World Humanitarian Day 2021: Champions for Innovation

How World Food Programme humanitarians are leveraging innovative solutions to reach Zero Hunger

By Vida Gabe

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The World Food Programme (WFP) operates in more than 80 countries worldwide with 20,000 staff members working tirelessly to bring life-saving assistance in emergencies and support sustainable and resilient livelihoods — aiming to achieve a world without hunger.

WFP has been at the forefront of innovation since it organized its first humanitarian airlifts in 1962 to reach its goal of achieving food security. Today, WFP innovation ranges from the use of artificial intelligence in satellite imagery to assess disaster zones, and machine learning to predict emerging crises and plan humanitarian response, to setting up digital cash-based transfers that help families buy food while supporting the local economy. We’ve also built a community of WFP Innovation Champions, established in 2020 to support and empower WFP staff to become agents of change, driving innovation within WFP and accelerating solutions to end hunger.

In honour of World Humanitarian Day 2021, seven WFP staff members who are part of the Innovation Champions Community spoke to us about their journeys as humanitarians and as innovators, and shared their thoughts on the application of innovation in the humanitarian sector.

Julie’s interest in innovation stems from her experience studying and working in several countries. As an undergraduate student, she frequently volunteered in soup kitchens and met people who were receiving rental assistance based on what they could pay. This concept was new to her, but she quickly learned that the local government had partnered with non-profits to implement new tactics to reduce homelessness in urban areas. They creatively developed a new way of addressing homelessness and this fascinated her.

Her work experience since those early days exposed her to learning environments where innovation has been at the forefront and primarily in the areas of entrepreneurship, gender and civic engagement. As an Innovation Adviser for WFP, she’s worked with teams to develop and implement innovative programmes that are designed to build capacity, establish connections and enhance the credibility of leaders by providing them with the necessary tools to develop and share their messages for change.

Patrick joined WFP in 2004 as a mobile data collection expert where it was his job to build the first paperless survey system for WFP. In his spare time, he flew paragliders and when he was flying, he would try to take photos with one hand so he wouldn’t crash, and would often end up missing the shot.

Since his early days of imagining a drone in the sky (or an ‘aircraft in a backpack,’ as he describes it), Patrick has become the regional drone focal point in the Southern African region and WFPs Drone Data Operations Manager. In 2019, he was the drone coordinator during the two Mozambique cyclones and saw firsthand how drones could provide life saving data in emergencies.

Tina has worked in WFP’s Lebanon Country Office for three years. She explains that Lebanon is currently going through one of the worst economic crises in history, which has required WFP to reassess operations and develop new, more effective solutions. After the devastating Beirut port blast on 4 August 2020, she led a project with the support of the WFP Innovation Accelerator that provided food sector micro-businesses with cash-based assistance to help them get back on their feet, restock, rebuild, and retain their staff.

She also co-manages a climate change adaptation project, applying WFPs Consolidated Livelihood Exercise for Analyzing Resilience (CLEAR) methodology for the first time in the Middle Eastern region. This initiative aims to support smallholder farmers and communities to build resilience to climate shocks, now and in the future.

Before joining WFP, Tony worked towards supply chain performance improvement for the retail and consumer goods industries where innovation played a vital role. He believed that he could bring his private sector experience to a humanitarian context, supporting WFP’s mission of achieving Zero Hunger. Even though WFP’s operational context is unique, Tony saw many parallels between moving a consumer good to a retail outlet and moving a WFP commodity to a final delivery point.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on global supply chains and Tony believes that it is even more critical now to have better transparency and agility. “For example, a control tower provides end-to-end operational visibility through cloud-based technology, advanced data analysis and cross-functional collaboration. For our Turkey cross-border operation, we had the challenge of prepositioning months of stock in Syria. Through the control tower, we saw what impact the prepositioning plan had on our supplier’s capacity to produce; the number of trucks we will be transporting across the border a day; and how it would impact warehousing capacity.”

In June 2017, Johanna was deployed to Jijiga, Ethiopia, for her first field mission. The first thing that struck her was all the plastic polluting the habitat for fauna and flora. This proved to be true everywhere, even in the most remote places she went. When she returned to WFP headquarters in Rome, she started working on a side project to organize the collection of plastic with reverse supply chain mechanisms. After submitting a plastic recycling project to WFP’s Haiti Country Office, Johanna was hired to serve as an Environmental Officer; a new position created for Haiti, which struggles with environmental pollution. The task Johanna has to deal with is considerable and challenging but also exciting because, as Johanna explains, WFP has an impressive portfolio of operations, so there is a significant leverage for green impact.

Sudip has been in the humanitarian and development field for over 10 years working in disaster emergencies, refugee operation, complex conflict and fragile state settings. Currently, he is Deputy Emergency Coordinator for WFP in the world’s largest refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where he has led the digital transformation of programme and operations activities since 2018.

For Sudip, innovation in the humanitarian sector is not really new nor is it a generational thing or just about technology. He believes innovation has always been around in the forms of programmatic and operational tweaks and design adaptations. For him, innovation is a mindset and approach to finding solutions to humanitarian needs. It’s about how we can find a better way to support the population in need, in terms of products, improvements in service delivery and outcomes.

Vaishnavi has a background in social protection and never imagined she would end up working on innovation at WFP even though she previously worked with the Government of India on innovation projects. She says that seeing the entrepreneurial spirit in Nigeria pulled her back into innovation.

Vaishnavi served as the Project Coordinator for the Zero Hunger Sprint, Nigeria’s Innovation Challenge. The Zero Hunger Sprint provided a platform, together with leading industry leaders in the private sector, for cutting-edge start-ups in Nigeria that are addressing various hunger and food insecurity challenges. Vaishnavi shares that it was an incredible experience and the highlight of her time at WFP so far to serve as the coordinator for the project.

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.

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WFP Innovation Accelerator

WFP Innovation Accelerator

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