Vetiver Solutions: Addressing a root cause of poverty in Haiti
Could a tropical grass, Chrysopogon zizanioides, help alleviate poverty and malnutrition in Haiti? A team of University Minnesota students and Acara program alums believe that the plant, more commonly known as vetiver, can do just that – and more.
Vetiver Solutions is a burgeoning social impact venture. Team members Jesse Abelson (BS Biology and Nutrition, 2017), Leeore Levinstein (BS Genetics, Cell Biology and Development, 2018), Dalton Shutte (BS Mathematics, 2017) first met in fall of 2016 in one of the University’s Grand Challenge Curriculum courses. Seeking Solutions to Global Health Issues is co-taught by Acara director Fred Rose and Cheryl Robertson of the School of Nursing.
An initial focus on poverty and malnutrition in Haiti led the students to home in on agriculture – and a way to make an impact: They would work to make sustainable farming profitable in both the short- and long-term. Sustainable farming practices are normally unrealistic for Haitian farmers; for many of them, sacrificing any income to benefit the environment could mean starvation. At the same time, chronic soil erosion threatens the future of Haiti’s food system.
Enter vetiver. Already present in Haiti, the grass has a deep root system, allowing it to serve both as an erosion prevention tool and a cash crop. The Vetiver Solutions team, since expanded to include Elizabeth Alonzi (BS Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, 2018) and Becca Desens (BS Marketing and Supply Chain, 2017), is working to help Haitian farmers plant vetiver hedges alongside their crops and will harvest them twice a year. After harvest, Vetiver Solutions will use a novel process to convert the shoots into yarn and sell the product, providing funds to continue operations and further invest in rural Haitian communities.
“None of our original team had ever dreamed about starting a business,” says Abelson, who is currently working in Haiti. “But we were determined and passionate about what we were trying to do.” The vetiver yarn has the potential to disrupt the existing yarn market, Abelson says, and – if it catches on – could help bring thousands of people, or more, out of poverty.
The team has the backing and the network to do it. In spring of 2017, the students took silver in the annual Acara Challenge, a honor which included $3,000 in funding that they used to do an initial assessment in Haiti later that year. The team was awarded another $3,000 last fall through an Institute on the Environment Mini Grant, which Abelson and Desens used in Haiti this past winter to begin the venture’s pilot phase.
And just last month, the team won the Social Impact Award and finished fourth place overall in the E-Fest Schulze Entrepreneurship Challenge – coming away with a total of $25,000 to invest in their venture. The challenge is open to undergraduate teams of any discipline from universities across North America. Out of 150 applicants, 25 were selected to present to a panel of judges at the University of Saint Thomas.
“We never expected to win so much from the Schulze Challenge,” Alonzi says. “That amount of money would change the future of any company, but since we operate in Haiti where costs are so much lower it completely revolutionizes our opportunities. We can hire employees and begin truly developing a local economy as we start up regular production and begin selling our product.”
Abelson agrees. “In a place where most farmers’ incomes hover around one dollar per day, $25,000 has the potential to make an incredible impact on people’s lives and make a sustainable change. We’re incredibly grateful for the opportunity – and excited about what our future holds.”
Anne Brekke is a University of Minnesota student and Acara program assistant.