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.

EARLY WORK

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.”

GEO-CONNECTION

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.”

GET INVOLVED

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.”

Wastewater Engineer: Dr. Ashley Murray
Ashley Murray is a wastewater engineer.
Noun

the art and science of cultivating land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

aquaculture
Noun

the art and science of cultivating marine or freshwater life for food and industry.

catfish
Noun

freshwater fish with wiry organs that look like whiskers on its upper jaw.

chemical
Noun

molecular properties of a substance.

client
Noun

person who employs a professional or expert, such as a lawyer, accountant, or engineer.

confront
Verb

to address a problem or person directly.

consumer
Noun

person who uses a good or service.

context
Noun

set of facts having to do with a specific event or situation.

culture
Noun

learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

developing world
Noun

nations with low per-capita income, little infrastructure, and a small middle class.

dominant
Adjective

main or most important.

durable
Adjective

strong and long-lasting.

economics
Noun

study of monetary systems, or the creation, buying, and selling of goods and services.

economy
Noun

system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.

Emerging Explorer
Noun

an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.

engineering
Noun

the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.

enormous
Adjective

very large.

enterprise
Noun

a project, usually one seeking a profit.

entrepreneur
Noun

person who starts and manages a business.

environmental impact
Noun

incident or activity's total effect on the surrounding environment.

fee
Noun

price or cost.

fertilizer
Noun

nutrient-rich chemical substance (natural or manmade) applied to soil to encourage plant growth.

finance
Verb

to fund or provide money to an organization or individual, usually for a specific purpose.

financial
Adjective

having to do with money.

flourish
Verb

to thrive or be successful.

freshwater
Noun

water that is not salty.

fuel
Noun

material that provides power or energy.

government
Noun

system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

hazard
Noun

danger or risk.

human waste
Noun

byproduct of human digestion - feces or urine.

implication
Noun

suggestion or hint.

inadequate
Adjective

not enough or not of high-enough quality.

incentive
Noun

offer or encouragement to complete a task.

industrial
Adjective

having to do with factories or mechanical production.

industry
Noun

activity that produces goods and services.

input
Noun

something that is contributed, or put in, to something else.

jerky
Noun

dry, chewy strips of meat that have been preserved by smoking or other methods.

literature
Noun

written material, including novels, poetry, drama and history.

Noun

political unit made of people who share a common territory.

network
Noun

series of links along which movement or communication can take place.

Noun

substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

PhD
Noun

(doctor of philosophy) highest degree offered by most graduate schools.

pond
Noun

small body of water surrounded by land.

primary
Adjective

first or most important.

profitable
Adjective

able to make money.

raw material
Noun

matter that needs to be processed into a product to use or sell.

recommend
Verb

to advise, approve, or suggest.

recycle
Verb

to clean or process in order to make suitable for reuse.

reduce
Verb

to lower or lessen.

Noun

any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

resource
Noun

available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.

reuse
Verb

to use again.

sanitation
Noun

promotion of hygiene, health, and cleanliness.

sewage
Noun

liquid and solid waste material from homes and businesses.

smoke
Verb

to preserve meat by drying it with smoke.

technology
Noun

the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

transfer
Verb

to pass or switch from one to another.

travel
Noun

movement from one place to another.

viable
Adjective

capable of growing and sustaining itself.

wastewater
Noun

water that has been used for washing, flushing, or industry.