By Gurnoor Gujral, Co-Editor-in-Chief
Of the thousands of maladies afflicting our planet, two, arguably, remain at the forefront of the list based on their capacity for social, economic, and environmental destruction: energy insecurity and climate change. Simply put, we need to be able to adequately supply households with their energy needs but in a way that doesn’t contribute to the ongoing ecological crisis. The solution proposed is a straightforward one, and one based on an input that we flush down the toilet every single day.
Launched in 2017 by Founder and CEO Fahad Tariq, Shift is a non-profit that seeks to transform the potential of a discarded input into something valuable to address the pervasive global issues of energy insecurity and climate change. The organization’s solution to providing safe, reliable, and inexpensive energy to those in need while simultaneously tackling greenhouse gas emissions involves converting animal and human waste into clean biogas through proven anaerobic digestion technology. Using scalable energy domes in agricultural communities, Shift quantitatively improves the quality of life of the local communities in which its initiatives are based.
Currently, the non-profit has sixteen active projects in rural communities in Pakistan, which have improved access to cooking fuel and lighting, reduced smoke inhalation caused by traditional firewood energy sources, and limited methane release into the atmosphere from livestock. In addition to Pakistan, Shift recently wrapped a large project in Uganda, making its first project one that involves human waste rather than the cow waste used previously.
Speaking on the intent behind the initiative, Fahad remarks, “The one in Uganda we built a nine-stall washroom––a brand-new washroom facility––for the school, which is extremely important, especially for female students. It is very important they have access to a hygienic washroom, which actually increases enrollment rates, believe it or not.”
The processes involved are much the same as Shift’s other projects. He adds, “We collect the human waste, and through the same process as we do in Pakistan, we transform it into safe and usable biogas that is being used for the school for heating purposes and also for cooking gas in the cafeteria. That school has 500 students, so that is something we are really excited about.”
In the near term, Fahad plans for Shift’s continued expansion into Africa, with communities nearby the Ugandan project expressing interest in implementing a similar solution. As for a long-term focus, the non-profit is unbounded in its hopes for affecting change. Support for Shift has grown across widespread regions such as countries within South America, India, and even in remote communities close to home, including Northern Ontario. Fahad points out that “A lot of people are unaware that all of Canada does not look like Toronto. There are a lot of parts of Northern Ontario that are very remote, that are off the grid, and this solution of turning animal or human waste into energy is very feasible in those areas as well.”
He hopes that “Someday, hopefully, in the near future, the conversation around renewable energy when we are talking about wind and solar and hydropower––the next thing people say right after that is waste energy.”
The idea to redesign an abundantly regenerating input in our system to become a potential leading source of renewable energy through Shift can be credited to the Hult Prize Competition and, surprisingly, a miraculously timed email.
As an MBA student at Ivey Business School, Fahad and three of his peers competed in the 2016 Hult Prize, the world’s largest social enterprise competition for young minds to solve pressing societal problems, for a prize of one million dollars in seed funding. The team worked intensively to design Shift, developing a strong advisory team of leading experts in the field, including a UN expert and Toronto Zoo officials attempting to harness the power of animal waste. They advanced into the top six finalists over fifty teams when presenting their ideas in London, UK. Yet, as Fahad puts it, the idea didn’t achieve its “fairy-tale ending.” “I often think about had that happened––had we won––it’s possible my life would be completely different at this point and Shift would have been completely different.”
As the young team of professionals journeyed into their careers following their graduation from the MBA program, Shift receded into a compartmentalized corner of Fahad’s mind––that is, until he received an email courtesy of his professor, written by his past self. When speaking of his reaction to receiving the email exactly one year after his graduation, Fahad says “I was actually really nervous because I remembered I had written some pretty ambitious things in that letter about, ‘I hope you are helping other people. I hope you are not just focusing on your professional career but also looking to give back and remembering that that was really important to you when you were in the MBA program.’ It’s the strongest feeling when you basically hear it from yourself, your past self.”
“Believe it or not, the next day, I registered Shift as a non-profit.”
The self-written letter marked a catalyst for Fahad who immediately sprang into action with the blessing of his teammates. “You have to get together a team, you have to register the non-profit, you have to do documentation, you have to create a website, you have to come up with a strategy, a plan, a PowerPoint.” His first biggest constraint was a common one: time management. Fahad, now Director and Senior Analyst in Equity Research at Credit Suisse, continued his professional career while launching the non-profit. Deciding upon a region to implement the solution, developing the necessary contacts with field experts and infrastructure contractors, and fostering relationships with the local communities proved a challenging task, in addition to managing the different time-zones in which Shift planned to operate.
“You can’t just parachute into these countries and build something and then leave. You have to build relationships, you have to get to know these people, they have to trust you, and all of that requires time and effort, so I just found that process of finding the right people was challenging as well,” adds Fahad.
The fruits of his labour certainly paid off. Shift’s collection and transformation of over 500,000 kilograms of animal waste into biogas has improved the life expectancy and health outcomes of thousands of low-income community residents by providing access to clean energy––in addition to eliminating toxic methane emissions. Speaking of Shift’s impact on his hope for the future and alleviating his personal eco-anxiety, Fahad remarks “I will say, there was a time probably before I started Shift that I was more anxious about the future, but one of the best ways to address anxiety is to do something about it and be active and try to be part of the solution. I can see tangibly, a small microcosm of how technology can help address these issues [of climate change and energy insecurity].”
“Progress requires hope,” as says Fahad, and Shift finds that hope through the most unconventional source: turning poop into power.
Fahad Tariq will deliver an in-person talk at TedxUofT’s annual conference on Feb. 5 on turning poop into power.