Photo: WFP/Nadine Stegemann

WFP innovation lessons learned 2023: Laying the groundwork

WFP Innovation Accelerator


Build systems and culture, establish partnerships, and keep connections strong

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.

In this final piece in the series, we share what we’ve learned about the value of backend processes, knowledge sharing and strategic collaborations that lay the groundwork for innovations to thrive. The first post explores 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.

Ways of working and back-end-processes that support innovation

A structured alumni programme can help maintain a connection with innovations beyond their initial acceleration phase

Maintaining a connection with innovations beyond their initial acceleration phase is essential for evaluating their long-term effectiveness and impact. Continuous support and communication channels for these solutions are vital for sustaining and scaling their impact over time. However, the challenge often lies in the absence of structured follow-up mechanisms. To address this, WFP’s Scale-Up Enablement team has initiated a structured Alumni programme with consistent check-ins to grasp their challenges and offer support during various growth stages, ensuring that these ventures stay integrated with WFP’s innovation community for ongoing knowledge exchange. This approach not only provides Alumni innovations with continual access to resources and mentors but also allows the WFP Innovation Accelerator to keep track of their growth, challenges, and evolving needs even after graduation.

Keyt takeaway: Establishing structured follow-up mechanisms for innovations post-acceleration can help understand and support their long-term growth and impact.

Knowledge management offers untapped potential for innovation pipeline and strategy development

Knowledge management fuels innovation by facilitating the scaling and replication of best practices. Beyond that, it can also provide valuable insights into high-potential solutions and untapped areas for innovation throughout the organization, which has been instrumental for WFP’s Scale Up Enablement team to understand innovations across their levels of maturity. Yet, knowledge management within a large organization like WFP can pose challenges, demanding substantial time for research, networking, and information retrieval. At the same time, our engagement with colleagues across Country Offices revealed a demand for a centralized knowledge system for innovation. Drawing on user research and consultations with innovation teams, we designed an optimal solution — a co-owned database where users can not only share their knowledge but also gain access to insights from other teams.

Key takeaway: Creating knowledge management strategy, systems and shared databases can facilitate the sharing of lessons learned and replication of best practices, spurring more innovation within the organization.

Preparation and targeted engagement with a select few mentors enhance the mentorship outcomes for ventures

Mentor matching process is crucial, but can be complex. We found innovators gain more from mentoring sessions after receiving training or guidelines on how to meaningfully engage with mentors and what kinds of questions they should prepare. We also found that starting sessions with new mentors often involves significant time spent on introductions and project briefings, which halves the time available for actual problem-solving. Continuously working with the same mentor over multiple (around five) sessions has proven to be a more efficient strategy. It saves time, deepens the mentor’s understanding of innovations, providing teams with more focused and actionable insights.

Key takeaway: In certain cases it may be better for ventures to have a pre-training and schedule more sessions with a smaller number of mentors as this facilitates more in-depth discussions about topics of expertise.

H2Grow. | WFP/Julia Mills

Having an innovation team with varied technical skills is critical for meeting the unique needs of innovations as they scale

The journey to scale is unique for each innovation and dependent on the strategic and technical needs of the venture. Sourcing the right expertise for a specific venture’s needs can therefore be challenging, as the backgrounds of project managers may not always be aligned with new technical areas. For example, WFP’s H2Grow innovation has required multiple iterations of high-tech hydroponic systems in order to develop low-tech alternatives that can be adapted to local contexts and ensure accessibility for a diverse range of users. In examples such as these, where innovations are technologically complex, it is critical to be able to tap into the community of highly specialized professionals; generic advice rarely suffices for such ventures. It is therefore important to have a flexible in-house pool of technical experts or the mentor community to support such innovations.

Key takeaway: Each innovation’s journey to scale is unique underscoring the necessity for a versatile innovation team and pool of mentors to provide the tailored support to ventures as they scale.

Building an innovation culture

When innovation-minded teams form a network, iteration is at the heart of strategy

The key to forming a successful innovation network lies in making continuous iteration a fundamental part of the strategy. Involving key stakeholders early on and promoting co-ownership across the network are essential for this strategy to work. This also means listening to feedback and not shying away from modifying the terms of engagement, halting certain activities, and launching new ones to ensure the network’s offerings remain effective for the intended result. Our journey with the WFP Innovation Champions Community since 2020 exemplifies this. When we noticed a decrease in engagement following the change in community manager, we adopted a new strategy in 2023 to re-engage the community, introducing networking events and brainstorming sessions with the new community manager. We realized that while our initial community setup was effective, this change revealed opportunities for evolving our community approach. Ongoing feedback and retrospective meetings, along with experimenting with different meeting formats, led to a refined model steering the community towards a deeper and more purposeful engagement where members have higher involvement in innovation-related activities.

Key takeaway: As much as in the innovation process, the backbone of a thriving innovation network lies in iteration, including by encouraging co-ownership, actively incorporating feedback, and discontinuing initiatives that no longer align with needs.

Invest both in digital systems and an innovation mindset to harness collective knowledge

Measuring the success of knowledge management and culture initiatives often relies on digital analytics and monitoring online community engagement. Yet, the full impact of knowledge extends beyond what digital metrics can capture. As the WFP Innovation Network grows, the value of community engagement and personal interactions in promoting a culture of knowledge sharing becomes more apparent. Metrics like website visits, for example, don’t show whether the shared knowledge was practically applied. However, we can intentionally design our events, workshops, and community resources to facilitate the capturing and exchange of knowledge. This realization prompted us to intensify our commitment to knowledge management within the WFP Innovation Network and the role it can play in the scale-up of innovations. Since knowledge is predominantly disseminated through human interaction, we create space and opportunities for our community to engage, share insights, and collaborate. Knowledge management also helps us embrace failures as learning opportunities, fostering an innovation mindset and using our collective knowledge effectively to innovate and replicate what works across the entire ecosystem.

Key takeaway: Advancing a culture of innovation demands dual investments in digital systems (such as shared databases and online communication platforms) and in cultivating relationships and an innovation mindset.

Partnerships and ecosystem engagement for innovation

In joint ventures, keeping all stakeholders informed and aligned is paramount for the initiative to thrive

When convening multiple stakeholders (e.g., government, external ventures, implementing partners, etc.) for a joint initiative, securing buy-in from all parties and establishing clear roles and responsibilities becomes crucial right from inception. This was the key issue when one of our recently onboarded innovations encountered unforeseen implementation delays. External ventures that have been operating independently in their respective contexts and are new to working with WFP may not understand the new responsibilities or considerations for a successful joint implementation, such as internal procurement procedures or reporting requirements. Joint coordination and clarity on roles and responsibilities among stakeholders, as well as a thorough onboarding for the external organizations, are critical for timely and successful implementation. In addition, a central technical and operational focal point and backstopping manager can help drive progress forward, with scheduled periodic touchpoints to ensure milestones are being met by all stakeholders.

Key takeaway: For joint ventures to flourish, it is critical to maintain open lines of communication and alignment among all stakeholders; early buy-in and clear definition of roles and responsibilities are fundamental from the onset of the project.

Collaboration with private sector partners enables access to focused technical expertise and the WFP Innovation Accelerator launched a joint innovation programme to accelerate WFP internal ventures focused on technological innovation. The programme was driven by a co-design and co-creation mindset from the start. Both sides explored tools like the programme master plan, a sheet that serves as the programme control room, providing an overview of all programme plans, stakeholders involved, links, tools and resources. Creating a shared knowledge and information hub for the programme allowed streamlining and merging insights and practices from each partner’s experience. This eventually set the ground for co-creating new tools and ways of working for the new innovation programme.

Key takeaway: Developing innovation programmes with diverse stakeholders enables cross-pollination of best practices and tools, ultimately shaping an innovative and fully-fledged programme.

Innovation thrives on multi-stakeholder collaboration

This year, the WFP Innovation Accelerator joined Moonshots for Development (M4D), a dynamic working group of innovators from International Financial Institutions, Multilateral Development Banks, and UN agencies. What initially began as a long series of meetings to set the scene swiftly evolved into an ambitious and effective alliance aimed at pioneering breakthrough innovations to address climate resilience in rural areas through AI. Each participant brought to the table a wealth of expertise spanning from deep technical knowledge to a nuanced understanding of local needs. Moreover, all members actively contributed to designing the sourcing and selection process, openly sharing both successes and failures from previous experiences in running Innovation Challenges. While alignment among six international organizations needs capacity and time, the cohort reaped immense benefits. Exposure to diverse perspectives across sectors catalysed exponential learning and fostered invaluable networking opportunities for both the participants and organizers.

Key takeaway: Although creating an innovation programme involving multiple stakeholders can be time-consuming and effort-intensive, the investment is worthwhile; the multi-stakeholder approach facilitates substantial learning, with each member’s unique expertise enriching the innovation process.

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.