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WFP/Hugh Rutherford

Lessons learned from 2020:
The year that changed everything

Failures, setbacks and change are an inherent part of the innovation process. Lessons learned from responding to these challenges give ground for growth, foster novel ways of thinking and spur further innovation.

Design. Fail. Repeat. Scale

Becoming the Virtual Accelerator

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we shifted our entire team into “remote first” as an operating principle. In the pivot to the virtual world, we learned several things:

1. The digital space cannot replicate the in-person experience, but it opens up a multitude of opportunities.

To make virtual innovation bootcamps as effective and engaging as the in-person experience, we needed to think beyond merely transferring the existing content online. In doing so, we:

  • Took advantage of travel limitations by inviting a greater diversity and breadth of speakers and mentors to join us virtually, including high-level keynote speakers from within WFP and externally.
  • Shortened virtual bootcamp days to prevent screen fatigue for participants — understanding that in-person, there would have been multiple moments for rest and casual connection.
  • Leveraged familiar tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams instead of introducing new products, which may come with steep learning curves for participants.
  • Created casual 'meet and greet' virtual moments to facilitate interaction and ensure the “human element” still existed.
  • Added additional onboarding days before the five-day virtual bootcamp to brief participants about the new digital format with details on agenda, technology and backup options.
  • Piloted virtual mentoring days, where mentors offered “office hours” to connect with project teams and help them refine their ideas. We matched teams with their mentors through a webpage that catalogued mentors’ skills and availability.

2. The most useful tools are not always the newest or the fanciest but the ones that get the job done.

  • Invested early on in the right tools: Mural for a digital whiteboard, to help teams map out their ideas; Slack integrations to help facilitate connection among our internal team and enable “pulse checks”; additional monitors for team members to use in their home offices.

3. Knowledge management improves organizational learning, boosts efficiency and fosters innovation.

By investing in knowledge management we:

  • Increased and diversified our reach through the creation of short, concise, and relevant content to share on our social media platforms — leading to rapid organic growth in our LinkedIn channel (10,000 followers in less than nine months) because of their value-add.
  • Shared our expertise with other United Nations agencies and our humanitarian and development partners, serving as a resource on how to run acceleration programmes, improve project identification, and systematize sourcing.

Lessons from the
Accelerator Projects


Recognizing the importance of knowledge management, H2Grow launched a digital platform at the end of 2020 to act as a global knowledge hub on hydroponics. The team learned how powerful of a catalyst a global community of practitioners and experts can be when given a platform to connect. Shared learnings across countries translated into critical improvements and decreased overall costs, resulting in access to more fresh, nutritious food for communities. In the development of this platform, the team also utilized best practices such as adapting digital solutions to the tools available to their audience — leading to a WhatsApp integration so farmers could connect more easily and download content offline to account for slow or limited- connectivity.

The EMPACT curriculum, which trains young people in tech and soft skills, was designed for in-person settings that were no longer feasible in the pandemic. Faced with physical distancing rules that hindered the implementation of new cohorts, the EMPACT team reacted by developing a fully online curriculum. The human-centred design approach was critical for the success of the pivot. The team iterated and adopted the new online format according to learners’ and trainers’ needs. Participants who didn’t have computers and internet access, received all the necessary equipment; implementing partners created ad-hoc online content and trained their employees on how to use e-learning and teaching software.

Six Elements for Social Impact Innovation

Whether through a new technology, creative business model, or novel application of an existing solution, innovators can set off on the road towards social impact. Having worked with 321 innovation teams since 2015, we have collated key takeaways for innovators beginning their social impact journeys:

1. Aim at social impact from day one.

Designing solutions to be inclusive should not be an afterthought. Embedding innovative solutions in humanitarian operations means adapting them to the realities of the countries where WFP operates. By applying techniques such as human-centred design and lean start-up, teams can work together with the end-users of their solution, supporting real community needs instead of assumed ones.

2. Build a strong and cohesive core team.

A founding team is the backbone of any emerging startup. Clear leadership is vital, especially in remote teams, to guide team members towards a shared goal, facilitate cohesion and build trust. When everybody clearly understands the project’s goals and their roles, the team can work more effectively.

3. Solicit honest feedback early on.

Innovators come from diverse backgrounds; many new ventures need guidance on topics ranging from product development to logistics. Reaching out to experienced mentors who will not hesitate to provide direct feedback to social impact ventures can be crucial to a project’s success.

4. Consider the most vulnerable.

The humanitarian principle of “do no harm” is a cornerstone of social impact innovation. Innovators must find safe ways to test their minimum viable product. For example, solutions that involve personal data collection should also ensure the privacy and security of information.

5. Develop a robust financial plan.

Financial sustainability is a prerequisite for continued social impact. Innovators should have a financial plan with a sustainable funding model.

6. Integrate a pathway to scale.

Scaling up solutions to tackle real-world problems is often the difference between a good idea and a game-changing one. Building a product for 100 people might be good for a small business, but for global impact, a project requires a scalable business model.

One of the questions we are most often asked is:

What are the enabling factors for scaling?

Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, we have many lessons learned on best practices for helping projects to reach scale.

1. Customized support, including for project and product management, is critical for projects to continue on the path to scale.

However, not everything should be customized. A balance between tailored support and systemization (i.e: institutionalization of internal best practices and investment in knowledge management) is important for projects to succeed in their scaling goals.

2. Full stakeholder buy-in is critical.

Signed Scale-up Enablement Agreements which outline timelines, milestones, and roles and responsibilities help align entities on strategy and a path to scale. These agreements occur after a successful Scale-up Enablement Assessment Workshop, where stakeholders convene for a moment of deep analysis and reflection about the project’s trajectory and workplan.

3. While the Munich office is the hub of the Accelerator’s work, the heart is in the field.

Where humanitarian needs are greatest, and the most promising innovative solutions can be applied, tested and scaled. That’s why strong field and in-country relationships are essential to successful implementation and long-term sustainability. In 2020, we worked even more closely with WFP Country Offices to drive forward implementation of projects and source innovative ideas of field staff through our Innovation Challenges; and tapped into the expertise of WFP colleagues worldwide through our WFP Innovation Champions Community.

4. Sound business models are key for longer-term product strategies and roadmaps.

Co-created roadmaps — such as the ones we developed to help guide our engagement with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support startups Sanku and BioAnalyt — emphasized value and impact delivery, ensuring the project’s financial future with each iteration.

In the spotlight 2020

In the year where COVID-19 devastated the world, internal and external partnerships and knowledge sharing have become even more vital to the Accelerator’s work. In 2020, our team produced 78 knowledge products, sharing best practices and crucial learnings to help spur innovation, fill knowledge gaps and replicate impactful solutions in development contexts. We proactively contributed to global conversations through 55 speaking engagements — from food security and COVID-19 response to agri-tech solutions and frontier innovation.

Our contributions to thought leadership in the domains of humanitarian innovation and the future of food systems have been featured in major publications such as Forbes, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Fast Company Magazine, and World Economic Forum. Together, we can accelerate our efforts to reach Zero Hunger and all SDGs.

Media mentions
US$ 55.3
Advertising value
management products
Ranked 2020’s Best Workplace for Innovators and Innovation Team of the Year by Fast Company.

Quotes from our partners

“The transformative power of innovation — piloting, testing and scaling new ideas — can’t be done alone or in isolation. Innovation requires the development of partnerships, and the establishment of new networks to finance and scale creative ideas so the impact can be realized — and the sharing of information is key in this. Among other things, USAID has supported the Innovation Accelerator in setting up a robust Knowledge Management system to share best practices and lessons learned with the wider community. USAID looks forward to continuing the support to the Innovation Accelerator.”

Doug Stropes

Deputy Division Director,
USAID Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance

Douglas Stropes

“We applaud the fact that WFP is continuously focused on improvement through innovation. One of the Netherlands’ main focus areas is assuring that successful innovations reach scale, and that requires learning from past innovation trajectories, collaborating across organisations and sectors, and increasing knowledge and sharing learnings. Therefore, we are proud to partner with WFP Innovation Accelerator in their Scale-up Enablement Programme, and are impressed by the reach and impact so far.”

Fiona Burger

Ministry of Foreign Affairs,
Government of the Netherlands

Fiona Burger

“Luxembourg highly values WFP’s efforts to disrupt hunger and to advance the effectiveness of humanitarian action through innovative and radical thinking. The Innovation Accelerator is a perfect showcase of what WFP has been able to achieve in this regard. As a proud supporter of its work since 2018, Luxembourg remains committed to advancing innovation within the humanitarian sector while making sure that affected people remain at the center of all interventions.”


Deputy Director, Humanitarian Action Luxembourg Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs


“We appreciate the unique position of the Innovation Accelerator in bringing together different actors within and beyond the UN system to share innovation know-how and best practices.”

Dr. Elke Löbel

Commissioner for Refugee Policy and Director for Displacement and Migration, Management, BMZ, Government of Germany

Dr. Elke Löbel

Thank you

to the WFP Innovation Accelerator team, and our global community of 20,000 WFP colleagues. None of these achievements are possible without your hard work and support!