From the Rift Valley to Silicon Valley


Private sector sponsors have played a large part in helping us use mobile technology to reach out to people in the world’s most vulnerable communities. Since mVAM began in 2012, we have received support from The Nielsen Corporation, Cisco CSR, and We’re also collaborating with Tableau Foundation and Praekelt Foundation/Facebook. These types of partnerships are pretty new at WFP so we think it’s important to explain how working with the private sector differs from the usual way of doing things.

Some of our sponsors have helped us by writing a check, providing us with the vital financial resources we needed to achieve our goals. This was the case of when the Ebola epidemic occurred in 2014-2015.  Their support helped us scale up SMS data collection at the height of a major emergency, an essential proof-of-concept  that allowed us to scale up the approach in other complex settings such as Iraq, Yemen and Syria. Cisco CSR financed the development of the open-source SMS and IVR tools that we use to communicate with communities in Somalia, DRC and other places.

Other partners have provided us with their skills rather than cash. For instance, Nielsen allowed us to spend some time with their data science staff, and we greatly benefited from their expertise in survey methodology.  It turned out that lessons and insights from media monitoring in the US are entirely relevant to food security monitoring in humanitarian contexts. Nielsen’s knowledge of incentives, retention and engagements helped us keep our respondents engaged. Importantly, the collaboration was win-win, and both WFP and Nielsen’s staff were able to learn about the new techniques that are revolutionising data collection.

Similarly, Tableau’s specialists have worked with us to to design data viz tools that help people better interact with our data. This is a very different level of engagement than the relationships we have with ‘traditional’ donors to the UN – usually governments – who tend not to get involved hands-on with our data.


We can hear you sigh – are these not examples we hear about in the media of ill-intentioned private companies using UN data for their own ends?  Our experience has been that they genuinely want to help us better assist people in need. In some cases, private partners have approached us first when a disaster occurs to offer their help. Though, of course, it seems that it’s much easier for companies to offer assistance for a natural disaster (Ebola in 2014, Nepal earthquakes in 2015) rather than in conflict and complex emergency settings.

So, how do they compare to government donors?

As you can imagine, working with private companies is different than with traditional donors. Private partners tend to require less paperwork than government donors commonly require. Proposals are shorter, to the point, and decisions are made rapidly. What private donors look for is a compelling use case and a good match with the skills they offer, such as analytics or connectivity.

But what’s great about these private sector partnerships is that they have allowed us to grow from ‘startup’ to a fully fledged mainstream project. Since last year traditional government donors, including Belgium and the Netherlands, have come on board for substantial multi-year support for mVAM. This suggests private and public funding are complementary — with the private sector helping an idea emerge before it is taken to scale with more traditional resources.


Our latest private sector collaboration is with Praekelt Foundation to use Facebook’s Free Basics internet service. This is going to be a great addition to our two-way communication system as we’re going to be able to share the price data we collect via mobile phones through their free internet.The partnership is currently in its early stages, so watch out for dedicated entries once we have our test version!

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