Sasha Kramer

Year of Graduation: 
Sasha Kramer in a protective suit, plastic gloves and sunglasses

"We started very small — really, one toilet at a time.”

Quarantining in response to the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to make decisions from the comfort of home, on questions like what to wear for Zoom meetings and how long their kids could play on the computer. But Sasha Kramer ’94, says 2020 has only reinforced that for millions, home doesn’t necessarily equal comfort.

“I’ve always felt that having a private place to go to the bathroom is a human right,” Kramer says. She is executive director of SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods), which provides restorative ecological sanitation solutions to the residents of Haiti, where she lives with her husband and five-year-old son. “COVID has made that all the more clear to me. Imagine you’re being told to stay home and you don’t have a toilet. Your only option for going to the bathroom is to use a shared facility, where you know your exposure risk is very high.”

Kramer first went to Haiti in 2004, while earning a doctorate in ecology from Stanford. She spent two years there as a human rights observer and discovered that the impact of poverty was often made most visible by people’s lack of access to clean toilets and proper sanitation. As she witnessed untreated human waste go into the water and sicken Haitians, Kramer cast about for a real-world, ecologically-based solution. In 2006, she cofounded SOIL with Sarah Brownell (now a senior lecturer at Rochester Institute of Technology). The nonprofit organization’s mission was straightforward: provide people better access to working toilets and transform the collected human waste into agricultural-grade compost.

“SOIL was founded with this idea of how do you take a serious public health problem and transform it not only into not being a problem anymore, but being a real solution for a lot of these other environmental issues that we see,” Kramer says. “We started very small — really, one toilet at a time.”

Woman holding a child with a SOIL toilet in the background.

Those early models were self-contained concrete units Kramer calls “palatial public toilets,” with space beneath them for waste to compost. But a redesign was in order when Oxfam invited SOIL to pilot facilities in the camps erected for Port-au-Prince residents displaced by the devastating 2010 earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people countrywide and left more than a million homeless. The result: lighter toilets with 15-gallon removable drums that could be emptied regularly. Over five years, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, SOIL provided 200 emergency public toilets that were used by 20,000 people. In addition, Kramer’s organization built a special composting site to process the waste away from the camps. The effort produced much-needed jobs for Haitians willing to change the drums, keep the facilities clean, and collect and compost the waste.

Today, SOIL’s focus is on household toilets in dense urban areas that are not yet serviced by sewers. Currently, more than 1,100 households pay for toilet rental and weekly waste pickup, but with a new marketing effort, Kramer hopes to add 100 new households monthly. She says the long-term goal is to develop a model that can be replicated by private entrepreneurs in Haiti and beyond, but that will require a level of financial viability her organization has not yet reached. To that end, SOIL is partnering with the government of Haiti and the Inter-American Development Bank to create a government contract for the provision of waste treatment that would pay service providers for every ton of waste they safely treat. In the meantime SOIL is reliant on individual donations and philanthropic funds to ensure that SOIL’s clients have access to dignified and affordable in-home sanitation.

Sasha Kramer distributing compost with pails alongside colleagues

Last year, SOIL processed 510 tons of human waste. The byproduct, Konpòs Lakay, is a combination of decomposed waste, sugarcane pulp and peanut shells and is sold to households and large-scale agricultural projects. It’s an important tool in a land where soils teeter between the extremes of excessive dryness and runoff caused by floods. The compost helps with soil stabilization and mudslide prevention and has been proven to increase yields in a number of essential crops, including sorghum, corn and soy.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Haitian government asked SOIL to install portable public toilets in busy areas where it had installed hand-washing facilities. Seven went to marketplaces in Cap-Haïtien, on the north coast of Haiti, and two to a COVID-19 patient treatment facility.

“The communal toilets are really important in the sense that if people don’t have somewhere to go to the bathroom or that waste cannot be safely managed, then you continue to have all of these other public health problems that overwhelm the hospitals and make people more susceptible to something like COVID,” Kramer says. The post-earthquake cholera outbreak that began in 2010, she notes, sickened 665,000 and was responsible for the deaths of 8,183 over nine years.

Haitian family with a SOIL toilet in background

“It’s sad when you think about the toll these very preventable diseases take all over the world — nobody locked down anything, and then this happens, and the whole world is locked down,” Kramer says. “It’s made me think more deeply about the way this feels when you live in an area where your risk and your children’s risk of dying is higher from diarrhea or malaria or tuberculosis or any number of diseases. Looking at the numbers for COVID-related deaths and diarrheal deaths over the same time period? No contest: Diarrhea is killing way more people worldwide.”

Watch Kramer's TEDx talk presenting SOIL. 

— Sarah Zobel

Kramer invites readers who would like to connect or who have questions to contact SOIL.