(IAP 2015) Spencer Wenck ’15
Spencer worked in Bluefields, Nicaragua over IAP. He has developed a biological system with the student group Hope in Flight to convert organic waste into high quality animal feed. He helped Hope in Flight implement the process in Ghana in small rural villages in January of 2014, but has seen the potential for the use of the technology at the commercial scale. In Nicaragua, Spencer implemented a pilot system that can be scaled into a commercial process. He also conducted market research and began a preliminary business plan to determine whether a commercial process would be profitable. He has also partnered with the local university to research the health and ecological impact of the organic waste recycling system.
Blog Post 1 (Jan 4): Intro to Bluefields
When I flew into Bluefields at 7:30 a.m. this morning I was both excited and nervous. I was excited about what I was there to do as well as to experience the culture, but at the same time I was nervous about what I was getting into and whether everything would go according to plan. As I toured the city a little, I became more excited and less nervous as many of my assumptions (and information) are shaping up to be true.
What I am here to do: Bluefields, Nicaragua is a medium sized city of over 80,000 people on the southern Caribbean coast in Nicaragua. Like most developing cities, Bluefields is unable to properly dispose of its municipal waste. Roughly 60% of the city’s waste is collected by the municipal government and taken a couple kilometers outside of the city to a “landfill” which pretty much amounts to a poorly managed dump site from what I have heard. Futhermore, that leaves 40% of the city’s population without a means of disposing of their waste. This waste is simply dumped into the river or the street, or piled up and burned. If there was a way to make the waste valuable (rather than an expense), there would be a motive for widespread collection. This collection is already present in the form of waste-pickers that collect recyclable material for sale. However this recyclable material accounts for less than 20% of the municipal waste, and nearly 80% is organic waste. Recently, with efforts from MIT’s D-Lab and Co-Lab, these waste pickers have formed a co-operative to more effectively collect recyclables. However, the waste pickers are restricted to sorting waste as the municipal dump site in part because they are only willing to collect about 20% of the waste that each household produces (as that is currently the only profitable portion of the waste). My goal is to implement a pilot system that utilizes the Black Soldier Fly to turn the organic waste into animal feed. I will also be working to determine whether the output of this system will be great enough to sustain the workers of such a system with a livable wage. Should both of these aspect of my project meet success, a commercialized system could help eliminate the poor disposal of organic waste in Bluefields. Furthermore, as Bluefields is a typical developing city, this success could have implications in all developing cities!
Nervous about completing my task: I am not nervous in the sense that I worry about failure. Even if everything I planned to do is a complete disaster, I am certain that I will learn a lot and will have done my best. However both this project and I have been met with challenges in implementation before. Last IAP I traveled to Tamale, Ghana to implement this project in rural villages as a source of animal nutrition that can be produced locally. However, many of the assumptions we made turned out to be false. While the waste produced in this area was primarily organic, all of the organic waste was fed to the local animals (goats and chickens), or it was simply thrown onto the local fields to decompose. Thus, household waste was not collected and disposal was not seen as an issue (even though this method of disposal is likely to spread pathogens). Furthermore, the rural households has always let their animals roam free to find their own food, so the need for nutrition was not understood since the animals “were doing fine already”. Apparently they have not seen what healthy animals are supposed to look like. As we tried to come up with solutions, cultural issues that we had not looked into continued to keep us from moving forward. We couldn’t use other sources of organic waste such as manure and feces because of religious opposition, and there was not a large enough city in the region to produce enough centralized waste. Granted, I learned a lot from this experience and the project developed significantly toward a new direction, but lack of success was none-the-less disappointing. I simply hope that I have used what I learned to pick a community where this project has a good chance of success, and that the obstacles that I do encounter can be overcome. Only time can tell…
Blog Post 2 (Jan 20): Things are finally rolling
The past two weeks have been moving relatively slow. Not necessarily like watching grass grow, but literally waiting for eggs to hatch. Fly eggs, anyway. Members of the waste picking cooperative and I spotted the Black Soldier Fly on our third day in Nicaragua hanging out by the landfill. Unfortunately seeing and being able to have are two very different things. I first attempted to catch the flies to have them lay eggs and get the entire life-cycle of our amazing garbage disposal moving. Normally, that part of the lifecycle takes an entire two weeks, and if that were not bad enough, the first fly trap we built was stolen for scrap metal. (I’m assuming. I guess I don’t really know why it was stolen.) In any case that put us back another week, meaning that we are still waiting for eggs to hatch. Fortunately, after about a week of looking, I was able to find the fly larvae themselves in the waste. I guess that is not really surprising in retrospect since I am hoping that the flies will be able to help dispose of this same garbage. In any case, we have something to work with.
With the Black Soldier Fly in hand, I had a meeting with the cooperative last week about beginning construction of the pilot. They decided that a single larger pilot would be more useful and easy to manage than multiple smaller pilots as I had originally planned. At least I don’t have to build the same thing multiple times over, but I’ve been back at the drawing board trying to figure out how to scale up the system. Since the whole point of this project is to see the viability of scaling my design, I guess this just moves the project a little further along than I thought this IAP would bring me. Anyway, I am in the process of acquiring all of the supplies necessary for this scaled up process which has been a little daunting and tiring. I’ve learned that I miss knowing that the lumber store will always have lumber, I miss being able to call stores to see what they have, and I miss having easy access to trucks (or anything other than a tiny taxi) to help me move stuff. At this point, most of those problems have been struggled through and I believe that I am (fingers crossed) literally going to be breaking ground today. That may sound dramatic for a couple shovels full of dirt, but I am happy we have gotten this far.
While the pilot system has been progressing, however slowly it may be, the process to evaluate the viability of a company using this technology has hit what seems like insurmountable obstacles. I was it was not difficult to asses the market conditions and find out what it would cost to build and operate the business. I was even able to estimate the preliminary gross profit estimates of a business that would use our high protein animal feed instead of the currently available protein sources. Unfortunately, a great market opportunity is not enough to have a business. Over the last couple of weeks I have been struggling with the municipal government to try to figure out what the process is to start a business and how much incorporation and taxes would cost. Every time I try to get an answer they more or less tell me that I need the start the business and start filling the paperwork before I have to worry about what it will cost. Plus, most of their taxes and building codes don’t have formulas. They simply have a team of municipal workers from certain offices assess your business plan and your business to assign you to a tax bracket. As far as I can tell, the entire process of getting a company approved and put into a tax bracket is open to a lot of interpretation. One of the organizations I am working with said that I would probably be able to make a deal with the government to get into a lower tax bracket. Anyway, I have had a nice welcome to a world that does not plan ahead to what I would consider normal standards, and a world that invites and supports corruption (granted this is only over a little bit of tax money, but it is incredible to me to see the level of corruption that could be available).
Blog Post 3 (Jan 26) Scrambling to Finish
With less than a week left, it feels as if there is simply too much yet to be done. Given how slowly the first two weeks progressed, that is not exactly surprising. I always feel that completion is within a few days grasp, but I have felt that now for several days. In any case, I am at least able to see the fruits of my labor.
I have a fully functioning cage for the flies to produce eggs and larvae for the organic composter. I have all but finished the construction of a chicken coop so that I can prove to the community that chickens will eat the larvae of the Black Soldier Fly and that it is far better than the current diet achieved by allowing the chickens to scavenge for themselves and throwing them a couple handfuls of grain when there is extra grain to be had. The need for a chicken coop came about because the members of the cooperative are unable to keep an appreciable amount of chickens without them being stolen. Apparently when the chickens are allowed to scavenge for their own food, they don’t always stay in the proper yard and they don’t always come back. It still bewilders me that a better solution has not been created since this is the same technique used to raise chickens since chickens were domesticated. Then again, after working on my calculations from the market analysis that I have preformed, there doesn’t seem to be a better alternative available. The chickens need protein just like every living thing, and the only real source of protein available to feed the chickens is beans. If beans are used to feed the chickens, then raising chickens is simply not profitable. Beans would have to be priced 3 time less for raising chickens to be profitable. The same goes with raising any animals other than cows which can simply eat grass. Thus, the chickens are left to find their own protein through scavenging for bugs and whatever else might be found. And as a result, the chickens can be stolen and don’t get as much protein as they need, leading the price of eggs and chicken to actually cost more here than it does in the US. Thus a gaping hole exists for a cheap source of protein that would make industrial production of chicken possible. Not only would this make animal products cheaper but it would also create a significant number of jobs which are sorely needed.
While I have found the need for my product let alone the benefit it would have on the waste situation, I still have a lot to finish before this project could be attempted on an industrial scale. On the construction side, I still have to complete the actual system where the organic waste is consumed by the larvae. I am not worried that I will finish it in time, but I am afraid that I will not finish it in time to fully demonstrate the process to the women of the cooperative. If I have learned nothing it is that not fully understanding the benefits of the process will lead to it not being adopted. The other problem that still persists is getting information about the process for starting an actual business in Nicaragua as well as for purchasing land. Without knowing the legality and the taxes of owning a business and land, it would be impossible to asses whether using the Black Soldier Fly would be able to function properly and profitably, and whether it could produce protein at a cost lest than a third of that of beans. Luckily most of this information could be obtained through friends that I have made here, but that would likely only lead to a longer time before actual answers are achieved. Anyway, I guess I will find out how far I get within the next couple of days.
I almost forgot to mention that tomorrow morning I am meeting with the local university, BICU. I am going to talk to the head of the natural resources program about potential research and work that could be done to progress the project here in Nicaragua. If things go well, several masters students will be working with Black Soldier Flies as their theses. If nothing else, it would at least create awareness and support for the project even while I am not here! When I was working in Africa, the only way to enable the progression of the project was to partner with the local university. While I hope this will not be the case with the project at hand, it certainly shows the benefit of having the local universities help.
As for now, I can only hope that I will finish my construction in time to demonstrate it to the women. I also hope that my meeting with the city will no longer be postponed and will also yield the answers that I need in a clear and non-convoluted manner. I also hope that the meeting with BICU will further the progression of the project. I guess I will know in a few days where I stand and where I am likely to stand in the future. Only time can tell.
Final Blog Entry (Feb 2): All Said and Done
I already miss the tropical weather and waking up the see the Caribbean every day. Overall the experience was incredible. I finished pretty much everything that I set out to do, I got to know many really cool and passionate people, and I learned a lot all while avoiding a month of snow in Boston. The pilot system took nearly two weeks to build and still needs a couple of finishing touches.
In all, I built a chicken coop and purchased 5 chickens in order to prove that the system would generate healthy animal feed for the chickens. I also built a netted house for the flies to live and mate in. I was hoping that there would be a large enough indigenous population of the Black Soldier Fly so that I would not have to rely on my own methods to acquire eggs, but after spending a good portion of my first two weeks in Nicaragua trying to accomplish this without success, I decided to build the mating cage anyway. If I go back to Nicaragua and attempt this system at a larger scale I would have to breed the flies for eggs anyway, so I guess I just got a little bit of practice. In the last week of construction I hired some help to construct the organic waste recycler. After mixing many, many bags of cement to make the concrete we would pour one part of the recycler then have to wait a day for the cement to dry so that we could add another piece to the recycler. It was painfully slow to watch, but we finished pouring the last bit of concrete on thursday morning. Unfortunately we had to wait for the concrete to dry before we could finish the lid on the recycler. In the end, I hired the person that had been working for me to finish the lid this week. I am waiting for an email with the finished pilot system any day now, and I can’t wait!
While the pilot system was not ready for me to show the process to the women, I was able to fully explain it to them in one of our final meetings. At the final meeting, I also showed them where to find the larvae that I had found earlier so that they can get a jump start on the whole process and start moving things along a little bit faster. They seemed to understand the process and agreed to collect larvae from the dump-site a couple times a week until the system becomes self sufficient. Within 3-4 weeks I suspect they will have the entire system being utilized as long as things go according to plan. In the meantime, they will be communicating with me through the UN representatives if they have any questions. A member of the MIT faculty is also traveling to Nicaragua on the last week of February and will be able to visit the system to give me a detailed and un-biased account of what is going on. Once again, there is more waiting to be done.
In the last week, I finally met with the representatives of the ecology department and Health ministry of Nicaragua in order to determine the legality and viability of my project. They said the only limitations to starting such a business would be the location since they do not want garbage in the vicinity of the normal population. They seemed to be very curious about the project and couldn’t stop asking questions. At first their faces were more of shock and I could tell they though the idea was a little gross, but by the end I got thier approval so I guess it went well enough. We also found an area of land that a farmer is willing to sell that is acceptable to the health ministry for starting the project at an industrial scale. While we have approval and even a location for starting a company with this technology, the one thing that I was unable to figure out was the actual process to start a company. It is apparently pretty difficult to start a company down there unless it is a non-profit, and it is even more difficult as a foreigner. I am still not exactly sure what the process is because I heard several different stories. Anyway, I am most likely going to have to talk to a licensed lawyer in Managua to get the official details. Given how many questions I had starting off the week, I am pretty happy to only have one more bit of information to figure out.
Finally, while not a major objective of my time in Nicaragua, I was able to meet with the head of department for ecology and natural resources at one of the local universities (BICU). He seemed to be very interested in the project and said that he would pass on the information to the students when the come back to school at the beginning of March. That is also the time that juniors (and lagging seniors) will be choosing their thesis projects. We decided that having two students work on this project as their thesis would be a good start for collaboration. In any case, by mid-march, I will likely have a couple university students helping me with research!
I certainly cherished my time in Bluefields and hope to return to further the project. Although for the moment, I have to say I am enjoying the English and the hamburgers. Check back for updates as they come in from Nicaragua.