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Unlocking innovation to disrupt global hunger

A United Nations agency is applying the startup model to one of the world’s most pressing problems

Unlocking innovation to disrupt global hunger
© World Food Programme/Mohammad Batah | A WFP initiative uses blockchain software, which allows shoppers to make safe digital payments at refugee camps in Jordan and Bangladesh.

When it comes to solving the problem of global hunger, you might not think about blockchain as a solution. But Building Blocks, a project supported by the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) Innovation Accelerator, has demonstrated the technology’s value in providing cash assistance to hungry people.

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Here’s how it works: In refugee camps in Jordan and Bangladesh, Syrian and Rohingya refugees shop for food at grocery stores inside the camps. As they check out, they “pay” without physical cash, but rather from a secure digital wallet. Blockchain does the rest. As a result, more donor money goes directly to food assistance.

Bold ideas like Building Blocks are the stock in trade of the WFP Innovation Accelerator, which was named one of Fast Company‘s Best Workplaces for Innovators and an Innovation Team of the Year. Building Blocks was rapidly tested and scaled to reach 100,000 people in the first year—to date, it has served more than 300,000 people. “We believe that innovation can help us to create impact at scale for some of the most vulnerable people on this planet,” says Bernhard Kowatsch, who heads the WFP Innovation Accelerator.

SPEEDING UP THE PROCESS

Since its founding five years ago, the Innovation Accelerator has brought Silicon Valley–style startup culture to WFP, which is tasked with meeting one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals: ending hunger by 2030. WFP was already used to moving fast—part of its mission involves emergency response to natural disasters, wars, and other calamities. Its 18,000 staffers around the world have a deep understanding of the dynamics driving global hunger, as well as the logistics necessary to address humanitarian crises. “The organization has always been innovating,” Kowatsch says. “But we realized that we needed to do better in identifying, supporting, and scaling those innovations.”

The result: a Y Combinator–like model for innovations—from blockchain and artificial intelligence to hydroponics—that disrupt global hunger. Based in the thriving innovation ecosystem in Munich, the Accelerator runs week-long bootcamps (which have moved virtual in the wake of the coronavirus), a six-month Sprint Program to help projects develop prototypes and reach proof of concept in developing countries, and then, for projects that merit continued support, a Scale-up Enablement phase including tailored support.

BUILDING THE RIGHT TEAM

To date, the Accelerator portfolio includes more than 80 projects in 45 countries. In 2019 alone, those innovations positively impacted the lives of 1.4 million people globally. A diverse team of more than 50 people from more than 30 countries facilitates that work. Kowatsch says that team members possess a unique set of backgrounds, including humanitarian, startup industry, tech, and design expertise.

That combination of skills and experience enables the team to identify and support promising, disruptive proposals. They can provide on-the-ground expertise for an African startup that’s working on an app for refugee camps, help a WFP innovator build a sustainable business model, or deploy sophisticated technology solutions. “We’re looking for social impact unicorns,” Kowatsch says. “They won’t be unicorns in terms of a billion-dollar valuation—but we hope they’ll save the lives of millions of people and lift them out of hunger sustainably.”

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