OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Poop Belongs in the Loop: improving food security, soils and crop yields through micro application of pelletized humanure compost

We're scaling up the production and use of pelletized organic fertilizer made from composted humanure and carbon biomass to grow food crops.

Photo of Alisa Keesey
3 0

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

GiveLove is a U.S. registered 501 c 3 organization founded in 2010 (EIN#27-3039187).

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

This project is a collaboration between GiveLove, Sanitation Empowerment & Agricultural Support LTD Uganda (SEAS), City Future Ventures LTD,, and the You & I Foundation. GiveLove will act as the lead coordinating and technical organization to implement this vision with SEAS. Isaac Saabiti, SEAS founder, will establish the parameters for developing improved processing technologies and equipment. GiveLove will organize a team to conduct on-farm research to evaluate the fertilizer's effect on crop growth and yield, user-experience studies, and nutrient analysis. GiveLove and funded phase one of the project and skills training program in Kyebando and Kamwokya slums (February 2019 to present). You & I Foundation is a Ugandan NGO based in Kyebando helping to administer grant funds and expenditures. City Future Ventures is local start-up that will organize waste collectors, and urban gardening projects.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Los Angeles, California

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Kampala, Uganda's capital and largest city, covers an area of 189 sq. km (pop. 1.6 million), as well as farms in the central zone.

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Since 2010, GiveLove has pioneered Container-based Sanitation (CBS) and humanure composting approaches in Haiti, the United States (at Standing Rock), Nicaragua, Colombia, and Kenya.

Prior to joining GiveLove as program director, Alisa Keesey worked with farmers in northern Uganda for over a decade to improve household food security.  Alisa fell in love with Uganda and developed a deep understanding of smallholder agriculture. In 2016, several NGOs requested assistance from GiveLove in order to introduce compost toilets in Karamoja, West Nile, and Kampala. 

From 2016 to 2019, GiveLove implemented a three-year pilot project in collaboration with the German NGO Welthungerhilfe that successfully introduced compost toilets throughout schools and villages in Karamoja.

In 2016, Isaac Saabiti, CEO of SEAS and our key partner), also reached out for help with scaling-up humunare composting in Uganda, as he sought out technical expertise to grow his waste recycling and pellet fertilizer production business. 

In February 2019, GiveLove partnered with the Copenhagen-based, and the You & I Foundation, Ghetto Research Lab and City Future (all community-based organizations in Kampala) to launch an ambitious skills training program in Kyebando and Kamwokya slums to improve sanitation. 

Finally, all of the elements and partners we needed came together to scale up locally-run waste recycling projects. GiveLove has trained 15 compost technicians to date, and oversees the first phase pilot project that provides public toilets for hundreds of people in Kyebando; household toilets for disabled people; and on-site composting in these communities. It's the perfect location to scale our vision. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Kampala, the vibrant capital city of Uganda. Uganda’s population recently reached 42.8 million people — of which 76% live in rural areas. Over 70% of households engage in agriculture as their main livelihood. Bananas, maize, beans, sweet potatoes, millet, wheat, sorghum, and rice are staple foods. Coffee, maize, tea, sugar, cotton, and fish are the main exports.

Uganda is experiencing rapid urbanization; its annual urban growth rate is one of the highest in the world at 5.2 %. Since 1991, Kampala has quadrupled the size of its spatial footprint. The Work Bank estimates that by 2050 Uganda's population will reach 100 million, and the city will swell from 1.6 million inhabitants today to over 9 million, as more young people and climate refugees move out of traditional livelihoods. 

This unprecedented influx of people to the city has posed many challenges for the Government of Uganda and urban planners.There is a dire need for jobs, adequate housing, waste collection and treatment, as well as affordable water and sanitation services for the poor. Kampala is famous for its Boda Boda moto-taxis, bad roads, and notorious traffic jams that strain movement around the bustling city.

Currently, 87% of households live in informal dwellings; and entire areas of the city lack sewerage and piped water. Most settlements don’t have any way to cope with the serious shortage of toilets; over 90% of Kampala’s residents must share makeshift public pit latrines. These latrines regularly overflow into the streets and canals during the rainy season, or when people can’t afford to empty them. In the worst areas, people use plastic bags and pots to relieve themselves or resort to open defecation. Kampala has a dire waste management crisis that causes dangerous levels of environmental pollution, and degrades Lake Victoria's precious water resources. Cholera and sanitation-related diseases are endemic, and the toll on public health is costly. 

Uganda also has one of the youngest populations on the planet — 77% of its citizens are under age 30, and 50% are under age 15. High unemployment and extreme poverty are considered dangerous threats to Uganda’s political stability as the country strives to reduce poverty and reconcile regional divides. Young people are aspirational, but there are few job opportunities.

Researchers talk about the “Orange Zones” in the slums where people die young from diabetes, and preventable illnesses. Kampala's slums are the polar opposites of Blue Zones where culture, lifestyle and good diets promote longevity and happiness. Slum life in Uganda is harsh and most households struggle to eat one meal a day, especially street children and unemployed youth. Bottled water is expensive, and people turn to starchy meals and sweet drinks to fill their bodies. 

Despite these challenges, Kampala is a cosmopolitan city with an exciting youth culture that has embraced social media and environmental conservation. There is a thriving activist scene pushing for youth empowerment, environmental justice and greener spaces. Urban gardening, recycling and permaculture are on the rise, and young people are deeply concerned about climate change.  

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Agriculture is the backbone of Uganda’s economy, yet the Total Factor Productivity (TFP) has been negative since 2000 (World Bank, 2018). In simple terms, Uganda’s farmers are using more resources and reaping less each year.

Rapid population growth, the increase in export agriculture, climate change, and farm fragmentation have contributed to land-use intensification — half of Uganda’s land area is now under cultivation. Uganda’s food system will face many challenges in 2050, but there are real opportunities to reverse the current course with Climate Smart policies, and increased usage of inorganic and organic fertilizers.  Uganda has one of the lowest levels of fertilizer use in the world — amounting to only 1 kg per hectare per year because small farm enterprises do not know how to use fertilizer, and most can't afford the poor quality inputs available. In comparison, Uganda's neighbors, Kenya,Tanzania and Malawi, have all driven agricultural growth and productivity to some degree with robust public subsidies of chemical fertilizer.

Current farming practices, and the intensive mining of biomass for cooking fuel (80% of land area is now deforested) have led to increasing soil erosion and compaction, and the loss of soil's water-retention capacity. The rapid loss of biodiversity (from microbes, insects, birds, and animals to indigenous plant species) is a complex phenomenon that contributes to the loss of soil fertility, low pollination-levels, diminished natural pest management, and the degradation of watersheds. 

Water scarcity and flooding are equally serious problems as seasonal rainfall becomes more variable and extreme. Temperatures are projected to rise 2.5 degrees Celsius by 2050 — thus, it’s imperative to look at Uganda’s food systems in the broader context of ecological degradation and climate change. Uganda’s tropical soils are degrading. Despite this bleak scenario, the agricultural sector is expected to drive future economic growth and exports, and feed the populous nation.

Ugandan farmers have scarce assets to fall back on, limited access to capital and crop insurance, and few safety nets beyond family networks — all factors that result in weak local resilience and 'adaptive' capacity to cope with climate change. Both rural and urban populations are vulnerable to periods of food insecurity caused by drought and high food prices. Ugandans are also vulnerable to malnutrition on one hand, and obesity and diabetes on the other, as tastes shift from traditional foods to starchy and sugar-based diets, and inexpensive fast and processed foods.

Regenerative farming practices should be aimed at increasing smallholder production. However, most smallholders lack knowledge in Climate Smart practices such as mulching, rainwater catchment and irrigation techniques. The majority of households practice rain-fed, traditional agriculture and use very poor quality inputs — hand-hoes, low-quality seeds and manures, and expired or ineffective fertilizers. There is a lot of opportunity for improvement in these areas, especially for programs targeted at young people who will continue to flock to cities.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

To feed Uganda’s population, and restore its depleted soils and degraded water resources, Uganda (and most of sub-Saharan Africa) will need to embrace a complete paradigm shift in the way people think about and manage their organic wastes and biomass resources— including food wastes, crop residues, animal manures and human excreta.

Our vision calls for a new 21st century green revolution that places a high value on: 1) viewing human excreta as a productive and ‘renewable’ resource; 2) fostering regenerative farming practices and carbon farming; and, 3) committing to environmental stewardship. Our vision for a circular sustainable food system is a stark contrast to the reliance on fossil fuel-based inorganic fertilizers on which our current paradigm is based, especially as we approach the limits of peak-agriculture and peak-phosphorus.

On a global scale, nutrient recovery from food, human, and animal wastes combined could capture millions of tons of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N, P, K) annually. Excreta processing and other forms of organics recycling could generate 2.7 times the amount of nutrients being used each year in the form of chemical fertilizer. Capturing the nutrients in human excreta alone would amount to 41 million tons of recovered N, P, K each year — roughly equal to 28% of current annual fertilizer consumption (Otto and Drechsel 2018:6). 

Composting excreta and biomass (that often is burned during field clearing) results in high-value compost rich in nutrients and organic matter. Combined with growing beneficial ‘biomass corridors’,  and and practices that encourage ‘carbon farming' abundant amounts of carbon matter can be returned to the soil.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have established ambitious targets for action, yet we’re not on course to reach many of the goals aimed at reducing hunger and malnutrition, improving soils and food security, or achieving waste recycling and re-use goals.

Humanure composting and other methods of excreta utilization can link multiple development and environmental agendas: from creating jobs and locally produced fertilizer products, to improving food security at the family farm-level. Uganda’s fertilizer markets are currently controlled by only a few importers, and approximately 250 retailers. Most farmers lack even basic knowledge on proper fertilizer application, and national extension services suffer from inadequate funding and institutional capacity.

By creating a local organic fertilizer industry, driven by small and artisan producers, our vision will reduce Uganda’s reliance on expensive imported synthetic fertilizers. This model could be replicated across sub-Saharan Africa. 

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Our Vision Addresses Six Key Areas for Action:

1) Experts agree that there are many opportunities for value creation in Uganda’s sanitation sector. The local production of organic fertilizer will bring Uganda one step closer to linking the SDG goals for improved sanitation, food security,  nutrient recycling, and establish new ways to achieve biocycle-based, circular economies in Uganda. 

2) Policy frameworks and financing aimed at creating business models for organic waste recycling and ecological sanitation have lagged behind funding for conventional waste processing. Our vision puts waste recycling at the center of the conversation for policy change, R &D, and investment.

3) Local communities need to be empowered with practical knowledge to improve sanitation and grow food where they live. Professional and technical skills training will enable them to transform their own lives and build local capacity. There is an enormous reservoir of unemployed and unskilled youth that can enter this sector with professional skills training. 

4) Advances in waste processing methods, as well as IT and data collection technologies will play an important role in marketing, and provide farmers with timely and accurate information on how to use organic inputs. 

5) Uganda’s cities will be hubs for innovation, climate action, permaculture, and urban agricultural production led by young people.  

6) This project will expand the local production of organic fertilizer products to improve crop yeilds. Our vision links several important research agendas that can help us meet the UN SDGs targets. Research on how to process and capture nutrients from human waste for agricultural production can intersect with agendas to improve public health and household nutrition, as well as food security, and soil conservation. 

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

In the award-winning Sci-fi film,The Martian, Matt Damon’s character astronaut Mike Watney becomes stranded alone on Mars after a dust storm forces his mission to abort, and he is left for dead by his crew mates. Watney, the space mission’s botanist, is faced with surviving years on Mars with a dwindling food supply and numerous technical challenges while he waits to be rescued. But first he needs to grow food on the barren planet — with Mars dust.

The situation seems impossible, but Watney turns to the spaceship’s toilet where he recovers the dehydrated packs of feces and urine. Miraculously, he fashions a working greenhouse and grows a crop of potatoes that sustain him. The pee and poop provide the essential nutrients to transform Mars dust into living soil.

The Sci-fi drama offers us a thought experiment for imagining the near future, as humans confront the challenges of living on a barren planet with dwindling resources; and billionaires fuel a new space race —hedging that our species’ survival depends on colonizing space, or some other yet discovered planet.

The future in this scenario is scary and hard to comprehend. Who will have enough food to survive? And, who will have the power to decide these matters of life and death?

These questions lead us to ask: what if these billionaires instead decide to double-down on saving planet earth, by investing billions of dollars to develop regenerative agricultural systems, and affordable new technologies to process human waste?

We know that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested heavily in developing new toilet technologies to make power and other products, but why have so few of these innovations been brought to market? Could it be possible that we’ve invested too much on the hope of inventing a high-tech silver bullet — or a miracle toilet? How can we provide affordable access to safe sanitation and clean water for billions of people and simultaneously move away from water-based sewerage systems, and the use of primitive pit latrines that pollute the environment and precious water resources?

Our Vision starts with the exploration of these dilemmas and questions in mind. 

Many experts recognize the potential for scaling-up decentralized waste processing and composting enterprises that are labor intensive and utilize low-tech processes, instead of capital intensive industrial-scale operations that require large investments in machinery and equipment. Community-based composting projects and small businesses have shown some promising successes, but there is an overwhelming reluctance by investors to finance these enterprises because their profitability is low, and the operations are hard to replicate and scale.

Humanure composting is difficult to scale-up due to several key constraints:

1) Affordable off-the-shelf dry toilet technologies and specialized hardware have not been developed to maximize resource recovery from urine and feces.

2)  Small-scale waste processing is hindered by the lack of specialized collection vessels and vehicles, and mechanical grinders and shredders needed to process carbon cover material and feedstocks.

3) There is a serious lack of R & D, institutional support, and professional training in human waste processing techniques and science. 

In North America and Europe, the composting industry is highly developed and vertically integrated — and supported by a vast array of professional training opportunities, institutional and commercial R &D, technical services, and specialized equipment and products designed for composting operations of every size and scale — from community gardens to municipal-sized systems.

The industry has developed a vast array of products including — compostable bags used for waste collection, collection vessels, cleaning equipment, temperature monitoring technology, mechanical grinders and sorters, and specialized fabrics to protect compost piles. Despite these innovations, few products are designed with the needs of the developing world in mind.

Our vision will explore and test simple technological innovations that can bring efficiencies to community-based composting and waste processing in Uganda (and throughout sub-Saharan Africa), with the goal of designing low-cost processing techniques and appropriate technology suitable for the economic and environmental context.

High quality compost is highly beneficial as an agricultural input. Compost adds organic matter, nutrients, and microbes to the soil, and improves soil structure and water retention capacity.

In Uganda, the commercial composting industry is not highly developed, and few people know how to properly compost food waste, biomass, or animal manure, thus the market for compost products is weak.  Human waste collection and composting has only recently been introduced in Uganda, mostly by small NGOs working in hard-to-serve rural areas. 

Compost is expensive to produce and does not have a high market value due to high storage and transport costs. Uganda farmers do not know how to apply compost or fertilizer effectively, thus the use of organic inputs with the exception of animal manure is very limited.

Our Vision:

SEAS was the first business in Uganda to make pellets from treated fecal sludge produced from Lubigi waste treatment plant in Uganda. It is sold to farmers and landscapers in the central Kampala city zone. At times, the supply of fecal sludge is limited because of the growing demand from commercial landscapers. 

in 2019, SEAS began to produce fertilizer pellets from co-composted wastes streams including mature compost from GiveLove's projects in Karamoja to increase its production capacity. The enterprise is currently developing several new formulas with varying content of fecal sludge and compost. 

SEAS current production capacity is at its limit because the business does not have the capital to purchase its own equipment. SEAS currently rents production time from a Kampala-based business that manufactures animal feed pellets. The machinery has been adapted to grind, powderize, and pelletize (a multi-step process that uses two different machines) the compost and fecal sludge. Approximately 30% of the product is lost through the manufacturing process. 

Market Outlook & Farmer Experiences

SEAS is currently selling two versions of the pellet products under the brand Green Plant to a customer base of 300 farmers, ranging from women who cultivate small fields of cabbages, to small and mid-size commercial farmers that grow vegetables, pineapples, sugarcane and tomatoes for Kampala's produce markets. The farmers do not have any accurate information about the nutrient content of the Green Plant fertilizer because the bags of pellets do not have any nutrient analysis on the label. 

Our research found that farmers are purchasing the organic fertilizer because they received free samples to test from SEAS and they had good results. Many of the farmers are now requesting credit terms to purchase more product, however SEAS in unable to provide credit terms. The farmers also told researchers that they have committed to try Green Plant because they are growing more fearful of getting cancer and other illnesses from the use of synthetic fertilizer and other agro-chemicals. Most of the farmers are not even aware that Green Plant contains compost made from humanure. 

One farmer told our research team that he was able to increase his yield of tomatoes from 70 boxes to 120 boxes in one season with the use of Green Plant pellets. Another commercial farmer purchased 100 kgs of Green Plant fertilizer to apply to his 8 acre farm. 

This prize will allow us to conduct proper on-farm trials, research and nutrient analysis of Green Plant products. 

Benefits of Green Plant & Marketing Strategy

As mentioned in previous sections, Ugandan farmers use very minimal amounts of fertilizer because local products are repackaged, and usually of very poor quality. Without reliable results or experiences, small farmers are reluctant to invest in fertilizer or compost products, thus agricultural productivity is diminishing, and soils are being depleted.

Working in collaboration with GiveLove, SEAS came up with the marketing concept of "micro-dosing" -- this allows the SEAS sales team to instruct farmers how to apply the fertilizer pellets properly. The farmers are instructed to use a bottle cap from either a water bottle or jerrycan to measure out the pellets for the plants depending on the crop needs. When producing seedlings, a bed of soil is prepared with the fertilizer. 

This marketing and extension strategy has been highly effective in growing SEAS' client base and boosting sales because their customers are repeat buyers. SEAS is currently selling Green Plant at several retail outlets, and recently switched from plastic packaging to a study paper bag to be more environmentally friendly and sustainable. 

Objectives & Vision:

This prize will allow our team to focus on five key areas to advance our vision. 

1) GiveLove will provide technical and project management expertise to test and develop grinder and pelletizing equipment to reduce product loss and scale-up production capacity.

2) Applied Research — to understand the benefits of Green Plant fertilizer and farmer experiences. GiveLove will reach out to Makerere University and other research partners to collaborate on this research.

3) Scaling-up a community-run composting facility in Kampala to scale-up humanure processing, and further develop our skills training programs with the goal of issuing professional training certifications. 

4) Rigorous product testing and nutrient analysis.

5) Industrial design to produce affordable compost toilets in Uganda.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Article


Join the conversation:

Photo of Lauren Ito

Hi Alisa Keesey great to see you joining the Prize!

We noticed your submission is currently unpublished. Was this your intention? We'd love to have your submission included in the Prize. Even if you've not started populating your Vision just yet, by publishing your submission you can make it public for other teams in your region to see, get in touch and possibly even collaborate with you.

You can publish it by hitting the "Publish" button at the top of your post. You can also update your Vision at any time before 31 January 2020 by clicking on the "Edit Contribution" on top. If you need inspiration or guidance, take a look at the Food Vision Prize Toolkit. linked here:

Look forward to seeing your Vision evolve through the coming weeks.

Photo of Alisa Keesey

We plan on finishing the application this week, we've been under time constraint with other projects but this looks like an amazing opportunity.

Photo of Lauren Ito

Looking forward to reviewing it!