Sasha Kramer is a slight, blonde former New Yorker who got a Ph.D. in ecology from Stanford University in 2006, the same year she co-founded SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods)—a nonprofit headquartered in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. SOIL’s mission is to “promote dignity, health, and sustainable livelihoods through the transformation of wastes into resources.” In other words, composting human wastes to create the rich, black soil that Haiti desperately needs, while eliminating the pathogens and pollution the country doesn’t need. SOIL doesn’t intend to do this for Haitians, but to support them in undertaking this work—as a profitable, self-sustaining enterprise for themselves, or as a model that can be implemented by their government.
Kramer’s work has been honored with many awards, including an Ashoka Changemaker Award, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer Award, a Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and a Land for Life Award from the United Nations’ Convention to Combat Desertification. SOIL has also been written up in the New York Times, National Geographic, The Guardian, the Huffington Post, Sierra, the BBC, Forbes, and dozens of other publications.
Kramer lives and works in Port-Au-Prince, but travels extensively as a global advocate for the recycling of nutrients in human waste and inspiring people to participate in a “global sanitation revolution.” She recently returned to the States from a conference in Vietnam and spoke with The MOON by phone from New York.
The MOON: How did you come to create SOIL?
Kramer: I was a graduate student in ecology at Stanford University when I read The Eyes of the Heart: Seeking a Path for the Poor in the Age of Globalization, by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president. The book had a huge impact on me, making me wonder how I might use my ecological training in a way that would also advance human rights. When Aristide was overthrown in a military coup in 2004 I accompanied a group of human rights observers to assess conditions in Haiti. I spent three weeks in northern Haiti attending demonstrations, visiting political prisoners, and falling in love with the country and its people.
I went back another dozen times and realized that the most pervasive human rights abuse in Haiti was—and remains—poverty. People don’t have the means to get their most basic human needs met. In 2000, when Aristide’s book was published, one percent of the Haitian population controlled 45 percent of the country’s wealth. Eighty-five percent of the population could not read and write. And more than half-a-million children, mostly young girls, lived in Haitian households as unpaid domestic workers — carrying water, cleaning house, doing errands, receiving no salary and no schooling. That was fifteen years ago, and for many and the situation has gotten even worse since the earthquake that demolished Haiti in 2010. One of the most basic needs Haitians don’t have access to is sanitation.
I’d never even thought about it before; I’d never had to. But in Haiti’s rural areas only 16 percent of people have access to toilets, in cities only 35 percent. This is the lowest sanitation coverage in the Western Hemisphere. People dispose of their wastes in the ocean, rivers, plastic bags, and abandoned lots. In many places, there is nowhere to go to the bathroom privately.
This isn’t unique to Haiti. According to the World Health Organization, 2.5 billion people don’t have access to any kind of improved sanitation; one billion practice open defecation. More people have a mobile phone than have a toilet. I’d heard of compost toilets and ecological sanitation, so it seemed like a great way to bring together concern for human rights and my ecological education: a way to promote the basic right of sanitation through an ecological approach.
I started talking with the community organizers I’d been working with and people got really excited about the idea. They’d already been thinking about sanitation—for reasons of privacy, security, and disease control—and the potential to produce compost from human waste was another inducement, adding value for Haiti’s farmers. So together with an amazing group of Haitian community organizers and a brilliant engineer from the United States, I co-founded Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) to “promote dignity, health, and sustainable livelihoods through the transformation of wastes into resources” in 2006.
SOIL is based on a philosophy we call Liberation Ecology, which recognizes that the most threatened and marginalized human beings are generally found living in similarly threatened ecosystems. Our goal is to empower people in Haiti to restore their environments by transforming dangerous pollutants into valuable resources.
The MOON: How did you happen to pursue ecology when you were so passionate about human rights?
That’s a good question. I have a scientific mind, but still, I went back and forth. When I was very young I wanted to be a doctor and help people. Then I went to Reed College, in Oregon, and got involved in the environmental movement and thought, “People are the problem! I’m going to do environmental work!”
Then I guess I grew up a little bit and thought “There must be a way to bring people and the environment together.” Ecology seemed the way to do that. Plus, I’ve never been cut out for the social sciences, even though I’m passionate about social issues.
The MOON: Is it true SOIL provided Haiti’s first waste treatment plant…in 2009?!
Kramer: That is true. Prior to 2009 there was no waste treatment in Haiti. In 2009, SOIL built its first composting site, which was also the first formal waste treatment site in the country. The government built its first waste treatment site in 2011 and has since built two more, but two of the sites are not functioning. So there is only one functioning government waste treatment sites in all of Haiti—a country of 10.3 million people. On a brighter note, SOIL’s composting sites in the capital and the northern city of Cap-Haitien are safely transforming tons of waste each month and there are also some smaller-scale composting and waste-treatment sites cropping up around the country. The government sanitation authority (DINEPA), also has an ambitious plan for scaling up waste treatment around the country in the next decade, hopefully integrating some of SOIL’s composting technologies.
So most of the country’s waste goes untreated. Most of those with flush toilets use septic tanks, but they are so closely packed together that there’s really not sufficient treatment going on. The septic tanks are leaking contents with untreated pathogens, typically downhill into poorer neighborhoods, or into the canals, rivers and eventually the ocean. And those who have latrines generally pay someone from the informal sector to empty the latrine into a nearby pit or body of water.
The MOON: Joe Jenkins mentioned he’s been working with Give Love, a nonprofit started by Patricia Arquette, which has done a village-sized compost site.
Kramer: Yes, we’ve seen their facility and it’s quite amazing. However, although our systems are in many ways similar and based on the same philosophy and processes, Give Love’s facility is in a rural area where there is space available for composting on-site, lowering their costs. SOIL works in dense urban areas where there is no space for composting; hence the need for an offsite composting facility. But having these two examples provides an excellent foundation for comparative research and sharing of lessons learned, so we are pleased to have a collaborative relationship with Give Love.
The MOON: How much waste are you treating at your two facilities?
Kramer: We’re treating around 25,000 gallons of waste a month—which translates as the poop of about 4,000 people. This is down from about 22,000 people at the height of our earthquake response. People have been moving out of the emergency camps into permanent housing, so our supply of poop has dropped. Our composting sites are in Cap-Haitien, the second-largest city after Port-Au-Prince, and in Truitier—which is the site of the city dump for Port-Au-Prince, the Haitian capital. The dump is actually quite a horrible site, from an ecological perspective, with a lot of burning trash, odors, flies, rats, and other pests. It makes quite a contrast with our clean, odorless compost facility.
Although the location is undesirable from an aesthetic standpoint, it relieves the anxiety people have about poop treatment in their neighborhood—especially since the cholera epidemic.
The MOON: But isn’t poop treatment the solution, not the problem, to cholera epidemics?
Kramer: It absolutely is; but nonetheless, we try to be sensitive to people’s concerns. So it’s good to have our facility in a location that people can visit easily, but where the community has accepted it.
The MOON: And now you have a Poopmobile and an experimental farm at Penye?