovation can prompt other stakeholders to engage.

Test the new technologies and software in contexts they are intended for

For the minimum viable product (MVP) of a software solution intended to facilitate in-field operations, it is imperative to get detailed feedback from the end users focusing on how the software meets humanitarian programme needs and their experience of the interface. The WFP Innovation Accelerator along with teams from the WFP Headquarters, Regional Bureau Nairobi and South Sudan country office, conducted a pre-testing exercise in South Sudan for WFP’s CODA (Conditional on Demand Assistance), a tech solution that digitizes nutrition programming. This pre-test aimed to assess how ready the software was for real-world application. It involved documenting user feedback on multiple input devices and observation by the WFP teams against predefined key performance indicators. The test, conducted over two weeks in multiple locations, considered challenges such as limited access to power and internet connectivity. This software pre-testing approach was instrumental in planning for future development of the innovation, maximizing its practicality in programme operations.

Key takeaway: The careful pre-testing of new software in the actual intended environment ensures it’s both effective and user-friendly, maximizing its effectiveness in humanitarian programmes on the ground.

Harness knowledge from stakeholders on the ground to tailor solutions for the local context

Even with a solid project plan, it is crucial to have a deep understanding of the unique needs and circumstances of the populations in each location we aim to assist. Take SheCan, WFP’s innovative finance initiative that supports smallholder farmers and micro-entrepreneurs. As we launched pilots in various locations, it became clear that their success depended heavily on the local context. In Peru, we discovered that SheCan’s loan offering was not receiving as much interest as anticipated, indicating the need to involve the population more effectively. Thanks to insights and local knowledge provided by WFP Peru and Country Office’s affiliations with key local banking and insurance institutions, the team was able to build local partnerships and improve targeting, gain credibility among micro-entrepreneurs and facilitate the provision of financial products more aligned with the needs of the local community.

Key takeaway: Even well-conceived pilots may require adjustments based on local context and the needs of the communities they serve; innovation teams should remain flexible continuously seeking and incorporating local insights.

Implementing innovations in humanitarian contexts

Innovations require agility and foresight to thrive in emergencies and conflict-affected environments

In contexts where active conflict is unfolding, uncertainty around programme implementation and scope changes increases significantly, and timeline delays are highly likely. It is crucial to employ agile methods and maintain direct communication with field teams to quickly adjust and implement new strategies. In one of our programmes which involved local data collection, the use of technology for data collection and tracking was not possible at the time due to local restrictions. Traditional ways of data collection and tracking needed to be used (paper or observations). We developed a system to collect and digitize data outside the affected areas for integration into our database, resulting in a hybrid approach that combined traditional and digital data collection methods.

Key takeaway: Agility and foresight are essential in conflict-affected areas to overcome challenges in programme implementation.

Assembling diverse partners into an agile, neutrally-facilitated ecosystem can accelerate innovation

In initiatives working in areas of conflict or emergency, where an ecosystem of partners that have never worked together need to be engaged and where each plays a different role in the collaboration, the WFP Innovation Accelerator has been experimenting with an agile ecosystem approach. Within this framework of collaboration, each partner is accountable for a portion of the design and implementation of the new solution while the WFP Innovation Accelerator remains a neutral convener. The WFP Innovation Accelerator provides partners with the necessary tools and methodologies for co-design, learning, and progress monitoring, streamlining collaboration. This enables technical experts to focus on their areas of expertise freeing them from the broader project management and stakeholder engagement responsibilities. Serving as a neutral facilitator, the WFP Innovation Accelerator has successfully navigated working barriers across a wide array of partners in its SDG Acceleration programmes, fostering a culture of open communication and a faster-paced collaboration model.

Key takeaway: Bringing together a diverse group of partners and stakeholders under a neutral facilitator can significantly enhance the ways of working and pace of innovation.

A focused gender strategy and specialized expertise can enhance gender mainstreaming in innovations

The WFP Sprint Programme has improved its gender marker assessment to better incorporate gender considerations into innovations from the start. Initially, the assessment process had limitations due to the reviewers’ varied levels of expertise on gender issues which influenced the impact of gender-sensitive recommendations. To address this, a revised Gender Analysis tool has been introduced to provide a more nuanced approach. This tool enables Innovation Consultants to evaluate solutions more accurately for gender outcomes. It assesses sprints through a gender and inclusion lens by examining the innovation’s monitoring and evaluation systems. Specifically, it looks at how well the analysis of diverse needs has been integrated into the programme design, including feedback mechanisms, information sharing, and decision-making processes that cater to these needs. This ensures that gender considerations are effectively mainstreamed throughout the innovation process.

Key takeaway: Implementing a specialized gender strategy and using targeted expertise can significantly improve the integration of gender considerations in innovations, leading to more inclusive and effective outcomes.

This is an excerpt from the WFP Innovation Accelerator’s recently published Year In Review. Check out the Year In Review 2023 to get an overview of our work and innovations that reached 60.7 million people in 2023.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator was established in 2015 by the United Nations (UN) World Food Programme with the support of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the Federal Foreign Office (GFFO) and the Bavarian State Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Tourism (StMELF). Its goal is to source new ideas, sprint pilot projects, and scale high-impact innovations by connecting them with WFP’s global network and field operations in over 120 countries and territories.

From its base in Munich, Germany, the WFP Innovation Accelerator runs programmes addressing a wide range of social impact and sustainability issues, including climate change, primary healthcare, gender equality, and emergency response. In 2023, the WFP Innovation Accelerator ran 14 programmes and its portfolio, comprising over 70 active innovations and 66 alumni innovation initiatives, reached 60.7 million individuals across 70 countries and territories. Since its launch, innovations supported by the WFP Innovation Accelerator have secured over US$290 million in grant funding.



WFP Innovation Accelerator

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