Ellen Chilemba is something of a powerhouse. Recently named by Forbes as one of Africa’s most promising entrepreneurs under the age of 30, this young Malawian’s vision is to help women escape poverty and break cycles of child marriage and squandered potential.

Chilemba founded Tiwale, a for-profit social enterprise, in Malawi when she was just 17. In the past three years, the organisation has supported 150 women with business and vocational training, and helped 40 women start businesses or find employment. Recently, Tiwale secured its first dedicated office space. It now has room for a classroom and workshop for a new fabric design initiative that generates income for the programme’s participants and helps sustain the organisation at the same time.

But Chilemba isn’t stopping there. Tiwale wants to truly empower its female participants. That means taking a deeper look at assumptions, listening closely to the women and evolving the organisation’s approach as it goes. Chilemba explains what she has learned so far, and how this will spur Tiwale’s next phase.

“Sometimes, what you think is the problem isn’t what the actual challenge is,” says Chilemba. “I’ve learned to play the role of listener more and more.”

Read the rest at Positive News.


This blog was originally featured on HuffPost UK Style, as part of a month-long focus around sustainable fashion. 

Consumers across the globe care about whether their clothes are ethically produced, and they want to be able to make purchases that match their values. According to a recent Nielsen report, 55% of consumers surveyed across 60 countries want to buy brands that are committed to social and environmental responsibility, and the “sustainability mainstream” is increasing.

Yet, most likely, the clothes you’re wearing come from a sweatshop. While a few brands like Patagonia have truly committed to ethical sourcing, today’s apparel supply chains are largely no better than they were in the 90’s, when sweatshop exposés triggered a wave of outrage among consumers. In fact, modern supply chains are even more gnarled and opaque, and rife with human rights abuse. Most clothing products are still produced in horrendous and life-threatening conditions, and by exploited labourers who are often trafficked workers or children.

Image: A still from the documentary, The True Cost; Credit: The True Cost

Fashion is also one of the worst offenders when it comes to pollution – textiles are thesecond greatest contributor to global water pollution, according to the World Bank. And the apparel industry is only second to oil when it comes to environmental impact as a whole, according a 2013 report by the Danish Fashion Institute. Synthetic fibres like polyester are derived from petrochemicals, and natural fibres like rayon and viscose are contributing to the destruction of ancient rainforests.

The problems are manifold and well-documented by the industry. Yet, brands – including companies committed to sustainability, like Patagonia – still struggle to have full control over every step of the garment manufacturing process. And, everyday people remain largely unaware of the trail of harm that led to the creation of their clothes.

“The label in a garment may tell us where it was produced, but it doesn’t tell us whether it was made from child-picked cotton in Uzbekistan, spun by bonded labourers in India, dyed using hazardous chemicals in China, or cut and sewn in an unregistered factory in Bangladesh,” according to an annual report by C&A Foundation.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 11 percent of the world’s children are engaged in child labour, with many employed in garment manufacturing. Image: Child workers at a small garment factory in Jakarta, Indonesia; Credit: ILO in Asia and the Pacific

But could there be silver lining under fashion’s dirty garments? Absolutely. An array of solutions – including improved laws and enforcement, revamped traceability processes, and a true commitment to sustainability – are being unlocked by a handful of forward-thinking brands, initiatives like the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, and non-profits like Canopy and Verité. Campaigns like Fashion Revolution Day and a new documentary film, The True Cost, are engaging consumers and renewing the call for change.

Moreover, social entrepreneurs are driving fresh approaches that could help the apparel industry truly clean up its act and achieve both style and substance. From the toolbox of social entrepreneurs, here are three more reasons to be optimistic about the future of fashion:

1. More industries can get involved to end human trafficking in fashion
Fashion’s extraordinarily complex global supply chains might make change seem daunting, but perhaps that’s because the industry has largely looked to itself for solutions. What if more players – like finance, transportation, health, and agricultural R&D – got involved? Through activating a network of industries, solving sustainability issues in fashion could potentially be accomplished more effectively and with fewer resources.

For example, Truckers Against Trafficking trains everyone in the trucking industry – from trucking students to shipping partners – to become active opponents of trafficking and to learn how to spot and support victims. The organization works with law enforcement and uses existing infrastructure to combat modern slavery in sweatshops (in addition to other contexts). Another organization, Finance Alliance for Sustainable Trade, matches lenders committed to environmental sustainability with agricultural producers that share the same values. Ethical producers, such as organic cotton farmers, can thus access financial services and become more economically viable.

Image: Inside a garment factory in Bangladesh; Credit: jankie

2. Workers can be empowered to make supply chain traceability a reality
Modern supply chains involve multiple tiers of contractors, and brands that care about sustainability often only have full transparency with tier-one suppliers. When it comes to the fourth or fifth tiers, it can be next to impossible to track labour conditions. LaborVoices, however, is tackling this challenge by enabling workers to send real-time data on working conditions through their mobile phones. Available in 50 countries, the system also helps workers access information on their rights and how to resolve workplace grievances.

LaborVoices’ founder, Kohl Gill, sees the industry’s lack of on-the-ground information as a key hurdle to change on multiple fronts. According to Gill, “If you don’t know what the labour conditions are, then you can’t make proper trade policy decisions. You can’t navigate your way to a good job, as a worker. You can’t choose a great supplier, as a buyer. And even as a high road supplier, you can’t really differentiate yourself against your competition.”

LaborVoices plans to expand its services so that workers can self-report and access information on factory conditions and wages, and become empowered to make choices about their employment – “like a TripAdvisor for workers,” says Gill. LaborVoices is also moving toward a subscription model for brands, so that companies no longer need to commission a specific investigation, but can simply pay to access real time information about a spread of factories. This model is scaling up this year in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and China.

Image: A still from Canopy’s Fashion Loved by Forest campaign; Credit: Canopy/Grewal

3. Other pressure points, besides consumers, can disrupt business as usual
When it comes to buying ethical clothing, consumers have limited options. (Try doinga search for verifiably sustainable brands, and only a few widely recognizable names crop up.) And without the ability to access sustainability information and to make ethical point-of-sale decisions, consumers have a limited power (at the moment) to cast an economic vote for change.

But there’s more than one way to incentivize (and pressure) brands to be proactive about social and economic responsibility. The citizen advocacy organization, PODER, for example, builds relationships with prominent investors and helps communities make a business case to them for sustainability. Investors can then raise their voices to calls for better working conditions and monitoring programs. “Investors stand to lose a lot of the brand price falls,” says Ben Cokelet, founder of PODER and an Ashoka Fellow. “We get them to join us in encouraging brands to come to the table.”

Another organization, Canopy, targets highly influential brands and designers who can then “institutionalize sustainable purchasing decisions” across the industry. Founded by Ashoka Fellow Nicole Rycroft, the organization has signed up big namesin fashion like Stella McCartney, Eileen Fischer, Marks & Spencer, and Levi’s to commit to eliminating rainforest deforestation from their supply chains.

“The top ten viscose producers in the world control 80% of global production,” Rycroft explains. “It’s a very concentrated supply chain, and it gave us a very neat place to basically create a tipping point.” In the past year, by working with influential brands to develop forest-friendly policies, Canopy has been able to shift the top three viscose producers – representing 50 percent of the global supply of viscose – away from sourcing fibre from endangered forests.

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Bettr BaristaPamela Chng co-founded a web consultancy firm, but mid-career, she decided to launch a social business to empower disadvantaged women. Bettr Barista Coffee Academy trains women to become coffee professionals, tapping into coffee culture and the growing specialty coffee industry to help its students gain job skills and overcome significant life challenges.

The organization’s 6-month programme offers more than just professional training, however. It also helps women develop emotional resilience, life skills, self-defense skills, and physical endurance. When the course ends, Bettr Barista assists students with finding employment. But perhaps more importantly, graduates emerge with a fundamental change in mindset and the confidence and skills to succeed.

Pamela sat down with Ashoka Changemakers to discuss how Bettr Barista helps its trainees become the best they can be. In this interview, she also shares advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs in Singapore and beyond.

Bettr Barista - Pamela Chng
The Bettr Barista team, with Pamela at center


What inspired you to create, not just a coffee academy, but a holistic solution to helping women? What was your “ah-ha” moment?

Coffee has always been a change vehicle for us. We wanted to adopt a holistic model for supporting people. At the core of it, we were constantly asking, “How can we help people maximize their potential?”

Even at my first startup, that was a question that I asked with regard to my staff. “How do we help people be the best that they can be?” Helping people in this way benefits everybody around them and the organization. Bettr Barista, as a social business, continues and expands on that question.

At the time that we launched Bettr Barista, coffee was the right medium, the right market, and the right industry to bring this idea to life. We wanted to help people reach their full potential by addressing all of their needs – rather than just a single skill. I don’t think there was an “a-ha moment” so to speak, but it was many tiny moments of questions and insights—asking “What about this? What if we tried that?”


Why does Bettr Barista specifically address emotional skills?

Many marginalized people face a cycle of challenges, and breaking this cycle often requires more than just job training. Job skills are not the issue—staying in the job and thriving are. For anyone to remain employed and thrive, it takes emotional intelligence and the ability to be resilient. It takes confidence and the ability to deal with conflict. All of these intangible things need to be addressed.

Professionals often have access to team building workshops, leadership courses, or other non-skill-based learning opportunities. Unfortunately, these types of resources aren’t available to those who need it most—those who have huge life challenges to deal with and who don’t have the tools or strategies to cope and rise above those challenges.

To me, emotional strength is really what changes things. It tips the scales between failing and succeeding. So Bettr Barista gives its students a structured way to learn how to gain that strength and stay with a job.

What about physical training?

A healthy body supports a healthy mind. If you’re not eating well and you’re not fit, then your emotions are going to be affected. Physical health is a very fundamental thing for a happy life.

There’s also the fact that we’re in the food and beverage service industry, which is a very physically demanding industry to be in. You’re on your feet and running around all the time, so if you’re physically fit, you’ll be better able to cope with the demands of the job. That removes another barrier to success—which is feeling tired and giving up as a result.

Our goal is not to address the symptoms, but to understand the cause of the issues, and address them from that perspective.


Do you have any advice for emerging social entrepreneurs who might want to start a social business, particularly in Singapore?

For anyone who wants to start a social business, it’s important to be very, very clear about what problem that you’re trying to address. Second, the business model needs to be very robust. Particularly in Singapore, the market is small and very economically driven. The whole idea of blending social and commercial goals is still fairly new as a viable concept. So if you want customers to support you and buy your product or service, you really have to be able to deliver and stand up to any other commercial business.

I would also say to aspiring social entrepreneurs that you don’t have to start a social business – you can join one. Social enterprises need talent. It’s important to go and understand what it’s like to work in the social sector first. Because it’s not easy – it’s twice as hard! Devote a couple of years to understanding what it’s like–for your own sanity. Also, apply your talent to a social business that you really believe in. That’s a win-win for everyone. We need as many people as possible with the same mindset, working towards the same goal, if we want to really affect change at any meaningful level.

What is Bettr Barista looking forward to in 2015?

We are expanding our course offerings to make them more accessible to the market. We’re also developing a coffee social franchise of sorts – I can’t share too many details right now, as we’re still finalizing lots of things. But it’s a supportive ecosystem that will help our graduates take on responsibility and partial ownership of a coffee franchise. We hope to be able to bring this outside of Singapore eventually—to other Asian countries like Thailand and Indonesia, for example, where there are many women and young people we can help. We’re working hard to find the right model for each country, because you have to contextualize your approach even if your model is scalable. That’s what’s going to keep us busy in 2015. I’ll share more details when I can!

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Virgin.com.

Image copyrights: Bettr Barista

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Sorghum growing in the field.

While the world’s food systems have lost 75 percent of their biodiversity in the past 100 years, scientists are now starting to recognize the vast treasure trove of genetic diversity present in traditional and wild plant varieties. Biodiversity can lead to more nutritious diets, and is also a key asset for mitigating the risks presented by climate change, according to the FAO.

Here in the U.S., a recent report found that traditional plant foods eaten by Native American tribes of the Northern Plains are extraordinarily nutritious. The report suggested that wild superfoods like lambs-quarter’s and chokecherries could vastly improve nutrition and help prevent disease.

The revival of pre-colonial foods is part of a growing food sovereignty movement led by Native American groups likeTraditional Native American Farmers Association and Tewa Women United.  Similarly in Peru, indigenous tribes are also championing heritage foods, particularly a stunning variety of native potato strains.

In Indonesia, Maria Loretha, a social entrepreneur and Ashoka Fellow, is advocating for a return to growing and eating traditional crops like sorghum, millet, barley, and red and black rice. Loretha works primarily in Eastern Indonesia, where high rates of malnutrition have been called a “hunger paradox” by the UN, since food is readily available in the area. The problem, it turns out, stems from a lack of diversity in the local diet—which for poorer residents consists mostly of rice, a national staple.

Image credit: CGIAR Climate

According to Loretha, the eradication of diverse, more nutritious foods began in the 1970s, during the Suharto’s regime’s national rice program. “[S]ince the late 1970s, the government has been campaigning that people should eat rice,” Loretha said in an interview with Oxfam.

“It’s why people automatically don’t eat corn, sorghum, or millet. When the government campaigned about rice, they gave not only the seeds but also the fertilizer, pesticides. That’s why finally rice could be accepted by all people as the main staple. And that meant other foods were abandoned.”

Local foods like sorghum (called milo in the U.S.), however, are far more nutritious than rice, are better adapted to local land conditions, and exhibit strong resilience to fluctuations in climate. Loretha believes that reviving the diversity of local diets will help island communities rely less on outside inputs (like fertilizers and pesticides) and become resilient against inconsistent food supplies from outside regions.

Maria Loretha, center, discussing traditional seed varieties. 

In her search for heritage seeds, Loretha has traveled from island to island and to remote communities, gathering seeds and speaking with locals about their uses. “Elders in the village who are older than 40 know sorghum, but people below 40 don’t know sorghum exists,” she said. “It is not only ordinary people who don’t know about it: even people in agricultural production don’t know.”

To validate the benefits of growing traditional foods, Loretha created a demonstration site. She cut down the cash crops—cashew and coconut trees—on her land and faced much skepticism from local farmers. But in 2010, when unseasonably wet weather hit the region, all the cashews were lost, while Loretha’s crop yielded a season’s worth of food. Then she began distributing seeds for free and teaching small farmers how to cultivate them.

Loretha, left, planting local seeds alongside local farmers

Loretha is now working with over 1,000 farmers in her farmers’ group Cinta Alam Pertanian (Love for Nature’s Farming) to spread the seeds and knowledge that she has gathered. She is also working with the government to breathe new energy into Indonesia’s Go Local movement, which had petered out due to a lack of grassroots support. According to Loretha, changing national policies that are aligned with transgenic seed companies and chemical manufacturers remains a significant challenge.

With the work of social entrepreneurs like Loretha, there are reasons to be optimistic for the future of traditional foods and the communities they benefit. In the U.S., drought and heat from climate change is also reviving the exploration of heartier “ancient grains” like sorghum. And the urban foraging trend is spotlighting the benefits of wild varietals and introducing more diversity into community diets.

In the words of Maria Loretha, “Opportunities are always out there. You just have to get your hands dirty.”

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com. Top Image: Sorghum growing in the field. Credit: Daniel Guerrero 

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Endangered orangutans in Sumatra are severely threatened by deforestation.
Endangered orangutans in Sumatra are severely threatened by deforestation.

In Indonesia, where forests are being destroyed at the highest rates in the world, an untapped solution exists for balancing conservation with economic expansion.

Indonesia is the world’s fastest deforester—a dubious distinction that once belonged to Brazil. A recent report revealed that more than 2 million acres of primary forest are cleared each year, mostly due to palm oil plantations. Palm oil is found in half of all packaged products—from cookies to deodorant—and is a highly lucrative commodity, making it difficult for Indonesia to halt its production. But while Indonesia struggles to balance its economic needs with its role in climate change, indigenous communities are already modeling ways that strong economics can coexist with sustainable forest management.

While the United States and China are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, Indonesia is the third largest. The majority of its emissions come from the destruction of forests and carbon-rich peatlands, which take thousands of years to form and store 20 times as much carbon as rainforests. Palm oil producers regularly clear vast tracts of these valuable carbon sinks by draining and setting peatlands on fire.

Indonesia is essentially sitting on a carbon time bomb—about 60 billion metric tons of carbon is stored in its peatlands. If all this carbon were released into the atmosphere, it would be the equivalent of burning 67% of all the oil reserves from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Canada, Russia, and the United States combined.

In addition to accelerating climate change, forest fires present a massive health hazard—this summer’s fires on Sumatra prompted complaints all the way from Singapore about the choking smog, and people in Indonesia often say that the year has been shortened to 9 months, as it’s impossible to do anything during the 3-month fire season. Moreover, the deforestation is rapidly destroying habitats that once sheltered tremendous biological diversity and animals like the endangered orangutan.

Despite pay-for-performance agreements aimed to stop deforestation (such as the $1 billion REDD+ program funded by Norway) and recent pledges by several large companies to eliminate conflict palm oil from their supply chains, developers are still clearing forests at an alarming rate.

The activity is also a human rights concern, as indigenous communities are frequently displaced in the process. One report has estimated that nearly all of Indonesia’s palm oil concessions have been for land that is already inhabited. REDD+ officials have estimated that indigenous groups hold 45 million hectares of forest currently being misused for commercial concessions. But because indigenous communities have no legal land ownership rights, concessions are made by the government without their knowledge. Land tenure conflicts are common and have ended in violent clashes between protestors and hired security.

But excluding indigenous communities from land-use decisions results in a missed opportunity. Respecting indigenous rights isn’t just the right thing to do—it could be a powerful strategy for balancing economics with conservation, and for tapping an effective resource for sustainable land management.

“Indigenous communities, such as the Dayak Iban tribe in Kapuas Hulu of West Kalimantan, have strong land-use planning skills,” says Valentinus Heri, a social entrepreneur whose organization, Riak Bumi, works with indigenous groups to boost local economies and protect forests.

“They know the land well, and determine which areas have conditions that are most suitable for farming, and which forest areas should be protected for traditional hunting. They also define sacred areas, dwelling areas, and tembawang – agroforestry areas for fruits, rubber plants, bamboo, rattan, etc. usually located near the river. The Dayak Iban tribe has a crop rotation system, in which every 5 to 7 years the fields are left to rest and for the forest to grow.”

While indigenous communities have deep knowledge of responsible environmental stewardship, Riak Bumi provides added training, such as firefighting and forest fire prevention. The organization incentivizes conservation by helping indigenous groups develop an ecotourism industry and high-quality products, like sustainably harvested forest honey, high-end weavings, and a wild-crafted soap from a fruit called tengkawang.

“We increase the forest honey’s quality through sustainable harvesting techniques and hygienic processing – thus creating more value, increasing the price, and pushing the community to maintain the forest, the bee’s natural habitat,” said Heri. “No forest, no honey bees, no income – this creates the incentive and motivation.”

By organizing independent collectors into a forest honey association, Riak Bumi has been able to set market prices, ensure consistent quality, and give honey collectors a stronger voice in the ongoing debate about Indonesia’s conservation and land use policies. Riak Bumi projects that in 2015, its forest honey collectors will produce about 18 tons of honey per year. The organization’s entire network of honey collectors, artisans, and eco-tourism entrepreneurs will benefit more than 7,000 indigenous villagers across the country.

While the lack of legal standing for indigenous communities remains one of the biggest barriers to exploring the economic potential of sustainable livelihoods, progress is being made. Several government agencies have declared their support for indigenous rights, and a new bill is being drafted by lawmakers. Many are also hopeful that the newly elected President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will help spur much needed policy changes in order to meet the country’s REDD+ commitments.

“By acknowledging their rights, indigenous groups can serve as strategic partners in the protection of forests,” said Heru Prasetyo, chairman of Indonesia’s REDD+ Management Agency. “[The] full participation of indigenous people will support Indonesia’s commitment in reducing greenhouse gas emissions — 26 percent by its own and 41 percent with international help by 2020.”

With new legal protections and initiatives like Riak Bumi helping to increase the economic value of protected ecosystems, indigenous communities could have a huge role to play in halting deforestation and climate change. Clearer skies may be on the horizon after all.

By Kristie Wang

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com. Image via: Patrick Barry

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A cashmob hits a bookstore in Spain.

“How do we find a way to reconnect communities with local businesses, local resources, but more importantly, with each other?” This question, posed byKen Banks at Pop!Tech, is being echoed by an innovative generation of problem-solvers who are looking to strengthen local economies while simultaneously tackling community issues.

Banks is perhaps most well known as the founder of Frontline SMS , a text-message-based communications platform that is driving solutions ranging from health to microfinance in over 150 countries today. His current initiative, Means of Exchange, is exploring ways that technology can unlock the potential of local economic systems, especially through strengthening sharing economies.

For example, during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Means of Exchange used social media to deploy its first “cash mob,” a group of people who agree to each spend a small amount of money at a local business on a given day.

In less than two hours, a bookshop in Hackney, London sold 100 books—whereas in that last two days, it had sold only two. “The buzz created by social media drove people to attend, partly out of excitement, partly out of curiosity, partly out of a desire to see something positive happen on their main shopping street,“ Banks wrote on the Means of Exchange blog.

Image credit: Ken Banks

Cash mobs have a multiplier effect. By tapping into people’s desire to commune socially and participate in a larger movement, tools like cash mobs boost local businesses, connect people to local resources, create a culture of cooperation, and strengthen the community fabric.

Like Banks, more social entrepreneurs around the world are creating hybrid solutions that turn around struggling local economies while taking aim at social issues. Solutions that help communities generate more income can be leveraged for addressing deeply entrenched social problems.

For example, a social entrepreneur named Masnu’ah, working in Indonesia, is increasing economic opportunities in fishing communities while tackling gender issues like domestic violence. Fishing is one of Indonesia’s largest industries, with 95% of the activities performed by artisanal fisherfolk, who often struggle to earn a living. Women perform a significant portion of the duties involved in fishing, but their contributions often remain unrecognized, due to patriarchal gender beliefs. With few resources, women often experience domestic violence and are unable to seek help.

In an effort to both empower fisherwomen and engage men as part of the solution, Masnu’ah launched Puspita Bahari, a cooperative that teaches men and women to generate additional family income through fish processing. Men are allowed to manage a donated fishing boat only if they agree to attend gender equality workshops and let their wives join the cooperative. And as women fisherfolk increase their earning power, they also become more socially empowered and able to speak out for their own rights.

As many experts have noted, economic empowerment and social empowerment are intertwined. Other social entrepreneurs like Majid El Jarroudi are tapping into this principle by helping marginalized communities build economic connections to mainstream markets, thus laying the foundation for more inclusive and accepting societies.

For El Jarroudi, the 2005 French riots underscored the multifaceted discrimination experienced by low-income, diverse communities. The son of a Moroccan immigrant who became one of France’s first professional boxers, El Jarroudi helps local entrepreneurs from marginalized communities in France access mainstream business opportunities and is working to make large companies more welcoming of diversity.

El Jarroudi created an online platform, Agency for Diversity in Entrepreneurship, that transforms the purchasing practices of large companies so that they do business with suppliers in underserved neighborhoods. The platform identifies and vets promising local entrepreneurs and helps them build the capacity to meet the needs of mainstream companies. At the same time, companies often save money by working with local businesses and a larger cultural shift towards inclusiveness is created.

As these initiatives are demonstrating, energizing community economies can also open doors to solving serious social problems. Similarly, giving communities the tools to nurture strong cultures of cooperation and support can make all the difference for local businesses to thrive.

A key next step for social entrepreneurs like Ken Banks, Masnu’ah, and Majid El Jourroudi will be to grow local solutions into movements and to accelerate change at the level of decision makers and policy makers.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com. Top Image Credit: Miquel C 

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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