SOIL is working in Haiti to design, test, and implement social business models to increase access to sanitation services.
When the business model is right, anything can be a valuable asset, even human waste. SOIL uses a business model that provides sanitation services, improves soil fertility, and creates livelihoods in Haiti. SOIL collects human waste and transforms it into compost that can be safely used in agriculture.
Ecologist Sasha Kramer of SOIL describes her work this way. “We are taking human waste, something that is one of the largest factors in public health issues in the world. And, we are transforming it into something that I, as ecologist thinks is valuable in the world, which is soil, for rebuilding soil fertility and improving agriculture and reforestation.” And, by using social business models, they are creating livelihoods for Haitians. This business model could be a way to provide sanitation services to some of the 2.6 billion people worldwide who lack access to a toilet.
SOIL seeks to prove that it’s possible to sustainably provide affordable and dignified household sanitation services even in the world’s most under-resourced communities. In SOIL’s simple social business design, wastes from SOIL in-home toilets – locally branded as “EkoLakay” – are collected weekly and transported to a composting waste treatment facility to be safely treated and transformed into rich, agricultural-grade compost. This compost is then sold for agricultural application, improving both the fertility and water retention of the soil. Revenue from monthly toilet user fees and compost sales are collected to support ongoing project costs and to showcase the potential for private sector involvement in the provision of affordable and sustainable sanitation services in the world’s most impoverished and water-scarce communities.
An Early Start
Sasha Kramer is an ecologist and human rights advocate who has been living and working in Haiti since 2004. But her journey started much earlier. “I grew up in an isolated rural community in upstate NY, but I was lucky that my parents worked hard to expose me to the inequalities in the world through books and movies,” Sasha explains. “I especially remember being influenced by a book called ‘The Best of Life Magazine,’ which had incredible photos from heroic times in history.
“I was always aware that I was lucky to grow up in safety and comfort and it made me want to find a way to balance my undeserved luck through finding a career where I could challenge the systems that create the conditions where not everyone can experience the same luck that I did.”
Sasha first came to Haiti in 2004 as a human rights observer in the wake of a coup. She spent the next two years traveling in and out of Haiti. “I fell in love with the country,” she says. “It became very clear to me that the most pervasive of human rights abuses in Haiti is poverty.”
In her goal to create a sustainable difference, Sasha says she did not always get it right. “Our initial misstep was one that is not at all uncommon,” she explains. “It’s the idea that providing the infrastructure is going to solve the problem. It’s relatively easy to come in and build a bunch of toilets, give them to people, step out, take the photos and say the project is completed. I think that has been the issue with development projects worldwide.
“Over the years, I’ve come to recognize how naive that really was to assume that, where the level of need was greatest, that people’s willingness to volunteer would be higher. In fact, it’s just the opposite. People who are struggling just to live don’t have time to clean up someone else’s waste and not making a living doing so.”
After three years of giving away toilets, SOIL realized that their model was not working. “We knew that we needed to find a way for people to have a sanitation service that people would want so much that they would be willing to pay something for it.”
Then came the devastating earthquake of 2010. SOIL sent half of their team to Port-au-Prince to see how they could be helpful. For four years, SOIL provided emergency services. Through that emergency response experience, SOIL designed a toilet that uses a replaceable container.
“We took what we had learned from the earthquake in terms of toilet design and waste treatment and brought them back to Cap-Haitien. That’s how we ended up designing our social business for household sanitation.”
SOIL’s EkoLakay household sanitation social business pilot is providing over 1,000 households in the greater Cap-Haitien and Port-au-Prince regions with dignified, in-home sanitation. And SOIL’s EcoSan waste treatment facilities treat and transform more than 500 tons of human waste annually, providing a powerful example of how to affordably and effectively increase access to sustainable sanitation services worldwide.
Even as a small grassroots effort, SOIL’s initiative is now one of the most promising tests globally of the paradigm-shifting hypothesis that sanitation no longer needs to focus on waste disposal, but rather on the ecologically beneficial and economically viable nutrient recapture and agricultural reuse of human waste.
SOIL’s model is also one of the few interventions globally that have shown progress towards creating a working social business model for providing sustainable sanitation services to informal urban settlements.
However, Sasha reminds us, “SOIL’s technology and service have been specifically designed for Haiti’s cultural and environmental context. Although most components of the sanitation service we provide are relevant for growing urban areas around the world, replication of our approach would require thoughtful adaptation to the local context in which it was being applied.”
Social Entrepreneur Quotes by Sasha Kramer:
Social Entrepreneurship Resources:
- SOIL: https://www.oursoil.org
- SOIL on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SOILHaiti
- SOIL on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SOILHaiti
- SOIL on Instagram: https://twitter.com/SOILHaiti
- Book: Crazy Good Advice: 10 Lessons Learned from 150 Leading Social Entrepreneurs: https://tonyloyd.com/book