Impact Investing Expert Kohler Helps Innovators Overcome Challenges

John Kohler is a recognized expert in impact investing and venture capital, but an experimental program targeting innovators in emerging markets six years ago posed a challenge. 

It was also a rewarding experience. 

The program was Securing Water for Food (SWFF), backed by USAID and three other governments. It was a competition for ideas that could be sustainable, scalable, and help farmers in developing countries achieve greater food security. In other words, innovations to help farmers become profitable over time while still meeting progressive goals to keep the SWFF funding coming. 

There was no esoteric purpose behind the program. Experts predict the world population will grow to nine billion by 2050 with sufficient water to meet the needs of only a third of the people. Kohler was one of the expert gatekeepers asked to assess whether the hundreds of applicants for the funding and technical assistance could, in the long run, pass muster. 

An Executive Fellow and Director of Impact Capital at Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, Kohler took on the role without pay. He saw it as a societal contribution. He was one of a team of experts who had the difficult job of sorting through hundreds of applications and determining—from year to year —which deserved initial and continued funding. 

“The basic question,” said McMahan, “is this: Were the lives of the farmers improved.”

It wasn’t an easy task. 

“It took us a little while to find our way, and for the innovators to think like companies. They were originally more program-oriented, without an emphasis on becoming profitable,” said Kohler.

“In the SWFF program, the innovators were forced to reach milestones to receive funding each year,” he added. “They couldn’t simply depend on grant money to keep their innovations going.

“If that were the case, the grant money would eventually be exhausted, the innovator would go away, and the poor farmer would be left with a now-obsolete solution.”

The innovations themselves ranged from new techniques in irrigation and accurate weather instruments to the development of seeds to ward off pests and excessive salt. All were designed to produce more food with less water and in an environmentally safe way. Most of those who assessed the viability of the projects were scientists and agricultural experts. Kohler believes he was one of the few who came from an investment background. A follow-on program announced in October: Water & Energy for Food (WE4F), will have more emphasis on outside investment from institutions and companies. 

The USAID Team Lead for the program is Dr. Ku McMahan, who is a co-founder of the $32 million Grand Challenge of SWFF. It is in partnership with the governments of Sweden, the Netherlands, and South Africa. 

In McMahan’s view, results are what counts. 

He has been pleasantly surprised at the number of innovator ideas that have been a success. Still, some have washed out of the program. Success can be based on increasing crop yield, water savings, or various intangibles, such as gender inclusion. “The basic question,” said McMahan, “is this: Were the lives of the farmers improved.”

It was Dr. McMahan who recruited Kohler to be on the selection committee for SWFF. 

“Each of us brought different strengths to the table. McMahan was an efficient leader. It was a very collegial and cooperative group. They were a joy to work with, and that was very helpful to the process,” said Kohler. 

Kohler believes a key to the success of the program was in the strategic technical assistance component offered to the innovators by the SWFF team. “Many innovators were initially less focused on preparing to raise capital and more focused on simply getting to the next level of funding,” Kohler said. 

“The technical assistance was crucial in repositioning their focus and, ultimately, their success.”


USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.

This story was developed through the SWFF Social Impact Storytelling Initiative which was established to document innovator journeys and social impact as they work to improve the way water is being used for agriculture. #socialimpact #innovation #agriculture #water