Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Close the Loop by Making Money off Poop?

Dona Margarita shows off her ecological toilet-she opted for this model because she heard she could make money from the fertilizers and she loves how the recycled bottles look.

The Run to End the Runs continued this weekend in Lima, Peru. Stay tuned for the race update, but in the meantime, here is toilet tale #2-inspired from my recent site visit to Bolivia.

(*I know I have blogged about ecological sanitation before (see Bien, No Mas), but here is the cliff's notes to eco-san: Ecological sanitation encompasses three components: it views #1 and #2 as valuable resources, not as wastes that must be flushed away with potable water; it protects the environment as it does not contaminate ground-water supplies, and it contributes to food security by providing a rich source of fertilizer. Water For People is exploring the market for fertilizers from ecological sanitatino and whether or not small business approaches to ecological sanitation will allow us to reach more people and catalyze income-generating activities instead of just building toilet after toilet).

Many of the folks we work with overseas are farmers. Over the years, I have seen time and time again people putting their economic health before their personal health-whether its using their improved water source to give their cows water instead of themselves or using the most secure structure on their land-their WFP-subsidized toilet-as a potato bank. In the municipality of Cuchumuela, a new program may just do both-improve human and economic health.

It is difficult to talk of sanitation as a business in those exact terms in leftist Bolivia, who just marked the 10 year anniversary of the Water War by hanging the infamous banner “the water is ours, damnit” in the city center. But ‘productive sanitation’ or ‘inclusive business’ is just fine to talk about. And one municipality is doing more than just talking about it.

Cuchumuela stands out among its neighbors for its mushroom production. Once a year, a variety of mushroom is produced under a specific species of pine trees and this cash crop brings people from near and far to purchase the 'shrooms. What began as an idea among Water For People, the municipality, and some interested Cuchumuelenos has blossomed into something much larger.

One of the frequent critiques of ecological sanitation is that very few people actually ‘close the cycle’ or apply the fertilizers to crops. Lack of any post construction support also means that people can empty the pits before they are fully composted, thus turning what in theory should be a health improvement into a health risk. But what if the loop could be closed by making money off the poop?

A variety of strategic actors are now seeing if this can work. The idea is relatively simple: eco-toilets produce fertilizers; the fertilizers can be used to increase pine production; more pines means more mushrooms; more mushrooms means more cash in the pockets of Cuchumuelenos. We have hired experts to provide business technical support-investigating the feasibility of a small, rural business to be self-sustaining, as well as both internal and external markets for the mushroom products. PROINPA-a well-respected agricultural investigation organization-is experimenting with both fertilizer application and mushroom processing/production.

Water For People-Bolivia staff member Julia Montes explains the concept behind productive sanitation.

Water For People and the local government are working to lower costs of the toilets so that more people can literally get on the pot. In addition to lowering costs, simple design modifications from the classic double to single chambers, in theory will increase the need for emptying by the business. Promotion messages have already changed from health to mushrooms, Erlinda Jimenez tells me-"we don't promote toilets for your health anymore-we say they are a means to getting more mushrooms." News travels fast in this small municipality-Dona Margarita, who is building her toilet with PET bottles chose an ecological toilet over a water-based one because she hears she might make some money by closing the loop and selling her poop!

Don Ismael inspects his work-nearly finished. Next up-his own toilet just like this one!

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