How the Securing Water for Food Challenge Seeded My Social Enterprise

When I was 16 years old, I saw how difficult gardening could be in South Africa and set out to change it. I wanted to give people, regardless of their experience or education level, joy in growing their own food and protect the quarter of South Africans who go hungry every day. So I developed a paper seed strip technology that allows aspiring gardeners to plant seeds at the correct spacing and depth to reduce water usage and increase germination rates.

The product has been wildly successful, but it has not been easy moving a new agriculture technology from idea to proof of concept to scale in an emerging market that ag-tech investors have found too risky.

As the Reel Gardening concept began to gain traction, I needed a small business loan to purchase equipment, hire more staff and grow the company. However, it required onerous interest that nearly crippled the business and, more importantly, pulled my emphasis away from social impact. I stood at an impasse: How could Reel Gardening stay true to its foundational goals to make gardening accessible for all income levels and stay afloat?

I had conversations with corporations, governments and NGOs to find ways for us to partner, but no one would take the leap. I searched high and low for investors willing to take a risk on a new agricultural technology that wasn’t geared toward large-scale farmers, but instead for everyday people – some with limited incomes – and no one would come on board.

In 2013, Reel Gardening discovered Securing Water for Food (SWFF), a Grand Challenge for Development partnership between the United State Agency for International Development (USAID), Sweden (through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, or Sida), the government of South Africa, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. SWFF works to fund and accelerate technology-based solutions that enable more food to be produced with less water in developing countries. Such solutions are few and far between in my experience. We applied for funding that year and won, a move I now see as pivotal for our company.

With $700,000 in incremental funding from SWFF, I was able to scale Reel Gardening when few others were interested in investing in us. Not only did SWFF address our funding gap, it provided the technical assistance we needed to grow our business in an emerging market. This is important for people like me who, while they have a great idea, do not have a formal background in business development and entrepreneurship.

SWFF helped us with the results-driven business development, commercial growth and scaling we needed to move forward. They pushed us to establish gardens in schools, which became a great marketing asset for us within several communities. With this increased exposure, Reel Gardening leveraged better relationships with local agents and trainers to represent the company and expand revenue, all while making a difference in those communities.

And the impact, you ask? Over the past 18 months, Reel Gardening has enabled 300,000 people to grow their own food, saving more than 19 million liters of water with more than $54,000 in sales. In the past year alone, Reel Gardening has implemented 200 school gardens, which have provided the recommended servings of fresh vegetables to more than 30,000 children. We trained more than 800 women and 1,500 children in organic farming, which has led our alums to found 16 independent microenterprises.

Since 2013, Reel Gardening has leveraged partnerships with major companies such as Unilever, Virgin Mobile, Reach Scale, TOMS and the Nelson Mandela Foundation – partnerships we never would have secured had it not been for early-stage funding from SWFF.

I’m not alone. In total, SWFF innovators have leveraged more than $7.9 million with more than 60 partnerships. The SWFF network includes 30 innovators from 28 countries that have produced more than 2,500 tons of food, saving more than 700 million liters of water and serving more than 780,000 farmers. Now, SWFF is looking for more socially minded innovators to assist and grow.

In its fourth Global Call for Innovations, SWFF will allocate $7.5 million in awards to innovators, each receiving from $100,000 to $2 million in funding and acceleration support to help them scale their businesses. Women-owned and women-led enterprises and entrepreneurs from developing countries are especially encouraged to apply. Applications close Monday (Oct. 10).

From one social entrepreneur to another, don’t give up. SWFF helped us close our funding gap and helped us learn the necessary skills we needed to make our impact dreams a reality. Apply now.

Claire Reid is the CEO and founder of Reel Gardening in South Africa.

Photo courtesy of Reel Gardening.

This article was originally published by Next Billion.