Haiti: Liberation Ecology: Poo to compost to nutrition and sustainable living

World Toilet Day! [19th November] reports that 40% of the world’s population do not have access to toilets which is about 1 in 3 people.  Sanitation and waste disposal is a human right but like most rights, exists only on paper and in echo chambers of  election promises, UN organisations and NGOs. The consequences for the poor in Haiti and other global south countries, are sickness, death, and for women, the increased risk of sexual violence and the loss of dignity in having to relieve themselves on the streets, behind parked vehicles or some small little corner of space.   The alternative is to have to hold your bladder for hours on end till  somewhere private can be found which results in excruciating pain and repeated infections.  We constantly read of ‘development’ measured in terms of the number of mobile phones particularly in Africa where we are told that  growth is astronomical and bringing positive changes to  the lives of everyone.   I suggest a more accurate measure of development would be to measure  by  the numbers of people who have everyday easy access to toilets and water.

We are told by the Haitian government that  Haiti,  is now  ‘open for business’ as  the largely unregulated construction industry is booming at huge environmental cost, along with new garment factories opening every few months.  You may now have a job, albeit a low paid one, but still there is no private, safe, sanitary  place to toilet.  Still there are no houses being built and there are no government plans to improve sanitation.  As I wrote in “BAYAKOU, Why I Am Talking Shit on World Water Day

 We know that in certain situations shit can kill and the poorer you are the more likely you could die of a shit related illness.  CHOLERA is a prime example, so shit is a poverty issue and a class issue.  We know there are issues of privacy, access to ‘toilets’ especially at night and sexual violence in unlit densely populated urban areas, so shit is also a gender issue…….

The crisis in toilets is exacerbated by the accompanying crisis in access to water both for sanitation and for consumption.   To meet both these challenges in Haiti, SOIL [Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods] was formed in 2006 by Sasha Kramer and Sarah Brownell.  A small venture which began with installing compost toilets, one toilet at a time for compounds and households in Cap Haitian, Haiti’s second largest city in the north of the country.

SOIL Poop Truck

SOIL Poop Truck

In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, SOIL was approached by Oxfam to build 200 toilets across the internally displaced people’s [IDP] camps in Port-au-Prince.  I recently met with Sasha to discuss SOILs progress over the past three years and the move from building compost toilets to using human waste as a fertilizer and then  to full scale production  of compost for both their own small scale garden use and commercial sale.

“SOIL first began  producing compost towards the end of 2010 and since then 100,000 gallons of compost has been generated from the emergency response. The primary buyers are local nurseries, NGOs working on agricultural projects which is somewhat a false market and not necessarily a sustainable market, but a market nonetheless. Also resellers  and backyard gardeners – people who buy a few bags for their own use.

The next step after compost toilets was then to focus on refining our composting process, testing and trying to make the process as operationally efficient as possible.  The third year has been focusing on getting the compost back into agriculture and testing it on various crops for efficiency and then marketing and generating revenue as well as reducing cost of the whole process.

Sasha’s logic about using human waste as a fertilizer was that if she was eating nutrient rich food then surely she would produce nutrient rich poop.  All  that was necessary was to find a way to kill off the unwanted pathogens and  reuse the nutrients.  Although this made sense,  I was still skeptical as most human poo is produced by carnivores  which seems unsuitable.  I asked her if  there was a  history of recycling human waste?

Interesting there is an ancient history of using recycling human waste for agriculture and because its based on a biological process of  decomposition,  its always happened.  Before we had sanitation our waste was always naturally recycled.  In China they had this organized for over 5000 years where people would collect human waste for farming.  However they were not using a compost process and were putting it on raw which has risks due to human pathogens which can make you sick.  And now in the US,  some 50% of human waste is recycled back onto farms and in Europe the percentage is even higher.

Like the Bayakou who are responsible for cleaning the septic tanks in Haiti, shit, poo, poop is not something we  talk about in daily conversation.  I was surprised to learn from Sasha that  human waste in the US and UK is used for farming and often used as untreated sludge and as she points out, there is considerable controversy around this process.  However this is different to composting human waste which is growing as a commercial process through heating and removing dangerous pathogens.  As far as SOIL is concerned the process of producing the compost is itself low tech and very safe.

SOIL is the largest scale operation of composting human waste outside of the US and Europe.  The interesting thing with meat and human waste is that even though people say your poop smells more if you eat meat which is probably true,  but if you eat meat you are probably eating more protein unless you are careful with your beans and nut intake.  So naturally you are then excreting more nutrients so there isn’t any risk as long as the waste is heated to at least 122F for at about a week which kills all the pathogens.  Actually the poop heats itself when its mixed with sugar cane waste so all the moisture, carbon, and nitrogen mix to reproduce and the mix naturally heats itself up.   The process takes two months for the pathogens to be removed then a further 6 months for decomposition.

The next stage in SOIL’s development of human waste as as fertilizer was to carry out various tests and experiments on different crops which is still ongoing and a large part of their work could be seen as research.   SOIL also have their own gardens where they grow vegetables and some fruits.  The process of composting toilet waste is a long one and can take up to 12 months but once ready it is a fine rich black texture and proven to be effective as the photos below show.

Rich compost ready for use as fertilizer

Rich compost ready for use as fertilizer

3/4 gallon compost

3/4 gallon compost
1/4 gallon compost

1/4 gallon compost

SOIL has  now shifted its focus from building toilets, which they see as the role of the government and or private entrepreneurs, to that of promoting and demonstrating the functionality and sanitary benefits of installing compost toilets. I mentioned to Sasha the experience of SOPUDEP school with their compost toilets installed by Give Love.   Due to lack of support and maintenance, last month the school decided to remove the toilets and return to traditional latrines.   The problem was with 700 children it was impossible to maintain the toilets daily and they could not afford to pay someone to do this.   Also the waste compost was stored only yards from the toilets and the kindergarten classrooms – a classic case of NGOs installing technology and then failing to follow up with support.   We both agreed that follow up and in this case, collection of poo on a regular basis is essential.

SOIL is presently at a turning point in their organization as the plan is to move away from implementation towards research and in doing so recognizing, that we as people are responsible for the earth and its ability to reproduce or not.

The idea is that over the next three to five years to move from being an implementation organization to a research and consultancy organization where we will work on training people in Haiti who are interested in business opportunities in sanitation and composting.    The idea of moving from toilets to composting developed around the question how could we create a great sanitation system in Haiti that not only addresses sanitation but also begins to get all that human waste that’s polluting rivers, streams and the sea and put it back onto the soil so  it can be used to rebuild the soil which is being lost.  So how can we  address sanitation and also livelihoods, malnutrition and so many of the problems that are really tied into the fact that we are not closing the loop, we are eating all this food,  we’re stripping nutrients  from the lands, we excrete them and they go into the water instead of recycling and using them.

In addition to selling their compost to NGOs and local gardeners SOIL recently sold $30,000 of compost to Heineken [ last year they bought the Haitian beer, Prestige] who will be using it for the production of Malta as well as for research testing it on Sorghum.  Whilst SOIL has focused on urban needs and big business I was interested to know if they had been able to work with farmers in rural areas.

Compost is very tricky for small farmers living on the edge economically as its expensive to produce so in order for them to benefit it has to be subsidized from one end to the other.  Either you subsidize the production and sell it at a cheaper price or just cut your price and loose on the money.  So its a difficult situation. We have to decided that we have this quality product which we can sell to a high end market and that then makes our sanitation services cheaper so we can reach more people with sanitation.  Or do we sell it at lower price which makes our sanitation more costly?

Its a tricky one. There are two ways to support small farmers. First is to train them in how to produce the compost which is the most effective and the other way is through the Heineken model where they buy it at the price and sell it or distribute to the small farmers. So either the government or big business supporting the small farmers.

Finally I asked Sasha what she felt was the relationship between SOIL’s work in sanitation, recycling,  creating compost and agriculture to the issue of preventative health in Haiti.

I’m glad you said preventative because it really is important because sanitation addresses diarrhea  diseases which are the leading cause of death in children under five and then agriculture addresses good nutrition. Even in the case of mental health just the tremendous amount of stress families feel due to the medical issues they are dealing with  has to be enormous. So preventive health around physical issues also impacts on mental health.

SOIL’s success  lies in the fact they started small with one specific task, installing compost toilets in Cap Haitian.   They then grew according to local needs and in dialogue with the communities where they worked.  Over the years they have included the training of Haitian staff at all levels and developed an excellent understanding of the environment including WASH and the socioeconomic landscape in which they work.

This article was supported in part by the International Reporting Project.