Support closed loop systems in the companies you buy from. For example, a shoe company that recycles old shoes and uses them to make new shoes. Or a computer company that uses recycled plastic from old electronics to make new keyboards and monitor frames. The more these companies are rewarded for being better stewards of the planet, the more they’ll want to do.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Ku McMahan. Dr. McMahan serves as Team Lead for Securing Water for Food: A Grand Challenge for Development in the US Global Development Lab at USAID. He received his Ph.D. in environmental sciences and an M.P.H. in environmental health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill under NSF and EPA STAR Fellowships. Dr. McMahan also developed a simple, low-cost water quality test for developing countries and emergency situations. He was recently a program executive officer for the USAID WA-WASH program in GLOWS and assistant professor of research at Florida International University.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and spent my first few years with my mom and aunt. It was a pretty typical childhood, and I was surrounded by nature with the Great Smoky Mountains practically at my back door. My mom then met my stepdad and we then moved to Charleston SC. I then got to explore coastal beaches and this began my lifelong love of the sea.
Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become an environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?
My uncle was my inspiration for becoming an environmental leader. He was a naturalist who worked in environmental protection. When he would visit me from Washington, DC, we would visit all of the nearby state and national parks. He would take me hiking in the woods. It was at a very young age that I gained an appreciation for the world around me, and began to understand that the environment wasn’t going to protect itself.
Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?
I think the best way for young people to be inspired is to go outside! Get out in nature. I know I sound like a grumpy old man when I say, “put your phone down and go for a walk”. But I truly believe that the best way to inspire a young person to care for the environment is to get them out in it. Then they can appreciate that for every action they take there are spillover consequences that impact the world around them.
I loved watching National Geographic specials on TV as a kid. Those programs are meant to teach a healthy respect for nature. But it wasn’t until I felt the crunch of the leaves beneath my feet on a hike and saw a black bear in the wild that I really made the connection that what’s outside matters.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address environmental sustainability?
Securing Water for Food is a government program like you have never seen. It is a partnership between the United States, the Netherlands, Sweden, and South Africa that takes a “Shark Tank” like approach to support entrepreneurs who are helping farmers grow more food with less water. Agricultural entrepreneurs in places like Ghana and Bangladesh compete for funding from SWFF. They use that money to grow their company. If they meet specific goals for growth and outside investment, they stay in the program and get more assistance. If they don’t, they’re out. It’s a true “sink or swim” approach that rewards results. Here are a couple examples of the kinds of companies and technologies SWFF supports.
MimosaTEK, Vietnam: Makes internet-connected sensors that measure soil, moisture, rain, wind, and light to recommend precise irrigation schedules in real time.
Ignitia, West Africa: Hyper local weather forecasts delivered to small holder farmers via text, alerting them of the best times to plant, water, and fertilize.
The Securing Water for Food results-based approach has yielded some amazing results. Farmers using the technology from SWFF innovators have reduced water consumption by nearly 19 billion liters of water to date. That’s a significant impact on the environment, for the farmers, and on the lives of the people they feed.
Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks things that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address environmental challenges?
— Use less plastic. Plastic is truly a product of convenience. It has become so ubiquitous that we sometimes turn off our brains and don’t think about how much of it we use every day: from the three ziplock bags that go into each kids’ sack lunch at school to the bottled water we’d rather grab versus finding a cup to use over and over. Be mindful of the plastic you are using, and work to find alternatives.
— Use the things you buy longer. We’ve become a ‘disposable’ society where so many of the things we buy become obsolete in our minds much sooner than they actually need to. Do you really need to get a new phone every year, or can you wait another year before providing fodder for the landfill? The amount of waste associated with mining the minerals that go into cell phones is staggering. And that’s just one example. Being mindful of what you’re buying, and how often you’re replacing it, can make a big difference.
— Support closed loop systems in the companies you buy from. For example, a shoe company that recycles old shoes and uses them to make new shoes. Or a computer company that uses recycled plastic from old electronics to make new keyboards and monitor frames. The more these companies are rewarded for being better stewards of the planet, the more they’ll want to do.
More and more young people around the world are passionate on environmental issues and taking action. This is great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. What are five things that you think would inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement?
— Get outside. The more you see of the world around you, the more you will care about it and understand that the choices you make have an impact.
— Gain experiential learning around your community, your neighborhood. Talk to the people who work in the environment and with the environment.
— Understand where your food comes from. Talk to a farmer about the difference between being an environmental activist and an active environmentalist.
— Seek out organizations that support environmental sustainability in your city or state. Be willing to ask lots of questions, and to volunteer.
— Advocate for change in your own community and through international organizations. Work hard to make yourself heard.
I believe that young people are the only solution to environmental challenges. They have the creativity and ability to look at things with a different perspective. Many older folks like me are too set in their ways and may not want to hear what’s really needed to make significant change.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
I mentioned above the importance of supporting businesses that incorporate closed loop systems by recycling old products or the byproducts of production. When it is done right, these circular economic systems can really improve profitability. It reduces waste, reduces the cost of production, and saves time, saves energy, and saves money.
One of the best examples of circular economics at play is a company called SkyFox. It happens to be one of the companies supported by Securing Water for Food. SkyFox builds aquaculture ponds that farmers can use to grow and sell catfish. Farmers then take the nutrient-rich water from the catfish ponds and use it to irrigate their crops. Farmers have a new revenue source from the catfish. And they have higher yields on their crops because of the nutrient rich water the catfish help create. Many farmers are reporting 20–30% yield increases from crops that are irrigated with the SkyFox water.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Rather than single out one person, I’m going to talk about a group of people. Those people work for Securing Water for Food’s Technical Assistance Facility. I mentioned above that SWFF provides grant money to these entrepreneurs to help them grow their companies. In addition to providing grant money, SWFF also provides technical assistance…consulting with these entrepreneurs to help them run their businesses better. This includes everything from marketing to accounting to personnel issues. The people at our Technical Assistance Facility are the ones who work hard with our entrepreneurs to help them see the things they can’t see for themselves. Without their vision and persistence and creativity, we would not see the amazing results we have thus far: more than 6 million tons of food grown in 35 different countries.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
I believe we are in the middle of that movement right now. The place to be is at the nexus of water, food, and energy. Making more food while using less water and less energy is critical to environmental sustainability. By 2050 it is projected that the world’s population will top nine billion with sufficient usable, year-around water to accommodate only a third of that
number. We must find creative ways to encourage entrepreneurial development and growth to address this issue head on.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
“There are many sides to the same story and somewhere in between them all is the truth.”
I like this quote for a couple reasons. First, it’s a reminder of the challenges our organization has overcome. When we first started Securing Water for Food, people thought we were crazy. They didn’t think a performance-based approach to development would work on a global scale. When we showed our first results, people didn’t believe them. But we verified and vetted and proved the data were correct. And the truth, in this case, was that our work had a tremendous effect. The second reason I like this quote is because it reminds me of the entrepreneurs we work with. In the same way that there are many sides to one story, there are also many different ways to solve a complex problem. The companies we work with do such a fantastic job of finding creative and different approaches to the problem of food and water security. I am inspired by them every day.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
I don’t have personal social media accounts for people to follow, but I would highly recommend following the accounts of USAID’s Global Development Lab, which is where Securing Water for Food was created.
Thank you for all of these great insights!