Can you spare a square?

Indonesia, November 4, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Greg Briggs for Mercy Corps  </span>
    These blue bins underneath the freeway in North Jakarta contain organic material for compost to sell as part of Mercy Corps' Community Based Solid Waste Management program. Photo: Greg Briggs for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Greg Briggs for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Yatini, a mother of 8 children and 14 grandchildren, who lives next to the freeway overpass makes hand bags with her daughters out of recycled trash. Photo: Greg Briggs for Mercy Corps

I didn’t expect my first blog post from the field to be about sanitation. I thought maybe microfinance or agriculture programs or mobile commerce. Something unique, innovative, life changing. But sanitation? Toilets? Hand washing? What could be less cutting edge?

Actually, I was surprised to find out just how innovative Mercy Corps’ approach to water and sanitation is.

In Jakarta, the bustling capital of Indonesia that is home to almost 10 million people, waste and sanitation is a major obstacle. Not washing hands can spread disease and cause life-threatening illnesses. Not only are there not clean toilets with running water or soap but even when you find a clean toilet (like in a hotel or nice restaurant), there’s no infrastructure to properly process the waste. In other words, human waste is seeping into the ground and rivers all over Jakarta. Innovation is not limited to coming up with a completely new concept, but developing a new approach to something totally ubiquitous in our daily lives.

The project I visited today is a pilot project working on a multi-level approach to waste management. There is empty space underneath the freeway, which has been used by make-shift houses that easily catch on fire. Mercy Corps has developed a program to use this space to process waste from the communities and make compost to sell.

Waste is collected in the neighborhood, separated and the organic material is made into compost. This solves numerous problems: a positive use for the vulnerable and challenging space underneath the freeway; economic opportunities for people to find work; environmentally safe waste management and communities working together.

There’s more. Some of the women in this neighborhood are recycling plastic coffee, detergent and soap wrappers to make into reusable shopping bags and purses. (I was able to put a considerable dent in their inventory — a woman can never have too many handbags).

Together, Mercy Corps staff is working with these community members to solve daily problems in a completely new way. Now’s that’s innovative.