SOIL: Chasing the sustainable sanitation dream

Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) is a nonprofit in Haiti working towards building a sustainable urban sanitation service that can be replicated worldwide.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

EkoLakay container-based toilet. © Vic Hinterlang for SOIL

Once known as the Pearl of the Antilles, the incredibly lush Caribbean island of Haiti used to be the source of a large part of Europe’s produce. Today, Haiti struggles with endemic poverty and the country is not producing enough food for its own populace.

The majority of Haitians live without access to toilets and as they work to restore their homeland to its earlier glory, Haiti’s soil is being contaminated every day with untreated human waste – which is, in turn, fuelling waterborne diseases across the country and preventing Haiti’s environment from reaching its full potential.

SOIL is working to change this story as they focus on promoting the use of ecological sanitation (EcoSan), a process by which human waste is converted into organic compost.

The Poop Loop. © SOIL

Through EcoSan, SOIL is able to simultaneously tackle two of Haiti’s most pressing issues: providing access to sanitation for the people of Haiti and producing an endless supply of organic compost for agriculture and reforestation in Haiti.

Working with the local Haitian communities to co-create a solution that would affect real and lasting change, Sasha Kramer and Sarah Brownell founded SOIL back in 2006 when they build the first composting toilet in the northern town of Milot in Haiti.

More than a decade later, SOIL has over 6000 people using their container-based EkoLakay toilets (household) and they have produced and sold 87+ metric tons of organic compost. The Haitian nonprofit has raked in accolades from across the globe for its sanitation revolution and their work in the Caribbean is now seen as a success that can be emulated on a global scale.

The Northern Haiti Composting Team. © Tony Marcelli for SOIL

“We are excited that this is taking off in Haiti and we want to do what we can do to show the world that these sort of technologies exist and that people can replicate them in countries around the world,” says Leah Nevada Page Jean, Business Development Director of SOIL.

Leah has been with SOIL from its humble beginnings in 2006 as a grassroots organisation, through the time when it gained international acclaim during the 2010 earthquake for its emergency sanitation program and when SOIL recently celebrated its 1000th customer in Haiti.

Leah explains how the company decided to pursue household EkoLakay units over public units. “When SOIL first started out, they initially were building public toilets with the idea that through a low cost per public toiler you could provide a lot of people with access to sanitation. But then, we were realising that nowhere in the world had public toilets that work without a paid toilet manager, so even if we had installed a public toilet a lot of resources and funding would go into making sure that the toilet is kept clean and operational and that the wastes are properly treated and removed.”

“And, we were also recognising that a household toilet was the ultimate goal. If you ask someone what kind of toilet they want, they want a household toilet because you want something that you can access any time of the day or night, you want something that’s very private. That is when we realised that people were willing to pay small amounts for household toilets, whereas they wouldn’t necessarily pay for a public toilet. “

“We visit every household on the service to collect their containers of waste and we leave behind cover material to manage their toilet and then we do any repairs that are needed or any hygiene training that is needed on how to maintain a toilet,” explains Leah.

Charging for household toilets was the only long-term path for the company to creating a sustainable sanitation solution. SOIL charges a service fee because they want to make sure that they are creating a self-sustaining business with jobs and economic opportunity.

The company is optimistic that eventually, they can reach a point where the toilet service fees will cover the cost of maintaining it. “We are working very diligently right now to scale up the service so that we can benefit from economies of scale and so that more people can access sanitation. And we are also working to reduce our cost through continuous innovation.”

The SOIL compost facility in Northern Haiti. © SOIL

The organisation hopes to continue scaling the service so that more people can access it and also so that they can continue to reduce the cost per toilet. In three years, SOIL believes they will have many thousand more using their household toilet service and that EkoLakay as a service will become profitable on the front end so that it can be run as an independent business or a self-sustaining business within the SOIL umbrella.

“We as an organisation will continue researching and designing solutions like this and supporting others with adopting them. Our long-term vision is that there is a 100% sanitation coverage in Haiti and that we are using new sanitation technologies that restore the environment rather than linear sanitation technologies that flushes out wastes and requires energy at every step.”

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