Sasha is an Ashoka Fellow, and serves as Adjunct Professor of International Studies and Visiting Scholar at the Centre for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami. Her work has been widely recognised by numerous awards for her environmental and humanitarian innovation. She was named the Schwab Foundation’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2014, and was most recently honoured with the 2017 Sarphati Sanitation Lifetime Achievement Award.
Ogunte: Describe yourself in five words.
Sasha: Dedicated, persistent, (I know these are very similar, but I need to emphasise that this is the only way I can do this work) kind, empathetic, a holistic thinker.
Ogunte: How are you transforming waste treatment in Haiti?
Sasha: Traditional models of waste management have been very much about treating waste and killing pathogens. Right now, we are on the cusp of a real shift in the way waste is treated around the world. There’s a growing recognition that not only is it important to kill pathogens in waste, it’s also important to find ways to recycle the valuable nutrients and energy within it.
The work we do in Haiti places equal focus on both treatment and transformation of waste. We use thermophilic composting to treat human waste, and we use the temperatures of the compost pile to kill any dangerous pathogens. That decomposition process transforms the human waste into fertile soil that can then be used for agriculture and reforestation. It’s a way to capture those nutrients whilst working on the public health need for waste treatment.
The neat thing about it is that it’s just modelled off nature’s systems. Ecological systems have been recycling nutrients from waste since the beginning of time. Certainly, very early cultures were doing it: we have evidence from up to 5000 years ago of Chinese cultures composting human waste for agricultural purpose. So, this is an age-old idea that was sort of forgotten during the industrial revolution and the development of sewers, but that we’re now coming back to as we recognise the need for cycling nutrients back into the soil.
Ogunte: We’ve read about a lot of failed projects in Haiti that have wasted a lot of money. What are you doing differently that enables you to make a difference?
Sasha: One of the challenges in development work is the spread of big international development agencies that are trying to come up with global solutions that are applicable to lots of different contexts. The tricky thing is, when it comes time to roll out those approaches, it’s absolutely critical to have a local partner who has a real commitment to the place where you are working. A lot of the failed projects we’ve seen in Haiti have been the result of thinking that you can fly in solutions from elsewhere, concocted by foreign ‘experts’ who have an idea of how it should work but little understanding of the cultural context in which they’re working.
I think one of SOIL’s strengths is that we work in a very specific context. There are those who would like to see us going bigger and spreading around the world, but I think the successes we’ve had have been related to our commitment to place.
We’ve been working in Haiti for the last 13 years, and have no plans to implement our work elsewhere right now. We are cognisant of the need for these solutions globally, and would like to work on implementing a model that others can replicate, but we very firmly believe that good development is done by commitment to place.
To me, this means spending a significant amount of time living in a country, trying to understand the culture, and having the dedication to stick with it through the ups and downs. This is how we will start dissolving some really challenging development problems.
At SOIL, we’re 90% Haitian, but the 10% of non-Haitian staff all spend significant amounts of time living in Haiti. They all have to speak the local language, Haitian Creole; all the communication in our office is done in Creole. We really strive and struggle to try to understand the cultural specificity of Haiti and how that affects our implementation work.
Ogunte: How did you find the process of getting to grips with a new culture, personally?
Sasha: It’s a long process, and I’m still constantly learning new things! I think it takes many, many years living somewhere to even start to wrap your head around a culture that isn’t your own.
I went to Haiti in 2004 as a human rights observer. I fell in love with it, moved there 6 months later, and have lived here since that time. It’s very humbling in that you have the rug ripped out from under you pretty regularly – you keep thinking you’ve grasped something, and then you realise you just haven’t at all! At times, I find it quite challenging, but mostly I’m appreciative of that constant cultural dialogue you have to be in.
Ogunte: Do you have an example of a striking culture clash?
Sasha: Yes! This is not at all relevant to my work but it is funny! Having and raising a baby in a different culture is constantly surprising. One difference is that, in Haiti, people really hate it when you carry a baby around on your hip, with their legs on either side of your body. They say it’ll make the child bow-legged and they’ll walk funny for the rest of their lives! I’m constantly getting into trouble for carrying my son on my hip!
Ogunte: What is the greatest challenge you are facing right now at SOIL?
Sasha: We had a consultant come in to work with us a couple of years ago. He asked us: ‘What is your primary objective here at SOIL? I hear you talk about sanitation coverage, livelihood creation, and waste treatment and composting. But which of the three are you going to optimise for?’
We said: ‘Oh, we do all of them, we love all of these things!’ And he said: ‘No, no, no, no. You can love them all, you can talk about them all, but you have to choose one that you will optimise for, and in doing that you’re going to have to make some tough decisions about the others.’
This was very jolting for us, and it has stuck with me ever since. I’m constantly coming back to this question: What is our primary objective? We decided at the time that it was tackling the sanitation crisis. When we said this, he said: ‘Well, you’re going to have to make really difficult decisions about livelihoods. And you may decide that composting is not the most cost-effective way to treat your waste, so to expand sanitation access you need to do something else.’
This is really hitting home right now as we’re starting to think about scaling: we’re bringing in new operational staff, and we’re having to work out a sustainable financing mechanism moving forward.
We are having to make hard decisions about livelihoods: How many people can we employ? Do we need to keep salaries lower than we might like to make this financially sustainable?
We are constantly trying to figure out how to balance our desire to bring sanitation access to the largest number of people possible with our commitment to supporting the people who work with us on our team.
Ogunte: Do your core values help to keep you on track and avoid any harmful compromising?
Sasha: Yes, so far. I think we’ve done a very good job of this up to this point. What we’re trying to do is create a model that can be replicated by the Haitian government and by the private sector. At the moment, SOIL is managing all parts of the sanitation process, while we get our model honed. While SOIL has control of all that, we can do a good job and our core values can guide us on walking that fine line.
The challenge will be as others replicate what we do, how do we ensure that the commitment to dignified livelihoods remains in place, when there are significant financial pressures that might push them to do otherwise?
(laughs) Please don’t ask me what the answer to that is because we definitely don’t have it yet! It’s an ongoing challenging discussion.
Ogunte: What are the top three lessons you’ve learned from your journey at SOIL so far
1) Volunteerism, or the willingness of people to volunteer their time, does not correlate with need.
To explain this, when we started out we built public toilets for communities. People were incredibly enthusiastic and engaged in the process, and we’d work with them to build a management plan for the toilet. There was no doubt that the need and the desire to have this service was there. But we found that in almost every case, after 6 months to a year, the management of the toilet went downhill.
This was a valuable lesson, though I feel quite naive for not having known this earlier on. I think often development professionals have this idea that where the need is greatest, people will be most willing to volunteer their time to ensure that need is met. What I learnt was that – and it sounds so obvious saying it now – having space in your life to give up your time is something that comes from a place of great privilege.
When people are struggling just to survive, you can’t really ask them to volunteer to do anything, but certainly not clean up other peoples poop! Volunteerism is probably negatively correlated to the level of need: the more need people have, the less time they have to volunteer.
I wish I had thought more deeply about this earlier on. You get a little blinded by the level of need and the enthusiasm, and forget that a free public toilet that doesn’t have a paid manager anywhere in the world is going to be disgusting! Even in places where people do have time to volunteer, it’s not realistically going to work long-term.
2) Sanitation is a public service. This is one that nobody outside the sanitation sector will ever have thought about, but I think about it a lot!
Five years ago, everyone in the sector would have agreed that sanitation is a public service, subsided by governments all over the world. But there’s been a push among groups like us to try to use the private sector to generate some revenue to offset some of the costs. There was such a rush of enthusiasm for the possibilities that people kind of went overboard. We thought that, by selling the resources made from poop and charging customers a fee for the service, we could have a fully private sector solution to the sanitation crisis.
But now we’re all backpedaling a bit! In the end, it is unfair to ask people in low income countries to pay the full cost of a service that people in wealthier countries do not have to pay for because their governments cover it. Yes, there are ways to gene revenues and reduce costs, and having people be customers and cleints and not beenficiaries, and having people contribute. But at the same time, there is a role for the pub sector here, and having a private toilet in your home – people may be willing to pay for that – but having your waste treated is not something that it’s fair to ask individuals to pay for because that is a public service, something that affects everyone.
We’re coming round to the idea now that sanitation needs to be a combination of private and public sectors. Which actually takes the pressure off me a bit.
For a long time, I’ve felt the weight of the question: ‘When’s your breakeven point?’ I just kept thinking: When did anyone ever break even providing toilets to some of the most vulnerable communities in the world?! This is not the cell phone industry, folks!
We are still in the thick of trying to define this hybrid financial model and how it will work. Ultimately, we’re trying to get to a point where people can pay a small monthly fee that covers the weekly collection of waste, and then government would pay for the treatment of the waste.
3) Hiring. This is something we’ve done from the beginning, but I’m relieved that it’s something I still feel strongly about.
We consciously hire based on soft skills: a person’s attitude, commitment to the communities in which they work, and passion. We care about why they do the work. Hard skills can be taught. I think it’s much harder to teach someone to be a kind and respectful human being than to teach them Excel. Although I will say Excel can be really hard to teach as well!
This has probably slowed some of the work that we do, but it’s key to our success that we have a team of passionate, respectful people who are doing the work for the right reasons.
Ogunte: How did you find the process of putting together SOIL’s team?
Sasha: Neverending! I always think: Phew - we got over that HR bump! And then boom another one comes along!
We have 84 staff members now, so it’s a pretty large team to manage. The process was greatly facilitated by my having come to Haiti as a human rights observer and not as a development worker. This standpoint gave me a chance to get to know respected leaders in the community, who I went to for advice when it came time to form a team - that made a huge difference.
Ogunte: What is your long-term vision for SOIL?
Sasha: For SOIL no longer to be the one implemeting the service, but instead create a model that can be replicated by the private and public sector in Haiti.
Long-term, the vision is for SOIL to move into a consulting/advisory role, where we’re supporting those who are trying to replicate the model in Haiti and across the world.
Ogunte: What skills do you need to focus on for the challenge ahead?
Sasha: I am focusing on gaining a better understanding of financing mechanisms.
I came into this neither as a business person nor as a sanitation person – my background is as an ecologist. I feel like I’ve spent the last 10 years learning about sanitation and development. Now, the push over the last three to four years has been to better understand business – modelling, financing mechanisms, public and private partnerships. I’m doing my best to be self-taught, I’m running my own private business school with myself!
I’ve also been working with a couple of social entrepreneurship networks who have supported me and my work with SOIL. Through the Ashoka network and Schwab Foundation, I’ve had a chance to meet a lot of other entrepreneurs and develop a broader global network to help me think all this through.
Ogunte: How did you come to decide to dedicate your time to the Haitian sanitation crisis? Was it clear to you that this was what you were going to do for many years?
Sasha: It was a clear thing, but only after diving in! I had to dive into some uncertainty, which was not comfortable for me as I had always known what my next step would be.
The trip to Haiti as a human rights observer was the first time I had done something so outside of my comfort zone, in the sense that I was not a expert by any stretch - I was a complete novice. All I knew was that it felt right and I felt passionately excited about it.
It came down to a willingness to follow a passion outside what I would normally be doing, just because I felt like it might be something I cared about a lot. Even though I didn’t know how it would come together in the end. And a willingness to look the fool – which I certainly do frequently, on the regular!
Once I made that leap, things started to fall together. I started to see signs: here’s a problem, and here’s an interesting way to think about it from an ecological perspective.
It’s a combination of taking the leap and being open to signs as they come. Then sink your teeth in, make a plan, and follow it!
Ogunte: How did you come across the trip?
Sasha: In grad school in 2000, I read Eyes of the Heart by the former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. When he was overthrown in a coup in 2004, I was curious to better understand the US government’s perspective on him, and the different perspective I had when reading his book. So I joined a Haiti solidarity group in San Fransisco, and started going to their meetings. There, I heard about the opportunity to go and observe a demonstration in Haiti, and I just did it!
I was inspired to reach out to them by my reading, but it was really when I surrounded myself with other people doing this kind of work that it pushed me to take the leap.
Ogunte: Who are the women in social enterprise who inspire you?
Sasha: I’m going to be totally honest with you: I felt this great panic and then sadness that I struggled to think about this question. This should be an answer that is on the tip of my tongue – there have been so many women in my life who have impacted me. The fact of the matter is that there are so many amazing women doing amazing things – as there have been throughout history – but sadly they are less visible because they don’t get the spotlight shone on them often enough.
I have come up with four women – but it saddens me that I was so stumped at first:
1) Myrtha Vilbon. Though I don’t know her terribly well, her story inspires me. She has a toilet paper enterprise in Haiti, so you can see why we have occasion to meet one another! She works with women entrepreneurs. What inspires me about Myrtha is that in Haiti it’s rare for women to get involved in the sanitation sector, so for me it’s wonderful to see other women taking a lead.
2) Rea Dol is a dear friend, and one of the first people I met in Haiti. She is one of those women who you can’t possibly imagine how she’s juggling so many things and doing them so well. Rea finds ways to bring together traditional commercial sector activities to fuel her work with the community. For example, she’s been running a community school for 10 years - a free school for vulnerable children. When they built the school, they built a nice conference hall in it to rent out, which means they are able to bring in a fair amount of money to support the education initiative.
3) Anne Marie Burgoyne inspires me - she teaches at Stanford University on the social enterprise program, and is one of the managing directors of the Emerson Collective, a foundation that supports social entrepreneurship and development work.
Anne Marie has a wonderful measured approach to scale that really speaks to me at this stage of SOIL’s evolution. She acknowledges that plenty of programs have scaled way too quickly and wasted a lot of resources on things that have failed. We need to do the careful work at the beginning: to ensure strong building blocks are in place, so as to create a high quality model that can be scaled.
I’ve watched so many big projects in Haiti fail, so it’s helpful to know there are leading thinkers in the social entrepreneurship sector who agree with SOIL’s philosophy.
4) Isabel Medem is the co founder of X-Runner - a similar group to SOIL working in Lima, Peru. I’ve only spent time with her twice in person, but she’s one of those people who I clicked with immediately, and it was like we had been friends forever.
Isabel inspires me because she’s walking a very similar road to mine. It’s so rare to find women who are dedicated to this sector long-term, and who are actually grappling with the very same issues I am. As a personal and professional support, Isabel is invaluable.
Ogunte: Thank you, Sasha, it’s been an absolute pleasure!
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