Photo: WFP/Omar Bandaogo

WFP innovation lessons learned 2023: Navigating new frontiers

WFP Innovation Accelerator
7 min readApr 8, 2024


Focus on problems, center on users, and anticipate many futures

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 second piece of our series, we share takeaways from our work on innovative finance mechanisms, frontier technologies and scaling strategies that propel lasting impact. The first post explores how involving local communities, collaborating with governments and leveraging agile strategies can lead to sustainable and scalable innovations. 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.

Sustainable funding for innovations, including innovative finance

Innovative finance mechanisms are mostly theme independent and broadly applicable

One significant lesson for Innovative Finance in effectively supporting WFP’s global strategic plan is the importance of adaptability and responsiveness. Innovative finance solutions are primarily thematically agnostic, meaning they are suitable for a variety of programmatic priorities and needs across the humanitarian and development sectors, and they help unlock different funding opportunities instead of strictly adhering to predefined themes or sectors. Therefore, regular communication and direct consultations with WFP Country Offices, Regional Bureaux, and headquarters teams have been crucial in identifying use cases for innovative finance. This approach ensures that our financial solutions stay aligned with the shifting needs of WFP field offices and the changing funding environment.

Key takeaway: Embracing thematic agnosticism in innovative finance fosters versatility and alignment with WFP’s diverse and evolving needs.

Investment readiness support can help social impact ventures move away from grant reliance

While grants are critical in providing initial funding, they often create a dependency mindset that hinders sustainable growth. Dedicated investment readiness support regarding areas such as strategy, finance, and impact measurement, enables impact businesses to develop robust business models, articulate value propositions, and establish clear pathways to profitability, making them more attractive to investors. In 2023, as part of the WFP Innovation Accelerator’s “Investment Readiness” curriculum, we delivered introductory sessions and tailored support to more than 10 innovative businesses and ventures, to help them strengthen their investment readiness. Of these, some are currently considered for investment by the recently launched WFP Innovation BRIDGE funding facility, which targets ventures at the “missing middle” providing them access to concessional debt and guarantees.

Key takeaway: Technical assistance and support in investment readiness are pivotal in moving innovative ventures beyond grant dependency, promoting their long-term sustainability.

Exploring frontiers and emerging technologies

Targeted strategy and data control steps can help bridge country-specific data variances

Designing data strategy at scale and generation of global models requires introduction of a heavy data control step to address gaps in different countries in order to ensure standardized operational outputs. Geotar is a targeting tool that helps WFP carry out targeting with high precision and minimal exclusion errors. Although its source data originates from varied entities including governmental databases, the inherent diversity in data types, formats, and structures presents challenges. Given the impracticality of unifying source data from 120 countries, the Geotar team aims to harmonize the tool’s outputs while allowing for essential customization. This involves establishing data control and processing measures tailored to the global model, thereby aligning final outputs with WFP’s operational standards and global benchmarks. Geotar’s efforts are part of the Humanitarian Ventures Acceleration Programme, in collaboration with WFP and Google, focused on developing a backend capable of handling extensive processing efficiently and rapidly. The beta version of this solution will undergo testing in five different WFP operations this year.

Key takeaway: Reflecting on the actual problems and investing in careful design and planning can generate enduring value for data-driven ventures.

Handling sensitive data imposes significant overhead on AI frontier innovations

Exploring frontiers and emerging technologies, exemplified by the NEMO AI innovation, has provided valuable lessons for the development and implementation of artificial intelligence technology within WFP. One crucial realization is the significant overhead that sensitive data imposes on AI solutions, encompassing specific data privacy and security requirements. Managing sensitive data can extend the timeline for the Proof of Concept (PoC) or Minimum Viable Product (MVP) phase by an additional one to two months. This complexity underlines the importance of assembling a diverse and skilled team. Given the scarcity of AI talent, it is crucial to strategically allocate roles. An effective AI innovation team should include AI engineers and practitioners, business analysts, and project managers. This approach ensures that innovations not only adhere to technical specifications but also align with broader organizational goals and project requirements.

Key takeaway: Handling sensitive data in AI innovations introduces significant overhead, and the success of these solutions in such contexts hinges on forming teams with a balanced mix of skills, including AI expertise, business analysis, and project management.

Leveraging AI can dramatically improve data management efficiency when coupled with user-centered design

WFP works on multiple projects with millions of people targeted every year, creating and collecting a large amount of textual information. Keeping track and producing actionable insights from this huge source of unstructured data can be challenging.The integration of Natural Language Processing (NLP) and AI bears the potential to significantly enhance efficiency in data collection and data quality processes. A prime example of this integration is WFP’s NEMO AI innovation, which has led to significant improvements: a reduction in the time required for calls by up to 15 percent and a substantial increase in the case handling capacity within the same timeframe (up to 50 times more cases). These advancements underscore the potential of AI to transform data management processes. However, the true success of such implementations depends on meticulous attention to the design of human-machine interfaces and processes. It’s crucial to consider how information, such as recommendations and probabilities, is presented to users. This focus on user-centric design ensures that the technology not only enhances efficiency but also remains intuitive and accessible to its users.

Key takeaway: When coupled with user-centric design, leveraging AI and NLP can significantly speed up data management tasks, especially in handling large volumes of unstructured data.

Enabling factors for scaling and bringing innovation to new contexts

Ventures must continuously prepare for various futures and adapt to change as they scale

Many of our supported ventures scale under uncertain conditions due to political instability, the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic crises, and climate disasters. Their experience offer valuable insights into enabling factors for scaling in volatile contexts:

i) Ventures need to constantly adapt to the changing context and be prepared for a wide variety of potential futures. Hence, eliminate long-term strategies; instead, focus on making flexibility and adaptability an integral part of the venture culture.

ii) Make continuous learning a central part of the organization’s culture, focusing on acquiring knowledge and adapting to what proves effective.

iii) Tailor approaches to a local context and build local capacity and ownership to promote the sustainability of the solution.

iv) Ground the venture in a clear purpose and strive to design a sustainable business modern to maximize the venture’s resilience.

v) From the start, incorporate risk assessment and contingency planning into the venture’s design; having a risk mitigation plan in place can help factor in unexpected challenges throughout the innovation lifecycle.

Key takeaway: To scale effectively, ventures need to embed flexibility into their operations, continually adapt to a local context, and sustain their growth through a sustainable business model that helps anticipate and mitigate risks.

Effective scaling balances expanding reach within existing markets (scaling up) and entering new ones (scaling out)

Scaling up entails reaching more people in existing markets while scaling out requires expansion and diversification. While scaling out is important to extend potential reach to new geographies and introduce an innovation to a new market, we are cognizant of resource allocation on where scale can achieve the most impact. One example in WFP’s Scale-Up Enablement portfolio is the R4 initiative, an innovative integrated climate risk management approach that enables farmers to access crop insurance by participating in risk reduction activities. While its approach has been launched and is active in over 22 countries, the programme plans to focus on deepening impact and identifying efficiencies in existing geographies after the current expansion plan. This will allow the team to scale its work in areas of demonstrated and proven impact, rather than piloting its approaches in new country contexts.

Key takeaway: Effective scaling can be achieved not only by expanding the reach to new markets, but also by deepening the impact in the existing ones.

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.