Women Empowered and Yields Increased Finds Researcher – Evaluator for SWFF

When poet Robert Frost wrote of taking the “road less traveled,” he was being figurative. But when Pooja Gupta traveled those muddy, winding roads uphill in India, it was a very literal mission. As a researcher from the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, Gupta walked territories no car dared to go in a quest to evaluate a Netherland—headquartered innovator, WASTE. She liked what she found. 

Women were being empowered in greater numbers by being involved in the innovation, and as yields increased and more healthy plants flourished, farmers were seeing greater returns and bargaining power for crops in the market. What’s more, the cultural hurdle of farmers not wanting to use fecal black and household greywater as compost for their crops was being overcome as farmers saw the greener, more vibrant vegetables. 

That’s what WASTE is all about: In essence, turning poop into prosperity. 

“Farmers who have used the compost are informing other farmers of its benefits.”

The innovation of multiple holding ponds completes the circle of recycling fecal matter and wastewater into nutrient-enhanced fertilizer. At the end of the cycle, the water is reclaimed for irrigation, thereby saving on water. The innovation, supported by the global Securing Water For Food (SWFF) program sponsored by USAID, and the governments of the Netherlands, South Africa, and Sweden, is centered in the Indian Tamil Nadu state. 

At the instigation of Dr. Ku McMahan, SWFF senior team leader, a cadre of mostly young, but experienced researchers were hand-chosen from around the world to assess most of the innovations. “It is extremely important to note that this innovation has created women- entrepreneurs,” said Gupta, who is a communications officer at her research facility and on the advocacy for sanitation team. “Before this, the women were day laborers, but they learned the technology and are making farming-related decisions and helping support their families.”

Previously, Gupta said, only men made farming decisions. “It’s interesting that in many cases, the men are encouraging women to become more active.”

While women do not necessarily own larger farm areas in their names, small-scale agriculture has become an activity where women have stepped forward. Although due to their legal status, they might not have the final decision. “The women we found were more enthusiastic than men about the innovation because it allowed them to sustain themselves financially,” said Gupta. 

From her evaluation of WASTE, Gupta said she sees a lot of potential in the innovation in this Nilgiris tourist district, but for the evaluation itself, she had to undergo a rigorous routine. Each day, when the team left their vehicles, they had to climb a few kilometers uphill. But, to Gupta, it was all worth it. She witnessed a successful project. 

There were several crucial takeaways, other than the empowerment of women, she said. 

  • “The compost created brings life back to the soil. This cuts down on buying expensive fertilizers which are faster but take nutrients from the soil.”
  • “The farmers now have a better quality of crops which makes them more valuable. They can, in essence, often control the price at market.”
  • “Greywater is now becoming indispensable for farmers.”

Before WASTE, many farmers were leaving their homeland due to poor or failing crops and heading to the cities to look for work. 

“Now they are coming back because they see this new technology is making a difference,” she said. “Farmers who have used the compost are informing other farmers of its benefits.”


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