You might not deem red worms particularly exciting or appealing when they squirm around in the dirt.

Yet these small wrigglers are more useful and beneficial than you might think, and their unique capabilities were exactly what caught Guatemalan Maria Rodriguez’s attention in an environmental management class. Maria was only 21 years old at the time, but when she learned how red worms could transform anything from coffee grounds to cardboard into a rich fertilizer, she became convinced they could also transform society.

Growing up at a rural coffee farm, Maria was used to having dirt under her fingernails. With a dream of bringing positive change to rural Guatemala, she founded ByoEarth – an organization that empowers locals to grow their own vegetables using vermicomposting (the wormy conversion from waste to fertilizer). Today, about a decade after establishing the company, Maria and her expanding team are still going strong. With their worm farms, they help reduce landfill waste, create better livelihoods and jobs for local women, and improve soil quality to revive local agriculture.

Considering how the red worms have helped local communities through ByoEarth, it is no wonder that Maria hails them as “vital for human survival”. It is no wonder either that we featured ByoEarth in Sustainia100 2013 as one of the top sustainable food solutions.

I shot some questions across the globe to Maria to learn more about her worm-filled adventure.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when starting up ByoEarth?

The biggest challenge I faced when starting ByoEarth was that I was a 21-year-old female with no experience in agriculture and no professional background relating to it. Guatemala’s rural economy is diverse and when I was growing up, I felt like it was completely male-dominated. Now I see it differently, as women are advancing and playing a crucial role in agriculture.

Who are ByoEarth’s primary customer groups?

Farmers in general who need organic soil amendments or a vermicomposting system, international non-profits that are looking to transfer skills and implement agriculture development projects, and urban people in Guatemala who are part of the “green wave”, who want to lower their impact on the environment, eat organic and buy straight from producers.

Where do you see the biggest positive impact of ByoEarth?

I see a great positive impact in the lives of women in rural communities. It has been really amazing to see how skills that are well-transferred (in this case, in vermicomposting, organic farming) can have a multi-dimensional effect, empowering women to be agents of change and helping them with the resources they already have.

You also sell plants and herbs for community gardening. How is that working out?

We needed to find a way to add more value to the fertilizer production process, so we added plant and herb production in rural communities as a way to use the fertilizer and create more income for the female-owned vermicomposting facilities. It works out really well because ByoEarth sells these plants to other clients such as non-profits that promote food security.

Which partnerships are ByoEarth part of and what role do they play in the business?

We have many local partnerships, especially with organizations and companies whose mission is aligned with ours. We appreciate partnerships with international universities and programs that help us strengthen our operations on a financial and production level.

ByoEarth has a lot of positive impact on society. What has the reaction been from the Guatemalan authorities? Have they been supportive?

Great question. We don’t have a lot of contact or much of a relationship with the Guatemalan authorities. However, any interaction we’ve had has been positive.

What are the most important Sustainable Development Goals for ByoEarth?

All the goals are important and needed, but for our work, I believe that Sustainable Development Goals 1-3 are the most important ones for us: no poverty, zero hunger and good health / well-being. Our work targets these three goals.

What are your plans for ByoEarth?

I hope to grow the venture by integrating more groups of women into the organic fertilizer and vegetable production chain that can provide accessible, healthy and affordable organic food to the Guatemalan population.

What is your advice to other entrepreneurs with dreams of making our world a better place?

My advice is to pay attention to those details that really make a difference in making the world a better place, and to enjoy your journey as much as possible! Details are really important. They help define who you are, what your competitive advantage is and how you can have an impact – even if it is just for one person at a time. 

You can learn more about ByoEarth on the Explorer, find more exciting food solutions, and explore the booming market for soil enrichment.

Author: Joachim Marc Christensen