WFP innovation lessons learned: The power of collaboration (Part 3)

Put people first, bring in expertise, and foster mentorship

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.

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

Putting people at the heart of your design

Use the human-centered design methodology as the foundational framework to guide your programmes

All of our innovation projects follow the human-centered design approach, which considers end-user feedback and needs at the local context at every step. Human-centered design combines a clear process, tools, and mindsets that can provide clarity around how to collaborate across organizations, and the different roles and ways that partners can contribute to the innovation process.

For example, the INITIATE2 project is a multi-stakeholder project with WFP, World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Humanitarian Response Depot (UNHRD) and other partners, where the current focus is to design an innovative hospital structure for containing ebola outbreaks. The WFP Innovation Accelerator has used human-centered design to guide this collaboration between partners who are working together for the first time, and we have led the collaboration through rounds of research, prototyping and testing of this infectious disease treatment module structure.

Key takeaway 1: The human-centered design methodology has provided a process, language and practical ways for each partner to contribute to the design of the structure, allowing them to work together in a novel way, leveraging each other’s strengths. The end result is an exciting new product that will be validated through feedback from medical experts and communities, in line with the human-centered design process.

Engaging the ecosystem

Communicate your value proposition transparently

We have found that it is important to clarify what your programmes offer and how to create the most value for start-ups and innovators participating in them. We are organizing and standardizing our efforts and building more communal elements to ensure the offering is easy to access for other organizations, companies, NGOs, and individuals eager to contribute to our mission.

Start-ups by design have limited time and need to focus. To positively contribute to the innovation ecosystem, we believe in transparent communication about potential funding opportunities and what is included (and what is not) in our programmes, so that ventures and start-ups can make an educated choice if they should apply to our programmes.

Key takeaway 2: By making the information and knowledge about your work and value proposition easily accessible, you can create new opportunities and help members in your ecosystem feel a mutual benefit.

Work with organizations outside of the humanitarian and development sector to bring specialized expertise and resources

Leveraging partnerships that can provide expertise not only from a humanitarian and development perspective but also from an operational and technological perspective has proven crucial for frontier projects that use emerging technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, and robotics. For example, WFP’s collaboration with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) provided innovative technology and resources to the project AHEAD, which prepares all-terrain vehicles for remote operation on routes that pose the highest risk to human drivers.

Key takeaway 3: In such collaborations and partnerships, it is important to define clearly what success looks like, what are the expected roles of each entity, and what are the expected results.

Unlocking potential through mentorship

Define your mentor model

In 2022, we updated our mentor support framework for our innovation programmes and project portfolios. We saw a growing demand from individuals and companies (through their employees) to provide mentorship time. For our innovation teams, the benefit of mentorship is having access to best-in-class expertise; for companies, donating time to mentorship gives employees a sense of contribution to an impactful cause. Diversity and inclusion also matter in mentorship, and we factor that into our mentor pool.

Key takeaway 4: Our experience shows that the matching process of innovation teams and mentors is quite time-intensive. In addition, we decided to steer away from one-off short mentoring sessions (30–60 minute sessions) with several mentors to replace it with a model where the same mentor meets multiple times with the same team. Even though we use a smaller pool of mentors, this design ensures that the ultimate contribution of each mentor to their innovation team is more significant.

Foster relationships with mentors

We collect feedback from mentors to improve our mentorship programmes. This enabled us to make valuable connections between mentors and venture project teams.

Key takeaway 5: We learned that we could improve our matching and briefing processes by collecting clear needs and problem statements in advance. As we engaged more mentors, especially through our partners, we realized the importance of regular communication with a partner focal point, who is nominated to coordinate the needs and interests of the mentors.

Gather input from innovation teams to enhance learning resources

Our new “Expert Series” pilot, a series of masterclasses and workshops delivered by experts, revealed important learnings about offering capacity-building opportunities for innovators. The needs assessment conducted with the innovation teams indicated that “Impact Measurement” and “Co-Creation with Communities” were priority topics to cover in learning sessions. Additionally, testing alternative formats such as a 90-minute workshop format as well as one-on-one sessions with several teams allowed us to learn more about teams’ preferences and assess the value-add.

Key takeaway 6: Gathering participant feedback is critical to improve innovation programmes — in this case, the teams considered the Expert Series topics as “very useful” for the project implementation and expressed their preference for the one-on-one session format as well.

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.