SWFF Case Study: Identifying and Supporting Innovators at the Water-Ag Nexus

A billion people on the planet do not have enough to eat. Changes in weather patterns combined with population shifts are compounding the problem. Increased agricultural production is needed; yet agriculture already accounted for 70% of worldwide water consumption in 20141. How can the industry grow more food without additional strain on the planet’s water supply?

New ideas are needed and urgently. Promising innovations already exist, and new ideas are emerging, but often scientists and innovators do not have access to the business acumen that could help scale these solutions and bring them to market.

USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands recognized the imperative to identify and support innovators working in the water-agriculture nexus. These three founding partners launched Securing Water for Food (SWFF) in 2013 and, together with the newest partner, South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology, provide funding and technical assistance to accelerate solutions that produce more food with less water.

We wanted to structure a program that supported innovators in a way that would give them the highest chance at commercial uptake and scale.


The SWFF partners set out to design a program that would not only fund promising innovators with good ideas, but would also help them rapidly expand their businesses and customer bases. In 2013, this was still a novel idea for most donors since investing in innovation meant accepting a higher level of risk.

“It’s said that new innovations fail 90% of the time,” explained Dr. Ku McMahan, USAID’s team lead on SWFF, “but the complex challenge that SWFF took on demanded a better rate of success. We wanted to structure a program that supported innovators in a way that would give them the highest chance at commercial uptake and scale.”

Before launching, SWFF partners undertook a rigorous analysis of existing solutions and barriers to their success. They also evaluated multiple development activities that focused on entrepreneurs and start-ups to understand what works and what doesn’t. In addition, the team thoughtfully designed a Request for Information to solicit insights directly from those that would ultimately respond to the call for innovations. This methodical approach centered around one question: How could SWFF provide both financial resources as well as business support in a way that genuinely moved innovators forward and would make progress toward the ultimate goal of producing more food with less water?

Read the full case study here.