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How Oxfam is using earthworms, toilets, and technology to help families overcome poverty

Patricia Darbeh uses the compost generated from her toilet to fertilize a garden that helps to feed her family in Monrovia, Liberia. Photo by Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

Three ways that tapping local resources has helped change the lives of families

At Oxfam, we’re always looking for smart, sustainable ways to get our work done—to help people as they strive to overcome poverty and become more resilient in the face of disasters. And sometimes, for this work, there is no better partner than Mother Nature. Harnessed to innovation, she makes a formidable ally.

Take earthworms, for example. Those gooey, wriggly creatures can help transform human waste into a fantastic fertilizer, solving two problems at once—reducing the amount of sludge in Liberian latrines so they last longer, and providing backyard farmers with some much-needed nutrients for their soil.

Consider gravity. Mixed with water, you not only have a mighty force for electrification in a Nepalese village that until recently relied on burning resin-soaked pine for light at night, you’ve got irrigation to ensure regular harvests in the community.

And then there’s the sun, so easy to take for granted during daylight hours. But when it sinks, plunging rural Zimbabwe into darkness, imagine trying to carry out an emergency first-aid procedure in a clinic without electricity. Solar panels that help light the wards and refrigerate vaccines can make the difference between life and death.

These are just three examples of how you can support Oxfam’s work with partners to tap readily available resources and help change people’s lives.

Tigerworm toilets, like this one in Monrovia, Liberia, produce compost that families can use on their gardens. Photo by Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

Toilets and tiger worms

In Monrovia, Liberia’s capital where many families do not have their own toilets and instead rely on public bathrooms, Oxfam has provided dozens of households with tiger worm toilets. The system treats both liquid and solid waste using composting worms, which eat the fecal matter. The system is smaller than a septic tank and the waste generated is safer and easier to handle. Further, the compost it produces can be used as fertilizer to grow food to eat and sell.

Patricia Darbeh, a mother of three, has been using her tiger toilet for several years now, and maintaining it carefully.

“Before I used [the] public toilet,” she said.  “It was not good for me because lots of people used it how they like. It was costly and it wasn’t clean,” she said. “With my toilet I can look after it how I like. Every morning, I clean around and take water and wash it. But you don’t use soap in the toilet. You use this brush. If you keep it clean it will last, if you don’t keep it clean it will spoil.”

Every two days Darbeh empties the water from toilet. And she uses the wastes from the toilet to fertilize her garden during the dry season.

“The fertilizer, we don’t use during the rainy season because we don’t farm then. Dry season is OK,” says Darbeh. I eat what I grow. It’s not sufficient to sell because I don’t have a big enough garden.”

But what she does grow has helped her household finances.

“I used to spend 450 Liberian dollars (almost $5) in one week to get vegetables three times a week,” Darbeh said. “Now, I don’t spend money because I have my own vegetables.”

For Robert B. Zebedee, there’s nothing like the fertilizer he gets from his toilet.

“I prefer this fertilizer to the one you buy,” he said. “We sell what we grow and we eat some. I don’t go to the market. I’m 72 years old. I’m not working so it helps me a lot. Sometime because of my age, my wife does the planting and I help also. We work as a team.”

And the produce from his garden is helping the next generation, too.

“Some of them are going to school,” said Zebedee.  “The money from the gardens will pay their fee and whatever they need to go to school.”

Oxfam is now considering using “tiger toilets” as a longer-lasting solution in camps for displaced people, said Angus McBride, who is a public health engineering team leader for the organization.

“Desludging is a costly and logistically difficult exercise,” he said in his blog. “Tankers may not be able to access the limited space around the latrines, and finding an appropriate disposal site can be tricky.

He pointed out that  the toilets Oxfam built in Liberia in 2013 have not yet needed to be emptied and that results of recent research have shown that a typical tiger toilet might last as long as five years before it needed to be emptied.

“Now we're rolling out tiger toilets further in Ethiopia and Myanmar,” said McBride. “In Gambella, western Ethiopia, we will be building toilets in a refugee camp for South Sudanese refugee. . .  The refugee camps are likely to be in place for a long time . . . and tiger toilets could be the long term solution required.”

Women help operate the micro-hydro power plant in the Nepalese village of Jayathala. Photo by Oxfam

Lighting remote villages

Could micro-hydro power bring sustainable energy to remote villages around the world? That’s the question that comes immediately to mind after seeing what has been possible in the Nepalese village of Jayathala.

Until recently, this community in the Darchula district had no electricity at all, which lead to a host of other problems.

“At night they burned Jharro  [resin soaked pine wood] for light, and burnt firewood to cook food,” said Oxfam public health engineer Anjil Adhikari in a recent blog. “The consumption of firewood led to deforestation and soil erosion and the burning of firewood severely impacted the health of those preparing food. Children's eyes got affected by studying under the dim lighting. The attendance of children in school was also low because they had to spend so much time collecting firewood.

Now, those hardships have begun to fade thanks to a small micro-hydro power system which is bringing electricity to 54 househholds. Working together, Oxfam and Sankalpa Darchul, a local non-governmantal organization, upgraded an existing irrigation system with the help of a construction company.

“Besides providing electricity to the communities, the project also irrigates the agricultural land surrounding the village, thereby helping to improve livelihoods,” said Adhikari. “The entire project was led by local women who are not only actively involved in the operation and maintenance of the system but also in fund management and providing guidance on the scheme to the community.”

For villagers, the electricity has brought big changes to their lives.

“School children . . . can now study properly at night and women have the option to use the electricity for cooking, saving time and improving the family's health,” said Adhikari. “The locals have already started operating an electric mill to grind their products, which also saves time. With the sustainable and increased water quantity in the fields it's to be expected that productivity will also rise. It's also possible that seasonal migration might come down as life in the village improves.”

And Jaythala may be leading the way for other communities.

“The potential scope for replicating this idea in areas with similar terrain is huge,” said Adhikari.

Solar lanterns have brought light at night to people in rural Zimbabwe, where there is often not a reliable supply of electricity. Photo by John Magrath/Oxfam

Saved by the sun

It’s been about a year and a half since Oxfam program researcher John Magrath first wrote about how a solar power initiative had begun to transform women’s healthcare in five clinics in rural Zimbabwe.

“Staff in health centers in Gutu district in eastern Zimbabwe relate horrific tales of having to carry out emergency first aid procedures in the dark, trying to find veins or sew up wounds with only a candle or a mobile phone torch to guide them,” wrote Magrath.

But, as Magrath described in his July 2015 blog, all of that began to change with the introduction of the Rural Sustainable Energy Development Project.

“Each clinic has been equipped with a varying mixture of solar panels for lighting the wards, solar water pumping to provide clean water close at hand and solar refrigeration for vaccines,” Magrath wrote.

The changes meant that women coming to the clinic to give birth no longer had to come with candles in the event their deliveries happened after dark. A pair of candles cost $1—an expense many expectant mothers in the area couldn’t easily afford and would put off, sometimes until it was too late and they couldn’t get to the clinic at all.

“Now women know that there will be light at the clinics and they do not have to provide candles, they are happy to come to the clinics early. The clinics report increases-- of up to 50 percent--in the numbers of women giving birth there instead of at home, or on their way to the clinic,” Magrath wrote.

Key to the project was the system Oxfam set in place to ensure its continuation—a system that was the most innovative part of the whole project, said Magrath.

“Oxfam introduced solar equipment suppliers to the communities through a series of exhibitions, so that suppliers could see there was a demand in the rural areas and so communities could test what was on offer and choose what suited them best,” said Magrath. “In order to pump prime the market Oxfam supplied the first batches of lanterns which were then sold, and the money re-invested into Community Energy Funds. In each community a solar-powered 'energy kiosk' serves as a battery recharging center for lanterns and mobile phones. These funds in turn are being used to finance the expansion of solar power and also future operation and maintenance costs.”

Magrath noted that one community decided to invest $2,800 in a “solar suitcase” that outfitted its clinic with lights and other equipment allowing staffers to provide medical care at night.

The investment has clearly paid off.

It is nearly always midnight when women give birth,” nurse Judith Mandava told Magrath. “Before, when you were delivering, the light would go out and you would be shouting at the mother ‘Stop! Stop!’ Which was embarrassing. But the community saw the problem and they bought it for us in July 2013. Since then three-quarters of the women who give birth here [in this district] have given birth with solar.”

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