Sweating Our Success
“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” -Thomas Edison
If Thomas Edison was right, it’s no surprise that we are sweating it out here in Haiti – and not just because the summer has arrived. Genius is indeed the standard that SOIL is aiming for in our work to transform sanitation services in Haiti, and it’s every bit as much work as Mr. Edison said.
In Haiti, as in many developing countries, sanitation services take two routes. First, there are humanitarian projects in poor communities, usually funded by international donors and using technologies with high operating and maintenance costs, these projects fail when donor interest inevitably wanes after a few years. Second, there are private companies that provide septic tanks for the wealthier ranks of society. Besides being financially unattainable for the majority, septic technology is water-intensive, and since septic waste is not always properly dumped, managed, and treated, it often leaches or floods into poorer neighborhoods and/or vulnerable aquatic ecosystems.
SOIL is working to create a third way between unsustainable, foreign-funded humanitarian projects on the one hand, and expensive, exclusive, and environmentally-hazardous businesses on the other. Our strategy is to produce a working model for affordable sanitation and waste treatment services (check out this post to get details on how the model works), that can eventually be launched into sustainable social businesses across the country.
SOIL launched an initial pilot of this model with 100 families in 2012 in partnership with re.source sanitation, and now serves over 300 families in North Haiti and 40 in Port-au-Prince. So far, we’ve had some exciting successes: people are so pleased with SOIL’s services that over 500+ families are on the waitlist to become customers, and our early projections show that the service will begin to break even above 500 toilets.
But we’ve also encountered setbacks. The communities we work in have cash-based economies, so tracking bills and payments is time consuming; the cost and availability of cover material (used for “flushing” our composting toilets) has fluctuated; and some of our early toilet models have proved to be susceptible to floods and have needed replacing sooner than anticipated.
Payment systems, inventory, quality control – these challenges aren’t so different from those that plague many start-up businesses, which is why SOIL’s ongoing research is so important. This initiative has the potential to vastly expand global sanitation access in an affordable, sustainable way, while creating new jobs and restoring health to the environment – but only if we get it right.
We’re thrilled to have some great partners in this effort, such as EAWAG (the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology), which has provided a Sanitation Social Business Fellow to improve efficiency in our model; Digicel, the largest cellphone provider in Haiti, with whom SOIL is discussing mobile bill payment services; and the 11th Hour Project, Grand Challenges Canada, American Red Cross, the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, Oxfam GB and countless individual donors who are helping to fund this research.
We’re thankful that we have the opportunity to sweat the small stuff to produce a business model we feel confident will succeed. In doing so, SOIL can continue to work for greater dignity and health for millions here in Haiti – and billions around the globe.