Shark Tank

The Other Shark Tank: Securing Water for Food

Three decades ago, the World Wide Web was introduced, Taylor Smith was born, and the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Only three decades from now, in the flutter of an eyelid, nine billion people around the world will need clean water and food on a planet that will only be able to adequately supply an amount sufficient for a third of us.

We have no silver bullet to address what could be a worldwide crisis, one impacted by climate conditions, natural disasters, and our own collective lack of foresight. This predicament has led to one of the most important international competitions of our day, bringing together global innovators to tackle food and water shortages.

One could easily label the competition a different version of the popular network television program “Shark Tank”, though, in this case, the stakes are higher. The marketplace is the world. This is not merely a millionaire or a billionaire partnering with a struggling entrepreneur to succeed in producing and marketing cute sweatshirts or a vitamin-enhanced cupcake.

It’s about life, human survival, and the planet’s future.

It is about innovators in far-flung locales developing water-saving-crop-enhancing methods for struggling farmers, many of whom are women working the fields while husbands often work in cities.

The innovators have been able to grow yields by 10 to 15 percent, though some have doubled or tripled their yields … They have succeeded in spades.

Six years ago, faced with world forecasts of water scarcity, a group of international donor agencies came together under to create the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) Grand Challenge for Development. They included the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the governments of Sweden (through Sida), the Netherlands and South Africa.

It was an ambitious program to make a dent in a vexing problem. The idea was to create practical approaches that could address a looming crisis while being sustainable. The innovations needed to succeed absent future donor funding.

It was a tall order.

At USAID, the responsibility for this mission fell to someone who had been involved in water issues for much of his life, a North Carolina-educated scientist named Dr. Ku McMahan. His life was and is about water issues. “When the funding ends from the donor organizations, it was important for us that the businesses and projects—whether for-profit or non-profit—continue,” said McMahon.

Thus, some 500 applicants entered the donor’s “Shark Tank” in 2014, though these sharks were not well-heeled entrepreneurs and television personalities.

These “sharks” were sector-specific experts, women and men, who judged the applicants’ technologies and business models on their technical feasibility, financial viability, gender, and commercial sustainability—and the possible and probable results that these applicants could achieve if accepted in to the program.

The process to winnow down qualified applicants was rigorous, from an initial one-page application to a several page investigation to, finally, a video interview for those few who were fortunate to make the cut. There have been 40 grants awarded in total and 26 considered successful, having either met or exceeded goals set during the application process. 

McMahan keeps the figures on the tip of his tongue.

“From the outset, we thought we would be extremely successful if we funded 30 to 50 and 10 succeeded,” said McMahan. “In a project like this, it would be normal to have one success story out of 100.”

The projects are global, but most all are concentrated in areas with severe water issues, such as monsoon flooding and drought, including Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, South Africa, Uganda, Ghana, and Kenya, among others.

They range from a ground-breaking idea to plant pumpkins on desolate 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 Vietnam. McMahan can reel off success story after success story, and—a data cruncher himself—is proud the results have far exceeded the program’s expectations.

“Picture if you will, one of our innovators walking along a river bank in Bangladesh, pondering the fact that monsoons yearly cause farmers to abandon their homes and land,” said McMahan. “He suddenly comes up with a ‘what if?’ idea. The result is planting pumpkin, squash, and other crops on sandbars that exist for several months after the flooding.”

“The story continues with the farmers growing crops for food on that sandbar, using much for the family, but having enough left to sell, buy a motorbike for transportation, and send children to school with cash received,” he added. “That’s what our program is all about.”

McMahan said the program envisioned reaching three million farmers and families.

“We are already at six million,” he said. “Compared to traditional ways of reducing water use, we felt we could cut consumption by seven billion additional liters. Instead, our innovators cut it by 17 billion liters.”

At the program’s inception, the planners felt the innovators could rack up an additional 1.9 million tons of food. However, said McMahan, they are already at six million tons.

“The innovators have been able to grow yields by 10 to 15 percent, though some have doubled or tripled their yields,” he said. “They have succeeded in spades.”

Not every innovator, of course, has been a success story, but often this has been due to natural disasters impacting their ability to produce, or, in one situation, the threat of terrorism. Only in a few instances—less than five percent—has lack of success been the result of personal failures, such as not showing sufficient initiative on the part of innovators, said McMahan.

What it all boils down to is that the televised version of “Shark Tank” is serious business to those who compete and are fortunate enough to end up with a sizable investment.

But the entertainment doesn’t compare to the ‘Shark Tank’ in which SWFF innovators compete, the stakes are virtually the ability of survival on a planet with diminishing resources.

“Ours is not an entertainment reality show—it is a ‘real life’ drama, and therein lies the critical difference,” said McMahan.


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.