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The Inside Story Behind Scripting The FSM ‘Poo To Prosperity’ Story In Nilgiris

With first-hand experience in the Sanitation value-chain, WASTE in partnership with the US AID Securing Water For Food Grand Challenge initiative was a pioneering  entry into this challenging project. It involved treating black and grey water and using treated faecal sludge for use in agricultural practices which led to stunning results in the Nigiris district of Tamil Nadu. Mr Rajkumar  Sampath, Advisor FINISH Mondial, gives us a low down on the stunning  success of this project and how he made this happen, in this Exclusive Interview 

Chander Mahadev

You have been a pioneer in the Solid Waste Management space and have to your credit years of experience in this sector. Can you give us a brief background about the kind of work you have done in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu and what kind of obstacles and barriers you faced?

I firstly would like to thank WASTE for providing me an opportunity to get associated with their FINISH initiative taken up with RDO Trust. Basically this model was very simple in enabling the women Self Help Groups avail specific financial support to build individual household toilets. It was purely a financial inclusion model of enabling women obtain financial assistance for the construction of proper sanitation infrastructure as a major step to stop Open Defecation and make Nilgiris an ODF District. With a good first-hand experience on achieving encouraging results in the initial activity of the Sanitation value-chain, WASTE in partnership with the trust in question was exploring to embark on a very innovative Project under the US AID Securing Water For Food Grand Challenge initiative which was my entry into this very interesting Project. The innovation was on recycling Grey and Black Water that could benefit 2250 Vegetable growing farmers mitigate climate change effect and increase vegetable production and farm income. . This successful pilot project for three years enabled us to explore up-scaling through the Water Energy for Food initiative of US AID to cover 6 more ULBs and 20,000 Tea and Vegetable farmers.

There were certainly many obstacles and hindrances in our efforts:

  • Discussion with the Government local body institutions of Town Panchayaths in working with them on streamlining the Solid waste management and working out a clear memorandum of understanding
  • Construction of a Faecal Sludge Treatment Plant (FSTP) within the Solid Waste Management infrastructure – Resource Recovery Park (RRP)
  • Revenue sharing of the income realized from this social enterprise
  • Bringing together the Green workers (Sanitation workers) of the Government and the Project for better working relationship
  • Making the Government officials looking at waste management as a resource generation activity as well as a community service initiative
  • Coming to a common understanding of realizing this entire activity as a Social Enterprise initiative that would provide sustainable livelihood for the Green workers.

How do you expect to break the stigma among farmers about using co-compost made out of human waste?

FSMC has already communicated with different farmers and farmer groups about the product. Every year BSc students from the prestigious IHE, Delft (Netherlands) come to FSMC for doing research/dissertation work on various angles of FSM. In a similar study, interviews and group discussions were done with farmer groups where the latter have acknowledged the need for such a product. They can relate that during the open defecation days, their yield used to be better due to the useful nutrients found in faecal sludge. And now, with co-compost, it will be much better as the harmful bacteria are taken care of by the composting process with the nutrients being intact in the co-compost. The farmers seem to be very happy to have such a product in the market.

What plan did you put in place to remove the huge stigma attached to co-compost produced out of human waste? What were the barriers you had to face?

Our agricultural extension activity through the field staff first focused on interacting with the farmers to encourage them to use the nutrient rich co-compost. We also were transparent in expressing that the co-compost was product of both wet waste and recycled faecal sludge. The response to this from the farmers of different village was also different. In one village the farmers expressed that it was alright for them to use the co-compost as even during earlier times the practice of open defecation was as good as using faecal sludge as compost in the field. In another village the farmers were keen to see the process of production of co-compost and arranging for an exposure visit to the RRP was a wonderful extension strategy that enabled us to convince the farmers of the safety in using the co-compost for vegetable cultivation. Sharing the analysis report of the co-compost with the farmers was another convincing factor for the farmers to accept co-compost as a certified product. Peer group farmers in each of the villages who used the co-compost became our ambassadors for co-compost with proven results of increase in production and quality of vegetables fetching increased in income. The reduction in input cost for the farmers who reduced the quantity of chemical fertilizers by using the co-compost was another factor encouraging more farmers requesting for co-compost and increasing the demand.

The first barrier was from the green workers themselves who were hesitant first to have the FSTP constructed in the RRP. A lot of persuasion and assurance enabled us to construct the FSTP.

The next was the green workers were hesitant to use the dry faecal sludge for forming of the windrows along with the wet waste. Initially using the labour from the honey sucker units for this activity brought a change and the green workers slowly felt comfortable to handle the dry faecal sludge.

Did you design a behaviour change communication plan? If yes, can you share the broad outline of this plan?

I cannot say that we had a clear-cut behaviour change communication plan designed to work with our green workers and farmers. But the strategy adopted by us in making waste management more focused to their health and safety with first ensuring that the hazards of bad odour and unpleasant materials in the solid waste as well as the faecal sludge are brought for recycling. Providing Personal Protective equipment, periodical vaccinations and health care for all the green workers including health card and insurances was another clear intervention for enabling positive behavioural change among the green workers.   

Can you share data points of co-compost produced and sold per year and how much raw faecal sludge was used in the process?

During the years 2018 – 2019 – 2020

  • Total quantity of raw faecal sludge recycled             -5, 23,700 Litres
  • Quantity of Co-compost produced                              -691.650 Tons
  • Farmers adopting the use of co-compost                  -1,753
  • Area covered                                                                    -838.12 Hectares

During the year 2021

  • Total quantity of raw faecal sludge recycled                    -1,65,600 Litres
  • Quantity of Co-compost produced                                     – 1,438.966 Tons
  • Farmers adopting the use of co-compost                         -2,777
  • Area covered                                                                          -1,244.60 Hectares

Did the co-compost you produced have proven efficacy when it came to harvesting crops

Yes a pilot study was undertaken with ICAR – Indian Institute of Soil and Water Conservation at Ooty which has brought out a result of increase in crop yield of 15 to 16% with the use of Co-compost. The study also revealed an improved quality of vegetables resulting in increased income.

Can you share how you scaled up operations and how did you find buyers for your produce?

The entire operation was streamlined with mechanisation for improved segregation, shredding, laying of windrows in enclosed sheds and proper sieving of the co-compost. We also initiated similar interventions in another Town Panchayath – Adigarahatty, which recycled waste from three Town Panchayaths. Another FSTP with 5 Kld capacity was also constructed for recycling additional faecal sludge required for increased production of Co-compost at Adigarahatty.

The SWFF Project was initiated to cover a fixed number of villages and farmers who were institutionalized into Women Farmers Producer Companies. At present with the Water Energy for Food which included tea growing farmers in Small Tea Growers Association increased our customer base. The farmers who are members of these institutions are the main buyers and the demand is still high.  

In your present role as Faecal Sludge Management Advisor to FINISH Mondial what is your action plan?

Based on my experience and exposure to FSM & SWM on a Circular Economy in Sanitation for Agriculture model since 2017, FINISH Mondial (FM) India was kind enough to offer me a Consultancy Assignment for the year 2023. The assignment is focused on four major pillars of:

  • Technical support and Trainings
  • Lab testing support
  • Government Engagement
  • Partner Support

My action plan was to study the initiatives on FSM & SWM and the production of co-compost taken up by FINISH Mondial India at various locations in association with FSMC/RDO Trust and provide suitable action plan for achieving the goal of sustainable circular economy in sanitation for agriculture model. I also wish to follow-up with strengthening the capacities of all our staff members both FINISH and FSMC through the required Training and Exposure programme. I had to support the process of ensuring the required standard parameters for analysis of the co-compost and further strengthen the engagement with Government and partnership with other resource institutions.

What are the areas you are working in and what are the targets you have set?

I am working in the following areas:

  1. Training curriculum and schedule for Training of Green workers and Supervisors
  2. Drafting of template for documentation of the entire process
  3. Working on acquiring more insights on Carbon financing for Safe Sanitation initiatives 

Targets to achieve the deliverables as per the contract signed with FINISH Mondial India.

Do you think co-compost out of human waste can change the country’s agricultural eco-system?

While interacting with the Farmers there was a major learning obtained. For a farmer nothing is waste and all farm-waste is indeed a resource. Also interacting with agricultural scientists who raised concern that if we reduce the use of fertilizers what will be the alternate source of nutrients for the crops grown? I think looking at the huge quantum of waste generated this can be an excellent resource for co-compost production and be a good alternative for the nutrient requirement even if we reduce the use of chemical fertilizers. I also feel that this is a very right initiative to also improve the soil nutritional status in the long run and stabilize sustainable agriculture practices in the Country. As detailed in the figure  below, 68% (34 out of 50) farmers saw their yields increase over the period the innovation was active in Nilgiris .All of those who observed increase in the crop yield felt that there was better quality and improved survival rates of their crops. 28% (14 out of 50) farmers reported to observe a substantial increase in the yield with 4% (2 outof 50) farmers reported to not using the innovation. There could have been multiple solutions for improving the crop production and attain higher income, but water scarcity and deteriorating soil productivity needed a technical solution. The challenge was not only to manage the available fresh water resources and improve soil productivity but also to arrange for more water and highly nutrient rich soil conditioner for agriculture activities in the Nilgiris. At local level, the innovation presented here seemed the best solution that addressed all the issues in one attempt.

Agriculture activities:

Table crafted below shows the number of crops cultivated before and after using innovation by the respondents. It is evident from the table that substantial diversification is the outcome of the innovation. Farmers have observed better yield in terms of size, colour, skin and taste of the vegetables. Carrot, the golden crop of the Nilgiris, has performed well with 14% increase in the production after using innovation. Beetroot saw an increase of 12% in production whereas garlic and potato only saw an increase of 2%. Other crops such as beans, cabbage, radish, cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini also witnessed an increase in the production. Crops like flowers, strawberries, fenugreek and capsicum were introduced which were not produced before the access to innovation.