WFP innovation lessons learned: Creating lasting change (Part 1)

Stay anchored, lean on data to future-proof, and scale for success

WFP Innovation Accelerator
5 min readMar 30, 2023

In this three-part blog series, we share our lessons learned across the innovation initiatives and projects of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Innovation Accelerator that can be useful for any public or private sector innovation team and other humanitarian development organizations.

This first blog post focuses on enabling factors for innovation, such as defining your North Stars, data-driven approaches, and scaling innovation. The second blog offers takeaways from our experience harnessing emerging technologies, new financing models, and maximizing efficiency. In the final post in this series, we share what we’ve learned about human-centered design, ecosystem engagement, and mentorship for start-ups.

Staying anchored to your core identity

Define your core focus to guide your decision-making

In the innovation sphere, many new parts can come into play as you design your activities, portfolio, and other elements you want to include as part of your start-up. Start-ups and innovators often face the temptation to spread themselves thin and say yes to all proposed ideas and experiments.

Yet, to generate consistent impact, you need to create depth. That means saying no to elements that can be distractions or “nice-to-haves” that will otherwise reduce the focus on your start-ups “must-have” elements. In 2022, the WFP Innovation Accelerator defined three North Stars to guide our work and strategy through 2025: reach 100 million people, raise USD 80 million, and launch three flagship programmes.

Key takeaway 1: Creating a sustainable impact requires a clear vision and an unwavering focus on your mission. Focus provides clarity on where your priorities lie and what activities bring the most value to your stakeholders — most importantly the people you assist — guiding your decisions on when to say no.

Data-driven programme design to maximize impact

Gather detailed feedback as you design and enhance your innovation programmes

We learned that engaging in mixed-cohort bootcamps (in terms of maturity and size of the innovation teams and ventures) benefits the ventures, allowing them to learn from each other and create broader networks. A common problem for innovators in mixed cohorts is that standardized innovation content and exercises will not be relevant to all teams at all stages.

Key takeaway 2: To maximize the outcomes of the programme, our design team created flexible curricula for mixed cohorts that allow innovation teams to choose specific areas of focus and exercises that fit their topic and maturity. This approach was tested in our most recent innovation bootcamp and received highly positive feedback from innovators.

Use data to make informed decisions

Setting up a more extensive Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) framework allowed us to make more data-driven decisions about the ventures we source and the design of our SDGx Acceleration programmes. The data collected served as a valuable reference point to measure the outputs and outcomes of our programmes and the impact that innovators achieve. It helped us understand which programme features can be enhanced; for example, we developed more flexible curricula to allow innovators of different experience levels to benefit equally from our programmes.

Key takeaway 3: While MEL frameworks require dedicated expertise, resources and time to implement, they are essential to innovation programmes that will enable agile and informed decision-making as you test and optimize your solutions.

Setting innovation projects for scale

Cultivate in-country relationships and align your activities with organizational priorities to gain buy-in

Implementation and long-term sustainability of innovation projects depend on cross-organizational relationships. By collaborating with key stakeholders such as WFP units and tapping into the expertise of WFP country offices, we conducted thorough research on the organization’s strategic plans and roadmaps that informed our work in 2022. This data-driven and collaborative way of working helped us identify organizational needs for innovation and obtain the required buy-in for innovation projects.

Nurturing and maintaining active contact with WFP country offices and knowing their priorities is critical for us to have an ongoing funnel of operations where we can introduce innovation teams and support other innovation activities. The unique value proposition that we provide to external start-ups and companies is access to WFP’s operations. As one of the largest humanitarian organizations active in more than 120 countries, WFP’s presence can allow for the exponential scaling of innovative solutions.

Key takeaway 4: As a corporate innovation function, it is important that you define what is your unique value proposition and dedicate time and resources to preserving and strengthening it.

Prioritize and segment projects in your portfolio

We aligned our Scale-Up Enablement portfolio with key WFP programmes strategic focus areas, such as Climate Adaptation, Gender, Financial Inclusion and prioritized innovations using criteria including scale potential, impact created, return on investment, and risk management. As a result, the portfolio of projects are segmented into three distinct groups: Invest (prioritize strategic business development support), Manage (prioritize project management support), or Graduate (for projects that have reached their potential within the programme).

Key takeaway 5: With this approach, you can identify innovation projects requiring a more strategic level of support to reach impact at scale, whilst continuing to support projects already on this path until they graduate.

Tailor services offered to innovation projects, and excel in those areas

Scaling projects successfully requires topic expertise and considerable effort. Given that our venture and start-up portfolio is very diverse and technical needs go along with it, we decided to concentrate our resources on a spectrum of services we excel in, such as business modeling, business growth, and market access. Activities outside of the scope of our focus are redirected to the mentor network and other support structures within or outside WFP.

Key takeaway 6: Intent and focus need to be the driver in the design of your scale-up enablement team and in the support that you provide to scaling innovations.

This is an excerpt from the WFP Innovation Accelerator’s recently published Year In Review. Check out the Year In Review 2022 to get an overview of our work and innovation projects that positively impacted the lives of 37 million people in 2022.

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.

Find out more about us: http://innovation.wfp.org. Subscribe to our e-newsletter. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn and watch our videos on YouTube.

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WFP Innovation Accelerator

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