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Halifax group harnesses power of poop

David Gallagher is executive director of Aerosan Toilets, a non-profit organization that converts public toilets to produce gas for energy purposes in Nepal and Haiti. The Lion and Bright co-founder is shown at the Halifax cafe and wine bar last week.
JOHN MCPHEE • THE CHRONICLE HERALD
David Gallagher is executive director of Aerosan Toilets, a non-profit organization that converts public toilets to produce gas for energy purposes in Nepal and Haiti. The Lion and Bright co-founder is shown at the Halifax cafe and wine bar last week. JOHN MCPHEE • THE CHRONICLE HERALD

It’s not typically a subject for the dinner table but David Gallagher is talking poop amid the hubbub of his Halifax cafe and wine bar.

The co-founder of Lion and Bright on Agricola Street leads a double life as a humanitarian worker and volunteer that has taken him around the world.

As he describes his latest gig as executive director of the Halifaxbased NGO Aerosan Toilets, it’s hard to avoid using a lot of fourletter words.

Aerosan’s projects include harnessing human waste as an energy source while promoting social equality and entrepreneurial activity in Kathmandu, Nepal.

“What we do is take a public toilet, we genderize it,” said Gallagher, a cheery and garrulous Brit who opened Lion and Bright with his son Sean (as well as the attached Local Source market) in 2013 after moving to Halifax from the U.K.

“We make the women’s part safe, secure, it

has menstrual health facilities and all of that,” Gallagher said in an interview on Friday. “Then we build a biogas digester on the side, which basically is they dig a big hole and put a dome over it.”

The gas produced by the digester is piped into containers similar to propane cylinders and are sold to nearby businesses, such as cafes as a power source.

Through an arrangement with the municipality of Biratnagar and Kathmandu (which owns the land 

where the toilets are located) and a local NGO, most of gas revenues are syphoned back into the community.

About 10 per cent goes to the municipality and 80 per cent to the roughly 60 sanitation workers who service Aerosan’s three toilet complexes in Kathmandu. The local NGO has helped the workers form a co-op, which also includes local people who roam the streets collecting trash such as bottles and cans.

“They set up a little fund which they use to set up a small cleaning business or improving their own communities,” said Gallagher, who since 1970 has worked with organizations such as Oxfam and Care in Africa, Latin America, the Balkans and Asia.

“And the municipality, we made a deal with them that they would match that fund one-to-one, so every dollar we make on sales of biogas, they put a dollar in so you end up with a pretty good fund for the co-op.”

Most of the sanitation workers are female, which fits in with Aerosan’s philosophy of inclusiveness and equality. Besides gender inequality, the caste system persists in Nepal, despite being officially outlawed, Gallagher said.

“The sanitation workers, the people who work in the toilets, are of the lowest caste and they get shafted all the time.”

Aerosan has also designed toilets for emergency use in natural disaster zones, such as Haiti, which was struck by an earthquake in 2010. These emergency toilets use a chimney for aeration, hence the name of the organization, which dries the waste so it can be transported safely or used as compost in parks and gardens.

The organization recently received $200,000 from Grand Challenges Canada, a federally funded group that supports innovation in low-income communities in Canada and internationally.

The money has gone toward the biogas project in Kathmandu, as well as research into processing fecal sludge into biochar, a kind of charcoal, to be used by the Nepalese brick manufacturing sector.

But the biochar research hasn’t exactly caught fire, Gallagher said.

“People have done experiments, they’ve got bench models at universities (across the world), where they’re actually producing this stuff, but nobody’s got it on a commercial scale, which is where we want it.”

Aerosan may return to biogas model to help the brick industry, Gallagher said. The organization has applied for funding from Canada’s Global Affairs department to expand the project, which would bring in $200,000 annually over the next three years.

Besides the technology, he credits the biogas project’s success to its emphasis on working with the community.

“The local connections are the key, in my experience . . . You can float someone in who’s really good, who’s really dynamic, bing bang bing and then they go home. Unless you have that local capacity there’s no point in this development game in getting involved in any of this stuff.”

 

-From The Chronicle Herald

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