WFP innovation lessons learned: Expanding horizons (Part 2)

Get lean, enhance your financing models, and boost efficiency

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

Harnessing emerging technologies

Employ lean start-up methodology

We need to strike the right balance between the desire to innovate and the need to abide by internal policies and procedures, especially when it comes to frontier technologies such as blockchain. Gathering palpable and quantitative evidence through small-scale pilots conducted in controlled environments or sandboxes in collaboration with WFP country offices is an essential step in the innovation process.

Key takeaway 1: Lean-startup methodology enables identifying truly impactful solutions with comparably smaller funds while ensuring that innovation is implemented responsibly and safely.

Projects powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) may take longer to mature

The development cycle for AI innovation projects is complex and involves various stages, including problem discovery, data collection, purification, modeling, evaluation, deployment, and production. Data availability remains a challenge for many AI projects, particularly in the countries where we work. For example, due to the lack of access to satellite imagery, we needed to spend extra time acquiring drone photographs for SKAI, an AI project which assesses damage by comparing pictures before and after disasters. To address this challenge, we aim to standardize data collection for different AI use cases and to establish more collaborations with satellite imagery providers.

Key takeaway 2: A deep understanding of the frontier technology you are leveraging enables you to design realistic timelines and take into account technical elements that need to be prioritized.

Designing tailored financing models to generate more impact

Increase funding for highly impactful innovations to help reach their potential

Shortfalls in funding and gaps between funding cycles can hinder the progress of innovations and ventures’ operational sustainability. By awarding larger grant sizes and acting as enablers to attract co-funding, we promote venture sustainability and facilitate rapid scale. In 2022, we increased resources and the speed of funding for select pilots under the WFP Sprint Programme (for example, plugPAY, Annapurti), which yielded tangible results for the year and projected results for 2023. After assessing the performance of our innovation portfolio projects over the last few years, we decided to fund fewer projects and invest more in specific projects with long-term impact potential.

Key takeaway 3: By enabling stable funding for high-potential start-ups and innovations that best align with your objectives, you can accelerate their impact and create desired change at scale. Prioritizing projects based on their potential impact is essential when resources are limited.

For innovative finance to reach its full potential, engage diverse stakeholders

Our collaboration with WFP’s internal teams helps ensure innovative finance initiatives adhere to organizational policies and programmatic priorities.

Understanding existing mandates and systems has also been critical to leveraging partnerships with other United Nations agencies. In 2022, WFP entered into a partnership with the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) to support WFP’s mandate to end world hunger while leveraging UNCDF’s unique capital mandate and systems. In 2023, a new innovative finance mechanism, WFP Innovation Bridge, will launch to stimulate additional private-sector capital for innovation projects.

Key takeaway 4: Our work shows that innovation can succeed where there is no precedence. This is true as long as the innovation clearly contributes to your organization’s mission and if you take the relevant stakeholders on the innovation journey from the start. For that, it is important to identify and map the areas where innovation is needed — the ‘grey zones’ of no precedence that we are aiming to define along the journey — and the desired outcomes at the end of the journey. The critical task of the innovator is to actively listen to valuable suggestions and concerns raised, navigate the process and steer key stakeholders, who often bring new viewpoints and new ideas to the table.

Learn how our work in innovative finance enables us to unlock investment in frontier markets:

Providing value efficiently

Dedicate time to back-end processes to boost efficiency in the future

Since its inception, the WFP Innovation Accelerator has designed its innovation programmes to host external start-ups. Initially, funds for start-ups and companies were disbursed through the WFP procurement process. In 2021, we piloted a grant management system, the first in the United Nations system, to dispense such funding and fully rolled it out in 2022. This new process cut the time it takes to onboard new ventures from nine months to less than two months; it includes a thorough review, operational and financial due diligence, and an approval process.

Key takeaway 5: Our experience with this new grant system shows that, in some cases, you can rely on existing processes as an interim solution. If you aim to scale the same activity (in this case, funding of external innovation teams), you need to take the time with relevant internal stakeholders, such as finance and legal units, to establish a new process and the tailored documentation required for this activity. These efforts maximize effectiveness and efficiency in the long run.

Explore more tips from our experience building a corporate innovation function within WFP:

Strengthen the organization’s internal innovation ecosystem

After years of working with colleagues in WFP Innovation Hubs and Units at the regional and country levels, it became evident that finding a common voice and operational model for innovation across WFP was essential to reach the next level of impact. “One Voice for WFP Innovation’’ was developed to unite innovation teams across the organization and prioritize collaboration on innovation strategy and impact, knowledge management, project management, internal innovation culture and other critical areas. An important step to move this joint effort successfully was the full involvement of all parties to speak openly, share insights and contribute inputs and this approach will continue to feed this work in 2023.

Key takeaway 6: The expansion of WFP’s Innovation Units and Hubs started organically in 2015. While each Hub designed itself to respond to the local landscape, we learned that to create a strong innovation culture, dedicated resources and an operating rhythm (such as a convening team, regular meetings, simple sharing protocols, and open communication) must be in place to enable the most out of the network.

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.