The world has a lot of problems. But Dr. Ku McMahan believes the solutions are held in the minds and hands of the world’s youth who have the energy, ingenuity, and connectivity to move mountains. As this senior team lead at USAID puts it, a 16-year-old Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, being chosen as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, is a sign of the times.
“The future is in the hands of the Centennials, the Millennials, and Generation X,” said McMahan. “This doesn’t dismiss the Baby Boomers, but the globe’s youthful inhabitants have more at stake.”
McMahan knows a lot about the future. As an expert in science and technology policy and innovation programs that advance worldwide prosperity, his eyes are always on the horizon. Two of these programs are Securing Water for Food (SWFF), which launched six years ago, and the more recent Water & Energy for Food (WE4F).
Overall, he has managed more than $70 million in grant technical assistance funds, mostly in the agriculture and water resource space. McMahan, himself, is not exactly a senior citizen. He was chosen in 2019 by his alma mater, the University of North Carolina, for a Distinguished Young Alumni Award for his achievements in development.
Starting out, he wanted to be a doctor but decided he could help more people in the fields of public health and international development. He has championed the role of young people, as well as gender equality in the programs he has overseen. The most often stated statistic is that by the year 2050, the world’s population will stand at nearly 10 billion people with only sufficient, usable year-around water for a third.
This is where McMahan has targeted his efforts. “We must make sure the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train. It’s imperative we address these global problems,” he says.
Both of the aforementioned programs, SWFF and WE4F, are geared toward supporting innovators that secure water while promoting more efficient growth of crops. The latter initiative has more of a private and NGO investment component. McMahan believes a “Think Big” philosophy has a role to play in future development, whether its artificial intelligence, so-called miracle seeds, or gee-whiz advances in irrigation and co-composting that cuts down on toxic chemicals while yielding more bountiful fruits and vegetables.
“We must make sure the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train. It’s imperative we address these global problems,” he says.
“I believe there are many advances in agriculture left to be developed. This begins with agriculture satellite monitoring systems and distributing information to farmers more efficiently,” says McMahan. “Technology can change the way we look at agriculture.”
McMahan gives an example the fact that we are able to identify soil types in a region, and can forecast various invasions of pests in earlier stages. “But we often don’t tell farmers outside the reach of extension agencies. They don’t necessarily know that there’s a big pest on the way, and it’s moving. It could have been 1,000 miles away two years ago, but now it is right on a region’s doorstep.”
The USAID official believes there is a missing link often at the beginning of the value chain, and it takes both artificial and human intelligence to generate data for decision-making. “We have a bunch of innovations and data sources that are fragmented. There are 60,000 different types of innovations, many in the pilot stage, and they are not scaling,” he says.
All this disparate information needs to come together to really address the scaling of these innovations, and that will take both youthful minds and seasoned specialists, McMahan adds.
Currently, farmers in the differing regions – especially rural ones – are not aware of their strengths and limitations. They don’t realize that there is actually a technical solution that can be helpful. “A solution to a farmer’s soil of the weather issues could be thousands of miles away, but with good communication, the answers could be a computer stroke away,” McMahan says. “We need to start connecting the dots.”
This is where the young people’s army of innovators come in.
“We believe that the world’s youth is the natural resource to tackle some of the thorniest issues in securing food for the future,” says Ku. “The amount of information at their fingertips is magnitudes greater than what we had growing up.
“They have the critical thinking skills to view the data and determine what is quality and what is not, what will work, and what leads to a blind alley,” he adds.
McMahan says he is convinced young people hold the key to solving our current problems as well as problems we will encounter in the future. “Their motivation and the amount of information they have at their fingertips is far greater than what I had. They have critical thinking skills, and the ability to use data,” he says.
McMahan, who has in-country experience in more than 30 countries across Latin America, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia, says he is encouraged by what he has seen. He utilized many young researchers from around the world to evaluate the innovator projects under SWFF. “There are a lot of young people who don’t have jobs,” he says. “There are a lot of challenges, but we can use this youth force to create new companies, new industries, and provide employment.”
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