From organic waste to food security: Building on nature-based frugal innovations

October 11, 2021

Kenda Alzaim
Head of solutions mapping, Accelerator Lab Syria 

It is one of those times when you search for something and end up discovering something else. It all started during our previous learning cycle, in which we were trying to understand the recycling scene in Syria with a focus on household recycling behaviors. Our main finding was that most of the recyclable materials in Syria are being recycled, whether through formal or informal channels. However, organic waste and some other cheap recyclables are being wasted. Whilst working on finding ways to change behavior and encourage households to recycle their solid waste, we knew that something needed to be done to address organic waste issue. Discarded organic waste is considered to be a major issue in Syria; In addition to the unpleasant odor generated, organic waste creates a perfect environment for pests and insects to reproduce. Moreover, it generates methane gas that is a significant contributor to global warming. Therefore, we decided to explore in more depth what people in Syria are doing with their organic waste, and what grassroot solutions might be out there that we, Accelerator lab, can work with to benefit from organic waste.

We began our quest by conducting a solutions hunt in the coastal rural area. Interestingly, we met with many small-holder farmers who are using organic waste either as a compost to fertilize soil or as a feed for their farm animals. In fact, feeding poultry and livestock from household leftovers was a common practice by our older generation. However, once commercial fodder became available, people preferred to use it simply because it was more convenient. The same thing applies to fertilizers, because of easy access farmers grew dependent on chemical fertilizers more than they did on organic compost. Farmers were drawn to the quick wins of using these commercial inputs without any consideration to the harmful long-term effect they might have on the health of their soil and environment. First, because it used to be cheaper and subsidized by the government. Second because it was easily accessible.

When we approached the farmers who were using organic waste for compost and fodder to know more about their motives, they told us it is because they did not have other options. “Nowadays fodder and chemical fertilizers are scarce and so expensive, small-scale farmers like us can’t afford it anymore, so we had to look for locally available and cheaper alternatives that meet our needs” one of the farmers informed us.

This statement drove us to look up grassroot solutions we mapped earlier this year that also addressed limited access to fodder and fertilizers. Some of these solutions depended on organic waste, while others depended on other nature-based resources.  For example, many farmers from different parts of Syria are growing Azolla, a type of water fern, to feed their poultry. Azolla is not a native fern to Syria and most of these farmers learned how to grow it through YouTube videos. Although Azolla cultivation proved to be a good alternative to animal feed, it is still considered to be invasive and damaging to local water resources in Syria. Another example of animal feed alternatives is sprouted barley. Apparently, sprouted barely is more sustainable and nature-friendly than azolla because it has no negative effect on the local environment.   As for compost, we came across many farmers who are producing vermicompost and who started a small composting business by selling portion of their compost production to other farmers.  Noticeably, those solutions, although not all of them can be considered sustainable, are all nature-based solutions and they depend on natural and locally available resources. If one thing these solutions indicates, it is the importance and urgency of the issue of scarcity and high prices of those agriculture inputs (Fodder and fertilizers).

This conclusion was confirmed by the data published on UN food and agricultural organization (FAO) website. As Data below shows, since 2011, Syria witnesses a drastic drop in the production and importation of both fertilizers and fodder. Moreover, transportation costs hit its highest records during past years, which amplified the already bad situation and contributed to the increase of food production prices. Clearly, high prices of food production meant high prices of food to consumers thus less food for the poor and the marginalized.  It is like a chain of misfortunate events that had a ripple effect across the agricultural supply chain, especially of small-holder farmers, and eventually worsened food security situation.



From organic waste to food security:

It became clear for us, the Accelerator Lab, that we need to work with small-holder farmers on addressing the challenge of inaccessibility to fodder and fertilizers. However, at this point, we needed to organize our findings in a way that allows us to understand the whole picture. To do so we did a simple visualization session where we were able to connect the dots between the different elements of the issue. Moreover, this session enabled us to visualize the connection between where we started, organic waste, and where we ended, food security.



At the end of the exercise, we pinpointed where and how the accelerator lab is going to intervene. We identified three ways to address the inaccessibility to fodder and fertilizers that builds on existing grassroot nature-based solutions:

On an individual farmer’s level, we are testing how to create additional revenue streams to farmers, who are already producing compost and/or fodder, using frugal entrepreneurship as a basis. With a network of trained volunteers on frugal entrepreneurship, we will try to encourage farmers to sell their extra production of fodder and compost by linking them to local market.

On a local level, Accelerator lab will build on, test, and develop local solutions. we will assist in testing the possibility of overcoming the sustainability gap by sourcing local materials to decrease transportation costs, and by cultivating solar energy to power the locally constructed Agri-machines, which help increasing the production of fodder and compost.

On the community level, we will test a community composting model that focuses on using food waste coming from restaurants and hotels. For this initiative we intend to identify 6 to 8 female farmers, who will be trained on how to make compost from food waste and guide them on how to sell their product to other farmers. We are going to test the impact of the community composting initiative on enhancing local soils, supporting local food production, cutting amount of wasted food, and creating community development opportunities.

To know more about the results of these initiatives, stay tuned for our next blog!