The future looks promising for a crop of Haitian scholars who recently earned advanced degrees from U.S. universities and returned to Haiti with the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Armed with master’s degrees from the University of Florida and Louisiana State University, the 20 graduates have gone back to live and work in Haiti, a country that desperately needs skilled agricultural professionals to modernize the agricultural sector in a country that suffers chronic food insecurity.
Among the graduates is Marie Darline Dorval who began work in the fall of 2019 as a research assistant at a Haiti agricultural research laboratory shortly after she returned with a master’s degree in horticulture from UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
“It’s important work,” she says of her responsibilities at CHIBAS, a research laboratory associated with Quisqueya University’s College of Agriculture in Port-au-Prince. She conducts field experiments on new varieties of sorghum and maize, analyzes research data and writes grant proposals.
“In Haiti we need new varieties of crops that are not only better adapted to the changing climate, but to increase yields and to improve disease resistance and food processing,” Dorval says.
High demand for graduates
Other returning graduates have found work on an array of agricultural-related projects. One graduate helps to manage a portfolio of agricultural, food security and environmental programs for the Swiss Embassy in Haiti, another is serving as a crop-modeling consultant for an international startup company, while another is cultivating crops on his own farm. Others work as researchers and educators to train women farmers, maintain a network of weather stations, improve soil fertility, and test higher yielding beans.
Jobs are hard to come by in Haiti, a country that historically suffers from high unemployment and a stagnant economy, and the job market is now even more challenging because of heightened economic risks amid the coronavirus pandemic and an ongoing civil and political crisis in Haiti. Yet skilled researchers like Dorval are in high demand.
“Haiti needs more agricultural professionals with advanced degrees due to the increasing complexity and challenges facing the agricultural sector,” says Rose Koenig, principal investigator of the Feed the Future AREA (Appui à la Recherche et au Développement Agricole) project. The multifaceted initiative was launched by UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in 2015 with a $13.7 million award from the USAID.
“We are training professionals in the most important areas in agriculture, including plant breeding, agricultural engineering, plant pathology, soil science, entomology and empowering women.”
Agriculture drives Haiti economy
Dorval grew up in Port-au-Prince in a family of five children. While her immediate family members didn’t work as farmers, per se, they had first-hand experience growing crops – typical in a country where agriculture is the country’s biggest economic driver. Dorval and her sisters tended a backyard garden to grow corn, while her mother grew plantain and coconut trees in the countryside on her grandmother’s land and several uncles were farmers.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural sciences from Quisqueya University, Dorval was accepted in the highly competitive UF graduate school program in 2015. She is one of 13 women among the cadre of 25 master’s students supported by the program.
“The goal is for the women to become leaders and to help diversify the field and bring a unique perspective,” Koenig says.
Dorval says her duties are directly related to her master’s work to examine the use of modern breeding technologies to accelerate the breeding cycles of improved sorghum, which is widely consumed in Haiti, notably in malta.
She says she intends to continue to advance her career by applying what she learned, which also includes researching for peer-reviewed articles, training others, and even making presentations at scientific gatherings. She also teaches courses in agronomy and the use of modern techniques to improve the cultivation of crops at Quisqueya University.
“I’m becoming a more extrovert,” she says with a laugh. “Now I can participate in presentations with ease and it helps me a lot with teaching and training others.”
Most recently, she was selected to lead a new project to improve and increase the variety of tubers, including potatoes and cassava. She says she well knows that science is ever-evolving – and Haiti needs to continuously improve its research and use of technology to strengthen its food supply and the household nutrition of Haitians.
“I’m excited because I am conducting research on new crops and I am learning about new and different plants.” She says master’s studies prepared her for life a professional scientist in what she hopes is a brighter future Haiti agriculture. Looking to the years ahead, Dorval says she hopes to use her new skills to start her own genetic-testing firm. “Haiti is a beautiful country, and it is up to the Haitians to develop it.”
See a version of this story on the U.S. Agency for International Development’s blog.