Calgary-born Robert Opp leading UN World Food Programme’s new innovation division

The United Nations is entering the innovation fray with the launch of a global accelerator in Germany — and a Canadian is leading the charge.

Calgary-born Robert Opp, director of the UN World Food Programme’s innovation division, said that the UN decided to launch an accelerator after the organization saw innovation and startups as a driving force for moving the world forward. Before being appointed as director of the innovation division, Opp worked at the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa and has worked at the World Food Programme headquarters for several years.

“It’s a new division, and the reasoning behind that is that innovation is such a crucial part of what we see happening in the world and we want to bring that in terms of the fight against hunger. It was worth putting in place an organizational unit that would focus on that,” Opp said.

The WFP is looking at both non-tech based solutions, as well as projects that focus on mobile and big data as a catalyst for helping the UN’s member states reach their Sustainable Development Goal of ending world hunger by 2030.

“If you look at the progress we’re making towards addressing hunger, we’re making progress, but if we go at same rate of last 10 years, we won’t make it. In fact, there will be half a billion hungry people. For us, we’re looking at all the levers we can to accelerate our progress and innovation is one of those levers,” Opp said. “We’re really looking at how to improve our own operations as well as help others in their effort to fight hunger.”

To design the model for the accelerator, which is located in Munich, Opp looked at external models of innovation and saw how innovation hubs across the world promoted innovation. The Innovation Accelerator, which is being funded partially by the German government, is currently housing 12 projects across 10 countries, and is exploring both “intrapreneurship” within the organization and partnerships with companies across the globe.

world food programme accelerator

A couple of projects supported by WFP include AgriUp, a low-bandwidth app offering tips on modern agriculture for Guatemalan farmers struggling to grow food, and Rather than seeking equity value, and ShareTheMeal, a crowdfunding app that allows users to make small donations that feed people for a day. The accelerator looks at supporting projects based on their potential to impact world hunger, and offers traditional startup accelerator resources like early-stage idea bootcamps, and programs to help companies go from prototype to product.

“We created the accelerator not just to start innovation at WFP. Innovation has been happening organically for some time, and the accelerator is really about facilitating it more systematically and ensure we’re taking maximum advantage. As a public sector organization, we feel it’s necessary to look at processes are either facilitating and blocking innovation.”

world food programme

While the nature of accelerators is often one of maximizing profits, Opp maintains that as an international public sector organization, WFP is simply looking to the model to promote innovation with social entrepreneurship.

“Our view of business is that if it’s a business contributing to ending world hunger, that’s a good thing. We need to be careful because, as an international civil service sector organization, that we are not engaged in any kind of conflict-of-interest type relationships with companies that are potential vendors to us. There are lots of internal rules and regulations we have to respect,” Opp said. “We need the best thinking out there in the business world to infuse how we do our own changes and make us more effective. We’re not promoting people’s profits, but if we can somehow encourage more people to enter that social business space, we see that as a good thing.”