As the largest humanitarian agency in the world, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) reaches about 90 million people in 83 countries each year in its fight to end hunger. With hunger numbers reaching a recent-year high of 821 million people — due in large part to populations displaced because of political conflict and war — the agency is in a constant quest to innovate new solutions. Robert Opp, WFP’s first director of innovation and change management, is leading those efforts. Access connected with him at his office in Rome, where he shared the agency’s use of blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI) and other innovations to distribute 2 million–3 million tons of food and nearly $2 billion in digital cash transfers a year.
Your job was created three years ago to help lead innovation efforts and foster an innovation culture at WFP. What was your first step?
In a sense, we’ve always done innovation — especially on the field level to reach people through any means necessary, whether it’s using elephants or donkeys to carry food up mountainsides or building a cash transfer system. Building on that history, the first thing we did was create an in-house innovation accelerator, which is really modeled after start-up accelerators you see across industries but particularly in tech. The concept is that you have a small venture or entrepreneur or idea that can enter the accelerator, which is a place where you can receive coaching and mentoring, connect with networks of people and organizations working on similar things, and meet investors and funders. And, ultimately, you’re able to develop your idea more rapidly and with more support than you would have otherwise
Talk about a world of ideas and innovations! How have things gone so far?
To give you an idea of numbers, we’ve been operating for about three years — and in that time, we’ve gathered around 2,200 ideas in the pipeline, we’ve run boot camps for around 90 different teams, we have supported around 30 projects for a three- to six-month sprint phase, and we have seven projects currently in scale-up.
Impressive. One of those involves blockchain, right?
Yes. In 2016, we hosted a workshop that brought our staff from different functional areas together to talk about the potential benefits of blockchain. Based on that, a young finance officer based in Rome said, “You know what? I think we can make this work in our cash transfers.” So he brought the idea to the accelerator. We piloted a very rudimentary system in Pakistan with 100 people just to see if we could actually track benefits that way. Then we moved the pilot to Jordan, where we scaled it up to more than 100,000 refugees in camps.
We started to see some interesting benefits. Note that the digital voucher system in Jordan already had a fairly sophisticated program that used biometrics for registering refugees. And by using an iris-based scanning system, refugees can purchase food from different food retailers around the camps. In other words, they get a monthly allocation worth of benefits in a virtual account that go straight to their merchant, and they can buy their food through scanning their iris. But we had to transfer funds and information about the people we served to a third party — a financial services company — which would then create wallets for people and track the transactions, reconcile all the payments, and ensure retailers were paid for food sold to refugees.
With the blockchain system, we replaced the role of the bank as the intermediary. We take the same iris scan information to create wallets for unique individuals on the blockchain, we trace the transactions, and we are able to do all of the reconciliations ourselves.
The exciting news doesn’t stop at blockchain, though. Tell us about what you’re exploring for AI.
WFP is looking, for example, at whether we can use AI or machine learning to scan satellite images that help us look at anything from infrastructure changes or destruction to population movements. With satellite imagery, we receive what’s called an unmapped aerial visual (UAV) — and human analysts have to spend quite a lot of time analyzing those images. To give you an idea, 20 minutes of UAV imagery takes a human analyst half a day to look through, because it’s a lot of data. So we have started building prototypes of machine learning, method training machines to identify, for example, that this is a bridge and that this is a bridge destroyed. And we should be able to leverage the human capacity to monitor a lot more satellite sites and a lot more drone imagery, all in less time.
Another application is using optical character recognition for digitizing health records and nutrition-tracking records in different places — because across the developing world, you find health clinics full of stacks of dusty paper. And it’s data on paper, but it’s only collected every few years for the usage of statistics in government. So we are looking to build more real-time data-monitoring systems. Right now, we’re developing a system using a flip phone — not even a smartphone — with MMS [multimedia messaging service] technology, where you can snap a picture of a health record and send it by MMS to a central computer, which will then translate it directly into digital form.
Speaking of phones — but smartphones — tell us about your meal-sharing app.
We created ShareTheMeal, which is an app where you’re able to provide 50 cents as a contribution, which is enough food to feed one child for one day in our average operation.
More and more smartphones are being purchased and used by people around the world. All of these people are using apps for everything else, so we thought, why don’t we ask a lot of people to do just a little bit in the fight against hunger? And we created ShareTheMeal, which is an app where you’re able to provide 50 cents as a contribution, which is enough food to feed one child for one day in our average operation. And you can choose 50 cents a day, week, month or year. It’s an easy way for people to get involved in the fight against hunger.
Most people don’t think of an app when they think of ending world hunger. What’s your thinking regarding the future of such innovations for WFP and other organizations that help the world’s most vulnerable people?
I am convinced that we can and we must develop the right business models to translate technologies that can arguably have a lot more benefit for those who are most vulnerable in delivering these kinds of services and assistance — rather than, say, your consumer who’s getting groceries within two hours in San Francisco. I have nothing against those systems. They drive the technology that can allow us to offer similar or stronger benefits to those who are vulnerable. It’s really about that translation and acceleration, if you will — about how these extraordinary and life-changing technologies can be applied to the problems and challenges of humanity.
To learn more about WFP innovations and to share your idea, go to innovation.wfp.org.
PHOTO AT TOP: The World Food Programme’s innovation accelerator helped develop H2Grow, a hydroponic system that allows people to grow food in arid countries such as Chad.