IREX Scholars’ Exit Interview – International Community Composting

Between mid-August and early December the Institute for Local Self-Reliance hosted two International Research and Exchange (IREX) fellows. To celebrate our fellows’ work with us, ILSR co-founder Neil Seldman interview both Md. Monirul Islam (from Bangladesh) and Wisdom Nyondoh (from Malawi) about their path to ILSR and their experience learning about composting during the fall.

Listen to both interviews or, if you’re interested, read through the transcripts along with the audio files if you’re interested. Click here to jump right to Wisdom’s interview.

From Left: IREX Representative Patrick Dunlap, IREX scholar Monirul Islam, ILSR co-founder Neil Seldman, and IREX scholar Wisdom Nyondoh

Interview between Neil Seldman & Md. Monirul Islam:

Neil Seldman: This is Neil Seldman and Dr. Monirul Islam. I’m with the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Monirul is an IREX, I-R-E-X, fellow that has spent the last four months here at the institute working on composting systems. Monirul, could you just tell us where you’re from and what your background is?
Monirul Islam: Thank you. It is great privilege for me that IREX selected me and placed me in organizations. Institute of Local Self Reliance, if I want to say about myself initially I need to say about my name. My name in Mohammed Monirul Islam. I did from our university and I did also PSG from South Korea. After that I joined in a university, so I’m a university professor. That’s all about me.
Neil Seldman: What field are you teaching?
Monirul Islam: I’m a business school professor, but this fellowship focus is actually the environmental issue that I want to incorporate environmental alarming in my business school. That’s why I came here to learn about environmental aspects.
Neil Seldman: Well good. We’ll be talking about the compost businesses that you’ve got experience with. What is the name of your university and what city in Bangladesh?
Monirul Islam: Shahjalal University of Science and Technology. This is a very prestigious university. Public university in our country.
Neil Seldman: What city?
Monirul Islam: It’s Sylhet. It is famous for tourism.
Neil Seldman: I hope to visit there someday.
Monirul Islam: You’re most welcome.
Neil Seldman: We know where you from. We know what your profession is and … What was your expectation in taking the IREX fellowship to come here for four months?
Monirul Islam: The main goal of this fellowship is like increase our understanding of the challenges we are facing in our country, in our community. We want to learn and understand how to address that challenges in our community. Also, we want to just sharpen our management leadership and problem solving skills. Most important things that we want to networking with the international colleagues and international institution like ILSR.
 Neil Seldman: Yes. I want to point out that in addition to your training in composting here, you also did your own research on composting in the global set. You’re brought up to speed on that as well. What did your training consist of? Here, working with our Director of Waste to Wealth Initiatives, Brenda Plat and her top assistant Linda Bilsens.
Monirul Islam: Yes. I’m so much grateful to Brenda and Linda. They did wonderful job for me throughout this fellowship. Also, thank you …
Neil Seldman: I’ll explain my role in this at detail.
Monirul Islam: Initially, we visited some places like composting places throughout like DC, Maryland, Baltimore. We got some basic knowledge about management. Solid waste management specially composting. Then we work some community composting places like Howard University community composting place and they’re working there free. We work there …
Neil Seldman: Jeffrey Neil who is in-charged with the Howard University compost on campus.
Monirul Islam: Also we visited some places, I forgot the name, in Maryland.
Neil Seldman: Probably Eco City Farm. Is that with Benny Erez?
Monirul Islam: Yes. We also visited I think two times we visited through the Eco City Farms and also some other places like Wangary Garden and some other composting sites.
Neil Seldman: Yes. I know you visited one site on the eastern shore that was receiving compost from separated collection in DC and Baltimore. So you saw that when … That’s a commercial business whereas Eco City Farm is non-profit, more community oriented enterprise.
Monirul Islam: After that basic knowledge, we got really wonderful job, wonderful opportunity. Again, thanks Linda specially and also Brenda and also the Eco City Farms, I forgot, Benny?
Neil Seldman: Benny. Yes.
Monirul Islam: He was there all the time and Linda, every time she drive us to that farm so special thanks to her. That was almost seven weeks. 40 hours intensive training program.
Neil Seldman: Yes. I should mention the training program and your program here over-all is quite intensive in four and a half month.
Monirul Islam: Yes. That is the neighborhood soil re-builders composting training program. We got really good knowledge about composting, like practical knowledge. We did some … We attended some classes and we also made the bean, composting. Everything we did. I got huge knowledge about composting.
Neil Seldman: I wanted just point out through the listeners that you also worked in Baltimore where Brandon, Linda and the other staff are developing a bi-powered compost collection enterprise. Got a sense of that as well. They are very excited because in addition to their existing garden, the Phillburg Street garden, the city just allocated five and a half acres for them to expand, which is quite exciting. We covered the types of facilities. In terms of going back to your urban community, which of the experiences do you think fits best for an urban area in Bangladesh.
Monirul Islam: That is … I will always mention the composting. You’re phrasing that was management. Specially solid waste management. I say that in our country, more that 70% waste are solid so composting is very much appropriate to solve those kind of problem. My following project is like, which is submitted to the IREX, that is I want to share that things a little bit, that I initially to teach awareness. With city, the city where I’m living that is Sylhet, I’m in public university near-by with in the three kilometers we have another five private university so I want to create awareness among the students.
Neil Seldman: Many students in this city.
Monirul Islam: Yes. Initially I’m planning to create awareness among those six universities after that, I will select … It’s quite impossible to train all the people that’s why I will invite maybe 30 students to part the intensive training on composting systems. They are from drivers area so they can act as a fishing. They will spread out later on.
Neil Seldman: This exactly fits what Linda and Brenda are doing in what they call, training the trainers. The people … The students you train obviously will move on to impact other people and I will mention that Brenda and Linda as well as Nora Goldstein from BioCycle Magazine conduct this training conferences all over the country a couple of times a year. We will certainly get you to a subscription to BioCycle Magazine.
Monirul Islam: Yes. Sure.
Neil Seldman: You be going back … I want to say at this point that in addition to the technical composting training that Monirul got, my role in this was to be the administrator of the program but also to give orientations on the over all environmental movement in United States and we also visited some non-composting recycling enterprises in a busy metropolitan area. If we had more time and a bigger budget, we would have gone to New York and Philadelphia and other places but as you know, the research that’s going on here covers many of those cities. The follow up. You’ll be going back now, I hope assume you’ll take a vacation with your family for a few days perhaps a week I hope and then you will incorporate the training …
Monirul Islam: I’ll start my project from January 1st.
Neil Seldman: Okay, and you’ll be … Today is December 5th and you’ll be leaving around December 9th to go back home. I know it takes a few days to get there. We were thrilled and honored to have you here for the four and a half months and I know we’re going to stay in touch and we have guest rooms if you want to come back. You can come back eventually and give us a report on how things went.
Monirul Islam: Yeah, sure. I will invite all of you. If you have any chance and any wish to visit our country, I will feel good. You should look what I am doing.
Neil Seldman: Yes, of course. As part of the IREX program, I should point out to the listeners, that they do have a program for bringing the host trainers in the United States over to Bangladesh and other countries where we work. I am not an expert in compostal lawn. I’ve turned many compost pile in my time. Hopefully Brenda and Linda will be able to fit that in to their schedule. It’s very generous of IREX to afford travel like that. That would be great.
Monirul Islam: That will be really good. Great things for me. In my life time.
Neil Seldman: Right, very happy to hear that. I’m so happy that the institute has been able to accommodate you as a guest. A guest fellow.
Monirul Islam: That is huge opportunity for me that I caught this kind of opportunity. All kind of help. Not only technical help. All kinds of mental help. Finding housing.
Neil Seldman: Yes. That is a challenge. I should also say that as my role, and I drove around DC Metropolitan area, we talked about our respective colleges experience. I used to be a professor and started the institute cause I didn’t like it and of course Monirul is a full professor and likes it, which is wonderful. It’s good to see someone excited about that. Thank you again. It’s great, wonderful.
 Monirul Islam: Yeah. Thank you so much.

Interview between Neil Seldman & Wisdom Nyondoh:

Neil Seldman: This is Neil Seldman and-
Wisdom Nyondoh: Wisdom Nyondoh.
Neil Seldman: At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Wisdom has just completed a fellowship sponsored by IREX at the institute. I’m going to interview him for posterity. First of all, let me say it’s been a pleasure having Wisdom on staff for four months, and we’re going to be staying in touch throughout his career. Could you just tell us in a few minutes where you come from, what you do?
Wisdom Nyondoh: Okay. As I said, I’m Wisdom Nyondo. I come from Malawi. Back home I work with an NGO called Kaporo Foundation. Last year I just implemented a reforestation project, which made me get access to coming here to attend the fellowship program with IREX.
Neil Seldman: You lived in a rural area of Malawi?
Wisdom Nyondoh: Yes. In a district called Karonga. Most of our projects are in very rural areas.
Neil Seldman: To give as a sense, how many families live in the village where you live and work?
Wisdom Nyondoh: I would say maybe in each village there could be about maybe 70 families.
Neil Seldman: Oh okay. Great. Thank you. What was the goal of the fellowship that you proposed for your program to IREX?
Wisdom Nyondoh: The Community Solutions Program has the goal of getting young professionals from the developing world involved in tackling developmental challenges. Whether in empowerment, or peace, or women and gender, to bring them here so that can learn a few skills which would be beneficial when they go back home. I was lucky to be attached to the institute where I’ve learned a lot that I can apply back home.
Neil Seldman: I know you focused on composting when you were here. You did independent research as well as work on projects here. How does composting fit in with your traditional work in environmental conservation?
Wisdom Nyondoh: Composting fits very well in my area of work, which is basically reforestation, in the sense that I was narrow minded when I just began my work in reforestation. Because all I wanted was just to plant trees, because that’s what I saw as a gap. People are involved in deforestation, so what you have to do is just replace trees. But then as you may know, when you start working in development project, you will discover that you have to continue learning. I have learnt composting has complemented my work in the sense that now I’ve three areas that I’ll be focusing on. I’ll be focusing on the actual reforestation, I’ll be focusing on agriculture because composting is a very big aspect of agriculture. Then lastly I’ll be focusing at entrepreneurship. Because of what I’ve been able to learn here, I think my perspective of my project has also expanded.
Neil Seldman: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I must say to point out that Wisdom has been working on a number of projects, but one of them includes working with Brenda and Linda on our project in Baltimore, which involves composting, and the beginning of a new enterprise. A organic waste collection program using bicycles to create a local enterprise.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Yes.
Neil Seldman: We may be hearing from you soon when you get back home.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Sure.
Neil Seldman: What are some of the specific things you did in the training programs? I know you did a diverse number of things.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Okay. Yeah. To begin with, we first used to go to Howard University, where we were introduced … I think that was the first introduction that I had in composting. Jeffrey was showing us, teaching us on how composting is done. Then thereafter we also went to a farm on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, where we also did composting, which was a little different from the one that we had seen or taking part in at Howard University. The one on the other side of Chesapeake Bay, it was done on the open ground. I felt that was the most appropriate for me based on where I come from. Unlike the composting that is done in the cubes, that is which I feel is more appropriate in the urban area, in the rural area the one that we did was also appropriate. Where you just collect all the requirements, you measure them, and then you just pile them on an open ground.
Neil Seldman: Yeah. It’s called windrow. A long windrow.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Yeah.
Neil Seldman: It’s interesting that you mentioned this, that Howard University compost program is run by the university. Jeffrey Neal is the director, and Jeffrey also is a part-time staff person for the institute, so the training went very well. Also if I’m not mistaken, when you went across the Chesapeake, it was a private enterprise.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Yes.
Neil Seldman: Whereas obviously the Howard University one is a program of the university.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Yeah sure. It was done on a private farm, however there were several other people who were invited all the way from like Virginia, and from D.C. We came together and we were able to learn and actually do the actual compost.
Neil Seldman: You also visited ECO City Farms in Prince George’s County, which is on this side of the Chesapeake. Actually it’s just probably 200 yards on the other side of the district line. Well, district of Columbia line.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Yeah sure. We also visited with the ECO City where we found Benny. He’s also one of the talented guys when it comes to composting. Apart from those other places, then we actually did the actual composting training in Baltimore. Where the institute and ECO City came together to provide the training and I was lucky to be a beneficiary of that.
Neil Seldman: Yes. We are doing a lot of work in Baltimore. In addition to the composting work, I had a small part in Wisdom’s internship. I was responsible for showing him non composting recycling facilities in the US … Well not the US, in the D.C. Baltimore Metro area.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Yes.
Neil Seldman: I also tried to explain our complex environmental network both national, regional, and local level, which is probably unique to the United States. I mention this only to say that you did more things than just composting, although that was your focus.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Yeah sure. Because of the tour that we had with the Rodgers Brothers, and the Second Chance in Baltimore and then-
Neil Seldman: Let me just say the Rogers Brothers was a construction demolition recycling site, and Second Chance in Baltimore is a building deconstruction non-profit company. It takes down buildings very carefully so that they can resell the used building materials.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Yeah, and because of what I was able to see, I would like to point out I may have gotten some few ideas about entrepreneurship, that I would … Also as I mentioned, the three main areas that I’ll be focusing on agriculture, because of composting and entrepreneurship because of what I was able to see, and what I can replicate back home, and then now the actual main which is reforestation. Now, all those I’ve tried to bring them together in one project.
Neil Seldman: As I understand, the problem with deforestation is that people in the village need fuel for daily living, and they’ve been obviously taking the wood from the forest which endangers the forest, so we’re looking at alternatives to that.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Yes. It may not make sense to go into like where I work in the villages and tell the people stop cutting trees, because we don’t have so many alternatives of energy. However, I think it is very appropriate to let the people gain ownership of their forests and cultivate the spirit of renewing. That can be done by of course planting other trees but also by finding alternative ways of making a living apart from just solely depending on the trees.
Neil Seldman: Yeah. I’m curious, is there any solar energy either photovoltaic electricity or passive solar?
Wisdom Nyondoh: Solar electricity is very appropriate however it’s expensive for the rural people. Because we don’t have big companies that could provide the solar at a subsidized price, so it is too expensive for the rural people.
Neil Seldman: I see.
Wisdom Nyondoh: That’s why … However if you train these people with entrepreneur skills, they can be able to in the long run afford to buy the solar energy.
Neil Seldman: Interesting. Yeah. Thank you. Well you actually answered my next question about how you were going to use the information you got here. Do you have a … I should point out that while Wisdom was here, he did research on composting in the global South for comparison to what he saw here in the D.C. metro area. You also wrote a proposal to the Rufford Foundation if I’m not mistaken.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Yes.
Neil Seldman: Could you give us some information about that?
Wisdom Nyondoh: Okay. First of all let me talk about the proposal. Last year I was able to sit down and draft a proposal on environmental conservation, specifically on reforestation, which got funded by the Rufford Foundation, which is based in UK. Now with this particular foundation, they provide the chance of being funded up to five times. Having implemented my first pilot project which was last year, now I was liking some ideas, what else should I do? With what I’ve been able to learn at the institute, that’s why I was able to draft this second proposal for the second grant. Thank you for being my referee. I’m very, very thankful.
Neil Seldman: Yes. The institute is providing some modest funding for the same project.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Yes, and for me that was very, very helpful. Now on the other-
Neil Seldman: Let me interrupt you and ask, what did you do on the first grant from the Rufford Foundation, and I assume what you’ll do one in the second year if you get the grant would be to work on the composting among other things.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Yes. With the first funding what we did actually, we we had two goals. The first goal was to establish a community forest reserve for a particular village which is called Community Forest. That was the name of the project. We had to establish a community forest reserve, and secondly we were trying to empower the culprits of deforestation with entrepreneur skills, so that they are able to do some businesses. Those were the two areas. Now I have added this … The agricultural aspect of it where composting will be a major part of it, so that we can teach the rural people on how to farm, so that they don’t drain the nutrients of their lands, but at the same time, how they can practice composting to add value to the soil.
Neil Seldman: Yes. Also in research with the United States, I think it’s called the Marin County California carbon project, they’ve show that treating grasslands with compost is a way to counteract global warming, so it’s … Obviously composting is important for many reasons.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Yes.
Neil Seldman: Oh, please continue.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Okay. On the research that I was doing, I focused on a couple of countries specifically in Africa, beginning with my own which is Malawi, and then Ghana and then South Africa, and partly Tanzania. What was so apparent in a country like my country Malawi, was that composting is not done as maybe we would think of, or we would wish. The main target of what is actually happening is composting of human waste, turning the human waste into compost, so that it can be used in the gardens. Nothing like what I’ve learnt here, where you can be able to turn … Anything that is waste you can able to turn that into something productive that you can be able to use in a field. That’s something that I hope to introduce when I go back home.
Neil Seldman: Did you submit a paper on your research for the global south to Brenda and Linda?
Wisdom Nyondoh: I’ll be submitting it.
Neil Seldman: Get to it quick. Okay. Well, thank you very much Wisdom. We wanted to record this to make sure we got the feedback, which has been good so far. We certainly will be staying in touch.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Thank you very much. I appreciate having the opportunity to come and work with you. I look forward also to always remaining in touch.
Neil Seldman: Yap. We will stay in touch, and hopefully you’ll be back in the United States. I know the IREX program … Could you remind me what IREX stands for?
Wisdom Nyondoh: It stands for International Research Exchanges Board. Something like that.
Neil Seldman: Okay, and it’s a private nonprofit organization based in D.C. although their fellowships are across the country. They’re supported by the US State Department if I’m not mistaken. Well, you’ll certainly let us know about the Rufford grant, and how you do.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Yes.
Neil Seldman: Perhaps one of our staff people will visit you.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Hopefully. We look forward to that.
Neil Seldman: Great. Well thank you very much for your time.
Wisdom Nyondoh: Thank you.

Follow the Institute for Local Self-Reliance on Twitter and Facebook and, for monthly updates on our work, sign-up for our ILSR general newsletter.

Follow Nick Stumo-Langer:
Nick Stumo-Langer

Nick Stumo-Langer was Communications Manager at ILSR working for all five initiatives. He ran ILSR's Facebook and Twitter profiles and builds relationships with reporters. He is an alumnus of St. Olaf College and animated by the concerns of monopoly power across our economy.