Suzanne Thomas: Transforming Pig Poop into Profit

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Trinidad and Tobago is a pork-lover’s paradise. But all that pork makes for a lot of pig poop … 7.7 million pounds to be exact …. which needs to be carefully managed as the manure can pollute water supplies and releases toxic gases into the environment. Moreover, living in an area densely populated with pig farms is not easy. If you’ve never had the pleasure of being in a piggery, consider yourself lucky never to have smelled the stench that defies description.

But where others see waste, Suzanne Thomas sees profit. Together with her life partner Victor Alexander, this ebullient 50-year-old is bringing an innovation to market that will generate additional income for the agricultural community and guide the Caribbean island, and the region at large, towards a more eco-friendly future.

“My work on the farm and this new initiative has made me realize how I can affect change by just focusing on what I love and teaching others,” Thomas explains. “Providing sustainable solutions for a sustainable environment.”

For most of her life, Thomas has been a farmer. Growing up in the San Fernando area of Trinidad, which lies less than 7 miles from the Venezuelan coast, she was responsible for the pigs on the family farm. She married and continued to work the farm, which she inherited, but when money became tight Thomas attended hairdressing school to learn an additional trade. For 25 years, she was a hairdresser, raising and selling pigs on the side. Just over a decade ago, she invested in tilapia and started Pinnacle Farm, applying aquaponics to grow and sell organic vegetables fed on the nutrients from the fish waste.

“I sell both the tilapia and the vegetables. You won’t see me on the street shouting ‘Fish for sale!’ I don’t look for customers, people come to me through word-of-mouth. If you can’t do something well, don’t do it. My product speaks for itself. It’s so fresh you could eat it just so. I will sell you fish over the phone, and you will see my fish!” she laughs.

“People come and see all the great stuff we’re doing and how they might be able to do it themselves. Do you know what it is to see your vegetables growing so tall? Do you know how many people you can feed with that? I’m selling fish and vegetables that you buy in the supermarket or eat in the restaurant. People look down on farmers, but we need farmers. You can enjoy being a farmer, a fisherman. There is a future in that.”

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With an interest in the potential for using agricultural waste for other purposes, Thomas and Alexander – who’s an engineer – attended a University of West Indies lecture on biodigesters. The couple had an “a-ha moment” when they hit on the idea of developing a mobile model that could be easily transported to farms on the island. Teaming up with environmental toxicologist, Geoff Laban, they made a small prototype which caught the attention of judges at a 2013 World Bank Caribbean Climate Innovation Center competition and were awarded $160K to bring the concept to market.

What is basically a mobile waste treatment facility, the modular biogas digester is a modified shipping container. The units can be easily transported and stacked on top of each other, depending on the size of the farm and the amount of manure that needs to be processed. Bio-organisms digest the manure as it passes through the container, controlling the odor and producing either biofertilizer – that can be used on the farm or sold for a profit – or biofuel used to generate sustainable electric and thermal energy. Any water run-off meets international ambient water quality standards.

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Thomas and Alexander focused on pig farmers as their numbers guaranteed greater success, but the biodigester can also handle other waste.

This January, the pair will begin a 6-month testing of the proof-of-concept on a farm that raises a variety of animals, fine tuning it before releasing it to the market.

Pinnacle Farm’s main line of business is still aquaponic farming, but Thomas has big plans for the future. By showcasing the profits that can come from sustainable agriculture, her overall objective is to bring some prestige back to farming and educate the young that there are alternatives to being a lawyer or doctor or sitting at a desk all day.

“I see my business looking really good, girl,” she says enthusiastically. “People come and see all the great stuff we’re doing and how they might be able to do it themselves. Do you know what it is to see your vegetables growing so tall? Do you know how many people you can feed with that? I’m selling fish and vegetables that you buy in the supermarket or eat in the restaurant. People look down on farmers, but we need farmers. You can enjoy being a farmer, a fisherman. There is a future in that.”

A future indeed and, with Thomas’ biodigester in the hands of Trinidad and Tobago’s farmers, a sustainable one at that.

Suzanne Thomas’ secret to success? Make sure you do what you love and do it well!

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Part of its Entrepreneurship Program for Innovation in the Caribbean (EPIC), with the support of Canada, the World Bank will launch an 8-month intensive accelerator program to provide women entrepreneurs with a wide range of support services to innovate their businesses, improve competitiveness and boost their growth. For full eligibility criteria and application details, entrepreneurs may visit www.surveymonkey.com/r/WINC-AP, www.facebook.com/WomenInnovatorsNetworkCaribbean, or www.infodev.org/EPIC.

Watch this video to learn more about Pinnacle Farm’s biodigester: http://www.worldbank.org/wb/slideshows/EPIC-trinidad-tobago-pinnacle-farm/

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