Consilience: Transforming Haiti from the Bottom Up

By Victoria Lauredo in Consilience: The Journal of Sustainable Development, October 17, 2012.

Amidst the buzz of CEOs, celebrities and heads of state attending last month’s Clinton Global Initiative’s 2012 Annual Meeting floats in Dr. Sasha Kramer, a 36 year-old ecologist and human rights observer who has been working in Haiti since 2004.

Nothing about the wispy blonde’s delicate frame would indicate that she spends her days rescuing substances most of us would rather forget down the toilet. But excrement recycler is what she is. As Executive Director and Co-Founder of SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods), Dr. Kramer promotes ecological sanitation (EcoSan) in Haiti through a low-cost approach whereby human wastes are collected through specialized toilets, composted, and recycled for later use in agriculture and reforestation. Like other forms of organic waste, the human sort makes for an excellent fertilizer.

SOIL serves roughly 20,000 people living in the post-earthquake camps in Port-au-Prince, and over 50,000 people living in and around Cap-Haitien, in Northern Haiti.

On average, SOIL transforms 5,000 gallons of human excreta per week into rich compost for agriculture. With less than 25% of Haitians living in cities accessing adequate sanitation facilities, SOIL’s efforts do much more than improve public health and increase agricultural productivity. By returning value to the discarded, the project transforms the disempowered into agents of their own change.

On September 25, a day after her speech at the CGI Breakout Session “Haiti: Lessons for the Future”—a particular point of interest because of President Clinton’s continued work in the country—Dr. Kramer and I step outside the whirlwind conference to discuss some serious fecal matters.

Dr. Kramer, could you explain to non-ecologists like myself how you began exploring the ‘poop-to-­compost’ process?

I was studying ecology, and more specifically, nutrients, at Stanford, and was always really interested in nitrogen…I was a nitrogen fanatic. I started thinking about how in the global food system now so many nutrients are coming from the far reaches of the world, and being transported all around. So, I thought, “How could we make those cycles more localized so we are not using so many resources, but actually finding ways to recycle nutrients within the environment?”

I was living up in the Redwoods at the time, in this little cabin with a garden and a compost. I wondered, “Well, maybe if I pee on my compost, then the nitrogen in my urine will go into the compost, and then I’ll plant my vegetables with it, and I’ll eat them, and I’ll actually get this nitrogen molecule to cycle through my own body twice.” Somehow the most localized nitrogen cycle you could imagine, where you are actually recycling those nutrients in your backyard.

In 2005 I went to South Africa to a conference on EcoSan, and met all these interesting people from around the world who had been thinking about this subject and working on it. That was what really sparked my interest. It went “Can I do this in my own backyard?” to “Is there a way to do this on a wider scale?” Once you’re an adult you’re excreting almost all of the nutrients you eat. You’re not growing anymore, so you’re not holding them in. If all the food that we’re eating is coming right back out, we should be able to harness those nutrients and get them back into the agricultural systems so that we don’t have to use so many financial resources and fossil fuels to make synthetic fertilizers. That was the genesis of my interest in EcoSan.

What is tricky, especially working in a place like Haiti where there a lot of diseases in poop that can make people sick and kill them, is that you have to do it carefully, so that you make sure you get the nutrients without the pathogens that are also in there. The way that we do that is through thermophillic composting, which means we heat it up to a temperature that actually kills all those pathogens while maintaining the nutrients. The way it works is, we dump all of this great poop in, we put in some good carbon material, and we add sugarcane bagasse. We take the leftovers from rum processing and…

Rum? Is this local rum?

Yes. So in Haiti they produce a lot of rum. I drink a lot of rum, and then I…

Put it in your poop.

Haha, yes, exactly! So I have it both ways!

Pleasurable on both ends…

Exactly! And, actually, I’ve been speaking with Heineken, because they are working in Haiti now…So I said to them also, “I like drinking the beer, and if you start using sorghum from Haiti and you have leftover byproducts from that, give them to me and we can make compost with it!”

Is composting pretty flexible in terms of what inputs can help the process?

Yes. Basically, you’re trying to feed the good microbes and kill the bad ones, so you want to give them something tasty. They like a certain mixture of carbon and nitrogen. Human wastes have a lot of nitrogen in them, but we need to get a lot more carbon in there to give them the energy that they need. You can use pretty much any agricultural byproduct, but sugarcane is really good, they seem to like that one a lot!

We mix all those [ingredients] together, and those good microorganisms, the ones that do the decomposition, get this huge influx of food and start reproducing like crazy. You have all of these microorganisms, and as you have more and more it heats up the temperature of the pile. Our piles get up to—I mean, we even had one pile that almost caught on fire it was so hot! In the first month or two they are up to 160-170 degrees Fahrenheit, and that’s the process that actually kills the pathogens. The World Health Organization standards for waste treatment are that you need to maintain a temperature of at least 122 degrees Fahrenheit for seven days to kill all known pathogens.

You mentioned during your speech that the composting process takes one whole year.

I mean, it can be quicker, and it’s probably really fine after six months, but I think we just try to be cautious.

Does that have anything to do with working in Haiti where there’s a history of cholera outbreak?

It’s not so much the sterilization process…you may kill all the pathogens in the first week. But the actual decomposition process, that takes longer. Especially depending on what carbon material you’re using. Some take longer than others to actually break down. The compost, or the material that’s not quite compost, is safe within a month, but for it to really be good for agriculture, you need to wait la bit longer. Realistically, in eight months you would have a great product, but we wait one year anyway.

How do you make your work profitable?

That’s what we’re really working on now. It’s taken years to get to the place where now we have a lot of compost, and we’ve tested it and we know it’s good. There’s no doubt that there’s a huge need for fertile soil in Haiti, but people are not very accustomed to using compost, so it’s not like there’s a readily available market for us to tap into. It has been a real learning curve for me as an ecologist to try and figure out how to do this marketing end of things. The key to making this whole system sustainable in the long run is being able to sell that final product.

Before our session yesterday, I was in the prep room, and the Prime Minister [Laurent Lamothe] came in and he said, “What do you need? What can I do to help you?” I responded, “Well we really need to meet with the Ministry of Agriculture, because we can make it, but in terms of doing large-scale distribution, that’s not ever going to be our forte, and I don’t think it’s our place to being doing that either.” We’d like to find some buyers, like the Ministry of Agriculture or an organization that is doing large-scale reforestation, sell to them, and then they would do the distribution to individual farmers.

One of your speech’s take-away points was that you don’t believe any NGO should replace local government. Does this mean that, in the long run, you want to take on a consulting role?

Yes. What we’re trying to do right now is develop a household toilet that could be used in more urban communities, through a rental system. People get the toilet [a Urine Diversion (UD) or “humanure”/simple composting], and they don’t have to pay for it.  They just pay a small monthly fee that covers the collection and treatment of the waste.

But the real reason we’re doing it is because, I don’t envision, 15 years down the line, SOIL is still building toilets in Haiti. What we’d really like to do is a pilot, where we can demonstrate that a sustainable business can be built out of this, and then hand that off to the private sector. We would be helping entrepreneurs and working with the government on the composting end of things, but not be the implementers.

At yesterday’s session, Cheryl Mills [Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s Chief of Staff] said in her speech that Haiti has a “convening and passion power” like no other country. I wonder how that translates into your own experience. What about Haiti attracted you in the first place? You arrived in Haiti in 2004, well before the attention of the earthquake, so it would seem to me there is a deep-rooted connection.

Well, that’s interesting. I think some of that convening power she speaks of is post-earthquake, because I do remember before the earthquake there wasn’t quite the same level of interest. I think nobody feels in the middle about Haiti. Either you hate it and say “This is not for me, I can’t be here” or you fall completely in love with it.

What drew me to Haiti was just seeing how people who live in some of the worst conditions on earth can be so warm, and hopeful, and engaged. It was such a contrast to when [Hurricane] Katrina happened, where it didn’t take long before Americans were freaking out. I mean, we take Americans and put them under the conditions that Haitians are used to living under, and it would be explosive.

People always talk about Haiti being this very violent country. I think Haitians deserve an award for being so remarkably peaceful considering the violent human rights conditions they live under. The fact that they are struggling to survive and can still be welcoming to a stranger, and are not running around stabbing people left and right, is a miracle! I think it was that characteristic that really made me fall in love with it.

What would you say to cynics, especially in Latin America, that say there is too much focus and investment in the Western Hemisphere directed towards Haiti?

There are very legitimate reasons for feeling disappointed about the amount of aid that has gone and the results that have come out of that. William Easterly’s White Man’s Burden is sort of a response to Jeffrey Sachs on how to solve poverty all over the world. He is saying, really, it does need to be done in a more piecemeal way.

What’s most effective is to find small projects that the community is really asking for, and to give them that little amount of moneyThe problem is, it is a lot more logistically challenging to juggle 9,000 small projects, than it is to say “Okay, Red Cross, here’s $2 million, you go in and solve the problem.” I think that’s been the issue with all this money coming in, it’s aimed at these very large projects that are taking place in many different communities, all of which are going to be special in their own way.

When you have one blanket solution it doesn’t work, and you do end up wasting a lot of money. It’s more work, but I think in the end it really pays off to have more sustainable projects.

You noted in your speech that 99% of your employees are Haitian. Is this effort in the same vein?

In general, we like to give as many jobs as we can to Haitians, but when we do have an international post, we are really picky. It is very hard to find people who both have the skills and the humility to do the work in a way that is really going to benefit the people. One of the toughest challenges is also finding some good international employees who are going to stay on and learn their language [Creole].

Most international NGO workers in Haiti have curfews, they have to drive around in their cars with their windows up all the time, they’re not allowed to go into certain neighborhoods…and these are the neighborhoods that need the most help. They can’t get in there! It ends up that they never really get to know the country, and they never really get to know the needs of the people.

Let’s go back to the poop. What struck me the most about your project is that it is a tangible way of transforming a taboo into something positive. Did you find any resistance from Haitians who were wary or uncomfortable about dealing with the subject of their own waste?

Certainly, I always thought that would be our biggest hurdle. What I found though was that, particularly for the sector of the population that would be using it, the farmers, it’s not such a leap for them. They’ve been using manure for years, so the leap was just using human manure instead.

I think the resistance comes from people who are farther away from farming. For them, it’s like “Oh, no, poop, I don’t like that.” What’s interesting is that, actually, I find that very rarely people say “Oh I wouldn’t use that,” but very often we have people say, “Oh, I don’t think anyone is going to like that.” It’s actually more people saying that they think others are going to have a really hard time with it than saying “I’m going to have a really hard time with it.”

Is SOIL conducting information sessions to debunk some of these strange feelings and misconceptions of human waste?

Yes, and we’re doing more and more of them as we move toward becoming a consulting group. We have had almost 70 different organizations that have come through our training sessions. We were doing them every month last year, but we’ve taken a break from that now. One month it would be in English, and the next month in Creole.

It’s very rare in Haiti to have a seminar hosted by an international group in Creole. It’s amazing to see how people transform when they can actually speak their mother tongue. In Haiti even more so, because the roots of French are so embedded in colonialism and slavery. Haitians in general, unless they grew up in wealthy families where they always spoke French, are really not comfortable speaking it. They’re very nervous about making a mistake.

People get much more engaged [in the Creole sessions]. It’s been amazing. We’ve had just over 200 Haitian participants come through [the Creole sessions] and that’s been a great way to get the idea out. The idea of “We can build our own soil, we can make our own fertilizer, and we don’t have to buy it from USAID anymore” makes it easy to harness the Haitians’ strong sense of national pride, and get the people excited about the idea.

Do you have to be licensed to install these toilets?

Hah, well we should! And that’s why I said yesterday [at the Haiti session] there’s a need for government oversight and regulation, but it doesn’t really exist at this point. We should have to be licensed, we should have to have a lot more permits for the kind of waste treatment that we’re doing. We work really hard to keep in close touch with DINEPA, the water and sanitation authority in Haiti. Informally, they’ve been aware of our work forever.

However, the legalization process in Haiti is extremely difficult to navigate, and expensive. SOIL has been operating in Haiti since 2006, so 6 years—and for at least the last 4 years we’ve been trying to get our documents in place, and get them to the right people, and you have to get them stamped here and there and finally, with the earthquake everything was lost, so we had to start again.

They’ve been submitted, but we don’t have them back yet, and without that legalization we can’t actually sign an agreement with DINEPA, so everything is still sort of informal. At CGI last year I brought up that it would be really helpful if they could work with the government to streamline that process. We very much want to be legal, we want to do things right.

If you’re a large NGO, you come in. you just pay $20,000 and somebody who knows the right people runs around and fixes everything for you. So they’re all legal. But because they took a shortcut. And for the small NGOs like ours, it’s much harder.

Victoria Lauredo is in her final year of a Dual-Degree Masters in International Affairs at Sciences Po Paris and Columbia University’s SIPA.

1 Reply to "Consilience: Transforming Haiti from the Bottom Up"

  • Roberto Gaudet
    February 20, 2013 (6:37 am)

    Bravo, remarkable, empowering, sustainable an excellent idea for us North American fools as well !

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