(Summer ’15) Spencer Wenck, ’15

Spencer Wenck (’15, Chemical Engineering)

Spencer will be working in Bluefields, Nicaragua over the summer to scale up a waste reduction system that was piloted in January. The pilot has been functioning to quickly convert organic waste into animal feed and compost. Due to the success, interest has grown in turning the system into a commercial enterprise that would be capable of processing a significant portion of the cities organic waste. Spencer will be working with the current pilot operators to improve the design of the current system so that it can be scaled more easily and cheaply, and also to work with the municipal government and local investors to gain the necessary regulatory and monetary support for constructing the commercial facility.

For more information on the work that was conducted in January, please visit this previous blog.


July 8: Back into the Swing

After 3 weeks in Nicaragua, I am finally getting somewhere again.  When I left in January, I was optimistic that the project would continue without any problems and continue to improve on its own.  I should have known better from experiences and stories that momentum kind of peters out when a project is left without any direct supervision.  On a positive note, the entire project didn’t stop like it had in Ghana.

Just as a little background, this project started several years ago in D-Lab with a couple students interested in giving rural households an extra source of income while getting rid of their organic waste safely.  The project started in rural Norther Ghana, but after over a month of work, we went back to find that the project had been used as spare parts for other projects.  Flies to turn organic waste into animal feed and compost was something they didn’t see as necessary and thus was not worth the time investment.  That, along with the inability for the process to utilize some of the most common sources of organic waste (manure & human waste), made Ghana a very unsuitable place to start our project.

Then, the opportunity to use this technology in a new setting arose.  There was a group of waste pickers in Bluefields, Nicaragua who collected recyclables but had extra time and needed an extra source of income.  They were enthusiastic about the project before the pilot project was even started.  In January I conducted market research to ensure that the use of this project would be profitable and benefit the community.  I also built a small pilot system to compost organic waste and breed the flies that fuel the process.  Unfortunately I didn’t have time to start the process while I was there, so I just got it started and left instructions for them to follow.  I also made sure to stay in touch with a member of the local UN Development Program who helped me collect information about Bluefields and the possibilities to make the project move along.  Throughout spring, he helped me keep the project moving through a constant stream of emails, but it was obvious better training would have enabled the women of the waste picking cooperative  to operate the system more efficiently and completely.

That bring us up to this summer.  When I arrived the actual composting system was in use, and the larvae of the black soldier fly were consuming small quantities of organic waste.  The fly breeding system however was completely abandoned. After a full month of trying to get the flies to lay egg, they were unable to make it happen.  So they were simply allowing the larvae from the dump site to recycle the organic waste.  While they were using the Black Soldier Fly, they were unable to get enough larvae to compost a significant amount of organic waste.  As it turns out, I’m not really surprised they gave up after a month since it has taken me three full weeks to make headway with the flies.  I’ve built a new fly breeding system and consulted a professor at Texas A&M who has spent most of his life researching the Black Soldier Fly.  Finally, I have been able to keep the flies alive for more than a day and have finally got them to mate and start laying eggs.  Now it looks like I have to get started on making sure the composting system can keep up.  Not only have the flies started laying eggs to complete the entire composting system, but within the last week I have also met with several investors and we are in the process of writing incorporating documents to turn this project into an official company! Finally, it seems that I am getting into the swing of things and making significant progress with both the technical aspects and the business aspects of my project.

 July 24: Breaking Ground

In the past week, a thousand different emails and skype calls culminated in the formation of a new company: ASCSA.  With three investors, we were able to gain sufficient investment to buy 2 acres of land, build an small organic waste processing center and build a farm for 300 chickens to ensure constant demand for our early stage black soldier fly product.

The three investors include me (i couldn’t not be a part of it), a certified accountant in Managua, and a worker at a local branch of the UN who will have completed his degree to become a lawyer in December.  Together we started a new company: Alimentos Sustenible Caribe S.A. (sustainable foods of the Caribbean).  The amount of work and back and forth communication that was required for just three people to put something together was incredible.  I cant imagine what it would take to start a company with even 5 partners.  But then again, the poor access of internet and the laid back attitude down here may have been some of the worst contributing factors.  Anyway, now we are waiting for the incorporating documents to be approved by the government, which apparently takes over a month (I checked and it takes less than a day int he US).  But, at least everything on our end is complete and I can be done with paperwork for the time being.

After incorporating, we were able to buy 2 acres of land near the municipal garbage dump to use for our project.  The land is on the edge of a huge rainforest and includes a hill that overlooks thousands of acres of hilly forest.  On the back of our property, we even have a mini-waterfall.  We have already picked out the place that we are going to use to construct our scaled up fly breeding cage.  We are also in the process of leveling out the top area of the hill to build three large chicken coops.  We decided to start our own small chicken business because we had enough investment and wanted to ensure that we would have demand for our original product.  This also gives us the chance to prove that the larvae from our process are a viable replacement for the commercial food that is imported from Managua (at great expense).  As far as constructing the actual digester, I am in the process of trying to redesign the commercial site to take advantage of the slope from the hill, which could potentially allow us to use a continuous production system instead of a batch system like we had previously anticipated would be necessary.  In any case, I have at least a month before the fly cage will be producing enough eggs to necessitate a large scale digester.  For now, I guess I have a lot of little (and some not so little) construction projects to start!

August 14: Patients is a virtue:

Ever since we started working on the land for this project, I have been trying to hurry things along so that we can start getting productive and actually proving the profitability of using the Black Soldier Fly to feed chickens.  All I have learned is that things simply cannot be made to move faster in Nicaragua.  There are a thousand different reasons for why that it is so, but it is just something that can’t be hurried, especially if you want a quality product that will last.

One of the first things that I encountered (which I expected) was a lack of proper machinery and equipment to accomplish work in the US.  We are currently trying to reshape an entire hill to make it suitable for composting and raising chickens.  In the US, and earth mover would have finished the job in less than a day.  For us, it has been two and a half weeks of shoveling dirt.  At least we have a modern wheelbarrow to use (When the wheelbarrow broke down for a day, we literally were moving dirt with buckets).  While this has been a long and arduous task, as least it was expected.  The times when I really feel the strain of limited machinery and technology is when something unexpected occurs and you need to make a change of plans.  While we were leveling a hill, we encountered a large boulder.  In the US, I would have made a 30 minute trip to Home Depot to get an electric rock pick and the boulder would have been less than half of a day’s distraction.  Here, we had to find someone who knew how to break the rock, get a budget and time estimate, only to find out that it would take over a week and more than $200 to break the boulder. In the end we wasted 2 days worth of time just to figure out that we should probably try to do something else.

In the end, we did find another solution that should be faster.  Rather than digging away the top of the hill, we decided that we could use a terracing system to raise up the sides of the hill.  After talking with a couple local workers, they assured me the project could be done with the supplies present on the land, without the use of any extra supplies, and should be able to be done in 3-4 days. I was slightly skeptical about the terracing structure being stable without the use of cement, but I’m not an expert in terracing, so why not give it a try.  Three days into the project and we were nearly finished.  It indeed looked like we would be able to finish within 4 days and begin construction. on the fourth day, we made it to the construction site to see that the heavy rain of the previous night had washed out an entire section of the terrace wall.  I guess I should have tried to find an expert before starting.  But that again is another problem.  Finding an expert in terracing in Bluefields, Nicaragua is practically impossible because the idea of terracing for agriculture (and the benefits associated) have not made their way to Nicaragua yet.  Furthermore, there is no way to decide whether an expert is credible other than hearsay. After extensive googling and talking with a few landscapers in the US, I have learned that my terrace is too tall for the amount of rain that we receive and that I should have used cement along with a more solid foundation.  Now I have to deconstruct the entire terrace in order to do it correctly.  At this point, having chosen to break the boulder may have been the better choice.  Anyway, all I have learned is that while it is important to move fast in order to make money, I also need to take the time to consider all the options (and consult with people who actually know what they are doing).  If the best way is still slow, I guess there is nothing I can do about it. After all, if something seems too good to be true (in Nicaraguan standards anyway), it probably is.

August 31: The human element:

The end of august marks my halfway point here in Nicaragua.  So far it feels like all I have done is paperwork, have meetings and talk with people.  Yet In the last month, I have finally been able to work on the land that was purchased an part of our new business.  We now have a two story house with a full time worker/ security guard who lives on the land.  I also have another full time worker who came from the local waste picking cooperative to help get things going.  I can finally leave the land and my project and expect things to get accomplished, but the road to get there was quite honestly a pain in the ass.

I hired my first employee at the beginning of the month to help me prepare the land for composting with the BSF and chicken raising.  Bernarda had helped me start the small scale pilot of the project in January and had been working to keep it going in the interim.  While the project had not proceeded very smoothly in my absence, I figured that was just a technical problem that I had failed to show or explain correctly before I left.  But as we began to work together on the land, I learned that there may be a lot more to why things tend to go uncompleted in Nicaragua.  Every once and I while, I would try to do something a little out of my sphere of knowledge.  Often I would expect Bernarda to tell me if I was doing something wrong, but several times I would do something that would proceed to fail or litterally fall apart a couple days later (this happened to be a rock wall for a terrace).  Sometimes I would tell Bernarda that we needed to find someone who knew how to make a terrace, to which she would answer “I  can do that”.  Even when she knew how to do something better than me, she wouldn’t tell me because she wanted to be polite, even though she is 30 years my senior.

On the other hand, I hired several people to help me build the house for my security guard.  Four of the men that I hired insisted that they knew how to construct a building.  I assume they were trying to impress me by being a jack of all trades and doing all of the work solo.  Unfortunately it led to a concrete wall that is too fragile to lean on, a wall that cannot keep out rain, and a dented roof that will probably not last more than a couple of years.  Sometimes it seemed like I couldn’t win.  Fortunately time cures all wounds.

After several weeks of talking to Bernarda about the importance of doing things the first time and how being polite can sometimes be stupid (one time I litterally called her stupid for not telling me I was doing something wrong, to which she laughed).  Now, she actually talks to me on a regular basis and tells me when it would be better for her to do something (although she still refuses to tell me how to do things correctly).  I also hired a new person this week to help finish building the house.  He is a very quiet young man (which is uncommon for the younger generation here), and yet he speaks up when he has an idea about how to do something.  His works so far has been of quality that has at least stood up to the test of time of a week, which is more than previous work.  Furthermore, the guy was interested in working full time and is even willing to live in the new house to help guard the property.  Now I have two workers who are competent but not overly, and stupidly, confident.  They have helped me finish my first composting troughs, build a house for a security guard, and a chicken coop to raise chickens to eat the Black Soldier Fly larvae.  Over the next couple of weeks, we will begin to build a new fly cage and buy the chickens to officially start our new business.  While it wasn’t easy, at least I believe that I am in good hands for the time being…

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