shark tank

The Global Shark Tank

By Dr. Ku McMahan, Team Lead, Securing Water for Food

I think there are hundreds of Shark Tank-style investors around the globe with a social conscience, an eye toward a fair profit, and the ability to recognize a good investment for the future of the world. 

In fact, this is more than a feeling. I have empirical evidence. 

Over the last decade, I have served as the main USAID lead on one project and contributed, with our teams and partners, input into a second aimed at creating sustainable businesses in poorer markets. This is my job. With our staff and corroborators, we search out and identify through examination and competition, worldwide innovators to support with grants and technical assistance.  

We are looking for innovators who are passionate about helping those at the bottom of life’s pyramid—primarily rural farmers—and who can present a business plan that is sustainable and scalable to be of even greater benefit. To date, I have managed more than $70 million in assistance and have worked over the years in 30 countries, mostly in the Eastern Hemisphere. 

The newest project that has my attention—and that of USAID and government partners in South Africa, Sweden, and the Netherlands — is called Water & Energy For Food (WE4F), which has an even greater reliance on securing outside financing for innovators. This program builds on the six-year-old Securing Water for Food (SWFF) initiative, which I considered my brainchild. Both seek outside investment, but with WE4F, it is a critical ingredient.

Let’s face it. Our Shark Tank is a real-life drama and not entertainment. The stakes are so much higher. 

Why are such programs as SWFF and WE4F needed? 

For starters, 9.7 billion people around the world will need clean water in the next 30 years. Under current projections, there will only be sufficient, usable water year-around for a third of the population. There is a tendency to suggest three decades in the future is a lifetime away and why panic. It’s closer than we realize, and the time will pass in the flutter of an eyelid. 

Think back three decades to 1989: The term World Wide Web was first introduced. Singing star Taylor Smith was born. The Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize.

 But the world changed in a flash. 

There was the fall of communism and the Soviet Union. There were a mere 5.2 billion people on earth compared to the UN projection of nearly 10 billion by 2050, an exponential jump. There are no silver bullets to address what could be worldwide crises, those impacted by weather variations, natural disasters, wasteful water management, and our own collective lack of foresight. 

So, given the high stakes, one can easily see the need for a multi-government backstop supported by the collective wisdom of smart corporate and NGO organizations around the world. Unlike the popular television program “Shark Tank,” this crucial game is not merely millionaires or billionaires partnering with struggling entrepreneurs to succeed in selling cute sweatshirts or vitamin-enhanced cupcakes.

This is about life, disease, hunger, death, and the planet’s future.

It is about innovators in far-flung locales developing water-saving-crop-enhancing methods for struggling farmers, 70 percent of whom are women working the fields while husbands often have jobs in cities. This is about outside investors stepping up to the plate because ideas of innovators in such places as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and India have solid business plans and a good shot at success. 

It is, in essence, about the future of all of us. 

When the funding from donor organizations ends under the SWFF program this year, we felt it was crucial that the businesses continue to serve their regions. When we launched the SWFF program in 2014, the process of winnowing down qualified applicants was rigorous. We picked sector-specific experts to judge the ideas on workability, financial viability, and commercial sustainability. Out of hundreds of applicants, only a few made the cut, with 40 grants awarded and 26 considered successful either meeting or exceeding goals. 

From the outset, those goals included but did not depend on outside investment. Measurements included but were not limited to water savings, crop yields, and gender equality. 

From the outset, we thought we would be successful if we funded 30 to 50 and 10 succeeded. In a project like this, it would be reasonable to have one real success story out of 100.

The innovations range from a ground-breaking idea to plant pumpkins on sandbars left after monsoons in Bangladesh, to water storage for irrigation during dry periods in India, to texting via mobile phone square mile precise weather forecasts for farmers in Kenya, among others. 

I am proud the results have far exceeded the program expectations. The bar, however, for the follow-on WE4F program is even higher, primarily in terms of garnering significant private capital. 

The No. 1 question for this second phase initiative—Water and Energy for Food—is this: Will investors step forward?

I’m convinced they will. We have been in the field surveying potential investors, and it is a fact that they are there and they have the funds. The main thing is fitting the right investor with the right innovator. No investor gives money out of charity. They do it for a reasonable return. However, it has long been acknowledged that the investor with a social conscience trumps one with simply eyes for profit. 

Let’s face it. Our Shark Tank is a real-life drama and not entertainment. The stakes are so much higher. 



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