Towards Zero Hunger with Analytics

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Today, nearly 690 million people regularly go to bed hungry. This means 1 in 11 people do not have access to enough food – a situation exacerbated further by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. One of the key players addressing this issue is the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the world’s largest humanitarian organization fighting hunger worldwide and winner of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. In 2019, WFP procured and distributed 4.2 million metric tons of food and provided U.S. $2.1 billion in cash-based transfers to 97.1 million beneficiaries across 88 countries.

Humanitarian operations are complex to manage by nature, as they seek to address multifaceted problems with limited resources in unstable operational environments. Planning and managing the entire supply chain of WFP assistance comes with many unique challenges: from high demand volatility to funding restrictions and from security and access limitations to data inconsistencies. As needs evolve and new information comes in, it is critical to continually monitor and understand each operation, quickly adapt and re-evaluate plans, optimize the use of limited resources, and anticipate what is expected to happen next.

To that end, WFP has been embracing the power of analytics. Engineers and mathematicians have taken a leading role in supporting complex operations, using analytics as an enabler to strengthen the integration between functional areas, augment visibility on WFP operations, and find concrete ways to maximize their efficiency and effectiveness. 

Working closely with its partners in academia (Tilburg University and Georgia Institute of Technology) and the private sector (Palantir, UPS, and Takeda), WFP has been developing a variety of tools ranging from automated dashboards (bringing together descriptive and predictive analytics) to decision support systems (such as control towers and optimization models). This coordinated, proactive, and data-driven approach to managing humanitarian operations has resulted in a wide range of benefits.

In South Sudan, this approach has been used to optimize food arrivals through international corridors (Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda) and redesign the logistics network, improving access to hard-to-reach locations and reducing the need for costly airdrops. This has resulted in better utilization of the riverine network, earlier availability of donor funding, and more than U.S. $100 million in savings. Moreover, this approach led to the reopening of a barge supply line between Sudan and South Sudan for the first time since 2011, contributing to peace-building activities and economic development across the region.

In Iraq, analytics helped identify more cost-effective food baskets. Simultaneously optimizing the composition of the ration and the supply chain strategy reduced monthly operational costs by 12% without compromising the nutritional performance of the basket. This optimized ration was distributed for more than two years, resulting in more than U.S. $25 million in savings.

For the COVID-19 response, analytics supported senior management in decision making for global operations, evaluating contingency scenarios and prioritizing scarce resources such as funds, staff, and key commodities. Additionally, a Control Tower was built to support WFP’s Common Services, which allow other organizations and

partners to leverage WFP’s supply chain network to move life-saving health cargo anywhere in the world. This allowed for the transportation of 100,000 m. (cubic meters) of cargo to more than 150 countries during a period of extensive lockdowns and access constraints. 

Significant investments over the last decade have put planning and optimization at the forefront of tackling emergencies at WFP. A data-driven approach to managing operations has gradually become the norm and has culminated in the creation of a supply chain planning unit and more than U.S. $150 million in savings – enough to

support two million food insecure people for an entire year. The developed tools provide end-to end decision support for each WFP operation, making it possible to rapidly identify the most efficient and effective course of action. 

Through analytics, decision makers are now equipped with the insights they need to manage their operation in the best way, thereby saving and changing the lives of millions and bringing the world one step closer to “Zero Hunger.”