Features | From Pivot Magazine

How a Toronto CPA turns poop into power

As the founder of a non-profit that turns excrement into energy, Fahad Tariq isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty

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Fahad TariqFahad Tariq (Aaron Wynia)

While I was studying to get my MBA, I entered a social-enterprise competition. The goal was to improve incomes in developing countries—a very big challenge. In my research, I stumbled upon a United Nations environment report on the energy potential of human waste—you know, the stuff we literally flush down the toilet. The paper showed that it was possible to convert waste into electricity, heat or fertilizer. It seemed like the ultimate form of recycling. I immediately thought, ‘Why isn’t anyone doing this on a massive scale?’ So, with some of my classmates at Western University’s Ivey Business School, we pitched a company that would turn poo into power. We made it to the finals but didn’t win the competition, so I put the idea in a drawer and went back to reality. 

About a year later, after I’d graduated, I received an email from a former professor with a letter we had once been asked to write to our future selves. ‘I hope you’re doing something to make the world a better place,’ I’d written, ‘because I know it means a lot to you.’ That hit me hard. I enjoyed my job: I was an equity research analyst (then at BMO, now at Credit Suisse), which means I researched stocks, wrote reports and talked to investors about what they should buy or sell. It’s intellectually stimulating and it allowed me to support my family, but something was missing. The next day, I registered our theoretical company as a non-profit called Shift.

In the fall of 2017, I hired project managers and an advisory board of four scientific experts via cold-call. We quickly realized it wasn’t realistic to work with human waste—in many parts of the world, that wouldn’t work for cultural reasons—so we set our sights on animal waste, which people, especially farmers, are more comfortable with. It was an easier way to get into the market.

A Shift project in PakistanA Shift project in Pakistan (Courtesy of Fahad Tariq)

We ran a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, which raised more than $30,000 in three weeks. I think having my CPA designation helped give Shift credibility, inspired people to trust me and made them more willing to donate. We had polished revenue forecasts, and backers trusted that I was qualified and had a certain kind of financial understanding.

We decided to start Shift in Pakistan, not only because my family is from there, but also because many people there lack a sustainable source of energy to cook with. When I visited, I got to meet people who live in remote villages and talk to them about their problems. Many of them were using firewood to prepare meals, which can be really hazardous to the lungs and eyes, especially because they live in small huts that fill up with smoke. 

We offered Shift as a cleaner, safer alternative. We install what we call an ‘energy dome,’ a concrete cylinder that farmers can dump cow manure into. Inside the sealed dome, natural bacteria break down the waste over the course of about a week, creating ‘bio-gas.’ That gas is then piped to homes, where it can be used for heating and cooking meals, much like a natural-gas stove. 

It was difficult to get buy-in from the community to use their land and animals, but our project managers already had good relationships with community leaders—plus the system has a lot of advantages. It runs on waste they already have, so it’s of no cost to them and requires almost no maintenance. Plus, it captures methane emissions that would otherwise go into the atmosphere and prevents the deforestation that comes with chopping firewood. We started with a single project and have since installed 10 domes, which afford clean energy to about 500 people.

“We want people to talk about waste as an energy source, just as they talk about solar or wind energy.”

Maintaining a non-profit on top of a full-time job can be difficult. In the early days, it wasn’t uncommon for me to wake up before sunrise for a conference call with our advisory board or to send emails to donors at 2 a.m. on a Sunday. My schedule is more flexible now that we’re up and running, but I still devote considerable free time to Shift, making calls to Pakistan on weeknights to talk about new locations or to troubleshoot contractor delays. Our advisory board helps with strategy, safety and execution, and our team in Pakistan is really passionate about development and relief work. My wife has also been really supportive, letting me off-load other things so I can spend time working on this. My personal philosophy is, ‘If you’re trying to go fast, go alone. If you’re trying to go far, go together.’

It shocks me that no one has implemented something like Shift on a huge scale. The technology has been around for a long time; it just needs to be brought to the world. We want people to talk about waste as an energy source, just as they talk about solar or wind energy. For that to happen, this technology needs to be widely adopted in North America. As we continue to grow in the developing world, I want to work with a North American city to implement this technology. What if Toronto could turn itself into a generator using the waste its population is producing?

On days when I’m tired or that grand vision seems far off, I think about the impact our work is having. I can spew stats, but I’d rather talk about the women who no longer have to inhale smoke all day. What keeps me going is talking to our contacts in Pakistan, receiving pictures from overseas and hearing what people are saying about Shift in the villages. That really recharges my batteries. I think, ‘This is why I’m doing this.’ It’s like day one again.”

As told to Katie Underwood