Earlier this month, United Nations World Food Programme launched its own Innovation Accelerator aimed at achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of eradicating global hunger by 2030. An estimated 795 million undernourished people still don’t receive enough food to live an active life. Most of those people live in developing countries. Fixing that means retooling basically every aspect of the food supply and delivery chain, from crisis response, to school lunch programs, farming and food storage practices, or even ensuring how people can make a living wage.
Program head Bernhard Kowatsch calls this an “activist Y Combinator,” comparing it to the Silicon Valley organization that incubates young startups. So far he’s funded a dozen ideas from both private companies and nonprofits, and expects to add 20 more by year’s end. Each will receive between $50,000 and $100,000 for three to six months of intensive coaching alongside UNWFP partners who can vet and scale their ideas. “I do believe this model can help us test bolder, probably more novel things much faster than we would have done otherwise,” says Kowatsch.
Obviously the idea is to move quickly because every day someone is going hungry. To that end, the Innovation Accelerator is applying a similar standard to itself. They’re funded by a $5.5 million grant from the German government, which will need to be renewed in five years if they can show radical breakthroughs to justify it. Some of those ideas currently include AgriUp, a low-bandwidth smartphone app that gives undereducated farmers weather forecasts, farming tips, and market pricing info, which is being tested in Guatemala. Another, dubbed Transformers, is working in Kenya to spot the 25% of fruits and vegetables that are usually rejected for cosmetic reasons when shipped internationally and repurpose them for school lunch programs. If successful each project could be taken elsewhere. (You can see more concepts here.)
It is tempting to say that this sort of agile experimentation is long overdue for the gigantic organization, which has about 80 offices and 14,000 employees already abroad. But the reason that these efforts stand a chance of working at all is because UNWFP is already so embedded. They not only know more about the cultural and societal challenges in each area but have the infrastructure (and trust) to speed rollouts.
That’s what inspired the accelerator in the first place. In 2015, Kowatsch partnered with UNWFP to cofound a fundraising app called ShareTheMeal, which lets you press a button to donate money toward food for someone in need ideally each time you eat. It’s worked: Since 2015, more than 600,000 users have shared 7.3 million meals. Why it’s worked, though, is because UNWFP didn’t have to think a lot about how to deliver those meals–the group already has other trusty partners with the infrastructure to support that. That allows small donations to have a big impact–the suggested per meal amount is just 50 cents.
If the accelerator hopes to survive long term, projects should be self-sustainable. That means that ventures would eventually cover their own costs. But because UNWFP is already active in so many areas, Kowatsch expects would-be entrepreneurs to visit communities and figure out what might work best organically.
For instance, another accelerator project in Uganda seeks to supply airtight silos for farmers, who can lose up to 40% of their grain harvest to rot and rodents. After seeing how subsidized installs triple each farmers’ incomes–in part because they no longer have to sell crops quickly at rock-bottom prices in a flooded market (or buy back part of that or starve later on)–the group is now testing out how to cheaply finance them instead. That could offset costs and create an in-country sales force that employs more people. “Ideally, we’ll find new ways to leverage business and also financing to do what otherwise would have just been [paid for by] philanthropic grant money,” Kowatsch says.
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