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Organization Strives To Improve Sanitation In Haiti One Toilet At A Time

A worker with a SOIL collection cart in Haiti.

Sanitation and waste treatment is underdeveloped in Haiti, a nation that has suffered massive earthquakes and hurricanes, a cholera epidemic and ineffective governance. Now, non-profit organizations like Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods, or SOIL, are collaborating with the Haitian government to help improve waste treatment and sanitation.

“The priority within the government in terms of water and sanitation, it's right now a low priority. So they're not able to make the kind of the kind of investments that would be really helpful and have a huge impact,” SOIL deputy director Nick Preneta told KGOU’s World Views.

Preneta’s organization provides simple container-based toilets that collect human waste. The waste is then converted into compost.

“We look specifically at urban areas where we do everything from produce the toilet and market and sell it to servicing and treatment,” Preneta said.

SOIL’s “dry” toilets are made in Haiti and cost about $25 to produce. They have a special seat that diverts urine. Feces falls into a second container.

“As part of the service we provide a cover material. And after each use, the user takes that cover material and drops it into the container that has the poop and it covers it, which has the effects of preventing any smell, but also reduces any type of fly breeding,” Preneta said.

SOIL’s household toilet services is called EkoLakay. Some people install the toilets in separate buildings, while others install them inside the house. Some people have placed the toilets in their bedrooms, which Preneta says demonstrates the lack of smell.

SOIL charges a $3 or $4 monthly fee for a door-to-door collection service.

“We have a member of our team that comes by that each house collects the filled containers which are sealed and then gives them a clean one with that cover material which as we call it bonzodè, which means ‘smell good’ or ‘good smelling’,” Preneta said.

Preneta says the sanitation and waste treatment system in Haiti is generally poor. Latrines and septic tanks are common, but they are not viable in some places. In areas where SOIL provides their service, latrines are too costly, the water table might be too high, or there are land tenure issues.

“It's uniquely adapted to these kinds of situations, these dense urban areas, which is one of the things that we see is becoming more and more common around the world,” Preneta said.

SOIL had been working in Haiti prior to the 2010 earthquake. The disaster killed at least 100,000 Haitians, and some estimates of the death toll are much higher.

A  customer of SOIL’s EkoLakay service in Haiti.
Credit SOIL
A customer of SOIL’s EkoLakay service in Haiti.

In the earthquake’s aftermath, SOIL began to work in camps with their container-based sanitation systems. They worked in 32 different sites around Port-au-Prince, and served about 20,000 people. It was the first time the organization had worked in an emergency situation.

“That's really where we learned a lot about container-based sanitation, but also really developed our composting piece which hadn't been there previously,” Preneta said.

Preneta says there are some concerns about using human waste as a compost, such as pathogens. His organization using thermophilic, or hot, composting to eliminate pathogens. This method controls the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, aeration and moisture to allow naturally-occurring microbes to decompose the waste material. The process creates heat. By keeping the composting temperatures between 140 and 150 degrees, the heat kills off the pathogens. SOIL monitors and manages the temperatures to keep it below 160, at which point good bacterias can be killed.

There are currently few soil amendments in Haiti, Preneta says, and the country has huge soil fertility problems. As a result, demand for SOIL’s soil amendments is high.

“Big agricultural companies have purchased from us, NGOs that are supporting farmers,” Preneta said. “We're still working on who those long term customers will be.”

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Suzette Grillot: Nick Preneta, welcome to World Views.

Nick Preneta: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

Grillot: Well, Nick you're involved in an organization called SOIL - Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods - in Haiti. Very interesting work that you're doing there. Can you tell us a little bit about that organization what exactly you're doing there?

Preneta: Sure, so SOIL is a 501c3, founded in 2006. And our work primarily focuses on developing social businesses around household sanitation in Haiti. And our work is in Haiti but the work that we're doing it is it's something that we hope is replicable around the world. The context in Haiti is different from others but also very similar to a lot of other places around the world.

Grillot: All right. Well so the specific work that you're doing then these social businesses is is taking waste or you're managing the waste basic of it's being produced in households in Haiti. So can you tell us about that process kind of what what you're actually doing with with waste in terms of trying to contribute to the sanitation of the communities and what the outcome of that is?

Preneta: So the model that we use is ecological sanitation approach where we're looking at a closed loop system where waste and we're talking about poop. People often see it as a waste but we look at it as a resource. And so our model, we cover the entire sanitation chain and we look specifically at urban areas where we do everything from produce the toilet and market and sell it to servicing and treatment. And our treatment is via thermophilic composting, or hot composting, where all the things that we associate with poop that are dangerous, the different pathogens, those are eliminated. And the final product is a valuable compost that can be returned to the soil.

Grillot: So you actually produce the kind of toilet. There's a special toilet that's required for this?

Preneta: Yes so it's dry toilet which is it's a urine diversion. So it's a toilet that costs about $25 to produce. All done in Haiti. It's a ferrocement toilet. But there's a special seat, a urine diversion seat, that diverts the urine into one container and the poop drops into a second container. And as part of the service we provide a cover material. And after each use, the user takes that cover material and drops it into the container that has the poop and it covers it which has the effects of preventing any smell, but also reduces any type of fly breeding. And some people have these toilets installed in a building separate from their house, but others have it installed in their house and sometimes even in their bedroom. It all depends on their situation. But it speaks to the lack of smell of these toilets.

Grillot: Which would be very important.

Preneta: Yes.

Grillot: And then there's a process, I guess, of collection that in terms of collecting this the human waste, the poo, them in terms and then delivering it I guess to the to the processing plant where you then produce the compost, correct?

Preneta: Yeah. So every week we do a door-to-door collection and this is a service that people pay a monthly fee for and this is, depending on the the city, it's three to four U.S. dollars per month that people pay. And for that they get the weekly collection service and they get that cover material. So we have a member of our team that comes by that each house, collects the filled containers which are sealed, and then gives them a clean one with that cover material which as we call it bonne odeur which means “smell good” or “good smelling.” And then we take that to transfer station and then eventually to a compost facility.

Grillot: So I want to talk about what you do from there and what can you do with the compost. But I presume that this is a terrific alternative to having sewer lines and things like that which are probably very difficult to implement in Haiti. You know, it's perhaps, they don't have the infrastructure I guess for this sort of thing so this is an alternative that's been created in order to just deal with the human waste issue because, if they don't have one of your toilets and if they aren't dealing with this sort of thing, what is, what are they doing? What is the alternate? What do you see happening there?

Preneta: Yeah so the sanitation situation in Haiti is pretty bleak as well as the waste treatment. For the most part people are using latrines or septic tanks. But in the areas that we are working in providing the service, they don't always have that option, whether it's because there's not enough space to build, whether it's too costly, whether there's not space to get access to empty those, high water table, prone to flooding, land tenure issues where they can't have long term long term investments. So it's a unique uniquely adapted to these kinds of situations, these dense urban areas, which is one of the things that we see is becoming more and more common around the world. And in the global or urban population is supposed to double by 2050 and then the fact is that the you know municipalities are not going to be able to keep up and have the right planning in place. So this is going to be an option. You know part of the kit that they have in terms of sanitation solutions for these these types of communities.

Grillot: So I imagine this is also probably something that's helpful to them after the earthquake. They had that very devastating earthquake a few years ago. It was 2010. So since that time I imagine a lot of their infrastructure was devastated by that by that natural disaster. So is this something that you really kind of got going after that experience, and see you know to be much more successful given how they're able to rebuild in this way and in a more sustainable, you know, environmentally friendly way?

Preneta: Yes so the government is certainly really interested in what we're doing. Previous to the earthquake, we had more of a traditional NGO approach where we were building toilets, also ecological sanitation models, so double-vault toilets, but more public toilets, community managed. And that model was not working. So right before the earthquake we were turning our turning our focus to a social business approach but also looking at household. But then the earthquake happened and everything got put to the side and SOIL was involved in the emergency response. That was where we really were able to try out this what we call the container based sanitation in camps where we didn't have any experience in emergency situations so we got a lot of encouragement and pushing from partners and donors and we started a pilot a month and a half after the earthquake. And that was really successful, ended up supporting 32 different sites around Port-au-Prince a population of over 20000 people. But that's really where we learned a lot about container-based sanitation but also really developed our composting piece which hadn't been there previously.

Grillot: So let's talk about that. The composting part of it now I'm just going to ask really ignorant question because I know little know really nothing about these sorts of issues. I'm not yet a gardener using much compost. I'm working on it though but anyway I've always been understood that human waste was not necessarily the best kind of fertilizer for agricultural products, that it just wasn't you know an animal certain animal waste animal poo is better. How is it that you're able to take human waste which obviously needs to be dealt with and removed and collected and managed in that way for sanitation purposes for the human population, but then turn it into something that you can use in the agricultural industry?

Preneta: I think there's often two concerns when it comes to human waste. One that we see more here in the US because composting of human waste does happen. When we talk about biosolids is the term that's used here in the US. But there's a lot of contaminants that are in there with the poop because it's it's got industrial industrial waste as well. There's been much more debate about what it can and cannot be used for because of those contaminants. But the second piece is the pathogens. And as we all know and especially in Haiti where there's you know the biggest cholera outbreak in recent history that they're still trying to deal with, you know, managing the pathogens that are included in in in poop. But hot hot or thermosphilic composting is one way to effectively eliminate them. It's a naturally occurring process. If you are controlling for certain parameters, so carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, the right kind of aeration, and the right amount of moisture, you have these naturally occurring microbes that decompose the material, and they generate heat. These thermophilic organisms, sorry I'm getting a little bit sciency, but they they thrive and they push the temperatures up above 140, 150 degrees Fahrenheit. And it's that heat that kills off the pathogens. You don't want it to get too hot. Past 160 or so. Then you start killing off a lot of the good bacteria. But what SOIL is basically doing is harnessing that that naturally occurring process, making sure it's happening in a controlled situation. Monitoring, so we have you know a strict temperature-taking protocol. And then also testing at different points within our process to make sure that, yes indeed, we are limiting the pathogens before we bag it and then offered for sale.

Grillot: So your customers then are largely are they home-based farmers or large industry? Or who is buying and using your compost and how has it been going so far?

Preneta: Yeah so I mean the great problem that we have is that there's been a huge demand for this compost. There isn't a lot of other soil amendments that are available in Haiti. A lot of it is chemical fertilizers and there's a huge problem with soil fertility. We haven't been able to keep up with demand. It's a lovely problem to have. Big agricultural companies have purchased from us, NGOs that are supporting farmers, and yeah, we're still working on who those long term customers will be if it's going to be the government helping us with the waste treatment and getting the compost in return. There's a number of different scenarios that we're that we're working on. But it's definitely a product in high demand and one that's needed for this level of Haiti.

Grillot: Well you mentioned the government. How how well situated is the government to facilitate these sorts of things?

Preneta: Yeah so I mean in Haiti unfortunately the country has taken hit after hit by natural disasters. There was the earthquake of course in 2010 but there was a massive hurricane last year that wiped out a huge agricultural area in the south. So the country just always seems to be reeling from natural disasters. When they're not dealing with those, there's political challenges that we've had with elections and transfer of power. So stability is also an issue. And adding on to all this in terms of water and sanitation in particular that, the branch of government that's responsible for that was created in 2009. So they didn't even have a full year since being created before earthquake happened, government buildings the majority of government buildings were wiped out. And therefore the country is flooded with NGOs trying to respond. And also I mean the priority within the government in terms of water and sanitation it's it's right now a low priority. So they're not able to make the kind of the kind of investments that would be that would be really helpful and have a huge impact. But that's not to say that they don't support the work that we're doing. We have an agreement with the government to look at composting some of the waste from there their waste treatment facility in Port-au-Prince so the solids that are produced, seeing if we can take those compost create a viable product from those. At the same time they're also very interested in this household household model. And they're watching watching us as we continue to refine the service and hopefully attract private sector involvement.

Grillot: So Nick, you mentioned earlier in the conversation about whether this is replicable. Can you tell us, are other NGOs, are there countries implementing this type of waste and sanitation process?

Prenetta: Yes sure. So there's there's actually an exciting development recently where some of the other groups that are doing similar work, we've created a, you know, early stages of what we're calling the Container-Based Alliance. And we're all working in different parts of the world with different versions of SOIL's model although some are doing it in a public toilet with the public toilet model. And so these are I mean two groups in Kenya, one in Ghana, one in Peru and one in Madagascar, and we're all working together to promote what we're calling container-based sanitation at the international level to make sure that it's seen as what's referred to as “improved sanitation,” and also looking at making sure that we're comparing all the different things that we're learning whether it's in Haiti or in Kenya and learning from each other in a more formalized fashion and because we're often compared to each other anyways. And also trying to get ahead of the game because we have, because of the success of not only SOIL but these other groups, there are a lot of people interested in replicating and we often field a lot of requests for how can we replicate in Brazil or, you know, whatever other country we get e-mails and request quite often. But trying to get ahead of the game where these groups who have quite a lot of experience working out the kinks of the different models to establish a set of standards or guiding principles for those that in the future do want to replicate so they have something to follow. But it's really, are push is to promote this at an international level and gain acceptance of these models as a good a good solution to this growing urban sanitation crisis. That's not going away anytime soon.

Grillot: All right. Well thank you so much Nick for being here today for your very informative and interesting conversation. Thanks. Thank you.

Copyright © 2017 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Jacob McCleland spent nine years as a reporter and host at public radio station KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His stories have appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Here & Now, Harvest Public Media and PRI’s The World. Jacob has reported on floods, disappearing languages, crop duster pilots, anvil shooters, Manuel Noriega, mule jumps and more.
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