Ashley is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. She is working with businesses and governments in Africa to reuse wastewater as a profitable enterprise.
Ashley’s business, Waste Enterprisers, is actually a network of many small businesses. Waste Enterprisers uses human waste as its primary input. (Yes, “human waste” is poop!) The waste contributes to such enterprises as a fish farm and, possibly, industrial fuel.
By making people aware of the financial cost of sanitation and waste, Ashley says we can begin to put a serious value on both the raw materials (nutrients in waste) and sanitation itself.
Ashley grew up with the “reduce, reuse, and recycle” goal. Although wastewater was never a dominant issue in Andover, Massachusetts, where she grew up, she was always aware of the importance of saving water and keeping it clean.
Ashley earned her PhD from the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California at Berkeley.
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
“Trying to prove sanitation can be a viable business model.”
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
Obsession. “I’m always thinking about the possibilities for new methods, resources. . . . My friends are sick of hearing about [poop]!” she laughs.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
“The social and cultural context of an idea or place.”
Ashley first became aware of the sanitary hazards posed by wastewater through literature and personal experience. National Geographic Fellow Sandra Postel’s book Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity forced Ashley to confront the idea that Earth has a limited supply of freshwater—for agriculture, drinking, industry, and sanitation.
When Ashley moved to Ghana, the implications of a lack of freshwater became clear. “Any surface water is an open sewage stream,” she says. “It’s hard to overstate the enormous health and environmental impacts of inadequate sanitation.”
It was also in Ghana that Ashley realized the biggest barrier to sanitation is economics. “The standard model is that the government takes care of waste. Well, in a developing nation like Ghana, the government can’t afford to be responsible for all the waste. So we needed a new business model. The new model provides incentives to entrepreneurs and residents to recycle their waste.”
For a small fee, Waste Enterprisers will pick up a client’s waste and responsibly put it to use. “It’s changing the way we finance sanitation, and looking at waste as a resource—chemical fertilizer,” Ashley explains.
The fertilizer feeds an aquaculture farm that uses a system of ponds. Hazardous chemicals are filtered out in the first series of ponds. By the final ponds, the water is full of nutrients that allow catfish to flourish.
Even though the ponds are safe, Ashley is quick to say the fish could never be sold raw. However, fish in Ghana are not sold as a raw product. They are smoked until they resemble a dry, durable, jerky-like product. “The way fish is sold in Ghana makes it possible for fish grown in fish ponds to be safely sold and eaten,” Ashley says.
Ashley admits the idea of eating fish grown in a pond fertilized with human waste may be a tough sell to Western consumers. “The technology is transferrable, but not socially or culturally.”
SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . ENVIRONMENTAL ENTREPRENEUR
Ashley strongly recommends pursuing an engineering degree. “Any engineering program gives you a strong tech base, and you can use that for almost any business.”
Although she now lives in Accra, Ghana, Ashley lived in China and India for years, and she encourages everyone to “travel for the sake of travel.”
Just visiting different regions or countries can result in “real exposure to other cultures,” she says. “It can be really rewarding, and you’re also spending money in the area and contributing to the economy.”
the art and science of cultivating land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).
the art and science of cultivating marine or freshwater life for food and industry.
freshwater fish with wiry organs that look like whiskers on its upper jaw.
molecular properties of a substance.
person who employs a professional or expert, such as a lawyer, accountant, or engineer.
to address a problem or person directly.
person who uses a good or service.
set of facts having to do with a specific event or situation.
learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.
nations with low per-capita income, little infrastructure, and a small middle class.
main or most important.
strong and long-lasting.
study of monetary systems, or the creation, buying, and selling of goods and services.
system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.
an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.
the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.
a project, usually one seeking a profit.
person who starts and manages a business.
incident or activity's total effect on the surrounding environment.
price or cost.
nutrient-rich chemical substance (natural or manmade) applied to soil to encourage plant growth.
to fund or provide money to an organization or individual, usually for a specific purpose.
having to do with money.
to thrive or be successful.
water that is not salty.
material that provides power or energy.
system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.
danger or risk.
byproduct of human digestion - feces or urine.
suggestion or hint.
not enough or not of high-enough quality.
offer or encouragement to complete a task.
having to do with factories or mechanical production.
activity that produces goods and services.
something that is contributed, or put in, to something else.
dry, chewy strips of meat that have been preserved by smoking or other methods.
written material, including novels, poetry, drama and history.
political unit made of people who share a common territory.
series of links along which movement or communication can take place.
substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.
(doctor of philosophy) highest degree offered by most graduate schools.
small body of water surrounded by land.
first or most important.
able to make money.
matter that needs to be processed into a product to use or sell.
to advise, approve, or suggest.
to clean or process in order to make suitable for reuse.
to lower or lessen.
any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.
available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.
to use again.
promotion of hygiene, health, and cleanliness.
liquid and solid waste material from homes and businesses.
to preserve meat by drying it with smoke.
the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.
to pass or switch from one to another.
movement from one place to another.
capable of growing and sustaining itself.
water that has been used for washing, flushing, or industry.