11 Jun 2019 Story Gender

How waterless toilets can make a splash

Twenty-eight-year-old Jenifer Colpas is Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder at Tierra Grata. It is a social enterprise that sets out to address the need for basic energy, water and sanitation services in Colombia.

Her team trains women in good water and sanitation practices. They install low-cost bathrooms with ecological toilets that do not require water, saving 270,000 liters of water per year. Her system protects water resources while generating natural fertilizer to use on the farm.   

She set up her Colombian enterprise with a very clear mission in mind. “Water and sanitation issues sit at the intersection of environmental and social concerns. Lacking water and sanitation solutions contribute to disease, stagnation and the pollution of natural waterways,” she says.

When combined with the impacts of urbanization—loss of forest cover, for example—the natural protection for watersheds and purification services becomes degraded, aggravating further the gap between water supply and demand, she notes.

Colpas with the community outside one of the toilet installations. Photo by Tierra Grata

Lack of access to sanitation services can also be a deterrent to women’s participation in meetings, training and other events where important decisions are made, further isolating them from influencing development in their own communities. In most poor, remote regions, it is not unusual to travel for hours without a bathroom in sight.

Often, the communities where Colpas works are cut off from water and sanitation services and this is the gap she sets out to fill.

UN Environment’s Lis Mullin Bernhardt, Freshwater Expert, says: “Access to water and sanitation is a basic human right, fundamental to the realization of all other human rights. Unfortunately, a lack of adequate access, either in terms of quantity or quality of water, often impacts women and children disproportionately.

“In most regions of the world, women are responsible for helping their families get access to these life-giving services, so it is essential that their unique views and challenges are part of the decision-making processes and solutions. Tierra Grata is a great step in this direction.”

As a Young Champions of the Earth Regional Finalist for Latin America and the Caribbean and global Changemaker, Colpas tells us about her relentless journey and mission to found Tierra Grata.

The Tierra Grata team work together with local communities to improve sanitation. Photo by Tierra Grata  

What inspired you to co-found Tierra Grata?

When I was living in India, there was a particular moment that opened my eyes to the social inequalities that persist. At the time, I was working in the Information Technology sector and started feeling that my work was not helping to reduce the conditions of poverty that so many people around me lived in and that I saw every day on the street.

When I was back in Colombia, I started observing similar poverty in my city, and began volunteering in different organizations. I was truly outraged by the fact that people lived without the most basic things, like access to electricity, a proper toilet and safe drinking water. This is why, together with a group of friends, I decided to create Tierra Grata to work on providing solutions for these challenges and improve the quality of life in the communities.

What role does your technology play in protecting our environment?

We provide low-cost and very easy-to-install bathrooms and ecotoilets, which improve the quality of life for many people, while taking care of the environment. It is important to promote innovative solutions that serve environmental as well as social purposes and that empower communities to become more productive and to spark development.

We focus on households headed by women, or households where a large number of girls and women live. We seek to train them in using our technologies, as well as repairing and maintaining them, and to establish their role in the community. Women act as the main representation of Tierra Grata in communities.

What are the main obstacles you face in developing this project?

The main challenge we face is legal: the laws that support our kind of work in Colombia are limited, and the work of a social enterprise is not always very well understood. Despite these challenges, in the last year we have been awarded a series of recognitions. We received an award for Innovative Water and Sanitation Solutions, and were awarded the Leadership in Action Award from a major media house in Colombia, EL ESPECTADOR. We also obtained a United Nations Development Programme grant to implement our solutions.

What is your advice for young entrepreneurs looking to start a business and fight for a sustainable future?

My advice is to dream big. Even when you start with small actions, the key thing is just to start. Once the road is paved by small steps, then you can begin to structure your ideas better and work towards larger goals. The world is putting hope in young people and it is our responsibility to unite and take action to leave a better planet to future generations.

What is your vision and ultimate goal for the future? 

Our dream is to be the first social enterprise for rural public services in Latin America, providing innovative solutions to cover the neglected basic needs of those rural communities. We dream of seeing millions of people with access to safe drinking water, a toilet and clean, accessible energy.