When María Rodríguez first heard about the potential of using worms to eradicate poverty, she knew where her future lay.
“It was love at first heard,” the young Guatemalan woman says. “I was fascinated by the idea that worms eat waste and add so many nutrients through the digestion process. But since they’re on the ground, we don’t see them and we don’t appreciate them.”
In 2007, having just graduated with a business degree from a university in Guatemala City, Rodríguez founded Byoearth, a company that uses vermicomposting to promote health and development in rural and urban Guatemala. Through vermicomposting — using worms to break down degradable food into a nutrient-rich fertilizer — Byoearth has been able to produce and sell high-quality compost and educate rural communities, as well as residents of Central America’s largest garbage dump, about the benefits of worms.
“It’s very important, because with vermicomposting you transform degradable waste that otherwise goes to landfills and produces methane and attracts rodents. People that work in dumps are very affected by the contamination that degradable waste causes when it should be separated and transformed into compost or vermicompost, which is organic fertilizer,” says Rodríguez.
While Byoearth’s core purpose is to convert waste into a natural fertiliser, the company’s social mission focuses on enabling poor families to make a small income by creating and selling their own vermicompost.
“We partnered with a nonprofit and established a program to train women in vermicomposting, with the main objective of improving their livelihoods by first improving the waste management inside their houses. We’re also teaching them how as women living in impoverished areas with almost no education, those two are not excuses not to live under better circumstances. It’s very interesting how they can learn and appreciate that. They get empowered because they know that even in their condition they can be agents of change in their communities and make something good for the environment,” says Rodríguez.
Bringing worms to the people
A self-professed “serial entrepreneur,” the young Rodríguez has garnered international attention for her work with Byoearth. The 26-year-old recently appeared in Forbes magazine in an article about female entrepreneurs and is regularly invited to speak at conferences around the world.
“It’s not common for a girl to be working in a male-dominated agricultural industry in Guatemala, but that’s why it’s interesting,” she says.
“I’m very cautious as to how I do business with the agricultural sector. Maybe the sales in the rural area haven’t grown a lot because I haven’t been able to talk directly to farmers and be respected the same, but I don’t think that as a woman you can’t do business here.”
With a production plant that contains an estimated 90 million Californian Red Worms, Byoearth plans to expand into other countries in Central America over the next year and start exporting worms to Nicaragua, Costa Rica and El Salvador.
Rodríguez describes the worms as ‘pretty’ and ‘delicate’ in stark contrast to how most people view the slimy creatures.
“I think of them as pets and we talk about animal husbandry: the same way you take care of a dog, you take care of the worms, as they’ve been domesticated. These worms won’t survive by themselves — they need you to take care of them, feed them, clean them and give them water. If you see a worm anywhere you’d rescue it and put it on soil because you know the work she’s doing.”
Determined to bring the concept of guerrilla gardening to Guatemala, Byoearth recently launched various products, including Worm Tea and Seed Bombs, aimed at improving the quality of people’s soil. Not to be mistaken for regular tea, Worm Tea is a premium organic fertilizer that can be mixed with water and given to plants as a nutritious drink; while Seed Bombs allow people to grab a capsule consisting of seeds, fertilizer and soil, and grow their own food. Byoearth hopes that the latter will contribute to food security — enabling more people to cultivate crops despite a lack of resources.
While Rodríguez accepts that it may be difficult for some of Guatemala’s farmers to accept an organic fertilizer, she’s confident about the business’ future and is eager to show Central America that a handful of worms can make a difference.