Empowering Women With A Wriggly New Industry: Worms

Byoearth is replacing chemical fertilizer, cleaning up trash, and giving poor women jobs and a path out of poverty. What magic bullet can do all these things at once? Teaching women to be worm farmers.


Is it possible for one woman to energize a developing country’s economy from the ground up? Guatemalan native Maria Rodriguez is trying, in a very literal way: Six years ago, at the age of 21, she launched a vermicomposting startup called Byoearth, and has since pivoted the company into a social venture, empowering women to create income, increase crop production, and build their quality of life–with worms. “First of all, women are the majority, and they’re worth paying attention to,” Rodriguez explains, reiterating something that study after study is finding to be true: If you want to change the world, start with the ladies. “If you invest in women, you’re really investing in the community.”

Photo by Jesse Grainger

Rodriguez, the daughter of a coffee farmer, grew up between the rural and urban areas of Guatemala; she had an entrepreneurial bent as a teen, and went to college to study business. It was senior year when she had her vermi-piphany. “I was in an environmental management class, and the teacher was talking about different treatments for waste,” Rodriguez says. “He started talking about worms, and the idea just clicked in my mind.” She remembers presenting the idea for a vermicomposting business to her father, who wasn’t sure his young daughter should be involved in such dirty work. Determined to prove him wrong, Rodriguez entered and won a business plan competition sponsored by TechnoServe, winning enough money to launch Byoearth as a for-profit organic fertilizer company. “My family always supported me, but they were really advising me to be cautious,” Rodriguez remembers with a laugh. “I came home with a check and said, ‘This is it! I’m starting my business!’ Then I got all the support.”

Quick worm tutorial: “Worms are important for us to survive,” says Rodriguez. “They are the ones who take care of the earth, who put the nutrients back in the soil for us to have food and water.” Vermicomposting (vermis is Latin for worm) is an easy three-step process, for which Rodriguez uses redworms in a simple bin: “You compost your waste, feed it to the worms, and then their waste is the fertilizer,” she explains. This is not particularly new information, of course, but as she began spreading the good shi–er, the good word across her country, Rodriguez found herself, strangely, having to remind many indigenous farmers about their own heritage. “The Mayan people in Guatemala were really connected to the environment and the land, but it is something that was lost many years ago,” she says. “These generations, they grew up with genetically modified seeds and chemical fertilizers. I’m going to a lot of different communities and teaching from zero.” She mostly sells her fertilizer to development nonprofits these days, many of whom are working with subsistence farmers in remote parts of the country that Rodriguez would have difficulty reaching on her own.

Photo by Jesse Grainger.

In the months between coffee harvests, Rodriguez started training other women in vermiculture at her production plant; by 2007, she’d turned Byoearth into a full-time social venture, and has since expanded into urban areas. Turns out women and worms are a perfect fit. “We teach them it’s like having a baby, or a little pet,” Rodriguez explains. “You need to know when it’s hungry, if it needs water, if it’s feeling bad. We do some workshops for how to prepare the box, like how the worm needs a little bedding …” Yes, she knows how this sounds. “I would never in my life have guessed that I would love worms, but I would die for worms,” Rodriguez laughs. “Really. I love them. If one dies, I am like, ‘No! What happened? What did we do wrong?’”

Byoearth took a massive step last year, teaming up with TechnoServe to build three fertilizer production facilities owned and operated entirely by women in rural villages. Rodriguez buys their product through her for-profit arm, then resells it to her nonprofit partners, creating a remarkable model of agricultural self-reliance she hopes to spread throughout Central America, and maybe try out in India and Africa someday. “Women tend to be really individual in their communities, but now there is a group of 90 women working together with a vision to become better,” she says of her first three microfranchises. “They are breeding rabbits and selling them. They’re learning things together. Some of them are learning English. They’re working as a community.

“The community is progressing, the town is progressing, and then the whole country is progressing,” Rodriguez says, “because of the women working together for the greater good.” And their millions of wiggly little friends, of course.

About the author

Whitney Pastorek is a writer and photographer based in Los Angeles and/or wherever the bus just dropped her off. She spent six years on staff at Entertainment Weekly, and her work has appeared in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, Details, the Village Voice, and Fast Company, among many others.