An Environmental Pledge: First, Do No Harm. Helping Innovators to Innovate – Successfully

A Study of Two SWFF Innovator Programs

There is a striking similarity between the pledge of an environmental official for USAID and the oft-quoted doctor’s oath: “First, do no harm.”

This is the talisman vow followed by PV Sundareshwar, senior science policy advisor and acting Bureau Environmental Officer for the agency in Washington, DC. His job, and that of his team, is to monitor, advise and, in essence, give a thumbs up or down on whether the agency’s programs around the world are environmentally sound.

This is particularly important in a far-reaching global initiative called Securing Water for Food (SWFF), an ambitious five-year program backed by four international government agencies. The program encompasses an international competition for break-through ideas that will help ensure the planet has sufficient safe water to feed a growing planet.

This is especially crucial given projections that the world will have to feed nine billion people by 2050, and currently, it will lack good, year-around water for two-thirds of the population. This makes the job of Sundareshwar and his team not just important, but critical. The dangers of innovator projects possibly causing harm are ever present unless designed with strict compliance to high environmental standards.

The SWFF projects are located in 35 mostly under-developed countries. Thus far there have been 40 grants with 26 judged; at this point, a successful investment stemming from the creative ideas of innovators.

One of, if not the first line of scrutiny prior to funding, is whether a program can pass muster with USAID and Dr. Sundareshwar’s environmental checklist. It’s a rigorous process. In the beginning, there were some 500 applicants for funding with each submitting what they felt were viable applications that met a need. The projects ranged from planting pumpkins on sandbars left by monsoon rains in Bangladesh, to exacting weather forecast in Vietnam and South Africa, to irrigation advances in India and turning compost into fertilizer in Ghana.

“Some might have the impression that environmental compliance is a rubber stamp,” said Sundareshwar, who has spent 25 years in natural resource management, climate change, and food security.

“I make it clear that in our shop environmental clearance is a go-or-no-go decision.”

In Sundareshwar’s role, he has to wear several hats, including environmental watchdog, business consultant and steward of the taxpayer’s money. He has to warn program innovators away from projects that could, in the long run, be calamitous both from an environmental and a business standpoint.

“We do an Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) on each project,” said Sundareshwar. “If they pass this hurdle, we move on to an Environmental Assessment (EA) which is a much more in-depth study of the project.”

On occasion, there is obviously no, or minimal environmental impact and the agency can issue a categorical exclusion. “We want to know on the front end if—because of the program design or other factors— there are going to be issues,” said Sundareshwar. He added that “by discovering a problem early, we can assist in re-designing it such that it possibly can receive a favorable Environmental Assessment.

“Our approach cannot and should not just be about compliance,” said Sundareshwar. “We have to take another step and help make these innovators better business people. We want them to be able to build sustainable businesses.

“Let’s face it, good environmental practices also represent good business practices,” he said.

Sundareshwar outlined two vivid examples of how strict environmental controls can save promising projects. One is Sky Fox, based in Ghana, and the other is WASTE, a project located in southern India.


The SkyFox innovation involved creating hilltop, geo-textile surface aquaculture ponds which are capable of raising up to four tons of catfish/tilapia twice a year. SkyFox provides the infrastructure, and training, as well as the fish fingerlings, working with cooperatives. It also sells shares in the venture to farmers.

When it’s needed, the nutrient-rich water arising from fish excreta in the ponds is filtered downhill and used to irrigate crops during the dry periods, thereby serving a dual purpose. However, according to USAID’s environmental compliance team, it appeared Sky Fox had bitten off more than it could chew by wanting to have multiple sites in several countries.

“The bottom line,” said Sundareshwar, “is that a sound environmental program with strict compliance makes business sense. We want to be a partner for the innovator.”

“They had not adequately figured in the environmental impact of multiple sites,” said Sundareshwar. “We were concerned and wanted to make sure they were not causing an environmental impact to pristine sites they had chosen.”

Also, there was an economic factor. If Sky Fox were to have an Environmental Assessment on each site, it would run into thousands of dollars, eating into their innovator award. “Their design would have killed the project from the outset,” said Sundareshwar.

Instead, the environmental team sent Sky Fox back to the drawing board to re-design its plan and objectives. “We saw a lot of issues not mentioned to us in the initial review of the application,” added Sundareshwar. “We went back and had a detailed, face-to-face meeting with them.

“The result was we completely changed our and their approach to the project. We said we would work with Sky Fox and create with them a design that would mitigate doing an Environmental Assessment.”

“The upshot of going back to the drawing board was that Sky Fox could see their problems more clearly.

“We were not just telling them they could not do something, but showing them how to do it better to avoid problems from the outset,” added Sundareshwar.

There was another innovative suggestion resulting from the discussions. Sundareshwar recommended that in order to manage a far-flung entrepreneurial effort, that SkyFox franchise potential sites as opposed to managing the locations themselves. “They would be able to sell their expertise to the franchisees,” he said.

Sundareshwar is optimistic about Sky Fox’s chances of success.  The owners of the innovation have been quick to thank the environmental team for steering them away from what could have been a disastrous direction. “If Sky Fox can meet its potential it will have a tremendous impact on the region,” said Sundareshwar. “They have robust numbers, and they should be able to dramatically impact fish pricing and production in West Africa.”


With WASTE, the environmental compliance team had the specter of serious problems. When simply looking at an initial proposal, it is difficult to see hidden problems. “It wasn’t clear what they were doing, so we had to work closely with them. There was no clarity,” said Sundareshwar. “Sometimes you have to look under the hood.”

The project called for the capture of gray water from households to pump into farm ponds for use in irrigation and also black water which would be turned into compost. The plan was to dig up to 100 ponds to store water, but, said Sundareshwar, they had not considered what they were going to do with all the soil taken from land when making ponds.

“We told them you couldn’t just dump the dirt on someone else’s farm,” said Sundareshwar. “That soil might contain pesticides. We simply were not convinced the idea as designed could be approved.”

This was a situation in which the environmental team felt it necessary to make an on-site examination of the innovator ’s idea. After doing so, they recommended the project be scaled back to such an extent an Environmental Assessment would not be necessary. “Once we got to this point we were able to work with WASTE and further identify problems and how we could mitigate them,” said Sundareshwar.

One problem was simply in how they had executed the design of moving gray water from households to the holding ponds. “They were creating channels from the houses to the tanks. I told them I grew up in this region. If you have an open channel, it will be clogged in short order with trash bags and all sorts of debris,” said Sundareshwar.

WASTE had simply dug the channels in the dirt and was losing half the water before it reached the tank.  The environmental team convinced them to cover the channels and move the gray water through pipes. “We wanted to make sure that untreated water was not seeping into other people’s fields,” said Sundareshwar.

Another area the compliance team looked into with WASTE, as well as other projects, was whether the benefits of the program were distributed equitably. “We wanted them to come up with a community plan so that the farmers closest to the ponds didn’t have an unfair advantage compared to those further away,” said Sundareshwar.

“They told us they had never thought of this,” he added.

Another concern the environmental team had with WASTE was making sure worm eggs found in human waste were not present when converted to fertilizer. “The allowable number for eggs has to be less than one,” said Sundareshwar. “They were composting, but it was in an area located in a cooler part of the country. If the temperatures don’t rise, the warm eggs will survive.”

In checking bags of compost, WASTE found several with eggs, and then went ahead and sold the fertilizer with them anyway. This was in violation of their innovator agreement. “Ku McMahan (SWFF program leader in USAID) was good about it and told them they were in violation,” said Sundareshwar. “He had them track the compost bags, monitoring each one.

“Contaminated fertilizer can put an entire community at risk of disease,” he added.

Among the two projects, Sundareshwar believes Sky Fox rates high on a 10 point scale, at least a seven when it comes to sustainability. He believes WASTE needs careful monitoring and on-going advice.

“The bottom line,” said Sundareshwar, “is that a sound environmental program with strict compliance makes business sense. We want to be a partner for the innovator.”