Accelerating the path to zero hunger

By Catherine Cheney 18 January 2017

AgriUp, a low bandwidth smartphone application supported by the WFP Innovation Accelerator, provides small-holder farmers in Guatemala with basic information on weather, market prices, and nutritional and agricultural advice. Photo by: World Food Program

The United Nations World Food Program is launching a new partnership to identify and support bold ideas to end hunger by 2030 called the Global Impact Challenge.

The collaboration with Singularity University, which works with partners to apply emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence to global challenges, comes six months after the launch of the WFP Innovation Accelerator, which supports entrepreneurs and startups working on ideas to end hunger.

“Singularity University has access to leading entrepreneurs and people who are inspired by new technology that will change the world, and we have access to lots of challenging problems in developing countries in the area of hunger,” Bernhard Kowatsch, head of the WFP Innovation Accelerator, told Devex.

WFP and Singularity University are opening a call for applications for “moonshot solutions to end hunger.” Winners will be invited to the WFP Innovation Accelerator in Munich, Germany, and one team will continue on to the Global Solutions Program at Singularity University in Silicon Valley. The challenge offers innovators the opportunity to take their ideas “from inspiration to implementation.”

Last month, Devex visited the WFP Innovation Accelerator, which is based in Munich, Germany, to learn about the model and examine what they believe the global development community can learn from this effort to spur progress toward the Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger.

Walk the halls of the WFP Innovation Accelerator, which looks much like any Silicon Valley accelerator save for the WFP food sacks scattered across the space, and you will come across a quote from WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin.

“The current unprecedented level of crises requires us all to do more with less,” reads the quote, which stretches across a black and white picture of farmers that spans an entire wall. “It requires solidarity and burden sharing. Innovation must be our new norm.”

Before launching and leading the WFP Innovation Accelerator, Kowatsch, who previously started the crowdfunding smartphone application ShareTheMeal, considered a number of models to make innovation the new norm at the U.N. agency.

He decided against the innovation lab model used by the UNICEF and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, explaining that these initiatives tend to create a safe space to try new ideas, rather than a way to support existing ideas from startup to scale up.

The question was not how to convince the nearly 15,000 WFP staff around the world of the importance of innovation, but rather how to translate the ideas that emerged from the theoretical to the practical. He was drawn to the approach of Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley based startup incubator that invests in cohorts of entrepreneurs twice a year. Similarly, Kowatsch saw an opportunity to design a program with education, mentorship, and financing that could pack years of learning into just a few months.

Bernhard Kowatsch, head of the WFP innovation accelerator, talks about the model.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator puts on innovation challenges, hosts innovation bootcamps, and runs sprint programs, which support individual entrepreneurs or teams of innovators with funding, coaching, and networking over the course of three to six months. Now, the WFP Innovation Accelerator is building an innovation fund to provide graduates of the sprint programs with additional support.

“Now that we have solved the issue of getting ideas to first proof of concept, and getting the proof of concept to scale up, how can we continue growing that?” said Kowatsch.

The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, and the Bavarian State Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Forestry fund the WFP innovation accelerator. At the July 2016 launch of the initiative, representatives for Germany, the second largest donor to WFP, pointed out that investing in innovation could increase the value of their financial contributions. Plus, by bringing together WFP staff and experts from across the private sector, academia and the development community, the accelerator can benefit from and contribute to the already-existing startup community in Munich.

On a recent cold December night, the space tucked above a bakery in Munich was quiet, with consultants posted behind their computer screens, corresponding virtually with WFP Innovation Accelerator graduates whose ideas had made the transition from Post Its on the wall to projects in the field.

One example is Houman Haddad, who formerly worked at the treasury department at WFP headquarters in Rome, Italy, and began to wonder how the organization might use blockchain, a public database of all bitcoin transactions, for its expanding work in cash-based transfers. He spent two weeks at the WFP Innovation Accelerator in Munich, where he learned concepts such as design thinking and the lean startup methodology and applied them to his project, called Building Blocks. Now, Haddad is based in Bangkok, Thailand, supporting cash-based transfers in the Asia and Pacific region, and working with the WFP is to test use cases for blockchain technology from cash based transfers to identity management to supply chains.

“The bootcamp helped me zero in on the specific problem I was trying to solve, which gave structure to the information I was absorbing, which allowed me to focus my energy on areas with the most impact for what I was trying to achieve,” he told Devex.

Particularly, because he was taking significant time away from his day job to participate in the accelerator, he wanted to make sure the WFP saw a return on its investment in his idea. The accelerator allowed individual participants to make progress that would not have been possible had they continued to worked in isolation, Haddad said. He learned from other innovations supported by the WFP Innovation Accelerator, such as AgriUp, a low bandwidth smartphone application supporting smallholder farmers in Guatemala with basic information on weather, market prices, and nutritional and agricultural advice.

“We don’t need something that just works in the sandbox of the accelerator,” said Alexandra Alden, an innovation consultant at the World Food Program who has worked closely with Haddad to develop the upcoming pilot for Building Blocks. “Sometimes it works to test something in the sandbox, especially when it comes to an emerging technology like blockchain, but you always need to have an eye to how it will work outside of the sandbox.”

Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, joins us live at #CGI2016

Posted by Devex on Wednesday, September 21, 2016
Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, speaks with Devex about innovation at WFP.

The Global Impact Challenge builds on an existing partnership between WFP and Singularity University, which identifies food as one of the 12 global grand challenges it leverages what it calls exponential technologies to address.

“The democratized nature of exponential technologies will aide us in reaching zero hunger because it puts tools into everyone's hands to be part of the solution,” Erika Barraza, senior manager of impact partnerships at Singularity University, told Devex.

Cousin of WFP told Devex she sees a role for both exponential and incremental thinking when it comes to ending hunger.

“We’re always on the lookout for tools that will change the game, but at the same time we recognize that not every tool is going to change the game and that more tools are going to provide us with the opportunity for incremental change,” Cousin told Devex.

In the meantime, as Kowatsch sees it, the WFP Innovation Accelerator has built a bridge between the advances in technology and the needs of the people the U.N. serves.

For more Devex coverage of innovation, visit Focus On: Innovation

About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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