Identifying Innovation in the Ordinary

UNDP Careers
4 min readMay 25, 2021

Meet Fatima Ahmed-Farouta, Head of Solutions Mapping for UNDP Accelerator Labs in Ghana, who shares her experience of working in an environment that both recognizes and empowers innovative thinking.

Fatima Ahmed-Farouta, Head of Solutions Mapping, UNDP Accelerator Labs, Ghana

I’m driving around the city of Tamale, Ghana, and I find this group of guys collecting maggots from abattoir waste, and using them to make chicken feed. Why are they doing this?

Well, they know that the neighbourhood chickens eat the byproduct from the waste, but that byproduct could be used to feed their pigs instead. So they came up with a solution to produce chicken feed from the maggots they can then sell to the neighbourhood, and then feed the rest of the abattoir waste to their pigs. This is a solution to keep their farm animals fed while minimizing waste in the abattoirs. And then there’s the everyday farmer, sitting somewhere in the northern part of Ghana on land plagued by pests. On his daily walk through the farm, he discovers a patch of weeds that aren’t being attacked by the pests and realizes that, if he plants these weeds near his crops, they will act as a natural pest repeller.

If this all sounds a little out there, that’s because it is. These are out-of-the-box innovations, and my job as Head of Solutions Mapping with the new UNDP Accelerator Labs requires me to search all around the country to find more innovations just like these ones — solutions that are being implemented by ordinary citizens in their small pocket of the city.

I then present these solutions to our Head of Experimentation (following ethical procedures with the person who came up with the solution, of course), who will run a series of tests to see how possible it is for us to scale the innovation.

This is what makes me so proud to be a part of the UNDP family — because we are listening to the people, telling their stories, and we are asking their permission before learning from them. We are treating them as partners to our life-changing mission.

Building the world’s largest and fastest learning network

I’ve been with the UNDP Accelerator Labs for just over a year and already I am blown away by the culture of learning and the desire to push the boundaries of the possible. Everyone here is so invested in making these labs a success and in integrating our methodologies into the traditional UNDP offices across the globe. We are constantly sharing the knowledge and innovations we find.

I love that, on any given day, I can reach out to my colleague in the Philippines to get advice on an Innovation Challenge we are running that they have had experience with before. Or how I can be challenged by another colleague in Ecuador, who’s very passionate about the rights of indigenous peoples, to ask how ethical my approach is and what I can improve on.

It never feels like you are tackling problems alone — rather, you’re surrounded by this global network who is coming alongside you to empower you to figure it out.

February 2020, Accra, Ghana. Fatima Farouta with colleagues at an informal waste recycling site.

Room for the unusual in the Accelerator Labs team

What you’ll find, if you were to step into any UNDP Accelerator Lab, is a team of energetic, unusual, out-of-the-box thinkers. The type of people who will be driving around the city looking for the guy feeding maggots to his chickens. Isn’t it wonderful to think of a development organization as big as UNDP and realize you don’t have to fit into a specific mould to work here — that there is room for the ‘unusual’?

We look quite different to other UNDP offices and are always speaking about methodologies that aren’t implemented in the everyday work of others in the organization — things like collective intelligence and behavioural insights. But recently I heard one of the Resident Representatives from Côte d’Ivoire speaking about how she got the Accelerator Lab integrated into her country office and ensured that members of the Accelerator Lab were included in most of the meetings. This made me so excited, to have a glimpse at what the future of this new venture could look like as it becomes increasingly integrated into the traditional structures of UNDP life.

But even more importantly than that, I’m excited to hear the voices of ordinary people be further amplified through the work we do. And those seemingly ordinary people, who are bringing about change to their little corner of the earth, are, in fact, rather extraordinary. They are the reason we are able to innovate at such speed on a global scale and impact millions of lives in the process.

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UNDP Office of Human Resources is pleased to share the stories behind the people who make this UN organization a big community of purpose