Generating Organic Compost for Farming in Haiti

by SOIL
Generating Organic Compost for Farming in Haiti
Generating Organic Compost for Farming in Haiti
Generating Organic Compost for Farming in Haiti
Generating Organic Compost for Farming in Haiti
Generating Organic Compost for Farming in Haiti
Generating Organic Compost for Farming in Haiti
Generating Organic Compost for Farming in Haiti
Generating Organic Compost for Farming in Haiti
Generating Organic Compost for Farming in Haiti
Generating Organic Compost for Farming in Haiti
Generating Organic Compost for Farming in Haiti
Generating Organic Compost for Farming in Haiti
Haiti's fragile climate
Haiti's fragile climate

A little over a year ago SOIL collaborated with scientists from the University of California, Merced and the University of Alaska Southeast to install a weather station at our composting facility near the northern city of Cap-Haïtien.

Why a Weather Station?

First, we wanted to see if local weather conditions influence the amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted during the composting process, which has been the primary focus of Becca and Gavin’s research with SOIL. We also wanted to start building a climate record for northern Haiti, a meteorologically dynamic region with sparsely available data.

The weather station captures average conditions as well as the more extreme events and anomalies, which occur far too often in Haiti, one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world. Extreme rain events and seasonal drought are expected to become more common without the drastic cuts in carbon emissions that are necessary to curb the impacts of climate change.

On top of incorporating disaster resilience and preparedness into everything we do, SOIL hopes local farmers can use this precipitation data to precisely time their application SOIL’s compost to help bind topsoil, improve water retention, and build erosion-resistant soils.

Assessing the Impact of Weather on SOIL’s Composting Process

Becca and Gavin have already begun to use this data to look for interactions between local weather conditions and the biogeochemical conditions that affect microbial activity in the compost piles.

SOIL is proud to start building these key weather datasets at our composting site and we plan to continue monitoring local meteorology to build a long-term picture of weather in Haiti. SOIL’s weather data can’t change the path of major storms, but it can capture how storms alter conditions locally along Haiti’s northern coast. Ultimately, this information can help inform how we can build sanitation services that are more resilient to extreme climate events.

Click Here to Explore the Meteorological Data

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Compost has the power to transform the world.
Compost has the power to transform the world.

At SOIL we believe that having access to a toilet is a basic human right. Having access to a toilet provides a feeling of dignity. Household toilets increase safety for women and girls and they are critical for preventing waterborne diseases. Because of lack of access to toilets, clean water, and hygiene services, diarrhea kills 2,195 children every day around the world—more than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. Sadly, it is estimated that only 34% of urban Haitians have access to improved sanitation facilities and less than 1% of human waste in Haiti is safely treated. This sanitation crisis is mirrored on a global scale with 2.4 billion people still lacking access to a toilet. 

Many attempts to create or repair sanitation systems are themselves ineffective, focusing only on the provision of toilets and neglecting waste treatment. But a toilet without a waste treatment system is just a means for displacing a problem, cleaning up one local environment while polluting another. As a result, the wastes of 4.2 billion people in the world (two thirds of the world!) are dumped directly into waterways or sit in underground reservoirs where they often leach into groundwater. Where waste treatment systems do exist, the processes for disposing of wastes also disposes of valuable nutrients, instead of harvesting them for reuse.

Despite billions of dollars spent on sanitation interventions, the global population continues to suffer from the lack of access to safe sanitation and the environment continues to suffer from pollution and declining soil fertility. Working in Haiti, where the majority of the population lacks access to a toilet, one of the deadliest cholera outbreaks in modern history has infected more than 1/6 of the population, soil fertility is declining precipitously, and water sources are dangerously polluted, SOIL is acutely aware of the cycle of poor sanitation, environmental degradation, and poverty, and SOIL strives to develop solutions that break this cycle and support long-term sustainable development.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals

In September 2015, members of the United Nations adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) designed to achieve by 2030 the eradication of poverty, as well as protect the planet from degradation, and generally ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous lives. As research from the Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI) has explained, the SDG’s are, by design, inextricably interconnected as a truly long-term solution to global poverty eradication depends on our ability to address all the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of this challenge.

SOIL’s work exemplifies this interconnectedness: with nature as our inspiration, we are working to develop a sanitation system that is simultaneously restoring the environment to its life-giving potential and promoting the growth of local economies by creating meaningful livelihood opportunities throughout the ecological sanitation cycle.

How SOIL’s Work Supports Sustainable Development

By taking a holistic, circular economy approach to sanitation provision, SOIL simultaneously tackles several of the Sustainable Development Goals. Here are a few of the ways that SOIL is helping achieve the SDGs :


Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere 

SOIL employs 84 full time staff and over 250 temporary positions in the sanitation sector. Over 90% of SOIL’s permanent staff are Haitian, and SOIL is creating a model for an in-home sanitation service that can be run and operated by Haitian entrepreneurs, providing a sustained source of jobs and contributing to local economies. As SOIL’s sanitation businesses increase in scale, more and more jobs and small business opportunities will become available in each of the neighborhoods we service. This has the potential to create significant employment opportunities and contribute to economic growth in some of Haiti’s most vulnerable communities.


Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture  

Producing affordable, organic compost that can be used to restore soil fertility helps farmers grow more food. We believe that by helping farmers produce healthy, locally grown crops and working to create fertile and resilient soils across the country, Haiti can once again be a place of agricultural bounty.
 


Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages 

By removing untreated waste from the communities we serve, SOIL is working to reduce the incidence of childhood diarrhea and stop the spread water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid.

 


Goal 6: Ensure access to water and sanitation for all

SDG 6 reflects an emerging global consensus that toilets alone are not a sufficient sanitation solution. Without effective management of the wider sanitation chain including containment, emptying, transport, and treatment, the waste contained in toilets ends up in the environment causing major environmental and public health hazards.

SDG indicator 6.2.1 highlights the importance of “safely managed sanitation services” and included in target 6.2 of the SDGs is a sub-target on halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse of wastes globally. SOIL’s full value chain approach to sanitation is one of the few interventions globally that fully complies with the updated Sustainable Development Goal for sanitation.


Goal 11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

The number of people living in urban areas is expected to double by 2050, yet urban sanitation services, especially to rapidly growing informal urban communities, have historically been extremely difficult and expensive to provide. Conventional sewerage is nonexistent in Haiti and unlikely to be a viable solution in the near future as sewer systems require considerable up-front capital investment and depend on the availability of reliable water and energy supplies. Additionally, they depend upon highly professional, well-resourced utilities to operate and maintain them. Lack of space, high water tables, and frequent flooding events make alternative onsite sanitation services (such as latrines and septic tanks) unsuitable and prone to causing contamination. SOIL’s container-based toilets, which remove all human waste from urban communities in sealed containers, allow SOIL to provide a uniquely affordable, safe, and dignified household sanitation solution.


Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

Two years ago, SOIL initiated scientific collaborations with two university professors to quantify the potential for ecological sanitation to combat climate change via three mechanisms: reduction of greenhouse gas emissions compared to alternative sanitation practices, offsetting synthetic fertilizer use, and sequestering carbon in agricultural and forest soils through compost amendments. Our preliminary results suggest that SOIL’s ecological sanitation technology emits 40-92% less greenhouse gas than waste stabilization ponds, and that management improvements can further reduce emissions.

The over 100 metric tons of compost amendments that SOIL produces annually further contribute to climate change mitigation by improving the soil’s ability to stabilize carbon and by increasing plant growth, thereby pulling more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Research in California has shown that application of as little as ¼ inch of compost to soils can increase net ecosystem carbon storage by 25-70% (not including the carbon applied in the compost). Compost also reduces the need for synthetic fertilizer inputs, which are the primary source of soil nitrous oxide emissions and contribute 1% of global anthropogenic methane emissions. Finally, compost amendments help vulnerable agricultural communities adapt to climate change impacts by increasing the ability of a soil to retain water and nutrients, reducing erosional losses, and buffering against drought conditions.


Goal 15: Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss

SOIL compost is being used to improve the viability of reforestation efforts in Haiti. Healthier and more resilient soils are also less vulnerable to natural disasters because they protect against drought and erosion. The use of compost for reforestation further stabilizes soils, helping to prevent catastrophic floods and mudslides.


Conclusion

Lack of sanitation access is a huge problem that has an enormous public health impact around the world. And while organizations like SOIL using ecological techniques to reuse the resources of human waste seemed slightly batty only a few years ago, we now know how critical it is to rebuild the soil, fight climate change, and increase resiliency to climate change. Our planet can’t afford to waste any resources, and recovering resources from human waste is critical. According to the Stockholm Environmental Institute, “few areas of investment today have as much to offer the global shift towards sustainable development as sanitation and wastewater management”.

It is a paradigm-shifting hypothesis that sanitation can focus on the economically and ecologically beneficial nutrient capture and agricultural reuse of human waste rather than simply on waste disposal. And we’re proud that by building a circular sanitation business model, SOIL has demonstrated that it is possible to provide cost-effective safe, dignified, sustainable, full-cycle sanitation services in some of the most impoverished urban communities in the world. And over the coming years we won’t stop fighting until we have a scalable and replicable model to provide sanitation access for the 700+ million people living in urban communities who currently lack sanitation access. Our planet depends upon it.

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In Haiti, the demand for affordable and dignified sanitation solutions, like EkoLakay’s in-home composting toilet, is high. SOIL is striving to be conscientious of how we grow to meet that demand so that we’re expanding in a way that’s sustainable. Even as we refine our model and work to grow responsibly, we have exciting news to report about how much we have in fact grown throughout the past year.

Are you ready for it? In one year’s time, SOIL has nearly doubled the size of our waste treatment operations. This means we have nearly doubled both the amount of pathogenic waste we’re taking out of communities from EkoLakay toilets as well as the amount of safe, agricultural-grade compost we’re returning to the soil. That’s a lot of compost – more than 50 metric tons each month, to be exact!

We’re anticipating expanding EkoLakay’s in-home composting toilet service to 300 additional households in Northern Haiti this year. As EkoLakay’s services continue to expand and the amount of waste we are treating grows, so too do the infrastructure needs at our composting sites. At our composting site in Cap-Haitien, we currently have 23 large composting bins in operation and, as of late, they are all operating at max capacity. This is an exciting problem to have, but even the most exciting of problems are still problems. SOIL’s Director of Composting in Cap-Haitien, Job, remarked that operating at max capacity makes it harder to adapt to unforeseen challenges. For example, he says, “if the current water drainage system gets blocked, it has a much bigger impact because we don’t have a backup system.”

Adaptability and Efficiency – with Room to Grow!

Our team is excited to grow and improve the site to ensure we have the flexibility we need to operate efficiently, adapt as needed, and anticipate the additional households who will begin using EkoLakay’s services in the coming year. We broke ground last week to build two more composting bins, an additional septic tank, and a new water drainage system. Once that’s complete, we’re going to expand the workspace used by our composting team (aka Haiti’s local sanitation heroes) so that they have the space they need to work effectively and recharge throughout the day.

Photo: C. Pask

Marckindy, SOIL’s Cap-Haitien Composting Supervisor shared that SOIL’s composting operations have adapted to the limitations of the current site, but “with more space and planned infrastructure improvements, [SOIL will] be able to apply what we’ve learned in this limited space to design for greater efficiency.” One way the new site will improve the efficiency Marckindy discussed is by building improved windrow areas – which is where we turn the piles of Konpòs Lakay compost throughout the transformation process once they’ve moved out of the initial compost bin. We’ve been running out of windrow space for some time and are implementing a new design which actually doubles our capacity to turn the compost piles in the same amount of space.

“Proud and Thankful”

It’s easy to imagine how difficult it would be for SOIL’s composting team to make do as the composting site had been becoming outdated and prohibitively small in the face of EkoLakay’s growth. (Again – heroes). Job shared that while it’s been stressful for him over the past few months to be restricted in how he can improve operations, he’s excited about how the site expansion will change things moving forward. He also shared that he’s “proud and thankful to have found financing that allowed us to make this happen.” The rest of us at SOIL share Job’s sentiment and want to wholeheartedly thank the SOIL cultivators, individual donors, and funders, including Pennywise Foundation, M. Richins, River Styx Foundation, and Seekers Church, who have made this exciting expansion possible.

If those of you who are reading this blog outside of Northern Haiti couldn’t hear our collective cheers as we broke ground on the site, trust us that we did – and keep an eye out for updates throughout the construction process.

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At SOIL, we love teaming up with scientists to explore how ecological sanitation works. And one of the main pillars of our ecological sanitation operation is transforming environment-polluting poop into nutrient-rich compost. To do this, we follow the World Health Organization (WHO) standards for human waste composting – creating piles with the ideal ratio of poop to cover material so that natural heat-tolerant bacteria will get to work and break the materials down and destroy pathogens. These piles get hot! At peak temperatures, an average pile will reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit, far surpassing the WHO’s recommended threshold.

Figure. Proportion of microbial community derived from untreated source material (buckets) samples throughout the composting process.

A few years ago, we teamed up with scientists at UC Berkeley to understand what pathogen communities live in SOIL’s compost piles, and how well they tolerate the heat. We took samples from our compost piles in Haiti at several stages of decomposition, extracted the DNA, and sent it off to California for analysis on a device called a PhyloChip. While we assumed that our compost was pathogen-free after reaching such high temperatures, the data from this work confirmed that, telling us that pathogenic bacterial families like E. coli were eliminated while the heat-tolerant “good” bacteria were increased. More details about this work can be found in the full PloS One journal article:

Piceno YM, Pecora-Black G, Kramer S, Roy M, Reid FC, Dubinsky EA, et al. (2017) Bacterial community structure transformed after thermophilically composting human waste in Haiti. PLoS ONE 12(6): e0177626. https://doi.org/ 10.1371/journal.pone.0177626

Huge thank you to our fellow researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, University of California – Berkeley, and University of California – Davis, for making this paper possible!

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The SOIL Climate Team
The SOIL Climate Team

 

Stajye Klim ak Konpòs: Introducing SOIL’s first Climate and Compost Research Fellows!

Every day, SOIL is showing that ecological sanitation (EcoSan) can provide an impressive array of sustainability benefits. SOIL’s EcoSan model provides dignified sanitation, removes harmful pathogens from the environment, and recycles waste into nutrient-rich compost. Recently, scientists have also started evaluating whether ecological sanitation could be a way to combat climate change, as well.

There are a few key ways EcoSan could be beneficial for slowing or mitigating climate change:

  1. Lower energy consumption: EcoSan solutions transform human wastes into compost using a thermophilic process that requires few inputs (like energy).
  2. Less greenhouse gas emissions: All waste treatment strategies, including composting, emit some level of greenhouse gas. However, the composting waste treatment process may emit significantly fewer greenhouse gases than other waste management strategies.
  3. Improved carbon retention: The compost generated by EcoSan waste treatment can be applied to soil to increase the growth rate of plants, which then increases the amount of carbon stored in the soil, another way to mitigate the effects of climate change.
  4. Improved resiliency to climate change: Finally, compost applied to agricultural lands can help buffer against drought and other climate change impacts by improving the soil’s resilience and retentiveness – its ability to hold water and nutrients.

SOIL is partnering with two researchers at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, to do new scientific research that explores these climate impacts in depth and to quantify the climate benefits of transforming human waste into compost.

To support this research, we are launching a new internship program at SOIL called Stajye Klim ak Konpòs (Climate and Compost Research Fellows). The interns are an integral part of the SOIL research team. They will be trained in the latest scientific methods, participate in the field collection of greenhouse gas emissions, conduct laboratory analyses, and manage data.

SOIL Interns

We are excited to introduce our first cohort of fellows:

Léon, Research Supervisor

Léon started working as SOIL’s lab manager after receiving his Biomedical Laboratory license from the Institute Superior de Technologie Medical du Cap-Haitien at the Justinien Hospital University seven months ago. His primary responsibilities as lab manager are organizing the weekly analyses of compost piles for pathogen and nutrients. As part of the new Fellowship program Léon will now become a Research Supervisor and will be organizing and overseeing the collection of gas samples that will be used to understand the climate mitigation effects of SOIL’s waste treatment process.

Léon shared his vision for SOIL as a global leader in combatting climate change:

‘SOIL can become a model for climate management and offer global solutions by drawing on the results of local experience and experiments. The effectiveness of the work at SOIL is already a testament to the idea that we can make progress every day…

 [SOIL] can become a place where we all can work to bring solutions not only for people, but also for nature. I think this is a great service we can provide for the country and the world.’

Darline, Research Intern

Darline, 27, is a student at the Universitè Antènor Firmin Cap-Haïtien where she is completing a 5-year program in Agronomic Sciences. Her 3-4 months as a Research Intern at SOIL are part of a practical year of technical and field experience for her degree. When we asked Darline why she chose to study agronomy, she said:

‘My study of agronomy is closely related to my professional ambitions. I would like to find professional work in my area of learning, and I would like to further advance my studies so I can be of most use to my community.’ 

Junior, Research Intern:

Junior, 27, a classmate of Darline and recent graduate from the Universitè Antènor Firmin Cap-Haïtien had this to say about his internship at SOIL:

‘I am grateful for the opportunity to become a SOIL employee. Looking to my future, I aim to use my knowledge and skills to assist institutions or organizations that want to use my services. I also aim to deepen my knowledge in my particular area of study, which is agronomy.’

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Organization Information

SOIL

Location: Sherburne, New York - USA
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @SOILhaiti
Project Leader:
Leah Page
Sherburne, New York United States
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