It’s All About Results for USAID’s SWFF Chief

Dr. Ku McMahan, the mild-spoken leader of USAID’s innovative Securing Water for Food (SWFF) program, is hard-nosed when it comes to results.

“If a project comes up short, we didn’t do our jobs,” he says.

The SWFF program, which, as the title implies, calls for growing more food with less water, was launched five years ago.

On the plus side, the global program has had demonstrable and impressive results with about 65 percent of the cutting-edge ideas from around the world showing—in many cases—eye-popping results.

However, given the scope of the problem, it is just a beginning.

It is estimated that the world’s population will grow to nine billion people by 2050, with only sufficient useable and year-around water for a third of the people for human consumption and agriculture.

McMahan believes there are various ways to measure success, though he insists that projects be sustainable and scalable while at the same time being sound from an environment standpoint.

Through successful programs like SWFF that the donor community is laying the groundwork for the future; or, as McMahan—using a metaphor he often associates with good results—a North Star direction for mankind.

The SWFF program, which has served 40 innovators and is due to morph into a more comprehensive public/private sector initiative called Water and Energy for Food (WE4F) Grand Challenge, has helped more than six million farmers save 19 billion liters of water and produce more than six million tons of food.

Along the way, the SWFF innovators garnered $22 million in additional funding.

“People sometimes underestimate the power of innovative approaches. They are so tied to the conventional or traditional, and they don’t really open their minds to the potential of that which has not been tried,” says McMahan who has been with the program from the beginning.

The unconventional has been the hallmark of the SWFF program.

The programs range from predicting the weather in South Africa using sophisticated tools combined with indigenous knowledge to feeding thousand from pumpkins grown on previously barren sandbars in Bangladesh.

While SWFF innovators predominantly operate in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and India, SWFF’s reach extends into the Southern Hemisphere into Peru with an innovator that has an irrigation innovation.

“Some of the ideas of our innovators were considered pie-in-the-sky three or five years ago, and at times even our technical experts questioned whether they would work,” says McMahan. “On the other hand, there were submissions that were conventional that didn’t work.”

“Sometimes when the innovation is just a little outside the box, they have the flexibility to be more creative and pivot to a successful result,” he added.

SWFF, a grand challenge funded by USAID and the governments of Sweden, South Africa, and the Netherlands, was a worldwide challenge that offered both funds and technical advice and assistance. Innovators had to pass rigid scrutiny, and of the thousands that applied, only a handful was selected.

McMahan believes there are various ways to measure success, though he insists that projects be sustainable and scalable while at the same time being environmentally sound. The last criterion is extremely important.

“And they have to reach the targets that are set for them,” he says, though added that there were tradeoffs.

For example, was there a nutritional benefit from an innovation? Did it contribute to women’s empowerment in an area where before women were second class citizens? Are children able to go to a school where previously there simply wasn’t sufficient money for their education? Was a biofuel project successful so that villagers didn’t have to decimate a rain forest for cooking wood? Are fewer pesticides and harmful fertilizers being used to grow crops?

“These are all methods of measuring success,” said McMahan. “But the main measure is down to one word: Impact, and can they exist after an incubation period without government support?”

“In the development field, some are happy when they apply theories, and the process fits into the framework of those theories,” he added. “In other words, the process justifies its own existence when it should really be about impact.”

“That’s the North Star, and if something is not working, be flexible enough to pivot and try a different approach outside the model. Our technical assistance team has been instrumental in aiding various innovators to make course corrections.”

McMahan says it is always great to achieve even more than was expected, though sometimes an innovation is not going to achieve everything it had planned and hoped to accomplish.

“But if you’re not achieving at least part of what you planned, then you are wasting your time,” he said. Several innovations have lost out midstream because they couldn’t achieve the goals set for them.

McMahan started his career wanting to be a medical doctor, but quickly changed direction to public health where he believed he could be of greater service.

He was informed recently he would receive the University of North Carolina’s Distinguished Young Alumni Award. He’s in good company. Previous recipients were basketball star Michael Jordan and professional Soccer star Mia Hamm.


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