Second-year Environmental Health Sciences graduate student Rachel Sklar proudly admits that she is “in the poop business for the long-haul.” Sklar recently completed a seven-month fellowship with Pivot LTD — a waste-to-energy company in Mombasa, Kenya — where she helped develop alternatives to the area’s waste management practices.

Founded by Berkeley alumna Ashley Muspratt, the company converts fecal sludge into solid fuels that cement companies can use as an alternative to fossil fuels. As a fellow, Sklar surveyed households, village elders, and workers who emptied the latrines to figure out how to transfer human waste to the municipal areas.

Rachel Sklar, a second-year Environmental Health Sciences student.
Rachel Sklar, a second-year Environmental Health Sciences student.

During her investigation, she found that in Mombasa — where only about 3% of the population is connected to a sewer — latrine workers would dump the waste in streams or bury it near local neighborhoods. “The practice was a public health and environmental hazard,” Sklar explains. In Kenya, she encouraged waste management workers to deliver the fecal sludge to Pivot LTD so that it could be converted into fuel “instead of dumping it haphazardly into the community.”

Sklar first became interested in waste management after she earned a degree in Molecular Biology from UC Santa Cruz in 2009. After graduation, she worked for the Ministry of Health in Nicaragua where she surveyed a community with outdated latrines. “This is where I learned about the magnitude of the sanitation problem and the lack of access,” Sklar says. She later worked with Soil, an organization in one of the largest slums in Haiti, to disseminate household composting toilets.

Soon after, Sklar enrolled in the Public Health program at Berkeley because of the wide range of resources and instructors who are examining the issue through various lenses. “There are people in the engineering department who are working on systems and designs and then there are people in city planning who are looking at the topic from a more socio-political point of view,” she adds.

For Sklar, responsible sanitation isn’t merely about providing access to toilets. “It’s about social justice in so many ways — for the women who want sanitation facilitates and get raped while they’re trying to find a safe place to urinate and defecate. It’s about the children who play outside and are exposed to poop from the people in their surroundings,” she says. In addition, many of the people who are hired to empty the latrines are often from marginalized communities. To complete their job, the workers sometimes drug or intoxicate themselves to endure jumping into the toilet and emptying it without appropriate equipment.

The fellowship at Pivot LTD allowed Sklar to apply the leadership and technical skills that she acquired at Berkeley to solve a real-world problem. She adds that Public Health classes helped her to develop and analyze surveys and to manage a large team during her fellowship. Pivot LTD is now expanding its efforts to Rwanda, so after graduation Sklar hopes to join the team as a sourcing strategist “to figure out alternatives to haphazard dumping practices.”

To learn more about Pivot LTD, visit the company’s website.