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Three years after the devastating earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people in Haiti, many international aid organizations have left behind a dubious legacy. Only a fraction of the $9.3 billion that donor nations pledged actually reached the ground in Haiti, and very little of that money went to efforts to rebuild the nation.

A host of international aid organizations often did more harm than good, according to journalist Jonathan Katz. Haiti is still grappling with the first cholera outbreak ever recorded in the nation, which was brought in by United Nations troops and has killed 8,000 people and sickened 649,000 more.

Today in Port-au-Prince, the capital, 350,000 Haitians still live in tents, and fewer than 25 percent of Haitians in cities have access to adequate sanitation. In lieu of toilets, people must find other ways to dispose of waste—such as plastic bags, abandoned houses, or the ocean.

The 11,000 temporary toilets that were installed by aid groups after the quake are no longer being serviced. That means 11,000 very full reservoirs of human waste that pose a significant health hazard.

Despite the challenges, there are effective solutions at work in Haiti. SOIL, which stands for Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods, is working with communities to install a low-cost sanitation system that also supports local agriculture, the environment, and local economies.

SOIL’s ecological sanitation (EcoSan) toiletsnow serve more than 24,000 people across Haiti, and are virtually odor free. Unlike many international aid organizations that built toilets and stopped maintaining them when they left, SOIL’s model was grown from within the country and integrates maintenance services that also generate local jobs.

For a low monthly fee, SOIL workers maintain the toilets and collect the waste, delivering it to a composting facility (via SOIL’s Poopmobile), where it composts at high heat for six months. The process kills pathogens and creates a nutrient-rich fertilizer that is being sold to farms and used for tree planting.

Sasha Kramer, co-founder of SOIL, said that the work has gone through three phases since the organization’s launch in 2006—sanitation and toilets, developing composting facilities, and now linking the compost back to the agricultural and food sector. The organization focused first on making toilets accessible to the public, and learned some hard lessons along the way.

“When we first started, we were really interested in reaching the largest number of people possible,” Kramer says. “And we thought that the best way to do that was to build public toilets that were maintained by the community, and that everyone could have access to.

“People had advised us against this, and we were very naïve and didn’t listen. We did this for two or three years before we understood that the tragedy of the commons is very much a reality.

“If you build something that is accessible to everyone, but that no one is paid to maintain, then it won’t be maintained. I think that this lesson could be carried into other sectors as well.

“The initial enthusiasm will carry people through for a few months, but in the end, no one wants to clean up anyone else’s poop for free—and understandably so.”

For SOIL, the lesson learned was that, ultimately, sustainable livelihoods are the most pressing need for people, and the key to lasting change. “That’s why we’ve moved away from public toilets, and into setting up a household sanitation system where people pay a small monthly fee to have their toilet waste collected,” Kramer says.

“That fee then funds the people to do the service and maintenance of the toilets. I’m much more hopeful that this could be a long-term solution that could be picked up and replicated by the private sector, instead of a public toilet solution that was very dependent on ongoing funding from donors.”

Households, schools, clinics, and tourism cooperatives are welcoming the EcoSan toilets. In some parts of Haiti, groups of five families share a semi-private toilet and divide the cost of maintenance.

“The idea of being able to create a resource—fertilizer—here in Haiti, instead of having to import it, has been very appealing to many people,” says Kramer. “One of the real drivers of this appeal is the strong culture of independence and national pride in Haiti.”

Kramer first came to Haiti in 2004 with a group of human rights observers after a coup overthrew the elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. “I came to observe a demonstration, and I was just totally swept away by the courage and amazing resiliency I felt in the people here,” Kramer says.

Kramer, still an ecology graduate student at Stanford University in California, ended up returning 12 times over the course of two years. “I feel I was lucky, because I was able to come to Haiti without already having any preconceived notions,” Kramer says.

“I really had a chance to get to know the country and the very respected leaders in the communities where I was working. Had I not had those two years, it would have been very difficult to start an organization. When I did co-found SOIL, I had a good sense of who I could talk to in the community, and who was really trusted.”

Kramer’s relationships within local communities were instrumental to building SOIL’s founding team, which she credits as one of the organization’s key success factors.

“I feel like everything is learnable, except respect,” said Kramer. “And this is a group of people who are very respectful to their fellow Haitians, and who are also respected by the community. That made a huge difference for SOIL.”

Supporting livelihoods is the final step of the sanitation loop, where compost supports local agriculture and food production. Haiti’s agriculture sector has been struggling with heavily depleted soils and poor yields because of deforestation and environmental degradation.

Today, the nation still imports 50 percent of its food. By turning thousands of gallons of human waste into compost each week, SOIL has the potential to transform this problem dramatically—and now international investors are taking note.

The multinational beer company Heineken, which recently bought the Haitian beer brewery, Prestige, has pledged to invest $40 million in Haiti, and to work with 18,000 sorghum farmers so that it can source its sorghum locally.

“Heineken has said that they would like to purchase 50,000 gallons of compost this year, which they’ll be providing to sorghum farmers,” Kramer says.

“This is an example of how large international business can really support sustainable nutrient economies—and sustainable development in general—by making this type of investment. This creates a market demand for sustainable sanitation, and this partnership is something that could be replicable globally. It’s really exciting.”

SOIL was recently selected as an early entry prize winner in the Nutrients for All, an Ashoka Changemakers competition that is seeking solutions to ensure the availability of nutrients for healthy, natural ecosystems, farms, food, and people.

This story originally appeared on The Christian Science Monitor.

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Nashville, Tenn., boasts seven different farmers markets citywide, proving that urban residents have a strong appetite for locally sourced food.

But the mainstream food markets—like grocery stores, hospitals, schools, and restaurants—find it much easier to order from national distributors like Sysco, which trucks in produce from an average of 2,000 miles away.

Without access to larger food buyers, Nashville growers are struggling to succeed—a trend that has resulted in the decline of local food production. Today in Davidson County, only 0.36 percent of the farmland is being used to grow fruits and vegetables.

The good news is that one organization is working to change all that. Nashville Grown is a new food hub that enables large food purchasers to source produce from farms just outside the city—and even from backyard micro-farms within the city itself.
Farmers can become more profitable and focus more time on growing more food when they don’t have to worry about the legwork and infrastructure required to get their products to market.

Why have small farms been excluded from the supply chain?

The problem has to do with scale. Farms in and around urban areas tend to be small and usually can’t produce at the sustained volumes that institutions like schools or grocery chains require.

And without economies of scale, small farms aren’t able to shoulder the cost of delivery, storage, and marketing. On the market side, larger food purchasers require one-stop sourcing and don’t have the capacity to coordinate with multiple local farms.

“We have farms that are right next to the people they’d like to be serving,” says Sarah Johnson, founder and director of Nashville Grown. “But if there isn’t a food system set up to get the produce from small farms to the end consumer, it’s never going to work.”

Image: Denise Mattox
Image: Denise Mattox

Nashville Grown aggregates produce from many small farms, making it possible to fulfill the larger volume orders required by bigger food buyers like restaurants.

Aggregation also means that a small grower can still turn a profit if she specializes in producing a particular crop.

As a food hub, Nashville Grown provides storage, distribution, and marketing. Its online purchasing system posts what farmers have for sale, and buyers can go online and order produce for delivery the next day.

Ms. Johnson launched Nashville Grown last August and began “bootstrapping it,” with just an empty warehouse space and her personal vehicle, equipped with picnic coolers. The organization now helps 15 local farms and market gardens sell to restaurants and catering companies.

However, getting large grocery chains and institutions like schools to carry local produce is proving to be more challenging.

“Right now, our selling platform skews our buyers to higher-end restaurants that can create menu items and specials around what’s available from local farms during a given week,” Johnson says. “They’re flexible if something’s not available. But our current system isn’t as attractive to buyers like schools or other restaurants that may not have that flexibility in their menu planning. We’re trying to work on that.”

Another challenge involved in selling to chain grocery stores and institutions is that they tend to require Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification, and adherence to other food safety protocols that are costly and potentially impossible for small, diversified farms to comply with. GAP processes are designed for large, commodity farms, and enabling investigators to track sources of food-borne illness—for example, E-coli bacteria in spinach that has arrived from many large farms and has been mingled at a central processing facility.

“GAP isn’t required by the government,” Johnson says, “but it’s what these larger institutions are used to working with. One solution would be to have an external
party establish specific safety standards for small, local farms, because they have an entirely different set of risks compared to large farms.”

Many large buyers had established processes that simply couldn’t accommodate local food, Johnson also discovered. For example, Nashville Grown approached the Kroger supermarket chain, which expressed an interest in carrying local food.

“But nothing could go directly to the store, because their rules require that everything has to be shipped to their warehouse in Kentucky first,” Johnson says. “But the farm was just a couple miles away! So much of the food system was created without the desire to source food as locally and as freshly as possible. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Nashville Grown also helps farmers with marketing and promotion by sharing photographs and stories about farmers and their land. The stories appear on the Nashville Grown website, as well as on food packages and labels.

“A lot of the farmland here has an amazing history,” Johnson says. “People really want to know where their food comes from, and any city could have a powerful local brand that inspires consumer loyalty. There’s a huge amount of value that hasn’t yet been realized by restaurants and grocery stores.”

Despite the barriers to reaching larger institutions, the demand from restaurants alone is greater than Nashville Grown is currently able to fill. “My hope is that creating the means for existing farms to become more profitable and competitive will also enable new farmers to start,” Johnson says. “There is so much potential for food to be grown in cities, and so many small vacant plots available for farming in and around urban areas.”

Nashville Grown can serve as a model for other food systems confronting the challenges of making local food accessible beyond the farmers market. This organization was recently selected as an early entry prize winner in the Nutrients for All, an Ashoka Changemakers competition that is seeking solutions that will ensure the availability of nutrients for healthy, natural ecosystems, farms, food, and people.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on The Christian Science Monitor