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Double win for Haiti: human waste into valuable fertilizer

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Eduardo Munoz/Reuters/File

(Read caption) A toilet is seen in a house destroyed by the January 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A social enterprise called SOIL is providing clean sanitation facilities for families in their homes. The human waste is then removed and processed for use as fertilizer on sorghum fields.

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SOIL is enabling communities in Haiti to transform human waste into a resource for sustainable livelihoods, agriculture, and reforestation. The organization is creating a lasting impact by seeding a new economy based on nutrients—one that a multinational corporation is now pledging to support.

Three years after the devastating earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people in Haiti, many international aid organizations have left behind a dubious legacy. Only a fraction of the $9.3 billion that donor nations pledged actually reached the ground in Haiti, and very little of that money went to efforts to rebuild the nation.

A host of international aid organizations often did more harm than good, according to journalist Jonathan Katz. Haiti is still grappling with the first cholera outbreak ever recorded in the nation, which was brought in by United Nations troops and has killed 8,000 people and sickened 649,000 more.

Today in Port-au-Prince, the capital, 350,000 Haitians still live in tents, and fewer than 25 percent of Haitians in cities have access to adequate sanitation. In lieu of toilets, people must find other ways to dispose of waste—such as plastic bags, abandoned houses, or the ocean.

The 11,000 temporary toilets that were installed by aid groups after the quake are no longer being serviced. That means 11,000 very full reservoirs of human waste that pose a significant health hazard.

Despite the challenges, there are effective solutions at work in Haiti. SOIL, which stands for Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods, is working with communities to install a low-cost sanitation system that also supports local agriculture, the environment, and local economies.

SOIL’s ecological sanitation (EcoSan) toilets now serve more than 24,000 people across Haiti, and are virtually odor free. Unlike many international aid organizations that built toilets and stopped maintaining them when they left, SOIL’s model was grown from within the country and integrates maintenance services that also generate local jobs.

For a low monthly fee, SOIL workers maintain the toilets and collect the waste, delivering it to a composting facility (via SOIL’s Poopmobile), where it composts at high heat for six months. The process kills pathogens and creates a nutrient-rich fertilizer that is being sold to farms and used for tree planting.

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Sasha Kramer, co-founder of SOIL, said that the work has gone through three phases since the organization’s launch in 2006—sanitation and toilets, developing composting facilities, and now linking the compost back to the agricultural and food sector. The organization focused first on making toilets accessible to the public, and learned some hard lessons along the way.

“When we first started, we were really interested in reaching the largest number of people possible,” Kramer says. “And we thought that the best way to do that was to build public toilets that were maintained by the community, and that everyone could have access to.

“People had advised us against this, and we were very naïve and didn’t listen. We did this for two or three years before we understood that the tragedy of the commons is very much a reality.

“If you build something that is accessible to everyone, but that no one is paid to maintain, then it won’t be maintained. I think that this lesson could be carried into other sectors as well.

"The initial enthusiasm will carry people through for a few months, but in the end, no one wants to clean up anyone else’s poop for free—and understandably so.”

For SOIL, the lesson learned was that, ultimately, sustainable livelihoods are the most pressing need for people, and the key to lasting change. “That’s why we’ve moved away from public toilets, and into setting up a household sanitation system where people pay a small monthly fee to have their toilet waste collected,” Kramer says.

“That fee then funds the people to do the service and maintenance of the toilets. I’m much more hopeful that this could be a long-term solution that could be picked up and replicated by the private sector, instead of a public toilet solution that was very dependent on ongoing funding from donors.”

Households, schools, clinics, and tourism cooperatives are welcoming the EcoSan toilets. In some parts of Haiti, groups of five families share a semi-private toilet and divide the cost of maintenance.

“The idea of being able to create a resource—fertilizer—here in Haiti, instead of having to import it, has been very appealing to many people,” says Kramer. “One of the real drivers of this appeal is the strong culture of independence and national pride in Haiti.”

Kramer first came to Haiti in 2004 with a group of human rights observers after a coup overthrew the elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. “I came to observe a demonstration, and I was just totally swept away by the courage and amazing resiliency I felt in the people here,” Kramer says.

Kramer, still an ecology graduate student at Stanford University in California, ended up returning 12 times over the course of two years. “I feel I was lucky, because I was able to come to Haiti without already having any preconceived notions,” Kramer says.

“I really had a chance to get to know the country and the very respected leaders in the communities where I was working. Had I not had those two years, it would have been very difficult to start an organization. When I did co-found SOIL, I had a good sense of who I could talk to in the community, and who was really trusted.”

Kramer’s relationships within local communities were instrumental to building SOIL’s founding team, which she credits as one of the organization’s key success factors.

“I feel like everything is learnable, except respect,” said Kramer. “And this is a group of people who are very respectful to their fellow Haitians, and who are also respected by the community. That made a huge difference for SOIL.”

Supporting livelihoods is the final step of the sanitation loop, where compost supports local agriculture and food production. Haiti’s agriculture sector has been struggling with heavily depleted soils and poor yields because of deforestation and environmental degradation.

Today, the nation still imports 50 percent of its food. By turning thousands of gallons of human waste into compost each week, SOIL has the potential to transform this problem dramatically—and now international investors are taking note.

The multinational beer company Heineken, which recently bought the Haitian beer brewery, Prestige, has pledged to invest $40 million in Haiti, and to work with 18,000 sorghum farmers so that it can source its sorghum locally.

[Editor's note: The original version of this blog post gave the wrong number of sorghum farmers who work with Heineken.]

“Heineken has said that they would like to purchase 50,000 gallons of compost this year, which they’ll be providing to sorghum farmers,” Kramer says.

“This is an example of how large international business can really support sustainable nutrient economies—and sustainable development in general—by making this type of investment. This creates a market demand for sustainable sanitation, and this partnership is something that could be replicable globally. It’s really exciting.”

SOIL was recently selected as an early entry prize winner in the Nutrients for All, an Ashoka Changemakers competition that is seeking solutions to ensure the availability of nutrients for healthy, natural ecosystems, farms, food, and people.

• Check out the Nutrients for All campaign page for a three-part podcast with Sasha Kramer, as well as commentary from other global experts that are working to create vitality for people and the planet.

Ashoka Changemakers® provides the tools and resources to empower everyone to contribute to a better world. Our community's mission is to grow new ideas through transparency and collaboration, a process of Open Growth.

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