Toronto Star: Why Haiti Sees Hope in a Toilet Bowl

By Jennifer Yang in The Toronto Star, November 22nd, 2012.

When it comes to tackling some of Haiti’s most afflicting problems, Sasha Kramer has an elegant idea involving large quantities of a rather indelicate substance: poop.

Lots of poop. Buckets of the stuff. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of it — all of which will be transformed into nutrient-rich compost for local farmers struggling to grow crops in Haiti’s woefully soil-depleted earth.

And, in the process, Kramer hopes to improve basic sanitation, reduce the risk of diseases like cholera and create jobs for unemployed Haitians.

That’s a lot of ambition piled onto a heap of human waste.

“What’s the potential of a bucket of poop? It really is amazing,” said Kramer, a California-born Stanford University graduate who has lived in Haiti since 2006.

“The cool thing is it starts off as something dangerous, especially in Haiti where we have this constant fear of cholera, … and you turn it into what is arguably the source of all life, which is soil.”

Kramer is the executive director and co-founder of the not-for-profit organization Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL), which has built more than 50 public composting toilet facilities in Haiti since 2006. The organization also provided 200 emergency toilets after the devastating 2010 earthquake, which served up to 25,000 people at its peak.

Now, in a country where only 17 per cent of people have access to adequate sanitation facilities, Kramer plans on bringing toilets directly into Haitian homes. Partnering with two organizations — Konbit Sante, a public health organization in Haiti, and Re.source, a start-up based at Stanford University — SOIL is spearheading a three-month pilot project that will provide composting toilets to 150 households in Shada, a slum on the country’s north coast with a population of approximately 4,000.

And the project has recently received a $100,000 boost from Canada. On Thursday, Grand Challenges Canada, a federally-funded not-for-profit organization that invests in global health innovations, announced $7 million in grant money for 68 innovative projects, including Kramer’s, in low- and middle-income countries.

Kramer first fell in love with Haiti while completing a doctoral degree in ecology at Stanford University, making a dozen trips to the Caribbean country in her last two years of graduate school.

It was during one of those initial sojourns that she realized how difficult it was to live without access to a toilet.

“Everybody who has one takes it very much for granted,” she said. “It’s when you don’t have access to one that you recognize how important it is.”

And in Haiti, the absence of toilets and sanitation can prove deadly. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the country was hit by a massive outbreak of cholera, which is caused by a bacterium that thrives in fecal matter and lingers in waterways. To date, the cholera epidemic has killed more than 7,500 Haitians.

In Shada, where Kramer is now rolling out her pilot project, the sanitation coverage is only about four per cent, she said. Most people resort to defecating in plastic bags or containers and human waste often winds up in an estuary flowing past the community.

“It’s a community where really no one has access to a toilet,” Kramer said.

But this is something she hopes to change with her project, which will see 150 toilets distributed over the next three months.

Each toilet comes in a wooden box and is low-cost and portable, meaning residents can easily carry them away if they are uprooted. The toilets also have a separator that directs urine into a front container and feces into a five-gallon bucket in the back.

SOIL provides residents with a carbon mixture to cover the waste, made of ground peanut shells and sugarcane bagasse, a fibrous waste product. Both materials are easy to come by, thanks to Haiti’s peanut butter and rum industries, and the carbon mixture helps mask the smell and keep flies away.

Every week, a SOIL worker replaces the buckets with clean ones. The waste is then taken to a secured composting centre, where it is dumped in a pile and covered with more sugarcane bagasse.

Then, essentially, the poop cooks.

“It’s basically this incredible growth environment for decomposing microbes,” Kramer said. “They get the carbon from the sugarcane bagasse and what happens is they start to heat and they start to reproduce.”

Within 12 hours, the pile can reach up to 60 or 70 degrees Celsius, Kramer said. The heat serves two functions: it encourages useful microbial growth and kills dangerous pathogens, such as Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium causing cholera.

According to World Health Organization standards, fecal pathogens are killed if heated for one week at over 50 degrees C. Erring on the side of caution, however, SOIL waits at least six months before packing its compost up for sale. Kramer is now shopping her compost around to local farmers, most of whom can only afford the lower-grade variety.

Kramer hopes the pilot project will win people over and convince them to pay the nominal fee for the toilets to be serviced: about $3 to $5 U.S. per month for each household.

The pilot project has enabled Kramer to hire a few more people at SOIL, which already employs about 50 Haitians. But her ultimate goal is to create a viable business model that can eventually be taken over by local businessmen and expanded, thus bringing more sanitation and employment to more Haitians.

“Hopefully, five years from now, it will no longer be us running this business, but local entrepreneurs,” Kramer said. “I love toilets and I’m really excited about them … but really what people need in Haiti is a job.”

“Without a job, you can only appreciate a toilet so much.”

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No Replies to "Toronto Star: Why Haiti Sees Hope in a Toilet Bowl"

  • Mary Saunders
    December 4, 2012 (6:05 pm)

    Haitians will some day be showing white people how to do this. Some white people already know, but not enough if there is a disaster that interferes with their crazy splash toilets. Matt and Molly, in Portland, convene special dinners and other meals where we talk it, with two letters in front of the it. It is time for the UN to make reparations for how the vibrio organism managed to get from Asia to Haiti. The stomach illnesses are only part of the harm from that story.

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