SOIL: From Human Waste to Organic Compost

Some essential human needs aren’t always satisfied. Access to clean drinking water and safe sanitation are among them. According to the World Health Organization, 1 out of 3 people worldwide, in other words 2.4 billion people, don’t have access to sanitation facilities. Haiti is a country with very poor hygiene and sanitation infrastructure: only 55.2 % of the population has access to an improved water source. Environmental biologists, government officials, anthropologists are all coming together to find innovative solutions to tackle such issues. Hence, brave leadership can arise in improbable places such as designing and distributing bio-waste toilets.

SOIL is an organization co-founded in 2006 by Sasha Kramer, Baudeler Magloire and several other colleagues, that uses bio-toilets to convert human waste into compost. It has grown to be one of Haiti's most well respected sanitation providers, and proof that sanitation can and should be more than just a toilet - sanitation can be a transformative and beneficial force for change. With its EcoSan technology, SOIL has provided over 30,000 people in Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitian with safe and dignified sanitation. The organization has also converted over 850 metric tons of human waste into organic compost. More than a 1,000 people in 96 countries have been educated through SOIL’s Guide to Ecological Sanitation on best practices in safe sanitation.

Here is an excerpt from Margareta Barchan’s interview with the co-founders Sasha Kramer and Baudeler Magloire:

Sasha Kramer: I studied ecology during my time in school. I read a book called Eyes of the Heart: Seeking a Path for the Poor in the Age of Globalization, by the former president [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide and found that the picture he gave was very different from what was portrayed in US media. I really wanted to go and find out for myself.  During my last year in graduate school, I went to Haiti with a group of human rights activists and we conducted a lot of interviews. During that trip, I really fell in love with the country and was amazed by the courage among the people in such a challenging time. I saw poverty but also a lot of bravery. I went back and forth 12 times and decided I wanted to stay in that place. I combined my studies in ecology and passion for human rights.  It was clear that sanitation and food were basic human rights which were not being met. That is how SOIL got started as the intersection of human rights and ecology.

Margareta Barchan: I suppose working with ecological systems in Haiti is sometimes met with suspicion. What did it demand of you when it comes to courage and braveness?

Kramer: In terms of human rights promotion, it is obvious what we do. But it calls for courage to persevere and to continue to do the work we do. I suppose courage is to take on a problem that is bigger than you are.

Barchan: What choices and dilemmas did you face when you got started?

Kramer: The hardest decision was to move to Haiti. I followed my heart although my family back home had a hard time figuring out why this was so important to me. I am following the path I want to follow. Still, I am human so I have doubts every day!

Barchan:  Can you give me an example of these doubts you’ve had while building SOIL.

Kramer: We have to convince people all the time that you can grow food this way. I remember the first time when we dumped the buckets in a garden and I had to show people how it worked.

Sasha Kramer showing children how the toilets work. Photo credit: SOIL.

Sasha Kramer showing children how the toilets work. Photo credit: SOIL.

Barchan: What was the turning point for you?

Kramer: I had an interest in biology since childhood but what really resonated with me was a book about human rights. I use to look at the pictures, read books and articles and it all fascinated me. But the book Eyes of the Heart: Seeking a Path for the Poor in the Age of Globalization was the turning point for me.

Barchan: Where do you get your courage to continue?

Kramer: People I am working with, my colleagues and network.

Sasha Kramer and Baudeler Magloire at the Inauguration of SOIL. Photo credit: SOIL.

Sasha Kramer and Baudeler Magloire at the Inauguration of SOIL. Photo credit: SOIL.

Barchan: Have you ever thought of sustainability and leadership in relation to courage?

Baudeler Magloire: Whenever I do something, I think about whether my actions have a sustainable impact. It has to benefit everyone if it is going to last. You don’t want a traditional boss but rather a leader who wants to work for the community and with the community.  

Barchan: Can you give an example that demonstrates courage?

Magloire: I was working as a volunteer at SOIL and worked for free.  I was convinced of what we were doing. Anytime we would talk about we were doing, we were met by suspicion as it has do with human waste. Our approach to help people to understand is a very participative method. Almost always people are against it but we used to say, “if you don’t manage the waste, the waste will manage you.” The fact that it can spread diseases, cholera etc. - as a result, people start to act.

The first toilet we installed was in my hometown, Milot. People were not interested at all in having it. We told them to provide us only with the space to place it somewhere and we would take care of everything else. After a while, everyone wanted to have a toilet of their own because they saw the results.

Baudeler with interested community members. Photo credit: SOIL.

Baudeler with interested community members. Photo credit: SOIL.

After the earthquake in Haiti, we helped people and the toilets were clean and tidy. Our challenge now it to make them sustainable while still being able to service them for a small fee.

Barchan: What was the turning point for you?

Magloire: As a kid, I was really into politics and soccer, but when I met Sasha I changed my vision. 2004 was a very turbulent year in Haiti and I was in politics under Aristide’s party. We all went into hiding at that time [after the coup] and I met Sasha.  She was an observer for human rights then. She came back two years later and wanted to design an experiment in the dense suburban area around human waste. At first I was scared, but now I can say that “shit” is a good friend of mine. So we started SOIL and thanks to what we are doing here in Haiti, people all over the world are benefiting from it now.

It is an activity that not only protects the environment and the community, but also my family. So it was easy to make the transformation as I have always wanted to do things that embrace everybody.    

Barchan: What was the reaction from your friends?

Magloire: My friends called me “the cheap slave!” I would have been able to continue to have a job in politics but instead I left and joined SOIL. I was ready for something different and Sasha was convincing. But now I am very proud of what I am doing. I took the risk of not having a steady salary and followed something unknown but aligned with my values of doing something that is good for everyone.

Barchan: Where did you get your inspiration?

Magloire: I am from a poor and uneducated family so maybe the inspiration comes from understanding the complexity of poverty and need for sustainable change. There are always people who are working for money while others are working with their heart. I think that if you work with your heart, money will come to you. Right now, I am sponsoring some childrens’ education to give them the same chance and give them the space to get inspired. 

Baudeler with one of the sponsored children. Photo credit: SOIL.

Baudeler with one of the sponsored children. Photo credit: SOIL.

Barchan: When hiring people, are you looking for those working with their hearts?

Magloire: Yes, it is something we are looking for. And that they aren’t scared to work with human waste. Many of the people are coming from the camps or the slums, and have experienced our toilets there. They are really working with their hearts.

Barchan: So, is knowledge important or even a prerequisite to change a society?

Magloire: No, it is not about knowledge. We all make decisions together. Some have tons of knowledge but others have experience.

Barchan: Will the next generation be interested in the future of what SOIL is doing?

Magloire: It is hard know as the young generations are oversaturated with information because of social media that can make people overwhelmed or complacent. So we really need to create conditions that attract them. We have to be good role models.

Barchan: What will happen in 10-20 years with SOIL? Will you still be there?

Magloire:  I don’t know if I will ever leave SOIL as it is my baby. And I think that the politicians and communities all over the world will have an interest in helping us. EcoSan technology has the potential to grow as the population grows.

 

This article was written and edited by Jessica Newfield.