SWFF Graduates Share Lessons Learned at “Unconference”

In celebration of Securing Water for Food’s 5th anniversary and the program’s achievements, SWFF innovators, graduates, founding partners, and others convened in Stockholm, Sweden at World Water Week. The week began with the annual “unconference,” an event led and facilitated by innovators who covered a variety of topics, including sustainable business growth, branding, and the importance of building lean and efficient teams, to name a few.

In the closing panel presentation led by Dr. Ku McMahan, four SWFF graduates shared lessons learned during their tenure with the program and reflected on their experiences after graduating. “Programs like this are an incredible source of support,” said Pratap Thapa, a founder of aQysta. “It is important to hear that others are experiencing the same struggles that we have and to be able to share with other people from the same field.”

Pratap was joined by Bacalar Muneme of Future Water, Claire Reid of Reel Gardening and Khanjan Mehta of GRO Greenhouses. Each shared examples of how they have pivoted, failed in some circumstances, and other struggles before, during, and after the SWFF program.

aQysta – Reaching Milestones

Pratap explained that prestige, greater credibility, and visibility came with his team’s partnership with the SWFF program. Through acceleration support from the TA Facility, aQysta had the opportunity to further develop the firm’s technology and put in place important milestones. “We had to find our way to meet the milestones. To do that, we went to the field to get feedback.” Some of those milestones required aQysta to work with a new design team and take new training classes.

We’re getting back into the SWFF mindset again. Discipline is required, which is one of the best things we learned in the program.

During aQysta’s first year as a SWFF graduate, they realized and missed the discipline that SWFF provided. “We’re getting back into the SWFF mindset again. Discipline is required, which is one of the best things we learned in the program,” he said.

FutureWater – Need for Long-Term Business Planning

Bacelar’s experience was slightly different. Starting out, Future Water did not have the permission to use drones in Mozambique. SWFF assisted the firm in gaining the necessary permissions and gave guidance in working with small farmers. Future Water did such a great job at effectively reaching their customers that they did not foresee the amount of demand they would receive after completing the project. The guidance Bacelar’s team received from SWFF allowed them to better understand long-term business realities. “From the SWFF program, we learned that we have to think on every stage of the business, not just the first six-month period,” he explained.

Reel Gardening – How to Grow from Failure

Learning and growing from failure was another theme explored by Claire Reed, CEO of Reel Gardening. She explained that after winning the SWFF award in Stockholm four years ago, the small team of four at Reel Gardening thought they had everything figured out.

“We had a perfect picture of how the system would work,” Claire said. “Schools would be an advertisement for the project. It looked good on paper, but it failed horribly on the field.”

The team had overlooked one critical element in their business model. “We thought that selling in the store was on the side and a separate thing that we couldn’t or wouldn’t focus on.”

They believed that that move would take them away from the original purpose of the company. “Entrepreneurs sometimes feel that they have to continue putting a little more money into a problem for it to work. Thankfully, SWFF showed us where the sustainability was in our model,” she noted.

Once Claire and her team were honest about where they stood and open to receiving help, they started to grow. With targeted assistance from the SWFF TA Facility, Reel Gardening was able to better understood what business model would work and how to incorporate what drove the mission of the company — making sure that children were having fun with the product, learning the principles of gardening, and taking the kits home to their families.

The biggest thing I’m grateful for is to not be scared or afraid to say that you’ve failed the purpose of failing is to look at why you failed and understand how to fix it.

“The biggest thing I’m grateful for is to not be scared or afraid to say that you’ve failed the purpose of failing is to look at why you failed and understand how to fix it,” she said.

In the process, Reel Gardening talked to over two hundred beneficiaries to get a better grasp of what they wanted. “Since then we are making more profit, signing incredible deals, and witnessing a whole shift in our team,” Claire added.

World Hope – Adaptability in the Face of Disaster

According to Khanjan Mehta from GRO Greenhouses, when disaster hits, adaptability and working with what you have is necessary for business survival. In the beginning of the SWFF engagement, Khanjan’s team planned to focus on Sierra Leone, but their plans were changed with the outbreak of Ebola. In this instance, adaptability was a necessity. “We pivoted and were able to get approval to split milestones between Sierra Leone and Mozambique – this worked out really well and helped us to meet 99% of our milestones.”

With SWFF guidance, GRO Greenhouses recognized that they needed to focus on their attentiveness as a team. As a result, they focused on sustainability long term and going after the right customers. Ending subsidies and changing contracts to meet these goals, the team has now built an independent, self-sustaining industry in Sierra Leone.

“This was a hard journey with lots of ups and downs, but through this we benefited tremendously from the counsel of Ku and the SWFF TA Facility. They asked us the hard questions.”