The Sustainability Prize


Forestry, Agriculture, And Poultry Production: Interview With The 2018 Prizewinners

The Lab’s 2018 Sustainability Prize at EARTH University was recently awarded to Mariana da Cruz Albertazzi and Raphaël Loubert for the project: Agrosilvopastoral system with free range laying hens. We spoke with the prizewinners about the benefits of agrosilvopastoral systems and their plans for a scale-up of this project. Please enjoy this interview with the prizewinners!

2018 Sustainability Prize Earth University Pilot Project

Prizewinners Raphaël and Mariana at their pilot project

The Lab: Why did you decide to focus on an agrosilvopastoral system over other sustainability related projects?

Mariana and Raphaël: Our area of expertise is agronomy (a branch of agriculture that deals with soil and crop management). We focused on agrosilvopastoral systems because they rely on ecological principles that allow the closure of cycles, using the residual products of one production cycle to feed another, thus reducing the need for external inputs. For example, the animal component of the system (in this case, the hens) contributes to the control of weeds and pests, as well as the improvement of soil fertility with manure. The forestry component provides forage species (plants that are grown to be eaten by livestock), which are rich in nitrogen and serve as food for the animals and as a fertilizer for the soil. Finally, the agricultural component can generate short- or medium-term income for communities and food for the animals.

Taking into account that this type of system is environmentally sound, we proposed a project that can also be economically sustainable (by taking advantage of each available resource and its contributions) and socially (by functioning as a model farm and promoting the establishment of this type of business among the members of the community in which the project is located).

2018 Sustainability Prize Earth University Pilot Project Chicken Coop

Construction of the chicken coop during the pilot project

The Lab: What made you choose to implement the scale-up of this project in Bajos del Toro?

Mariana and Raphaël: We decided to implement the project in Bajos del Toro because we have a family plot available to be developed there. It is also an advantageous location because this region of Costa Rica attracts a lot of eco-tourism, which makes it feasible to give the project an agro-eco-touristic approach. However, this kind of project can be developed in almost any part of the world, by taking into account that the animal and plant species implemented are suitable for the edaphoclimatic characteristics of the region.

The Lab: Based on what you learned from the pilot project, what changes do you plan to make when implementing it on a larger scale?

Mariana and Raphaël: In the pilot project we tested three diets for hens that had different proportions of concentrated feed and of the plant Alocasia macrorrhiza, with the aim of reducing food costs. We chose Alocasia macrorrhiza for this experiment primarily because it is a plant that has high nutritional value, grows easily, and requires little care at the agronomic level, making it an economically viable alternative to the use of concentrated feed. Thanks to this, we discovered that we can reduce the use of concentrated feed by 30%.

In addition, it was determined that a hen can control 95% of the weeds in 2.1 square meters in a period of 48 days, which will allow us to define the exact number of hens we need in a given area to control a certain percentage of weeds and, in this way, reduce the use of labor for weed control.

2018 Sustainability Prize at EARTH University

Grazing areas at the pilot project that correspond to different feed levels, used to determine the time required by poultry for weed control

The Lab: How did The Lab’s sustainability principles influence the development of this project?

Mariana and Raphaël: The Lab’s Sustainability Prize at EARTH University motivated us to develop this project in its entirety. We went from having just an idea of ​​something that we are passionate about, to working on it and developing it into a feasible project.

The sustainability principles guided the development of the project. For example, our project covers the material perspective by ensuring the closure of cycles, which as we mentioned above, uses the residual products of one production cycle to feed another, which reduces the need for external inputs, waste of resources, and the generation of contaminants. The aforementioned also translates into a reduction in production costs (which contributes to the economic sustainability of the project) and into the preservation of life by reducing the use of agrochemicals that put at risk the preservation of flora and fauna, as well as human health.

Regarding the social approach, the project seeks to motivate the generation of similar businesses among producers in the region. We hope to form partnerships with the objective of reducing production costs and facilitating the performance of certain tasks (for example, the marketing and transport of products to the points of sale). In addition, the project will have an agro-eco-tourism approach that will promote awareness among the general public regarding the need to produce food in harmony with the environment and with the people involved in its production.

Finally, our project covers the spiritual domain simply because it will allow us to do what pleases us in life, which is to design and implement efficient and environmentally friendly food production systems, giving us the opportunity to have constant contact with the soil, the food that nourishes us, and with the people who produce and consume it.

The Lab: What are you hoping to achieve with this project in the future?

Mariana and Raphaël: We wish for this project to be established successfully in Bajos del Toro, and for it to generate data and serve as a model for other agricultural producers in the region and around the world. The idea is to establish the agro-forestry component at the beginning of the year 2021. Later, when the plants have a suitable height and development, we plan to introduce the animal component, which in this case would be laying hens. Subsequently, a food processing plant will be built to give added value to the agricultural products obtained.

2018 Sustainability Prize Earth University Pilot Project Community

The 2018 prizewinners with various community members who assisted with the construction of the pilot project’s chicken coop

We wish Mariana and Raphael luck in their future persuits, and we look forward to seeing how they implement their scale up in the coming years! For more information about The Lab’s Sustainability Prize at EARTH University, please contact us at admin[at]sustainabilitylabs[dot]org.

2018 Prizewinner Announced!

In December 2018, The Lab’s Sustainability Prize at EARTH University was awarded to the team of Mariana da Cruz Albertazzi and Raphael Loubert for the project: Agrosilvopastoral system with free range laying hens. The $10,000 prize is awarded annually to the student project that best exemplifies The Lab’s five core principles of sustainability, and the team will use the proceeds to implement a scale-up of their pilot project.

Sustainability Prize at EARTH University 2018 prizewinners Mariana da Cruz Albertazzi and Raphael Loubert

2018 prizewinners Raphael Loubert and Mariana da Cruz Albertazzi

This project features an agrosilvopastoral system, which is a type of agricultural system that incorporates crops, forestry, and the pasturage of animals. Through their pilot project, Da Cruz Albertazzi and Loubert showed that poultry under pasturage results in weed control, higher soil nutrient content, and economic gains from egg production. They proposed to scale up their project on a parcel of land located in Bajos del Toro in central Costa Rica, which consists of 2 hectares of pasture land and 0.5 hectares of primary forest. The team plans to develop an integrated, sustainable farm that consists of various interconnected elements, including the pasturage of poultry, the production of agricultural and forestry products, the cultivation of food products, and agro-eco tourism.

Prizewinners with Irene Alvarado, Professor at EARTH University; Yasmine Chan Blanco, Dean of Academic Affairs at EARTH University; Michael Ben-Eli, Lab founder; and Arturo Condo, President of EARTH University

We look forward to seeing how the prizewinners move forward with this project, and we extend a special thank you to Ivor and Barbara Freeman and Joshua Arnow and Elyse Arnow-Brill for their continued support of The Lab’s Sustainability Prize at EARTH University.

Transforming Packaging Through Bamboo: Sustainability Excellence At Seedstars Summit 2018

Who knew that a simple switch from wood to bamboo pallets could catalyze such drastic, sustainability related changes in the world? This concept, proposed by entrepreneur Ignacio Barrientos and founder of the Costa Rican start-up Bambu Pallet, has vast implications for reducing harmful emissions and countering deforestation caused by the packaging industry. At The Sustainability Laboratory, we liked this solution so much that we awarded it The Lab’s prize for Sustainability Excellence at this year’s Seedstars Regional Summit in Costa Rica.

Seedstars is a Swiss organization that promotes innovation around the world. Each year it holds competitions in different cities, in which local entrepreneurs present their solutions to various sustainability related challenges. In Costa Rica, Seedstars partners with ProComer, an organization that promotes innovation in industry throughout the country, put on the Seedstars Regional Summit. The event took place on September 25, 2018, in San José. A panel of judges selects the winning start-up, which then goes on to the Seedstars World competition in Switzerland. The Lab also participates in the event, offering a separate prize for Sustainability Excellence.

Judges at the Seedstars Regional Summit in San Jose, Costa Rica

Judges at the Seedstars Regional Summit: José Rafael Brenes (Bolsa Nacional de Valores), Henry Chen Wienstein (Cockpit Innovation), Irene Alvarado Van der Laat (EARTH University and representative of The Lab), María Noel de la Paz (Seedstars World), and Pedro Beirute Prada (ProComer)

Representing The Lab at the summit were Irene Alvarado Van der Laat, professor at EARTH University and one of the partners of The Lab’s Sustainability Prize at EARTH University, and Michael Gukovsky, a Lab board member. We award a $2,000 prize for Sustainability Excellence to the company that best demonstrates innovative solutions to sustainability related problems. This year’s prize went to Bambu Pallet.

Ignacio Barrientos of Bambu Pallet at the Seedstars Regional Summit in San Jose, Costa Rica

Ignacio Barrientos of Bambu Pallet

And why bamboo pallets? Pallets make up an essential part of the shipping and packaging industry, as they are involved in the transportation of goods around the world. Yet traditional, wooden pallets carry an environmental cost: the demand for hardwood contributes to deforestation, many pallets are chemically treated to prevent the spread of mold, and pallets are generally difficult to recycle. Thus the solution to use bamboo, which according to Barrientos is stronger and less contaminating than treated wood, and is easier to be grown and produced by local communities. According to the Bambu Pallet website, “We have managed to construct pallets with zero deforestation, less energy consumption, and a greater rate of oxygen regeneration – which makes us a company that cares about conservation and the regeneration of the environment.”

We offer our congratulations to Bambu Pallet, and we look forward to seeing how this concept impacts the sustainability landscape within the packaging industry.

Ignacio Barrientos of Costa Rican start-up Bambu Pallet receives prize for Sustainability Excellence from The Sustainability Laboratory

Ignacio Barrientos with Mike Gukovsky, Irene Alvarado Van der Laat, and Pedro Beirute Prada

Finalists Selected For The 2019 Sustainability Prize

This summer, three finalists were selected for The Lab’s 2019 Sustainability Prize at EARTH University.

Each year, third year students at EARTH University learn about The Lab’s Five Core Principles of Sustainability and how to use these principles to develop innovative, impactful, sustainability related projects. Students then have the opportunity to submit a project idea for the Sustainability Prize competition, which is coordinated and led by EARTH faculty member Irene Alvarado.

This year, eight project ideas were submitted during the university’s annual Sustainability And Innovation Forum. The students presented their project ideas to an audience of over 100 people, which included university faculty and staff, fellow classmates, and local community members. After a challenging deliberation, the judges, consisting of local entrepreneurs, community leaders, university staff, students, and others, voted on the top projects. Of the eight submitted, three finalists were selected. The finalists will develop and implement their projects throughout the next year, and the winning project will be awarded The Lab’s Sustainability Prize, which consists of $10,000 for project implementation, with $1,000 earmarked for the high school attended by the prizewinner.

The three projects selected for the 2019 Sustainability Prize are as follows:

Yesenia Sandra Cahuana Condori (Peru), for the project “Treatment of waterbodies using biofilters for water access in rural areas in Arequipa, Peru”. This project consists of a water purification system, utilizing artisanal water purification methods to remove heavy metals and other contaminants from water, to be implemented in Peru’s Lake Titicaca and replicable in zones experiencing heavy metal water contamination.

Water purification in Lago Titicaca finalist

Finalist Yesenia Sandra Cahuana Condori with Arturo Condo, president of EARTH University

Malachi Troy Symonds (Bermuda) and María José Rojas Gutiérrez (Costa Rica), for the project “Controlled fishing and vegetable production”. This project consists of a food production project for fishing and vegetables, to be implemented in Bermuda and replicable in other coastal zones, to combat the need for imported food in Bermuda and other Caribbean islands.

Controlled Fishing And Vegetable Production finalists

Finalists Malachi Troy Symonds and María José Rojas Gutiérrez with Marcial Chaverri of Seedstars Procomer and Michael Gukovsky, a Lab board member

Forget Shareka, Respect Musiyiwa, Precious Nemutenzi (Zimbabwe) and Blessing Anyibama (Nigeria), for the project “The Life Hope Future Association (LiHFA) Youth and Community Development Centre” This project involves education and food security in Zimbabwe. This project works with vulnerable women and children in rural Zimbabwe, enhancing educational opportunities for children while establishing a farm for local food production.

The Life Hope Future Association (LiHFA) Youth and Community Development Centre

Finalists Blessing Anyibama and Precious Nematanza with Michael Gukovsky, Marco Gomez Jenkis, and Vladimir Jiménez (professors and researchers at Costa Rica Institute of Technology)

Each finalist is provided with funding from the university to support the implementation of these projects throughout the year, with the guidance of EARTH University faculty. At the end of the fourth year, the project that best exemplifies The Lab’s “Five Core Principles of Sustainability” is awarded the Sustainability Prize.

Congratulations to all of the participants for their entrepreneurial efforts. Finalists will be hard at work throughout the year to implement their projects, and the 2019 prizewinner will be announced in December 2019. We look forward to seeing what the finalists achieve in the coming year!

Stay tuned for the upcoming announcement of the 2018 prizewinner, to be announced in December 2018!

Farm to Market

This year’s runners-up were Johanna Carmona and Carolina Aguilar, for their project Cultivarme, a marketing strategy for contract farmers in Limón, Costa Rica, providing economic support and financial leverage to farmers, ensuring fair trade, and providing consumers with access to fresh, local goods.

Carolina (left) and Johanna (right) with goods from local farmers, sold on the EARTH campus

The agricultural production systems for small and medium-scale producers often have trouble responding to price fluctuations in the market, and therefore receiving fair prices with regularity.

After analyzing the current situation, Johanna and Carolina established a pilot marketing strategy for the goods of contract farmers local to Limón, Costa Rica, providing economic support to producers as a means of financial leverage. In addition to ensuring direct and fair trade, the plan granted consumers at EARTH University access to fresh, high-quality local products. This trial run was intended from the start to assess replicability for other agricultural regions.

Local producers and their families

The project was structured in four phases: elaboration of the business plan, general diagnosis, design of the logistical process, and finally, application and evaluation of the system.

The results identified the potential demand and supply of products from the area, the need for direct and fair markets, and a financial analysis of the strategy. The marketing model, and the market itself, was successful on the EARTH campus, leading to greater awareness of responsible consumption and production, the reduction of pollution, and the empowerment of local producers. The team concluded that local consumption has a strategic advantage, fulfilling social, economic and environmental aspects of sustainability. The prizewinners hope to implement this model in other agricultural regions in the future.

Local produce on the EARTH campus

This year, deliberations for the prizewinner were particularly tough, with only a hair’s breadth separating the winners from the runners-up. Inspired by the quality of both of the projects, Ivor Freeman, one of the lead funders of the prize, committed $2,500 on the spot for the runners-up, for the continued development of Cultivarme. To read more about the prize ceremony and the prizewinners, click here.

2017 Prizewinner Announced!

In December 2017, The Sustainability Laboratory and EARTH University awarded the annual $10,000 Sustainability Prize to Jhoselyn Dayhana Mendoza Lozano and Kalem García Abad for their project: “Green energy-powered desalinization of drinking water.”

The project, which was inspired by the lack of access to clean drinking water in coastal areas during the April 2016 earthquake in the prizewinners’ native Ecuador, was a design for a home desalinization system that runs on coconut waste instead of fossil fuels. For more information about the project, please see the prizewinner page on this website. You can also read a short interview with the prizewinners, here.

This year’s runners-up were Johanna Carmona and Carolina Aguilar, for their project Cultivarme, a marketing strategy for contract farmers in Limón, Costa Rica, providing economic support and financial leverage to farmers, ensuring fair trade, and providing consumers with access to fresh, local goods. For more information about this project, click here.

This year, deliberations for the prizewinner were particularly tough, with only a hair’s breadth separating the winners from the runners-up. Inspired by the quality of both of the projects, Ivor Freeman, one of the lead funders of the prize, committed $2,500 on the spot for the runners-up, for the continued development of their important project. This speaks to the high level of innovation sparked by the prize, and to the value of the projects undertaken by all of the prize finalists.

From left: Michael Gucovsky, Lab Board Member; Irene Alvarado, EARTH Faculty and Prize Coordinator; Kalem García Abad, Prizewinner; Jhoselyn Mendoza, Prizewinner; Michael Ben-Eli, Founder of The Lab; Carolina Aguilar, Runner-up; Johanna Carmona, Runner-up; Ivor Freeman, Prize Funder

A special thank you to Ivor and Barbara Freeman and Joshua Arnow and Elyse Arnow-Brill for their continued support of The Sustainability Prize.

“Green” Desalinization

The 2017 Sustainability Prizewinners were Jhoselyn Dayhana Mendoza Lozano and Kalem García Abad for their project: “Green energy-powered desalinization of drinking water.” The project involved a design for a home desalinization system that runs on coconut waste instead of fossil fuels. Please enjoy this short interview with the prizewinners:

Why did you decide on this project?

We were looking for a topic related to water, because it is one of the principal problems worldwide. This coincided with the earthquake in our home country of Ecuador in April 2016, which affected the coastal areas. The largest problem the people in the region were having after the disaster was access to clean, fresh water for consumption.

We knew a little bit about this problem because one of us, Jhoselyn, is from this area. Kalem also remembers being at the beach and seeing signs that said, “save water, it is limited.” It’s a seemingly simple sentence which says a lot!

Yaku Thani (Quechua for “healthy water”) was developed to provide a solution to this problem, with the design of a system to desalinate seawater using clean energy. Desalinization is a technique that already exists, but it currently uses conventional energy, which emits CO2 and contributes to climate change.

Through Yaku Thani, we proposed a method for creating clean water without negatively affecting the environment, using a gasification technique for the production of syngas, a clean gas, and using coconut fiber waste as energy.

Jhoselyn and Kalem performing trials with materials used for gasification.

How was your solution fitted to the specifics of the region? How might it be adapted for other regions?

It’s important to say that just 2.5% of the world’s water supply is fresh water and the rest is in the sea. What’s more, the underground wells which provide freshwater have salinized over the years, creating even more scarcity.

The coastal region of Ecuador, but also many other coastal regions worldwide, has all the necessary ingredients to make the project work: a large quantity of salt water, and the biomass required for the gasification process (in the form of coconut husks).

The system would be useful for water issues in other regions, but the purpose might change. In other regions, it might be a way to purify the water that comes from the tap. The source of biomass could also be swapped out for materials that are more prevalent in different areas, but for that we would need further trials to see which works best with our system.

The Yaku Thani desalinization system

How did The Lab’s sustainability principles inform the way you designed this project?  

We knew we wanted to design the desalinization system, but The Lab’s sustainability principles helped us connect this aim to a higher, more interconnected purpose. With the Yaku Thani machine, we want to provide more than just water, we want to provide security. We want to ensure coastal families will have a good life, in harmony with the environment: reusing local waste, while cheapening the cost and lowering the barriers to clean water.

What is next for Yaku Thani? What and how are you trying to improve?

During the process, we had evidence that our desalinization system works, but we will have to purify and improve the quality of the water. The seawater near the coast is contaminated by human activity—a problem that also affects the largest desalination companies, who must take measures to ensure the quality and safety of the water.

There are techniques in existence for water purification, and we already have ideas about how to build this into our system and produce clean water on a medium-scale. Our main barrier at the moment is that we are currently living far away from one another while we work at different companies, building experience in our respective fields. We look forward to working on this project in the future!

Kalem (left) and Jhoselyn (right) presenting the project last year

For more information about the project, please see the prizewinner page on this website.

Finalists Selected for the Sustainability Prize 2018

Six finalists have been selected for the 2018 Sustainability Prize at EARTH University.

The results are as follows:

Finalist #1: Elia Romero and María Nohelia Rojas, “CUÑATAI: Aggregate value of harvests by low-income women in rural Bolivia

Finalist #2: Raphaël Loubert and Mariana da Cruz Albertazzi, “Poultry production associated with an agroforestry system

Finalist #3: Maddalena Bettonni and Darling Blanco, “INSPIRA: Corporate Social Responsibility model”

Finalist #4: Marc Présumé, “Desalination of sea water for agricultural uses

Finalist #5: Noemi Vásquez Bajurdo, “Creation of a microenterprise of coffee products

Finalist #6Franco Gustave and Sharpton Budji Toussaint, “Kore Ti Plante: Production of compost with organic waste generated by the families of Ouanaminthe

Congratulations to all the participants for their entrepreneurial efforts, especially those that made it through to the final. They will be entitled to financing for realization of the project prototype. In the next year, they will refine this idea and present it in the “Finals” for The Sustainability Prize. This $10,000 prize has been sponsored by The Sustainability Laboratory since 2009, in recognition of the graduation project that best incorporates The Lab’s “Five Core Principles of Sustainability.”

Best of luck to you all!

Lab Awards Prize for Sustainability Excellence at Seedstars Summit

In collaboration with its Sustainability Prize Program at EARTH University, and Professor Irene Alvarado Van der Laat, who runs the program, The Sustainability Laboratory recently sponsored a prize for sustainability excellence at the Seedstars Regional Summit in Costa Rica. Dr. Michael Ben-Eli, Founder of The Lab, sat on the jury, and awarded the prize to the Costa Rican company Balanced Energy.

Presenting the prize (from left): Roberto Bolaños, Balanced Energy; Dr. Michael Ben-Eli, The Lab; Germán Jiménez, Balanced Energy; and Dr. Irene Alvarado Van der Laat, EARTH University

Balanced Energy is run by a group of engineers currently transforming waste plastics into alternative fuels, in order to reduce plastic waste and fossil fuel consumption, and to create job opportunities for people recovering plastic waste. B-Energy has debuted a fuel called Polydiésel, equivalent to diesel gas, which has already been tested in cars to great results.

At the summit (from left): Michael Gucovsky, Lab Board Member; Dr. Irene Alvarado Van der Laat, EARTH Professor and Lab Advisory Board Member; Marcial Chaverri, Procomer Costa Rica; and Dr. Michael Ben-Eli

Seedstars is an international effort to connect with the digital changemakers of the emerging world. As an incubator of educators and investors, they facilitate innovation in emerging markets through competitions, conferences, education and more.

Turning Rural Women To Artisan Entrepreneurs

Sindy Patricia Ramos Pocón from Guatemala won The Lab’s 2016 Sustainability Prize for her project, which trained rural women to create high-quality crafts from banana pseudostem fiber, a waste byproduct of nearby banana plantations.

Sindy with Dr. Ben-Eli of The Lab and Irene Alvarado of EARTH University

Sindy identified a group of Ecuadoran artisans, the Association of Women Agro-artisans (AMA), working with banana pseudostems and conceived of a pilot program to train rural women from Limón, Costa Rica to process the pseudostem fibers and turn them into high-quality crafts like hats, wallets, handbags, jewelry and more.

Familiarizing the women with the material

Sindy raised $12,000 to bring three Ecuadoran artisan women to Costa Rica for a five-day training program for 35 rural women. Other training sessions followed, culminating in one of the Costa Rican trainees forming her own women’s group, and training another seven women to create banana pseudostem crafts. As their skill in working with the material grew, these women became a formal association. Handicrafts Kalöm was born, named for the local indigenous word for “banana.” Sindy and the women were able to create a reputable brand, and build relationships with local retailers to get the products in stores.

Trainees processing the pseudostem fiber

Until now, little has been done to innovate around banana waste in the rural areas of Costa Rica and Guatemala. The raw material for these crafts, banana pseudostem, are acquired at no cost, and the ease of drying and processing means products can be made comfortably from home. These crafts rely on nothing but human capital: new skills, leadership and creativity, and indeed, the women are constantly innovating to create new products.

“With this project, a group of rural Costa Rican women were able form a sustainable agribusiness, and will now be able to train other rural women to do the same, generating new job opportunities and decreasing CO2 emissions by adding value to an unused waste product,” said Sindy.

Sindy, who is a MasterCard Foundation Scholar, now plans to expand Handicrafts Kalöm, by replicating the training process with rural, low-income Guatemalan women who live near plantain plantations in Escuintala.

“Thanks to the prize, I will be able to sponsor Costa Rican trainees to begin training Guatemalan women in the skills they learned from Ecuadorian artisans. My dream is to be an example of a brand with a social and environmental approach, that also has global reach,” she said.

Kalöm has also become an approved vendor through the “Handmade” section of, which has the potential to significantly expand sales for their products.

Some of Kalöm’s products

“I am happy and proud. I’ve realized nothing is impossible if you have the motivation and initiative. I have struggled to be where I am today and I feel as if life has rewarded me. This project has really opened a lot of doors for me,” said Sindy.

Finalists Selected for the Sustainability Prize 2017

This June, four finalists for the 2017 Sustainability Prize at EARTH University were selected.


This $10,000 prize has been sponsored by The Sustainability Laboratory since 2009, in recognition of the graduation project that best incorporates The Lab’s “Five Core Principles of Sustainability.”

The four finalists were chosen from among eight projects, represented by 12 students, who all had the chance to present their projects to the jury, faculty and fellow students.

The results are as follows:

Finalist #1: Emilio Patricio Suárez, “Preparation of biodegradable substitutes for plastic materials.”


Finalist #2: Gerson Bringuez, “Family Business Development for the ALCOR Brand in Guatemala”


Finalist #3: Johanna Carmona, “Creating a pilot for a production network and marketing plan for small producers through contract farming in the Municipality of La Unión, Antioquia, Colombia”


Finalist #4: Jhoselyn Dayana Mendoza and Kalem García Abad, “Purification of salt water using green energy”


Congratulations to all the participants for their entrepreneurial efforts, especially those that made it through to the final. They will be entitled to financing for realization of the project prototype. In the next year, they will refine this idea and present it in the “Finals” for The Sustainability Prize. Best of luck to you all!


Michael Ben-Eli of The Lab with the Sustainability Prize 2017 Finalists

The 2016 Prize will be awarded in December.

Finalists Selected for The Sustainability Prize 2016

This following is a dispatch from Jorge Manuel Dengo O. from EARTH University’s Business Program. Following changes to the structure of the Prize program, delineated in a previous post, four finalists in their third year at EARTH were chosen to compete for the prize during their fourth year. EARTH will award the finalists $5,000 each to implement their project over the course of the year, under the guidance of EARTH faculty. The project that shows the most promise by graduation time will be awarded The Lab’s $10,000 Sustainability Prize.

This summer, four finalists for the Sustainability Prize at EARTH University 2016 were selected.

The Sustainability Prize has been sponsored by The Sustainability Laboratory since 2009, in recognition of the proposal that best incorporates The Lab’s “Five Core Principles of Sustainability.” This prize consists of $ 10,000 for the winner, with $1,000 earmarked for the prizewinner’s high school.

The event was held within the framework of Integration Week, Level III. Originally we started with a list of 17 projects and, in time, it was narrowed down to eight. During Integration Week, these eight projects, represented by 10 students, were presented, all of them seeking a balance between human activities, food production, and environmental conservation. We believe they were wonderful examples of the ability of youth to lead and present game-changing ideas for the benefit of humanity.


The 8 participating projects were:

  1. Integrated Farm in the Municipality of Samaipata, Santa Cruz, Bolivia by Lucia Fernandez
  1. Financial Inclusion for Entrepreneurial Women from Ngatataek Maasai, Kenya by Abigael Simaloi Pertet
  1. Fresh Foods Farmers Association by Justina Bentil, Philip Bissiwu, Primrose Najjemba
  1. Vermicompost Based on Organic Waste, as a Waste Management Alternative in Quito, Ecuador by Andrea Paola Ortega Montalvo
  1. Waranka Cavia, SA, a Company Devoted to the Production of Guinea Pigs by Maria Flor Guzman Brito
  1. Development of a Fortified Flour Based on Traditional Crops to Counter the Problem of Malnutrition in Guatemala and Costa Rica by Otto Enrique Quin Rivera
  1. Production and Marketing of Crafts Made of Fiber Banana Pseudostem from the Village of Pinula, Municipality of Tiquisate, Escuintla, Guatemala by Sindy Patricia Ramos Pocon
  1. Development of Semi-Mature Cheeses, Ricotta and Whey-Based Drinks as Gourmet Products such as gourmet cheeses, Promoting Typical Guatemalan Culture and Flavors with Ingredients Produced by Local Farmers in Retalhuleu, Guatemala by Antonio Bressani Cordova


We wish to thank all those who supported this process, especially Dr. Michael Ben-Eli, sponsor of the award, and Professor Irene Alvarado, for her guidance and perseverance in working with the students year after year.

The selection, in which teachers, students and other audience members participated, was a difficult job, full of excitement and anticipation.

Here are the results:

Finalist #1: Otto Quin Rivera: ” Development of a Fortified Flour Based on Traditional Crops to Counter the Problem of Malnutrition in Guatemala and Costa Rica.”

Finalist #2: Sindy Ramos Pocon with “Production and Marketing of Crafts Made of Fiber Banana Pseudostem from the Village of Pinula, Municipality of Tiquisate, Escuintla, Guatemala”

Finalist #3: Abigael Simaloi Pertet with “Financial Inclusion for Entrepreneurial Women from Ngatataek Maasai, Kenya”

Finalist #4: Andrea Ortega Montalvo with “Vermicompost Based on Organic Waste, as a Waste Management Alternative in Quito, Ecuador”


Congratulations to all the participants for their entrepreneurial efforts, especially those that made it through to the final. They will be entitled to financing for realization of the project prototype. In the next year, they will refine this idea and present it in the “Finals” for The Sustainability Prize. Best of luck to you all! Thank you for your ideas as we strive every day to make a better world!

Update: Changes to the Prize Structure

We are pleased to announce a change in the structure of The Lab’s Sustainability Prize at EARTH University that we feel will improve students’ abilities to implement their chosen projects. After five years of offering this prize, and in recognition of its tremendous value for students, EARTH University has decided to “match” the financial contribution of The Lab by investing from the fore in the development of the projects that will ultimately be considered for the prize.

In the past, all students in their Fourth Year would have the opportunity to enter the prize competition, and projects could be in various stages of development and implementation. The major change to the prize structure is that now, students will apply in their Third Year to be considered for the prize. During “Integration Week,” which includes the “Sustainability Prize Seminar,” up to four Third-Year finalists will be selected by students and faculty. These finalists will be awarded $5,000 each by EARTH University towards implementation of their project idea. Finalists will begin implementing their projects in their Fourth Year, with the support and guidance of EARTH faculty. The project that shows the most promise by graduation time will be awarded the $10,000 Sustainability Prize to support continued project implementation.

This means that there will be no prize awarded in 2015, as student finalists chosen this year will be eligible for the prize in 2016. To read about the finalists for the 2016 prize, click here.

Living like Zooids

I recently had the chance to interview 2014 Prizewinner Antony Castro Rivera about his graduation project, “Implementation of Model Adaptations for a Sustainable Urban Home in Heredia, Costa Rica,” which turned his family home into a sustainable and profitable entity. I caught him right before a backpacking trip to Rio, where he plans to do some traveling before scaling up his hydroponic lettuce business!

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

On the inspiration for the project:

At the time I was deciding on my project, I read about an animal called a pyrosome, informally called a sea unicorn in Spanish. It looks like a single organism, but it belongs to a classification of animal called a zooid: a collective of individuals that acts as one, similar to bee colonies. That was my specific inspiration. I was looking at these animals and thinking about my home as a home-sized fishbowl. I thought about we as humans as a kind of pyrosome, with external individuals protecting the internal ones, and the internals providing food to the external. I wanted to make my home a kind of example, and I wanted to become a seed disperser in my community: not just with vegetable seeds, but with microorganism seeds and earthworm seeds for sharing. I wanted my home and my community to start functioning like a zooid.

About the project itself:  

The idea was to make my home “blue flag” sustainable. Then I realized that the certification is meaningless and you can do everything better on your own, outside of the certification bureaucracy.

I started investigating. I found that there is a lack of information necessary to determine what human intervention means in this context, so I decided to provide a theoretical and practical framework of my experience as an economic and technical reference for others who would like to do the same thing.

I started looking at my surroundings and broke everything down to the basics: water, light, heat, food, the wastes we all produce. I took into account that time equals money for most people. That gave me the basis for building my model.

I quantified all the wastes my home produced during the study time and determined recycling methods for plastics, paper, cans, etc. I gave our recyclables to people in the community who work in this area, and who will pick it up for free. Like in the zooid model, it gives them revenue and they are happy to come get it, and it contributes to wastes not ending up in the garbage.

I started checking global methods for disposing of organic wastes. There were two very promising methods: earthworm composting (vermicompost) and a Japanese method of creating microorganisms for compost with fruit peels, salt, dairy cultures and sugar. I followed both of these methods and made earthworms from the seed, as well as microorganisms, for sharing with others.

For the energy factor, I borrowed a voltmeter from the university and measured all electro-domestics to determine the biggest power consumers as well as the time of consumption. I made this document available for others in the community to be able to determine their own domestic electricity consumption patterns.

I projected the viability of installing solar panels, but it wasn’t economically viable because we didn’t consume enough energy to qualify for a lower price. I started looking around for other possible adaptions, and found an example of a local guy who had made a solar water heater. I included his work in the study with instructions of how to do it. It’s viable and it works! The electric water heater accounts for the most consumption in our home, so it reduced our energy bill by 20%.

I also made the projection for rain collection on my roof based on local meteorological data, and determined that it was viable. Here it rains a lot! We made the adaptation and we got lots of water. Unfortunately, you can’t drink it or use it on the skin because it has some microorganisms. But it can be used for washing the car, cleaning, stuff like that.

The economic, social and ecological impacts of the project:

The project had to have a very convincing economic element for my family. I decided on hydroponic agriculture, and made about 100 pounds of hydroponic plants. I invested mostly in lettuce, because you can consume it all day in salads. We decided to sell it with its roots, so it’s still alive and people are getting contact with a live plant. Many of them saw it as so beautiful that they didn’t eat it, just left it to produce flowers in the kitchen. That was an interesting reaction that I didn’t expect.

I made the hydroponic concentrated nutrient solution myself and compared it with the one available on the market. We found that a solution is 10 or 20 times as expensive to buy than to produce, and micronutrients are 60 times more expensive on the market than to self-produce. The market doesn’t reflect the real cost of these solutions. So people can do it themselves! It’s not as expensive as they say.

In terms of profitability: In the beginning of the project, you have to invest in infrastructure, which will take time to cover with revenue. Within a matter of two years, however, you can be paid back for all of the costs associated with infrastructure and manpower. This year, 70% of my income came from the 1,000 lettuce heads, and 3% from chiles and small food items, including medicinal plants. I am currently making projections for 2,500 lettuce heads, which would make the project more viable.

Every month the project generated 8.5% of an average Costa Rican base salary, so over the course of the year it would generate 102%. That’s an extra salary per year, which for a low-income family would represent a big windfall.

It also adds ecological value to your field. We’ve seen more lizards, more spiders, more birds. We even see bees pollinizing different plants. There is ecological synergy, and if you share spaces with your neighbors then you have economic synergy, too.  If you have 12 people in this system, you would have the equivalent of an extra person producing revenues for everyone. Not to mention the social aspects—giving the children hobbies, which is important in my neighborhood, where children have very hard experiences.

One major element was the live, biological assets. They make the project more interesting from an economic standpoint because of their reproductive capabilities.  For example, you have 1,000 earthworms for composting, and you share them with others, and in a month you will recover everything you shared and the others will have the same. It’s been pretty neat with my closer neighbors. I tried to share specifically with people who already grew some medicinal plants, people with some agricultural area, families with children. I tried to involve all the children I could! But the people I was most interested in were university-age people, because of the fire we feel inside. We know that we need seven planet earths to survive and that we have just one. It’s ingrained in us and so we are working together to create synergies: You know about architecture? Ok, help me with this part. You shouldn’t do it with that percentage sand, you can do it better by combining these materials. Thank you very much, here take this seed. And we keep in contact and we share.


It’s not as romantic as it looks! I had some problems. The corn I planted outside was stolen. A girl was using it to feed her macaw. My sunflowers were also stolen. I told the kids who stole it: when you plant, you have the right to harvest, but if you don’t plant, you don’t have the right. After that, they helped me plant beans and they saw it wasn’t as easy as they thought. They saw the work that goes into it, and they also had the experience of planting their own crops. I saw it as a positive in the end.

How his family felt about transforming their home:

They feel good about it. They have been exposed to the process through the university and through my and my sister’s school. They’ve become aware of the situation at the global scale and they are concerned about doing something for us, for the planet, for the animals. They are happy to do it in our home.

We had been thinking of building apartments off the house and I told them not to spend money on that, and that I would provide something different, and even more beautiful and satisfying, and they said “Ok, Tony, we’ll give you a year. Show us it’s viable and we will see.” They were satisfied.

How others felt about the project’s viability:

I was invited to the public university in Costa Rica to present this project to the students. Then, I asked them to complete a survey. I found that the people lack information, but they are interested in these home modifications, and they think it’s viable as a means to creating independence. People are looking for ways to reconnect with the agricultural past of Costa Rica. I also surveyed my neighbors, who told me that they have the space, but that time is a limiting factor, which is why I tried to make these adaptations “cheaper” in terms of time. For example: because we had lots of water, more than we could use on the plants, my father and I developed an idea for a gravity drip irrigation system. I developed some prototypes of the drip parts on my own, since gravity dripping is viable but not yet available on the market. Gravity irrigation means people would just have to open the system and let the water flow and all the plants would be irrigated. They wouldn’t have to go one by one, which is a big time limitation.

Antony’s Short-term plans:

Having a white sheet of paper in front of you after four years of university is an interesting sensation. I really love backpacking, having only necessities, and sharing with people in different countries (not just hotel people). I love contemplating landscapes. I’m hoping to do that for the next two months.

When I get back, I’m planning to produce my own microenterprise to expand into 2,500 lettuce heads with roots. When I do that, I will have my income capital and if everything goes as planned, I will invest in a 3D printer to further develop the prototype for the gravity drip irrigation system. I’m interested in developing printable models for gravity drip irrigation to send by mail, the digital files you need to print them on your own 3D printer, as well as the tutorial you need for installing it.

I’ve also started consulting at the university, producing soldier fly production for their wastes, which can be converted into animal feed. Right now, the production is 20 kilos per day, but I know we can produce more with some adaptations.

Long term plans:

I started my education studying economics and finance, but I realized I don’t want to work in an office all the days of my life, so I went to EARTH to be in the field. It was a nice experience, but I don’t want to live in that world either. I think I’m more of a hybrid, which is why I’m interested in urban agriculture.

All my life, my favorite hobbies have been to contemplate stars and read about quantum physics. We are living in an era which will lead humanity to another scale and quantum helps comprehend these processes. In the future, I really want to study physics. That’s my goal.

A Model Integrated Farm in Guatemala

The following is an interview with Issa Secaira Mancía about her graduation project, “A Proposal for an Agro-Ecological Integrated Model Farm for the Training Center at Chuitzanchaj, Solola, Guatemala.” It has been edited for content and clarity.

Issa with Lab Board Member, Michael Gucovsky, and Prize Program Advisors, Professor Irene Alvarado (right) and Professor Jane Yeomans (left).

Tell us a bit about yourself: 

I am from Guatemala. I lived my first years in a farm close to Antigua, Guatemala, and then I moved to Panajachel, Sololá, where I grew up. I have always enjoyed being surrounded by nature and I love to explore it. I also feel a very strong connection with Mayan culture and I have always been closely involved in community service, helping children, youth and families from the surrounding communities. Hiking and bird-watching are the two hobbies I enjoy the most. I also love gardening, working at the orchard, growing fruits and vegetables and cooking healthy dishes. I also enjoy reading a good book, swimming and meditating. 


On the inspiration for the project: 

I lived for many years in Panajachel, a town near Lake Atitlán, in the highlands of Guatemala. This region is very rich in natural resources, biodiversity and culture. However, population is growing exponentially and natural resources are being exploited at a rapid rate. Poverty, malnutrition, and illiteracy remain major problems in many communities. Mountains are deforested, soil degraded, and water polluted.  Equilibrium between human activities and nature is urgently needed. Sustainable agriculture brings diverse opportunities to improve people’s lives and at the same time helps preserve natural resources through responsible management. This inspired me to develop a project that would empower people through an exchange of knowledge and practical tools in sustainability-related topics.


On the project itself:

The purpose of this graduation project was to propose an agro-ecological design for an integrated farm for a training center in Chuitzanchaj, Sololá, Guatemala, thereby contributing to the sustainable development of the basin of Lake Atitlán. The aim is to empower people through an exchange of knowledge and practical tools in topics relating to sustainability. The first phase of the project consisted of making a diagnosis using a feature-oriented domain analysis (FODA) in order to assess the production and educational potential of the intended project. In the next phase, data was collected and analyzed in relation to the cultural, technical and scientific knowledge needed to transform conventional agro-ecosystems into integrated and sustainable food production systems. Finally, the project was presented to the Asociación Vivamos Mejor for implementation. Five principal components were chosen: agroecology, livestock, agroforestry, training centers, and organic fertilizers. All of these components are interconnected in order to guarantee an integrated production, the closing of cycles, and the efficient flow of energy and matter throughout the agro-ecosystems.

A graphic detailing the project’s integration of The Lab’s Five Core Principles of Sustainability.


On highlights of the project and its impact: 

When I did my first visit to the site, I identified the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the project. Based on that, I proposed strategies to take advantage of the strengths and opportunities, minimize debilities and neutralize threats. I am very grateful to see that the NGO, Vivamos Mejor, is implementing the ideas I proposed in my graduation project. Together with Vivamos Mejor we established short, mid and long-term strategies in order to guarantee the continuity of the project.

For example, during the visit, I saw many bees and proposed to implement an apiculture component. Bees play a fundamental role in the agro-ecosystems and also can bring opportunities to people in the surrounding communities. As a result, twenty bee boxes were established.  

Lake Atitlán, at the center of the basin, and the surrouncing rivers are contaminated by an improper use of synthetic fertilizers. Farmers also have become dependent on external sources to fertilize their fields. So I determined that there was a need for an organic fertilizer center that will offer alternatives. I proposed to implement a center for organic fertilizers in the integrated farm and training center Paisajes de Chuitzanchaj that will offer useful tools and knowledge to farmers and visitors to the training center, so they can implement good agricultural practices in their plots. Vivamos Mejor already has the materials to build the organic fertilizer center.

This region is very rich in biodiversity, and there are many nutritious native plants that are connected to Mayan culture. I proposed to implement an agro-ecological orchard that would take advantage of the genetic material of the region, and would be a model with clear examples of good agricultural practices that could be replicated and implemented by farmers and visitors. This would help to improve people’s diet and also bring practical tools to manage natural resources in a responsible way. The terraces for the orchard are already done and it will be soon implemented.   


What’s next for you?

I’m looking into Master’s programs in sustainable agriculture, most likely in the United States, Germany or here in Costa Rica. I would also love to work on the project at Chuitzanchaj. My long-term goal is to start a project with my family and have an integrated farm where I can grow and sell high-quality products, live the most sustainable life possible, and create an open classroom to share knowledge and experiences with everyone.

Keeping the Water Supply Safe

The following is an interview with Marianela Chaves Rivera about her graduation project, “An Integrated Water Resource Management Plan for the Community of San Juan Norte de Poás.” It has been edited for content and clarity.

Tell us a bit about yourself:

I am a Costa Rican. I was born and still live in Poás, in the Central Valley, where my project is based. I am proud of my nationality and at EARTH University I was part of the Costa Rican folkloric dance group. I also belonged to EARTH’s electoral tribunal.

I am the oldest of three. My parents taught us about hard work: to serve, be independent, study and fight for what we want. My grandpa was a farmer, and my dad is surveyor, which is why I have a great love for the land and natural resources.

Before I went to EARTH University, I studied Cartography, Digital Design and Water Resource Management. In my free time I like to walk, run, make crafts, draw, paint, read, garden, visit and learn about new places and things. All of my beliefs and values are mainly based in my faith in Christ, which is my best gift.​​


On the inspiration for the project:

In 2010, I was working in the community at San Juan Norte, Poás in Costa Rica as Secretary for the main board of the aqueduct, which is a group of people that handle issues related to the quality and quantity of water released to the community. San Juan Norte de Poás is a beautiful place near the Poás Volcano, and the community is very organized. However they need support in order to improve their water management system.

In 2013, I went to Ethiopia for an internship and confirmed the value of managing this important resource, because there water is not as available as it is here. Water is the resource that feeds life, ensures the production of food, and helps communities develop.

My idea was to develop a plan to keep the water resources of San Juan Norte de Poás safe, in order to guarantee the continued sustainability of this area. The projects proposed in my report involve economic, social and environmental factors and required teamwork by the entire community.


On the project itself:

The objective of this graduation project is to establish an Integrated Water Resources Management Plan (IWRMP) to support the community of San Juan Norte de Poás in reaching a sustainable path to socioeconomic development while safeguarding water resources in the short, medium and long term. Even though Costa Rica has established policies favoring IWRMP, the process of integration in rural communities has not been outlined. So, by helping to develop IWRMP guidelines, and enhancing their capacity to systematize and operationalize in a comprehensive manner, we can create a set of actions that encourage and depend on community participation and engagement, and ensure continuity. This participatory process explores innovative ideas that bring together issues like food security, agricultural production, soil conservation, education and renewable energy, which are all key issues related to the current and future quality of life for local residents. 

In this project, the National Plan for Integrated Management of Water Resources is taken into account, and linked to the definition of the Global Water Partnership. Twenty-six projects are proposed, mostly defined by community leaders. For example, one of the projects is to collect rainwater for agriculture use or to clean certain areas in the dairy farm. Another project involves the use of micro turbines to generate electricity by way of elevation differences. The plan also seeks to generate conditions that promote competition in the local productive sectors, generating employment opportunities and reducing costs, to create a more equitable wealth distribution while ensuring the financial stability of community organizations.


On highlights of the project and its impact:

The highlight of the project was the high level of community involvement and participation. Community members attended meetings and interviews and participated in a number of scheduled activities. Together, community members identified problems related to water resource management and provided strategies for improvement. Individuals even went to the top of the mountain to view the water sources, deepening their understanding of the importance of this resource and its proper management.

On the project’s continuation:

Last Thursday, I went to talk with the Directors of the Board of the aqueduct and I gave them a copy of the graduation report. The President of the aqueduct is amenable to implementing the project, especially because of the community engagement, but they will need to work to find financial support to organize and develop the projects proposed in the plan. The plan is only a tool to begin the project.


What’s next for you?

In the short term, I would like to find a job that serves the community, to get more experience and pay off my student loans. Also, I will study to improve my English.

In the medium and long term, I would like to launch my own business, perhaps in the field of water management, because I love this topic and the community-oriented work. I have some ideas about best practices and several plans for irrigation and drainage systems. Also, I would like to buy land and start my own integrated farm.

Sustainability Prize Renewed until 2018!

Thanks to the generosity of donors Joshua Arnow and Elyse Arnow Brill, and Barbara and Ivor Freeman, The Sustainability Laboratory will continue The Sustainability Prize Program for another five years, through 2018. This represents another $50,000 investment in EARTH students and their ideas for improving the lives of people in Costa Rica and in students’ hometowns across Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.

Prize Sponsor Joshua Arnow with 2013 Prizewinner María del Rosario Chávez Lazarte.

“Entrepreneurship is scary at the best of times; to create a sustainable enterprise is more so. This is why I support the Sustainability Prize: to encourage and reward those who have the courage to make the effort,” said Mr. Freeman.

Over the past five years, the Prize Program has become an essential part of EARTH’s curriculum, and a key, motivating factor in the quality and ambition of senior students’ graduation projects.

“The existence of this prize is a concrete demonstration to our students that they are not alone in their deep concern about the future of our planet and that there are people and organizations in the world who share their desire to seek innovative and constructive solutions to the environmental, social, economic and spiritual challenges facing us,” said EARTH Provost Daniel Sherrard.

The Prize Program will continue to be led jointly by Dr. Michael Ben-Eli of The Sustainability Laboratory and Dr. Irene Alvarado Van der Laat of EARTH University. A winner for 2014 will be chosen later this year.

Michael Ben-Eli Appointed as Adjunct at EARTH University

Dr. Michael Ben-Eli, Founder of The Sustainability Laboratory, has been appointed as an Adjunct Professor at EARTH University.


The appointment was made “in recognition of the substantial collaboration that has existed between The Sustainability Laboratory and EARTH University, and our mutual hope for increased cooperation in the future.” Dr. Ben-Eli has led seminars at EARTH, in connection with The Lab’s Sustainability Prize Program, since 2009. EARTH also acknowledged that Dr. Ben-Eli’s “expertise and experience” in the field of sustainability will “enrich the University’s academic environment.”


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