Women in innovation lead change in WFP operations
On International Women’s Day, eight women working with the World Food Programme share their innovation journeys
By Vida Gabe
Women comprise half of the world’s population and yet, in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), less than 30 percent of women researchers worldwide are women, and an even smaller percentage (5 percent) is reportedly filled by women in positions of leadership.
At the World Food Programme (WFP) Innovation Accelerator, the unit is working hard to buck these trends with a team that’s 65 percent female, has four out of seven women managers, and a roster of innovation projects that’s focused on empowering women. This March, the Accelerator is hosting a virtual WFP Innovation Bootcamp, during which teams will be coached on how to design more gender-transformative innovations.
Hila Cohen, Head of Business Development and Chief of Staff at the WFP Innovation Accelerator, has been part of the unit since its inception five years ago. “Since Day 1, the gender balance at the Accelerator has always been quite equal or favorable towards women,” says Hila, “It was just a given. It wasn’t intentional. People were selected based on their competencies and capabilities and it just happened naturally. I think we just all the time realized that there should be an equal voice to all genders.”
While Hila acknowledges that the technology and engineering sectors tend to be traditionally more male dominated, she says this doesn’t seem to be the case in the field of innovation. “These days I see that the field is quite equalized in terms of innovation roles.” This makes sense, she says, because “When we talk about human centered design as one of the key concepts of innovation, you need all voices and genders to help guide someone in a human-centered design journey when they work on an innovation. The perspective of any gender could be similar in many aspects but could also be different.”
Hila believes that giving women a seat at the table can only be beneficial for innovation. “The world is made up of 50 percent women, plus or minus. So I think our voice, our outlook in life, the way we solve problems, the way we communicate, the way we create networks is relevant for innovation and so all that should be part of that conversation as well. There are problems that are unique for each gender and there are problems that are common for all genders and I think in all of those cases, all the voices should be included while we look for solutions.”
In honor of International Women’s Day, the WFP Innovation Accelerator is raising the voices of women at the World Food Programme. This month, we are sharing the journeys of eight women who are leading the way in the field of innovation. Here are their stories.
Melissa David is a social anthropologist who has been leading the Pasto Field Office, in Southern Colombia for the past seven years. Before joining WFP, she worked on social innovation processes related to conflict resolution and climate change and in 2011 was awarded a Climate Change Fellowship in the United States. The fellowship gave her the opportunity to improve her knowledge on clean energies, carbon markets and reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+).
Since joining WFP, Melissa and her team have supported initiatives ranging from “zero carbon schools” (schools with innovative cropping and waste management systems) to a binational Climate Change Adaptation Project, with indigenous and black communities, and gender, food security and peace building approaches. Melissa also leads the implementation of the Groasis and Nutrifami innovation projects in Pasto, Colombia.
Trained as an Electronic and Computer Engineer, Rosemary Ngonyo Gatahi loves solving problems. She’s been with WFP for more than 15 years, starting out in the Business Transformation Unit as an IT Assistant in the WFP Kenya Country Office. In this role, she worked on improving internal organizational efficiencies.
This worked well for her, Rosemary says, because she was always interested in finding better, faster, cheaper ways of doing things. The turning point came in 2015, when she was given the opportunity to lead the remote data collection project (mVAM) pilot, and apply IT to solve real world problems. It was here where she saw firsthand the transformative impact of technology and was hooked. Since then, Rosemary has led three innovations projects as a Project Manager: Chakula Chap Chap, an emergency cash response tool; EMPACT; and Dalili.
Raised in Pakistan, Hajra Hafeez-ur-Rehman began her journey to innovation at a young age, creating a youth-led non-government organization during her college years to educate and empower young people through Information, Communication & Technology for Development (ICT4D) on the development goals. Together with her team, Hajra scaled their work to 89 countries. Years later, she co-founded a storytelling startup that celebrates women with different identities, roots and beliefs through design innovation.
In 2012, Hajra started working within the UN system, with both UNICEF and WFP on nutrition, food systems and gender issues in East and West Africa, and the Middle East and North Africa regions. Hajra says she feels lucky to be working in a space which converges her humanitarian and development experience with innovation. She is currently the Project Lead for the Last Mile Ecosystem; a digital solution that connects smallholder farmers with school canteens through a network of private transporters.
A physicist and applied mathematician by training, Elisa Omodei went from working as a research scientist in academia to joining UNICEF’s Office of Innovation to moving to WFP’s Research, Assessment and Monitoring (RAM) Division in a span of only a few years. Her motivation to change sectors, she says, was due to her eagerness to apply her knowledge and skills towards projects with a more tangible social impact.
In her work, she explores how to apply complexity science, data science and artificial intelligence (AI) for development and humanitarian response. Using data to develop predictive models, Elisa tracks and predicts food insecurity in near real-time, allowing WFP to quickly identify changes in the food security situation and make data-informed and timely decisions.
As part of her many duties, Elisa works as the Predictive Analytics Lead for WFP’s HungerMap LIVE; a global monitoring system that tracks and predicts hunger in near real-time.
As a social worker, Margalida Rueda Gomez says her work is focused on initiating solutions, proposing alternatives and creating easily applicable sustainable development methods. This may seem straightforward but for Margalida, working with communities in her native Colombia has its challenges. “The mountainous geography, the years of armed and social conflict, as well as the difficult process of establishing a standard and universal infrastructure, are just some of the obstacles,” she explains.
Margalida joined WFP in 2015 and currently leads the WFP Field Office in Cali, Colombia. In 2017, she participated in the implementation of the Nutrifami project, an experience that she says taught her a lot about the communication strategy and the application of technology (an e-learning and food purchase tracking app) in ethnic communities. “I frame my approach with a focus on active listening strategies, which allows for mutually beneficial communication, which in turn promotes tangible, lasting change within the community.”
Growing up on a farm has fuelled Katrina Schall’s life-long interest in the food supply chain. From stacking shelves in a supermarket, to training in its headquarters, and working at the European Parliament (working in foods and environment), she moved into customer development for a multinational consumer goods company.
With her degrees in sustainability and innovation as well as agricultural sciences, Katrina is currently part of WFP’s Supply Chain cash-based transfers (CBT) team. This means working where WFP distributes food assistance through local stores, supporting local communities and providing people with greater choice, more balanced diets, and higher purchasing power. Her main project is Retail in a Box, which aims to kickstart retail networks for affected populations to purchase food using WFP’s cash-based assistance in Bangladesh, Mozambique and South Sudan.
Before joining WFP as a Finance Consultant for ShareTheMeal (WFP’s mobile fundraising app), Anne Shallock studied economics and worked in audit forensics where she gained experience working with different companies. At ShareTheMeal, Anne works on topics like Islamic finance and innovative finance, which gives her the chance to be part of innovative solutions and create new mechanisms.
In addition to her work at ShareTheMeal, Anne is also the Project Lead for SheCan, a digital financing platform that enables private donors to support financial inclusion for women. Sharing her passion for working on the project, Anne says, “Investing in women and reducing inequality does not only help one individual, it helps families and even whole communities and economies, and creates a sustainable future for all of us.”
Verda Yuceer has been working in the humanitarian-development sector for 10 years, focusing on labour market integration of refugees and vulnerable groups, socio-economic crisis response, and private sector development. She started out with internships in Palestine and Egypt, and went on to design and implement livelihoods programs in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. She says her passion for her job comes from her love for the Middle Eastern region and its people.
Verda has also worked with several organizations including the UN, NGOs and donor agencies in various countries. She says her experience has helped her gain a broader perspective in terms of implementation modalities, expectations and variable relations with governments. At the moment, Verda is working on Network Fresh, an app-based project that is working on connecting restaurants and cafes with unsold surplus food to vulnerable households in Istanbul.
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.