For the past month I have had the pleasure to work alongside an incredible social entrepreneur, Maria Rodriguez, who is often referred to as the “worm lady”. Maria started a vermicomposting business called Byoearth in 2007, at the age of 21. Vermicomposting is the practice of using worms to transform biodegradable waste into 100% organic fertilizer. Maria stores her worms at a production plant which she built herself at her family’s coffee plantation. The worms are fed coffee pulp and cow excrement and the fertilizer they produce is sold to farmers and to NGOs who distribute it through various projects. Maria also runs programs in which she works with rural women and the impoverished women who live near the trash dump in Guatemala City and teaches them how to feed the worms themselves and produce their own organic fertilizer. These programs provide a sustainable source of income for many women.
Maria has utilized many of the resources that the world of social enterprise has to offer in order to help Byoearth develop and succeed. In 2009 she participated in Santa Clara University’s Global Social Benefit Incubator. In 2011, she was accepted into the Unreasonable Institute’s fellowship program and in 2012, she participated in Agora Partnership’s Impact Accelerator program.
The following is an interview I conducted with Maria Rodriguez:
Why worms? “I think that we owe part of our ability to survive to worms. Worms are the most magnificent and important creatures in the creation of topsoil and therefore in the creation of everything we grow and eat. Worms are the only animals that produce vermicompost, a product that provides many benefits to agricultural soil, including increased ability to retain moisture, better nutrient-holding capacity, better soil structure, and higher levels of microbial activity (among others).”
How has creating Byoearth impacted your own life? “Creating and developing this business has radically changed my life in every possible way. Not only it has given me independence to build and live my dreams but also a way of contributing to my country’s development. Founding a business has helped me to learn so much about economic and social development in Guatemala and around the world, it has opened my eyes and heart to different cultures and it has given me the responsibility to be a good example for others. Byoearth and worms have introduced me to a new way of thinking, to a world where anything is possible, where dreams come true when you work hard and surround yourself with positive minds.”
What do you say to the women who are grossed out by the worms? “I usually say: “No! But look at their beautiful yellow tail!!” and that seems to get women’s attention and notice that they are not the regular earthworms. Most of the time I find myself in the task of communicating the greatness of worms because they are immediately associated with slimy ugly creatures.”
How does it feel to be a female entrepreneur in the male-dominated field of agriculture? “I think it’s a great challenge to have and a way of differentiating me from the usual masculine figure in agricultural business. Female participation in agriculture is increasing every year and that gives me a lot of hope. Nevertheless, I am prudent and cautious not to expose myself in any situation that can be dangerous; I recognize that there are some security challenges that Guatemala has to overcome.”
What do you feel is your role in the impact investing ecosystem? “Entrepreneurs are a very important part (but not the only) in the impact investing ecosystem. Personally I like to participate in spaces related to impact investing. Entrepreneurs can learn a lot from investors and field experts and vice versa. As an entrepreneur I feel the responsibility to share insights and field work experience and also the need to ask for help to the different actors in the ecosystem.”
How do you balance the social versus the financial returns? “Social impact builds economic returns and vice versa. The more fertilizer we sell, the more social and environmental returns there are and that creates more demand. Vermicomposting has the virtue of building strong social, environmental and economic impact. Worms really do all the work and they don’t ask for a raise…. (joke!) Worms add so many beneficial bacteria and nutrients to waste, they add a lot of value and that produces cost effectiveness and high margins, unlike many other products.”
What is your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs? “I would advise them to work hard everyday with joy and passion and in the hard times to be patient because when you do things the right way there are always great outcomes. Also I would advise to never be afraid of asking for help, to build and integrate values into your business and just enjoy the ride. Social entrepreneurship is the best adventure in life!”
What does the future of byoearth look like? “I envision Byoearths production model and programs in Latin America and the rest of the world. In Guatemala, we are getting ready to scale up our production plant, to develop more products, to reach the most remote subsistence farmers and to introduce vermicomposting as a sustainable practice in urban and rural communities.”