On a sunny September afternoon in Croix-des-Bouquets, a suburb of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, Dr. Valentin Abé filled a pail with fish feed and made the rounds at his hatchery, flinging handfuls to the fingerlings in each of the open-air tanks as they crowded near the surface of the water.
“We use tilapia because they reproduce well and they’re really tough,” said Abé, the founder and chief executive officer of Caribbean Harvest, a Haitian for-profit social enterprise that has won plaudits for creating jobs while improving nutrition and livelihoods in some of the country’s poorest and most destitute communities — those living around Haiti’s heavily overfished, largely barren lakes.
Caribbean Harvest supplies farmers on these lakes with fingerlings, feed, and cages, as well as training on fish culturing. The farmers and their families simply feed the fish three times a day. After four months, the fish will have grown to market size. Caribbean Harvest buys back from the farmers about 70% of the full-grown fish and processes them for sale to commercial vendors such as hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets. The farmers keep the remaining 30% for their own consumption and for sale in local street markets, providing both their families and their communities with a much-needed source of protein.
“We started with six farmers in 2005,” Abé recalls, “and we were so successful that by the time of the earthquake [in January 2010] we had 164.” It was a 2009 visit by President Bill Clinton, though, that put Caribbean Harvest on the map. Then the United Nations Special Envoy to Haiti, Clinton was so impressed with the company and improved livelihoods that he nominated Abé as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.
Five years after its founding, Caribbean Harvest boasted an annual production capacity of 2.5 million tilapia fingerlings. Yet with three dozen steel tanks, all requiring round-the-clock aeration, six bioreactors, and a filtration system to ensure the cleanliness of water released back into the environment, the company could only grow so fast. “One of our limiting factors was the energy needed to run all of those things,” says Abé, recalling that the hatchery relied then on just 60 kilowatts of solar energy and two very costly diesel generators. “So we went to the LEVE project [the USAID-funded Local Enterprise and Value Chain Enhancement project] to find out if we might be eligible for funding.”
Launched in 2013 and led by RTI International, USAID’s LEVE project is a competitive value chain and workforce development program designed to stimulate job creation in Haiti through support for micro-, small-, and medium-sized businesses in each of three priority sectors: agribusiness, apparel, and construction. After first conducting in-depth assessments of each sector and identifying value chains with the highest market and job creation potential, LEVE began working with identified lead entities interested in, and capable of, alleviating market failures that aligned with program objectives. And none of those chosen better exemplifies the program’s ability to effect lasting change than Caribbean Harvest.
In 2015, LEVE provided support to Caribbean Harvest by awarding it a $250,000 partner contribution grant for the purchase of 300 additional cages and new solar panels capable of generating 60 kilowatts of energy. “That allowed us to double our energy output, which allowed us to add 150 more farmers,” says Abé. “Now we have more than 400,” and the goal, he says, is to double production to 5 million fingerlings per year by 2018. Output has increased so much, that in 2017 LEVE awarded Caribbean Harvest an additional $50,000 to help establish sales and distribution points for the fish, to increase sales to the local market.
“It’s a local company and it’s a value chain unto itself,” says Philippe Bellerive, Agribusiness Team Lead on the LEVE project. “We soon realized that, with them, we could have an important impact on the entire aquaculture value chain — from the farming of fingerlings to the marketing and sale of the product to the end consumer.”
With its support for Caribbean Harvest, he says, LEVE is helping to resurrect an industry that all but vanished over the past two decades. “Fish farming is not common in Haiti,” says Bellerive, adding that despite its more than 1,000 miles of coastline, Haiti imports roughly 70% of the fish consumed in the country. Meanwhile, some 3.6 million Haitians lack access to a reliable and affordable food supply and more than two-thirds of workers in Haiti do not have formal jobs.
Equally rare is Caribbean Harvest’s approach to working with farmers. “It isn’t how things are typically done here,” says Abé. “Usually, a company simply hires a person. But that isn’t what we do. We have a partnership with the farmers that is built on trust.” When he first came to them with the idea, many were skeptical, he says. The farmer spends four months feeding the fish and doesn’t get paid until after the fish is full-grown. “So he has to trust you that when they’re ready to be sold, you will pay for them. And that took us some time.”
More than a partner, Abé has come to be a friend to the farmers and their families. In 2010 he created the Caribbean Harvest Foundation, which sets aside 20% of revenues for investment in housing, education, and healthcare in the farmers’ villages. “The communities where we work are extremely poor, and the income from fish farming was not enough,” he says. Since then, Caribbean Harvest has built more than a hundred new homes and sponsored 10 schools, paying for teachers’ salaries and students’ uniforms. The foundation also established a medical program whereby doctors from the University of Florida come twice a year to address communities’ basic health needs, providing free immunizations and check-ups.
“When you come up with an idea like this, you meet a lot of resistance — people tell you you’re crazy,” says Abé. But as he told the black-tie audience at the lavish Time 100 gala in Manhattan, what he’s doing is simple. “All they want to do is work,” he said of Haiti’s fish farmers. And all Caribbean Harvest wants is to help them do that. “We provide them with an opportunity to feed themselves. Not sending food to them, but giving them the tools so that they can work, feed their families, take their kids to school, and when they’re sick they can go to the doctor.”
Patrick Adams is a freelance writer and photographer who reports on public health and environmental conservation. He holds an MPH from Emory University and is based in Atlanta.
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