Sasha Kramer has developed a circular economy model for the delivery of affordable sanitation for private households in dense urban settlements where traditional solutions such as such as latrines, sewers and septic tanks are not feasible. Sasha leverages local resources across the value chain and engages local entrepreneurs for the servicing of private toilets and for the recycling of the human waste. Her work recognizes the linkages connecting a wide range of problems affecting vulnerable communities, from sanitation, health, to agriculture and to the environment.
The New Idea
2.5 billion people still lack access to dignified sanitation around the world. This problem persists in large part because many of the attempts to transform the sanitation system are themselves broken: focusing only on the provision of toilets and neglecting waste treatment, cleaning up one local environment while polluting another. While many focus on simply providing toilets, the waste of 4.2 billion people in the world is dumped directly into waterways or sits untreated in underground reservoirs where it often leaches into groundwater. To address this problem at scale and in a holistic manner, Sasha has developed EkoLakay, a circular economy model for the collection and treatment of human waste for urban households.
EkoLakay is innovative on several dimensions. First, it targets low-income private households in very dense urban settlements; most initiatives focus on public sanitation in urban areas or household sanitation in rural areas. Second, it provides both collection and treatment of human waste; most other initiatives focus on the provision of toilets alone, without addressing the treatment of waste which, in the absence of proper waste treatment systems, leaches into the groundwater causing serious health problems. Third, it seeks to innovate along the entire value chain in order to create a sustainable hybrid business model that ensures that even the poorest families can have access to a dignified sanitation service; many initiatives that focus on private household sanitation typically focus primarily on becoming financially profitable, which in practice translates into a higher price for the end users and in the exclusion of the lower-income population segment from the system.
Given that the delivery of dignified sanitation at scale requires innovations on multiple levels, Sasha collaborates at the global level with a group of other leading social entrepreneurs in order to advance innovation by sharing experiences and results. SOIL has also trained organizations in other countries.
The lack of access to proper sanitation is a global crisis that is particularly evident in Haiti. Without access to toilets and working sewers, diarrhea accounts for 16% of deaths in children under five. Haiti has the highest childhood diarrheal incidence rate in the world and is currently battling the largest and most virulent cholera epidemic in recent history. This problem persists not only in Haiti but throughout the developing world because existing solutions are themselves not comprehensive enough or address one part of the problem but cause further complications in other realm. Many existing solutions focus only on the provision of toilets and neglect tackling waste treatment. A toilet without a waste treatment system is just a means for displacing a problem, cleaning up one local environment while polluting another. Despite billions of dollars spent on these types of sanitation interventions, diarrheal disease continues to be the second leading cause of death in children under five years old globally. It is unlikely that conventional sewage and waste treatment facilities will be the prevailing paradigm for sanitation investments in developing urban areas in the foreseeable future. Sewer systems require considerable up-front capital investment, and they depend on the availability of reliable water and energy supplies.
Where waste treatment systems do exist, the processes for disposing waste also dispose of valuable nutrients, instead of harvesting them for reuse. The world’s soils are steadily being stripped of their fertility through overharvesting and soil erosion. It is estimated that more than 75 billion tons of soil are lost annually to erosion and global food production in many countries has slowed, stagnated, or collapsed. Declining soil fertility and associated decreases in local food production results in widespread malnutrition. SOIL’s work recognizes the ecological linkages connecting a wide range of problems affecting vulnerable communities, from sanitation, health, to agriculture and to the environment. As such it employs a holistic approach, which aims to address these interconnected problems simultaneously through the creation of a viable, sustainable model. By eschewing the traditional linear approach to sanitation in favor of learning from cyclical ecological systems, SOIL is working towards a circular sanitation economy that is restorative by intention.
Initially SOIL focused on providing free public toilet facilities but Sasha became deeply aware of the limitations and failures of donor dependent development projects. She also realized that charging for public toilets does not culturally work in Haiti and that public toilets pose a safety risk for women and children. She thus decided to focus her attention on creating a model that can sustainably offer affordable sanitation to private households in urban areas where the need is the greatest. For the past four years, she has worked on designing EkoLakay as an integrated model for the delivery of affordable household sanitation services and the treatment of the ecological waste, which at the same time provides income-generating opportunities for local communities and contributes to soil replenishment.
From a strategy standpoint, Sasha has focused on innovations along the value chain in order to make the service affordable for the end users while ensuring long-term viability. In exchange for a monthly US$5 servicing fee, families can rent the SOIL EcoSan toilet. For comparativepurposes, the amount that a low-income family typically pays for cellphone service is US$12/month. The toilet is highly superior to other products available on the market – it requires no local infrastructure, it requires no electricity, and unlike other initiatives in the field that import toilets, it is a low-cost product made of readily available local materials. The fact that the toilet is also easily transportable is important because many families are tenants. Overall, it particularly addresses the sanitation needs of very low-income, vulnerable populations living in dense urban settings where traditional technologies, such as latrines, sewers and septic tanks, are not possible. Currently, over 2,500 people use the EcoSan toilets, with only a 1-3% attrition rate. The demand outstrips supply; 10-15 new households join every week and the number is set to increase as SOIL recently opened up a new location. The biggest impact has been to shift sanitation from something for “free” to paying for something “valuable”. The impact is immediately obvious through the overwhelming pride of the people renting the toilets, many of them placing the toilets in the same room where they sleep.
Local entrepreneurs wearing professional green uniforms service the toilets two-three times every week. The service includes collecting full waste receptacles and replacing them with empty sanitized ones, as well as replenishing a supply of cover material (used for “flushing” a dry toilet), which is also abundantly available locally. They then transport the waste in buckets using wheelbarrows to a local collection site. SOIL has already succeeded in reaching financial sustainability at the servicing and waste collection level. The revenue is enough to provide a small margin for a local entrepreneur to manage the local depot. More importantly, SOIL is changing societal perceptions of those who service toilets (the bayakous) and is establishing a dignified profession, whereas before bayakous would be ashamed to tell even their families what they do for work.
Trucks then transport the waste from the local depots to a central treatment site outside the city where the waste is transformed into compost, which is then sold to the local market. Up to now SOIL has been able to sell all of the compost that it produces to local producer groups and for reforestation efforts. A recent independent study has shown that SOIL’s treatment of human waste exceeds the standards of the World Health Organization. With the compost sales, SOIL is currently able to recoup close to 70% of the human waste treatment costs. 50% of all costs are transportation costs; the waste treatment system is low-tech, requiring minimal power. Sasha is aware that the treatment of the waste may never reach full sustainability but strongly believes that it is critical to continue testing new strategies for making it viable at scale. The health costs for ignoring the waste treatment are too high. 15-20 years may pass until Haiti builds a working sewing infrastructure. One of the most promising ideas that Sasha is currently testing includes cross-subsidizing the waste treatment through revenue from mobile toilet rental service for festivals and construction sites, which typically either use chemical toilets or have no sanitation options. SOIL is structured as a non-profit organizaton that subsidizes its cost through this fee-for-service model, ensuring the long-term and built-in sustainability of the model. As they expand service to middle-class communities, Sasha is also considering charging this segment more per month or having scaled pricing. Sasha has also strategically positioned their second composting site close to the municipal landfill site with the intention to test the composting of biosolids from the government’s waste treatment pond and also to demonstrate SOIL’s technique which the government is interested in exploring. There could also be an opportunity for sharing transportation costs.
In order to reach the largest number of people and to continuously innovate, Sasha has constantly shared her knowledge and engaged other sanitation entrepreneurs globally. She is recognized as one of the foremost experts on sanitation globally by leading social entrepreneurs, such as Ashoka Fellow David Auerbach, with whom Sasha closely collaborates. SOIL also provides free of charge the SOIL Guide to Ecological Sanitation, which covers topics such as toilet designs, management strategies, composting techniques, and lessons learned. The Guide has been downloaded by practitioners from 90 countries. Sasha is also an active participant in several international sanitation networking platforms, and has published 5 papers on SOIL’s implementation activities in peer reviewed academic journals. Each year, thousands of people benefit from SOIL’s education workshops and resources. SOIL has also trained several organizations in Africa and Nepal in their methodologies. In the immediate future Sasha plans to refine the EkoLakay business model by testing complementary revenue sources and by exploring a collaboration with the government for partial subsidies for the waste treatment. She also plans to work with other existing organizations around the world that are tackling the same challenges in order to share with them their methodology and insights. One of the leading organizations in Africa recently reached out to learn from SOIL’s waste treatment methodology and experience.
Sasha’s vision has been profoundly influenced by her interest in two seemingly, and yet interconnected areas of work, ecology and human rights. When she was pursuing her PhD in Ecology at Stanford University, she 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 sparked a question in her mind on how she could use her ecological training in a way that would also advance human rights. When Aristide was overthrown in a military coup in 2004, she decided to accompany a group of human rights observers to assess conditions in Haiti, and returned another dozen times during her last two years of graduate school. Her experiences in Haiti made her realize that amidst all of the acute human rights violations happening at the time, the most pervasive human rights abuse in Haiti was—and remains—poverty. The majority of people living in Haiti do not have the means to get their most basic human needs met, and one of the most basic needs Haitians don’t have access to is sanitation. Her passion for ecological sanitation has thus emerged from her desire to bring together her background in ecology and commitment to human rights advocacy through the promotion of an ecological approach to sanitation.
While Sasha spends the majority of her time living and working in Haiti, she is also a global advocate for the recycling of nutrients in human waste, helping others implement sustainable sanitation projects and inspiring people around the world to participate in the sanitation revolution. Sasha is an Adjunct Professor of International Studies and a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami. She is also a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, an Architect of the Future with the Waldzell Institute, and a finalist of the Ashoka Changemakers Nutrients for All Competition.