In Haiti, (more than) a win-win toilet solution

Scientists from the University of Maryland are testing a technology designed to address the challenge of improving sanitation: Converting human waste to high-value fertilizer and biogas. Photo by: Stephanie Lansing

It may not be “sexy” but sanitation is inarguably crucial to public health. And in Haiti, it holds promise for creating income opportunities and a sustainable source of energy.

The impoverished Caribbean nation currently suffers a cholera crisis, with more than 680,000 people contracting the disease and nearly 8,400 having died from it over the past three years. The problem partially stems from the lack of proper sanitation as only one-third of the population have access to toilets while the rest practice open defecation.   

University of Maryland assistant professor Stephanie Lansing and Ashoka fellow Alexander Eaton from Biobolsa of Mexico have conceptualized and are now testing a technology designed to address the challenge of improving sanitation in Haiti — and more. The innovation involves anaerobic digesters, which use microorganisms to break down organic matter in human waste and convert it into high-value fertilizer and biogas.  

The biogas contains methane that can then be used to heat homes and generate electricity. It may well serve as an alternative cooking fuel in a country where locals depend heavily on charcoal for cooking, a habit mainly blamed for the island nation’s current widespread deforestation.

The team has so far installed anaerobic digesters in several homes in Aquin, a Partners in Health hospital in Cange and Haiti Communitere’s lodging facilities in Port-au-Prince. Using a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Development Innovation Ventures, it plans to establish another project site to test a business model around the innovation.

“To that end, this project will contribute valuable data in the form of two case studies of human waste biodigesters, from both an economic and social perspective,” Lansing told Devex.

The business model entails constructing pay-for-use digesters. This aims to incentivize system maintenance and provide local entrepreneurship opportunities.

As part of the process, the project team will conduct a survey in Creole and French to understand the willingness of residents to pay for the use of digesters and share the data with local entrepreneurs. Studies undertaken by some ecological sanitation groups suggest certain price points, for instance 100 gourde ($1.70) per month to pay for household sanitation and 4 gourde per use of a composting latrine.

Lansing said the project also has a strong focus on capacity building. Her team intends to train local technologists to build, use and test digesters and develop business ventures around them, by charging a fee for the use of flush toilets as well as selling the gas for cooking and nutrient-rich fertilizer for cultivating crops.

By treating the digester-equipped public latrines as business ventures, “this will ensure a similar level of vested interest in the sanitary conditions of the facility,” she noted.

The innovation, said the ecological engineering professor, can have a huge impact not only in Haiti. In particular, efforts in Africa have shown that anaerobic digestion offers benefits to urban slum and periurban areas, where sanitation is considered by U.N. Habitat as a high priority need as population in these locations is growing faster than the expansion of basic services.

The project currently has some collaborators interested in applying the technology in China, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mexico and Sierra Leone.

“We hope this project can be used to bring together these WASH [water, sanitation and hygiene] communities through the sharing of our rigorous evaluation data, survey results and workshop materials, so the sanitation model implemented here in Haiti can be replicated throughout the development community,” Lansing said.

Read our previous #innov8aid and let us know what you think about this innovation by leaving a comment below.

About the author

  • Eliza Villarino

    Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.

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