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An Inspiring Call

It was hard for me to believe that I was sitting in my office in Beit Yanai, Israel, talking to Ileana, an electrical engineer who lives in San Salvador, El Salvador.  It was night time for me and I was ready to get home, but Ileana was too captivating to leave.  She sat in her office in San Salvador, as her coworker Pablo was waiting for her so they could begin their work day together. It was the end of my work day and the start of her’s and we both had other places to be, but there was so much left to discuss between us.  

HomeBiogas works on projects across the globe, from Rwanda to Nepal to Laos, and the list goes on and on. These projects are extra special for our team back home. Our dedicated partners abroad make it possible for us to install HomeBiogas Bio-Toilets and systems in places where their impact is especially great. But to be honest, I’m not used to working with women on them.  

Ileana has worked with HomeBiogas for several years and up until now, I never quite understood how as a woman in El Salvador she is able to do this.  

Ileana’s Journey: Creating her own path 

Ileana’s & Family

While women worldwide continue to be underrepresented in the field of engineering, it’s especially extraordinary for Ileana, a woman from El Salvador, to be an electrical engineer.  “It’s a man’s career,” Ileana says matter-of-factly.  She claims she is lucky, being born to parents who encouraged her to ‘keep going,’ when even as a little girl she didn’t fit the mold and did things her way.  “They never tried to stop me and they insisted on letting me fail at times.” Ileana explained that where she’s from, there are a lot of girls that have the idea and the ability but they are scared. The difference for her, she feels, is that thanks to the support of her parents, especially her mother, even when she was afraid, she tried anyway. 

Ileana is originally from Juayúa, Sonsonate, a little town on the western side of El Salvador, three hours away from where she lives today, in the nation’s capital of San Salvador.  She originally came to San Salvador to attend the Universidad de El Salvador, the country’s national university, where she was one of around 4 women studying electrical engineering in her year.  It was extremely challenging for Ileana at the beginning of her studies, in what she describes as an environment where it’s not always comfortable to be a woman.  During her university years, Ileana credits the kindness and support of the friends around her in helping to make it possible for her to finish her degree. 

She has always had to make her own path and that’s helped her to become independent.  

After years of developing her skills at jobs in the electrical industry, with one job working in shrimp production that required her to wake up at 3am to take the bus to work, in 2017 Ileana decided that she had the skills and knowledge to finally develop something of her own.  With the help of a good friend who was supportive from day one, she started working in energy efficiency.  Her friend came to Israel through MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, where he saw HomeBiogas systems in action and reported back to her on their efficiency in waste management and clean energy production. They were especially interested in how the HomeBiogas Bio-Toilet kit could keep the local water supply in rural areas of their country from being contaminated.  Since 2019, Ileana’s company has been working with HomeBiogas, bringing the systems to schools and rural communities nationwide.  

Where I am from, there are a lot of girls that have good ideas and the ability but they are scared. Thanks to the constant support of my parents, especially my mother, even when I was afraid to fail, I tried anyways. 

As her company continues to grow, so does Ileana’s family.  She became a mom in 2021 and is extremely grateful to her sister, who helps care for her baby, and her husband, who is proud and encouraging of the work that she is doing. Ileana says that this is what makes it possible to spend so many hours outside of her home.  She is so happy that she is able to have this life and do her work.  She didn’t know that it was possible. 

Working with HomeBiogas to improve lives in El Salvador 

Ileana says that the work her team does is not easy.  Especially in rural parts of El Salvador, there is a huge problem with water contamination, with a big contributor being a lack of appropriate bathroom facilities.  The president of the Salvadorian Authority of Water has turned to Ileana’s company to implement HomeBiogas Bio-Toilets, after determining that it’s the best way to reduce contamination and improve sanitation.  But that’s only the first step, Ileana explains, saying people are hesitant to switch from a traditional and less effective latrine to the HomeBiogas Bio-Toilet. “It is not easy to convince them to but once it’s there, it’s like magic. 

Ileana recalls installing a Bio-Toilet for a family and speaking with the mother, who had been afraid to send her young daughter to the bathroom alone because it was simply a big hole and could be unsafe for her to use. These old toilets are a common spreader of diseases, as they attract flies and insects.  When they installed the system, Ileana says the bathroom was beautiful and clean.  She remembers the woman telling her that her life had changed because she feels comfortable and her daughter could finally go to the bathroom alone. 

Oftentime when she goes to install a HomeBiogas Bio-Toilet she is shocked by the conditions and amazed at how much her team is able to change them.  She remembers installing a Bio-Toilet for a farm owner who already had the HomeBiogas system. She said she needed to use the bathroom and he sent her to a latrine somewhere else and the floor was cracking. 

In another location there was a man whose open wound hadn’t healed over a period of many months, as every time he went to the bathroom his wound was further exposed to disease spreading insects. He reported back to Ileana’s team that within a couple of weeks of his switching to the hygienic HomeBiogas Bio-Toilet, his wound had finally healed.  

There was a home where they installed the system and it made such a huge change for so many people.  At the time of installation, there was one toilet for 15 people.  Six of the family members were women and they had the same issue with going to the bathroom as so many of the women she works with.  The little girls were uncomfortable every time they needed to go to the bathroom.  They were so afraid that they’d fall into the hole. Their new Bio-Toilet was the change they needed.

Another issue that Ileana has come across while installing and implementing HomeBiogas systems is that many people have developed horrible lung issues from cooking with wood and inhaling the smoke that it creates.  For a man that Ileana worked with, it was the resulting gas from the HomeBiogas system that transformed his and his mother’s lives.  He is an engineer and his mom was a teacher. After years of cooking with wood at her school they had discovered that she had lung cancer from inhaling the smoke.  By integrating a HomeBiogas system into her home, the woman was able to cook with clean and smoke-free biogas.

Ileana, training teams in the field

The Challenge of convincing communities to adopt HomeBiogas Bio Toilets   

As happy as these families were once they saw the HomeBiogas Bio-Toilet and systems working, it continues to be a challenge to change the mindset of people in El Salvador. In the beginning, Ileana says, people are usually hesitant to switch from using the latrine.  They see a big system coming in and they aren’t sure what to think.  Once the system is installed near their home or school, however, and they get the opportunity to use the HomeBiogas Bio-Toilet for the first time, it’s magic.  The system demonstrates that you can do the incredible, like safely disposing of human waste and creating clean gas for cooking.  She explains those are things people don’t realize can belong together.  It’s hard work showing how they operate in a cycle but she is proud to be doing it. It is only once people understand how the system works and why they should be using it that she considers a project successful and complete.

The beauty of the HomeBiogas Bio-Toilet, Ileana believes, is that once someone sees it in action, they understand why they should use it.  She recently was at a bio-toilet installation at a school, which is meant to serve as a demonstration site so people can learn about the toilet’s benefits.  Their plan had been to train the older kids in how the system operates so that they could go on to teach the rest of the children about using their new toilet.  There was a lot of excitement surrounding the installation and a curious 7 year old approached Ileana and wanted to know what exactly was happening.  She patiently told him about the HomeBiogas Bio-Toilet, how his waste will be transformed into energy and how the whole system is clean and odor free. Twenty minutes later Ileana overheard that same child explaining to two other 7 year olds how the toilet operated and how it was like magic. In that moment she saw how easily one child was able to pass on the information to another child and how essential seeing the toilet work was in their understanding of it. 

Bio-Toilet display, School in El-Salvador

Changing lives, One Bio -Toilet at a Time 

Ileana said her teams jokes about how when they die and meet god in hopes of going to heaven they’re going to tell him (or 💁‍♀️ her maybe?) that they installed a lot of systems.  They hope that gets them to heaven.  

Back on Earth, Ileana is hopeful that they will continue to make a difference with the important work they are doing.  She knows there are so many families living with unhygienic latrines, contaminating their water and damaging their health. “It is so rewarding to see the difference these systems make for people,” she explains.  Knowing that more families, and especially more young girls, have access to a better life thanks to her work fulfills her.  

HomeBiogas Bio-Toilet: It’s a Success!

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