How it Got Started

Back in 2017, after coming to Haiti for 2 consecutive years, I decide to summarize some of my experiences in this article:
$82,000 has been spent on the poor and needy in Haiti (94% self-funded and 6% from donors). This does not include my personal expenses such as travel, lodging and food. Nor does it include the income lost during the 3 months per year that I travel to the country. It has taken lots of flexibility, self sacrifice and an alternative work arrangement in my life to make this all happen, but it is totally worth it.

HUM hospital in Mirebalais
Although most of my time in Haiti is spent working at the Partners in Health hospital, HUM, in Mirebalais, in this article I will focus on my freelance community development projects which I have engaged in after hours and on weekends. I can see there is value in the neurology professor role I have at the hospital, but the community based projects are meeting the deeper needs of the people and so I shall focus on those experiences here
Back in early 2016, in the first 6 months of my travels to Haiti, I would bring about $3000 each trip and challenge myself to find worthy ways to use the money to help the people. I didn’t always spend all the money back then, because I couldn’t find people who would use it productively. It was frustrating to be surrounded by severe poverty, with plenty of cash, wanting to share it, yet not able to put it all to good use. In that situation, I just did the best I could. I can see now, that demanding a high level of “return” on my investments, ultimately helped attract the right people and situations to me.
Here are some of the things I did in those days: I sponsored a backyard garden project in my neighborhood. I started a seed saving class at a local vocational school. I taught compost making. I helped multiple hard working individuals kick start various self-employment opportunities, such as a street side food vending business, a carpentry business and a home-based noodle making business. I bought food, clothes and medicine for countless people, especially the throngs of extremely poor children who congregate around the hospital that I work at. Some investments were fruitful, others a total waste. But with every failure, I learned to “read” people better and better so as to avoid repeat mistakes.

Homemade noodles in Haiti
After this initial phase, I started to connect with some locals who had good intentions and enough time and energy to carry out larger projects in my absence. That is when I was able to start the community farm projects. I was really wanting to explore some unique ways to improve life for the farmers. I had a challenge though. I could not find any good examples to follow. Most of the NGO’s that developed farms in Haiti, did so with expensive technologies that the average Haitian farmer could never copy. To find a fitting solution, I was forced to start from scratch. In the end I benefited from this. It provided many valuable firsthand experiences. I explored various irrigation systems, many types of fences, different water harvesting technologies and different systems of agroforestry. This phase was expensive because many of the options I explored did not work for the average small Haitian farmer. But I would have never known, if I didn’t try. Now I can feel confident with the direction I’m going in.

Community farm at Bayass in the first season of growing
The direction I choose to invest in is a form of regenerative agroforestry which is popular in Brazil. The technique can be used by rainfed farmers and applied with hand tools only. It needs no outside input, such as fertilizers, yet in a few short years is capable of rehabilitating dead soil. If done on a large enough scale, it has been proven to actually change the micro-climate of a region. The trees improve soil water retention and can replenish underground water reservoirs, promote wildlife and protect crops from disease. This agroforestry technique has the potential to heal the dying land of Haiti. The video that helped me to see the full potential of his technique is here: Life in Syntropy, Agroforestry Technique.
In the end, I hired a consultant from Brazil, Ricardo Lopes. He has helped remotely, but also came to Haiti in January of 2017. That trip was priceless. Once he saw firsthand how things were in the country and what natural resources they had, he was able to come up with a custom agroforestry system. Since that trip, I have taken his expertise and converted it into an easy to follow hands-on technical guide. The short book is full of photos and drawings. It is my vision, that it will be translated into Creole soon and facilitate the sharing of this technique in Haiti. This book is undergoing final editing these days.

Ricardo Lopes demonstrating proper banana planting
Although the agricultural work is my main focus, another valuable project presented itself. While developing the community farms, I learned that virtually no one living in the countryside had any form of sanitation or toilet. The people are forced to defecate anywhere. There is human feces in the farm fields, along the paths and beside the river where people come to bathe and wash clothes. The water in Haiti is totally contaminated! The people have no other option but to drink it and deal with some level of illness almost continuously. Sometimes there are severe infections such as parasites and Cholera.
When I explored a traditional latrine, I found it was way too expensive. The cost for materials alone is $250 (after labor it can easily cost $500). An average family makes $3 per day. Building a single latrine for a village with hundreds of families is no real solution either. It would not get used by all the people, because it cannot be easily accessed by all. I could see there was a great need for an inexpensive, family owned latrine. One thing led to another and I found the vetiver latrine to be the perfect solution. Now two years later, I have installed about 80 of these latrines and plan to install one for every family (a total of about 400 families).

Mature vetiver latrine
In the process of building the latrines, the locals are learning how to do this themselves. I have also created a photo rich document with comprehensive explanations so that anyone, anywhere can successfully install the vetiver latrine. You can download the Vetiver Latrine Guide for free.
It is my conviction that all people should have access to some form of reliable sanitation. The vetiver latrine costs about $25 for materials only ($40 -50 including labor). It is an effective, reusable technology that is doable even for the poorest in Haiti. It represents a critical piece of the puzzle, towards developing a healthy, happy community.

Community meeting with Sojepac
Midway through 2017, I could see that most of the troubleshooting for the agroforestry and latrine projects was complete. It was time to kick start some self-employment opportunities for the people of the community. I met with the people and we decided on a sewing class with the goal that the women, someday, would be able to sew their own children’s school uniforms. If they can achieve that level of expertise, they can sew almost anything. We also agreed to start a bamboo carpentry workshop. The men are learning to make furniture and other household items for sale. If successful, I will help finance their first businesses. I plan to offer the people an option. They can each have a small business at their home, with the bare minimum equipment or they can have a cooperative and share a much larger variety of equipment. For example, the cooperative could afford to own a generator (there currently is no electricity in this community). In that case they could have electric powered equipment, instead of manual ones. In the end, the choice will be theirs.

A motivated sewing student with a hand sewn shirt after 2 months of training.
I have other projects ready to be materialized, when I have enough time and money to make them happen. For example, I plan to come up with a family-sized, underground, cold storage vault for keeping perishable food and seeds. Most farmers have to purchase new seeds every growing season. Plus food goes bad quickly in the high daily heat of Haiti. Cold storage can help the average family save money and have access to much healthier foods. I have some ideas of how to build such an underground vault already. The design is affordable and can be made using he resources already in Haiti. Also, I wish to introduce some home building techniques that utilize natural resources and are resistant to earthquakes and hurricanes. I’m also exploring a low cost water tank, which if successful, may allow the average family to harvest rainwater on there own property. Normally the people have to walk long distances to the community spring where they fill plastic containers and hand carry all their water back home. During dry season, much of the day can be devoted to fetching water. Collecting water at home can free up a tremendous amount of time and energy.

Bamboo carpentry workshop in action
As this work progresses, I have more clarity for my goals for Haiti. I wish to make rural life in Haiti much more pleasant. I plan to work intensely with these communities that have accepted me. The goal is to develop a whole set of resources to help the people enjoy a happy, healthy life. These communities can serve as a real life example for others to follow. I will freely share my “recipe for success” with anyone who may benefit from it. To help support these projects I have created a nonprofit, called Global Freedom Project. The idea initially came from a man who made an unsolicited donation. Now it is a reality. Now all who wish to help the poorest in Haiti can donate, tax free, to Global Freedom Project.

Hugs, Roger

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