High in the northern mountains of Guatemala, near the ancient city of Quetzaltenango, there’s an unusual new venture that is helping transform the way local communities think about the garbage they throw into landfills. It’s also reforming the way people think about nature’s most industrious ecologist: the worm.
María Rodriguez, founder of Byoearth is teaching women the value of the red wiggler worm and the use of vermicomposting to support sustainable farming. It’s a concept she believes in passionately and is having increasing success selling to both local farmers and non-profit aid organizations throughout Latin America.
Vermicomposting uses worms, rather than chemicals to create fertilizer. It relies on methods that have always been available but are generally not used in the large-scale production of commercial fertilizer. Worms – rather than chemicals – eat the organic substances such as corn cobs, potato peelings, apple cores, etc. and convert the discards to nutrient-rich organic fertilizer. The process doesn’t require synthetic compounds and works faster than that compost pile you have in your back yard.
But Rodriguez’s business model does more than that. It helps lift struggling families out of generations of poverty by teaching women new skills they can use in their own communities.
The region around Quetzaltenango is known both for its striking beauty and its staggering poverty. More than 50 percent of Guatemalans live in rural settings, and approximately 70 percent of those residents live in poverty. High infant mortality rates, malnutrition and poor access to education often create a vicious cycle of poverty for many of Guatemala’s rural indigenous families.
As in many developing nations, landfills in Guatemala have had a dubious role to play in the survival of the most impoverished. For those without money to purchase food, furniture and even shelter, they have often been a place of last resort. They are also a source of disease and risk for those who are forced to comb through community dumps for their food.
Rodriguez’s company helps break this cycle by teaching women how to convert organic garbage into a usable, saleable resource with vermicomposting. The women are taught how to feed and raise the worms, which are then used to break down the composted materials into fertilizer. Needless to say, the idea of handling slippery, squirming worms isn’t always a popular hit with her students, but her enthusiasm usually wins out.
“We explain about animal husbandry, and we basically teach them to take care of worms as they would take care of a pet.... its really fun!” Rodriguez says. She has admitted on other occasions that distraction techniques have helped just as well.
“I usually say: ‘No! But look at their beautiful yellow tail!’ and that seems to get women’s attention.”
Three plants owned and operated by women produce the organic fertilizer, which the company then purchases and markets with the help of non-profit partners. The operation provides businesses, jobs and training for rural women, helps to convert organic materials in landfills to sustainable products and allows Rodriguez’s company to grow in the process.
“What really inspired me to start Byoearth was … the ability of worms to transform waste into wealth. At the time, I found that this was a great viable business opportunity in rural areas, but never imagined the power it had to create social and environmental impact.”
The daughter of a coffee farmer, she has a ready supply of food source for her wigglers – and a perfect opportunity to teach others how to create a sustainable product that can then be sold on the market.
Byoearth also partners with a variety of non-profit organizations. In Guatemala City, some 70 miles/112 km southeast of Quetzaltenango, Rodriguez’s company is working with the Junkabal Foundation to provide vocational training for some 65 women.
“The objective is to transfer skills on vermicomposting that they can promote and apply in their communities,” she says. “We are selling their fertilizer in local plant nurseries with a premium recycled package and we are starting to improve economic returns” for those who are participating.
But while marketing opportunities seem to be increasing for Byoearth, the company has still had some challenges to meet. Last week’s 7.4 earthquake in the adjacent area of San Marcos damaged some of the company’s infrastructure, including worm cribs used in vermicomposting.
“A lot of things came down,” she said, “but no human losses, thank God.”
Still, she is optimistic about the future. “Byoearth is in a critical growth period in Guatemala. We are expanding our production capacity and expanding our efforts to involve more communities into our production chain.”
And the work appears to be paying off.
“We are about to finally expand our team, measure new impact metrics and develop a micro franchising model that we can take to other countries.”
With communities in other parts of Central America, Asia and Africa already on the horizon, and a proven model for creating a sustainable enterprise in developing countries, who knows where the red worm and organic vermicomposting will take Byoearth next.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.