Liberation Ecology: Poo to Compost to Nutrition and Sustainable Living

New Media Fellows 2013

By Sokari Ekine

November 05, 2013

Also published at Black Looks

World Toilet Day [on 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 it exists only on paper and in echo chambers of election promises, UN organizations, and NGOs. The consequences of this are sickness, death, and -- for women -- the increased risk of sexual violence and loss of dignity in having to piss on the streets, behind parked vehicles, or in some small corner of space. The alternative is to have to hold your bladder for hours until night comes or until somewhere private can be found, which results in excruciating pain and repeated infections. We repeatedly hear of ‘development’ measured in the number of mobile phones in the global south, particularly in Africa, where we are told the growth is astronomical and brings positive changes to the lives of everyone. Why not begin to measure developing and rising countries by the numbers of people who have easy and regular access to toilets and water?

The Africas are rising and here in Haiti, which is also now open for business, the largely unregulated construction industry is booming at huge environmental costs, 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 shit. There are still 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 are to die of a shit related illness. Cholera is a prime example of this. In this respect, 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, which means that this 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 of these challenges in Haiti, SOIL [Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods] was formed in 2006 by Sasha Kramer and Sarah Brownell.  This smallventure began with installing compost toilets one at a time for compounds and households in Cap Haitian in the north of the country.

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 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 the move 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 and NGOs working on agricultural projects, which is somewhat of a false and not necessarily a sustainable market, but a market nonetheless. Additional buyers include 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 focused 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 costs 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, which would be necessary if they were 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, so I wondered if there was a history of recycling human waste.

Interestingly, there is an ancient history of recycling human waste for agriculture, and because it's based on the biological process on decomposition, it has always happened. Before we had sanitation, our waste was always naturally recycled. China had a system for over 5,000 years where people would collect human waste for farming. Howeverm, they were not using a compost process and were putting it on raw, which presented risks due to human pathogens which can make you sick. And now in the US, some fifty percent of human waste is recycled back onto farms; 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. As she points out, there is considerable controversy around this process. However, this is different from 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), if you eat meat you are probably consuming more protein, unless you are careful with your beans and nuts intake. So naturally you are then excreting more nutrients and there isn’t any risk as long as the waste is heated to at least 122 degrees F for at least a week, which kills all the pathogens.  The poop actually heats itself when it's mixed with sugar cane waste so all the moisture, carbon, and nitrogen mix are reproduced and naturally heats itself up. The process takes two months for the pathogens to be removed and then an additional six months to decompose.

The next stage in SOIL’s development of human waste as fertilizer was to carry out various tests and experiments on different crops which is still ongoing, so a large part of their work could be seen as research.   SOIL also has 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

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 that 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.

3/4 gallon compost

"The idea over the next three to five years is 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 of 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 back onto the soil so that it can be used to rebuild the soil that is being lost. So how can we not only address sanitation but 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.  While 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.

3/4 gallon compost

"Compost is very tricky for small farmers living on the edge economically as its expensive to produce. 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 you cut your price and lose on the money. So it's a difficult situation. We have 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 a lower price which makes our sanitation more costly? It's a tricky one. There are two ways to support small farmers. The 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 is 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 as sanitation addresses diarrhea diseases -- which are the leading cause of death of children under five -- and agriculture addresses good nutrition. Even in the case of mental health, 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 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.