Where are they now: Partnering with Haitian farmersShare
Elizabeth Alonzi is from the 2015-2016 class of Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge emerging leaders
Over the past few years, I've come to realize that being open to opportunities that come your way can often be more important than actively seeking them out. Some opportunities we would never consider or dream for ourselves can end up being exactly the best experiences for us. I learned this lesson four months ago when I received a text from a good friend of mine, “Are you interested in going to Haiti this summer?”
At the time, I had never thought about traveling to Haiti in my life. But this completely unprompted message led me to a rural mountain village where I peeled fibers from grass in front of a crowd of 50 farmers–not exactly what I expected to be doing this June.
It all started with Acara, a University of Minnesota program with a series of courses called the Grand Challenge Curriculum, aimed at helping students develop solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems. Three students had taken a course on public health and created a business plan for growing erosion-fighting grass in Haiti. Knowing they could make thread from this grass and turn a profit for farmers, they pitched their idea to various outlets and won funding to implement the program.
It was around this time, when three pre-med students stared at each other and realized they didn’t have any experience with international agriculture or fiber isolation, that I received a message about a trip to Haiti. I’m studying bioproducts and biosystems engineering and have a surprising amount of knowledge about plant fiber isolation. And as an alumna of the Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge fellowship, I have experience with international agricultural development programs in developing countries. My friend connected the students to me, and within a week, I was part of the Vetiver Solutions team. A few weeks later, I bought a plane ticket to Haiti.
Months later, I was riding on the back of a motorcycle over rocky roads and rivers in the mountains of rural Haiti, heading to the village of Moreau where our project begins. Any entrepreneur can tell you starting a business is hard work. But starting a business in a developing country, where you are not fluent in the local language, corruption is rampant and roads are too damaged by natural disasters to take a car so all supplies must fit on a motorcycle, is another challenge entirely. Thankfully, we have the help of Mijaba, a Haitian nonprofit supporting us with our work in Moreau and the surrounding communities.
While Haiti is very different than Kenya or Rwanda, the countries I visited with the Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge, and producing thread from erosion-fighting grass is very different from the dairy development programs I saw and worked with, the approach to international development work I learned from Land O’Lakes International Development was truly invaluable for my work with Vetiver Solutions. I heard it over and over last summer, “International development cannot be approached as a handout or a hand up, but approached with a handshake.” We have so little understanding of why communities face the problems we see. A handout does little in the long run, and a hand up assumes you have a better understanding of these issues than the locals, often leading to treatment of symptoms but exacerbating root causes. This work is truly a partnership. We came to Haiti with an idea, a method and funds, but we worked in tandem with the people who can implement this idea and understand what it takes to succeed.
In my short time in Haiti, we had the chance to meet with local farmers, officials and engaged citizens about how best to integrate our work in their community, what their goals were and how they paired with our own. We set up experiments to test different eco-friendly methods of isolating fibers, which have been very successful due to the help of some new friends, and spun thread together with members of the community. The experience has been incredible, but our project is only just beginning. It's thanks to great organizations like the Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge and Mijaba that we have gotten this far. It will take all our continued work to make sure we can develop sustainable agriculture across the world and achieve food security for all.
You can learn more about our project by liking our Facebook page, Vetiver Solutions, or hear more about our time on the ground by following our blog.