Sound Environmental Design Equals Good Business

An environmentally sound program is good for business. These are words that could easily be plastered in bright neon on the side of the USAID building in Washington, DC.

It’s a guiding philosophy of the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) program, a unique, five-year initiative aimed at conserving vital water resources around the world.

“Protecting the environment is our first commitment,” said program chief Dr. Ku McMahan. “We tell our innovators that this makes for good business.”

In other words, if any of the SWFF programs don’t meet strict environmental standards, the project will not move forward with funding. There are 26 active programs.

The SWFF program itself is a crucial one.

McMahan says that by the year 2050 an earth of more than nine billion people will only have enough year-around useable water for a third of the population.

The innovator projects are designed to develop sustainable programs to save water, increase crop yields and be viable and scalable as a business going into the future.

They include, among many other ideas, developing more accurate weather forecasting for farmers, innovative irrigation methods, and ingenious programs for turning compost to fertilizer.

McMahan’s SWFF program works closely with environmental scientists with USAID in determining which projects will move ahead and which need more guidance.

“If any program has design flaws and causes harm to the environment, it is a step backward,” said McMahan, who added that he is finding a cooperative spirit among the innovators.

“They are buying into the concept that the design of the project—including environmental compliance—is fundamental to a business plan,” he said.

As examples, he noted two vastly different innovations that are 6,000 miles and 10 air hours away, one in Ghana in West Africa, SkyFox, and the other in southern India, WASTE Stichting.

When it’s needed, the nutrient-rich water arising from fish excreta in the ponds is filtered downhill and used to irrigate crops during dry periods, thereby serving a dual purpose.

Both innovations represent good examples of how worthwhile projects with design problems can be re-worked and molded into environmentally safe ventures that actually enhance profitability.

SkyFox is headed by Dr. Oliver Ujah, an agriculture economist. It involves creating hilltop, geo-textile surface aquaculture ponds capable of raising up to four tons of fish twice a year.

When it’s needed, the nutrient-rich water arising from fish excreta in the ponds is filtered downhill and used to irrigate crops during dry periods, thereby serving a dual purpose.

However, said McMahan, there were environmental concerns: They had not adequately figured in the environmental impact of having multiple sites. “We had to make sure SkyFox was contaminating the environment of pristine sites.”

There was also an economic factor. Environmental assessments on each site could be costly.

“We seem to have underestimated environmental requirements for the projects,” said Ujah. “But we realized these are very important if we were to go forward.”

McMahan and the environmental team concluded that just the cost of the environmental studies on each location could consume all the funding of the SWFF grant to the program.

Instead of ending participation in the project, Ujah, the environmental team and SWFF managers went back to the drawing board. The result was a scaled-back project that met environmental hurdles while still being viable.

“We often find that working closely with the innovators we can guide them through the rough spots,” said McMahan.

“We received an environmental checklist which we used to document a baseline for all our sites, and we send that to USAID’s Development Lab for approval,” Ujah said.

At the same time, Ujah added that the program began an initiative to engage the community on how SkyFox goes about designing and managing the various sites.

In the long run, in order to more effectively manage the growing program, SkyFox is considering franchising the sites in other countries. Though based in Ghana, the program also serves Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Burkina Faso.

“This is something we’re looking at in the long run,” said Ujah. “We want to be able to set others up in an environmentally safe way utilizing what we have learned.

“If they accept the way we work—the environmental standards—we could provide franchises,” he added.

Due to the nature of the project—dealing with solid waste—the WASTE program needed a course correction even more so than SkyFox in order to receive the go-ahead.

The project called for the capture of gray water from households to pump into farm ponds for use in irrigation and also black (fecal) water which would be turned into compost to improve crop yield.

The plan was to dig up to 100 pounds to store water. However, WASTE had not considered what they were going to do with all the soil excavated from land.

When the SWFF team looks at the innovators’ proposals, it is difficult to determine merely by what’s on the application paper the impact on the environment.

“You have to look under the hood,” said McMahan. “This resulted in a USAID environmental team visiting the project in India, and aiding in improved design of the program.”

WASTE is headed by a program manager in the Netherlands, Priska Prasetha, and an on-site project veteran in India, Rajkumar Sampath, who has 40 years’ experience working on water issues.

“From the outset,” said McMahan, “it was basically a question of getting on the same page, and realizing the design planning for the project had to be environmentally safe.”

Ms. Prasetha concurred: “We initially had misunderstandings. They helped us understand, and how to adopt. During the team’s visit to India, they guided us step by step.”

Ms. Prasetha listed the takeaways as follows:

“Building a strong relationship with farmers is crucial to a successful program. It helped with farmers accepting the use of compost from fecal water. Now we know if we want to construct a pond, we need to be more detailed in what and how we are doing it. The program helped us focus more thoroughly on pathogens which can result in disease.”

Project manager Sampath’s readily admits India’s environmental standards are not as strong as in the United States and Europe, and that the WASTE team had a learning curve.

“We have given USAID a clear picture now that focuses on the environment, the soil, the water, and vegetation,” he said. “No harm will be to the environment or people. The composting plants will not impact people in the surrounding area.”

One bonus for the program is that with better fertilizer and irrigation, farmers can add one more planting period each year, thereby increasing overall yield.

To program head McMahan, this type of cooperation is what makes the SWFF program so successful.

“It all has to all come together,” he said. “This means environmental soundness, scalability; and, in the final analysis, profitability.”


USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $35 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