A Young Scientist’s Dream For His Country: Growing the Bio-Science Industry In Haiti

A story I wrote for Bon Sel Dayiti.

Johnny Métellus thinks big — a fitting personality trait of a class president and burgeoning Haitian bioscientist.

Métellus studies at the University of Notre Dame at Hinche, a Catholic university with eight campuses throughout Haiti. He’s one of sixteen students in the university’s first-ever biosciences program, which launched in 2012 in partnership with the McKenna Technical Institute.

In the past two years, he’s developed a favorite subject (microbiology), laboratory skills and an ambitious plan.

He calls it his water project — a combination of quality testing and low-cost water purification for Hinche and the surrounding community. He’ll open a lab to test the water and hire lab technicians and scientists from his old school.

“Anything I’m studying, I do with my whole soul,” he said. “I want to participate in the development of Haiti.”

THE GENESIS STORY

For students like Métellus, the McKenna Technical Institute (MTI) and The University of Notre Dame at Hinche — which has no relationship to the American university of the same name — provide a new career in biosciences, as well as a concrete way to shape the future of their country.

MTI, a U.S.- based network of Haitian partner institutions, uses a novel combination of educational and business initiatives designed to keep top Haitian students in Haiti.

Only 22 percent of Haitian students reach secondary education, with an estimated 1 percent enrolling at the university level. Even more troubling, 75 percent of “highly-skilled” people born in Haiti currently live outside the country, according to the World Bank — a “brain drain” that compounds the health, economic and educational problems in the country.

In an area like Hinche, which is a three-hour drive from Port-au-Prince in the rural Central Plateau, the brain drain is dual-faceted. High-achieving students leave for the capital city as well as leaving the country.

The lack of economic opportunity in Hinche, and the accompanying brain drain, presented an enormous problem for the founders of the Maison Fortuné Orphanage in Hinche. Started in 2001, the Virginia-based Maison Fortuné Orphanage Foundation has provided shelter, education and healthcare to more than 200 children in the rural community.

MTI, a U.S.- based network of Haitian partner institutions, uses a novel combination of educational and business initiatives designed to keep top Haitian students in Haiti.

Chip Wirth, one of the founders of the Hinche orphanage, saw a huge gap in the orphanage’s work. Once students had graduated from secondary school, finding long-term employment was next to impossible.

Haiti’s unemployment rate in the formal sector sits at approximately 80 percent. The founders saw graduates of auto-mechanic and sewing schools struggle to find long-lasting employment, and wanted to provide a better option for Maison Fortuné’s students and the greater Hinche community.

Wirth and other partners formed the McKenna Technical Institute in 2010, funded by the McKenna Foundation, a Chicago-based family foundation dedicated to youth education and empowerment. Paul Pasin, a Chicago-based business executive, now heads the McKenna Technical Institute.

The founders knew they needed a local partner to address the thorny problem facing students. Thankfully, two organizations in Hinche, The Haitian Bioscience Initiative and the University of Notre Dame at Hinche, were already designing a solution.

Illio Durandis, a Haitian-born bioscientist, saw many of the same problems Wirth and others did: limited education and lack of economic opportunity in Haiti.

Durandis, who attended university in the U.S., saw the major role science played in other countries’ development, and wondered if the same could be true for Haiti. He saw an opportunity to expand bioscience and pharmaceutical industries in the country and create higher-paying jobs for Haitian students.

Durandis launched the Haitian Bioscience Initiative, a collaboration of bioscience professionals and academics in the United States and Haiti seeking to train young Haitian students in basic laboratory techniques.

“Haiti is in need of many things, and there isn’t a solution for all its problems,” Durandis said in an email. “We want to educate people so that they can solve real problems in Haiti. It (the Haitian Bioscience Initiative) is a program that wants to combine good analytical thinking, innovation and the spirit of entrepreneurship.”

The University of Notre Dame at Hinche formed around the same time, and quickly became Durandis’s partner for the bioscience initiative.

The University of Notre Dame at Hinche was founded in 2012 out of a desire to plug the brain drain and provide a university option tailored to the needs of the rural community, said Fr. Jean Herald, the dean of the school.

So far, it’s worked. Fr. Herald himself received a PhD in Bioethics in Rome before coming back to Haiti to launch the new campus. Students have come back from Port-au-Prince and universities in the Dominican Republic to take part in the specialized science education, which includes tracks in medical biology, nursing and biosciences.

It’s also attracted professors from Port-au-Prince and the large Haitian diaspora, like Durandis.

Wirth first connected with the university through the Catholic bishop in Hinche, where he eventually met Durandis. Durandis’s vision perfectly aligned with the orphanage’s goals, and working through a Catholic university ensured long-term impact in the region, Wirth said.

“The church has been in business for more than 2000 years,” he said. “They offer a lot more structure.”

In 2015, the Haitian Bioscience Initiative, MTI and the University of Notre Dame at Hinche began their formal partnership. In the fall of 2015, the bioscience program welcomed its first class of students, including eight students from the Maison Fortune Orphanage.

“This would not be possible without the support of an organization like MTI, which believes in the empowerment of Haitians and that Haiti’s future depends on sound training of the country’s youth in a program such as this,” Durandis said.

GROWING BIOSCIENCE IN HAITI

Haiti has a dearth of state-of-the-art laboratories and few trained lab technicians, meaning that companies working in Haiti outsourced testing to labs in other countries.

McKenna tries to fill in these gaps for companies and students. McKenna will partner with organizations looking for qualified laboratory technicians to provide internships for McKenna students, and if possible, full-time employment after they finish their program.

Working within existing Haitian institutions is a priority for MTI, Wirth said. Aid organizations working in Haiti have often been criticized for subverting Haitian-run institutions and long-term development.

“The unique thing about our operation is that we are trying to finish the deal,” Wirth said. “Our goal is to create wealth in Haiti, to provide jobs, to create opportunities for taxation.”

One partner organization is the University of Notre Dame Haiti Program. The program has been working for more than 20 years to eliminate iodine deficiency disorders and lymphatic filariasis in Haiti.

The program has produced Bon Sel Dayiti+, packaged, food-grade salt fortified with potassium iodate and DEC, medications that prevent the two diseases. The salt, which has been produced since 2006, is the only food-grade, iodized and fortified salt produced in Haiti.

The salt project functions as a Haitian-run entity with the Congregation de Sainte Croix, a Haitian Catholic order. The salt is produced in a plant in Port-au-Prince and distributed throughout the country.

The salt program will provide internships for McKenna students in its quality-testing lab. It also provides an example of the type of organization and job opportunities McKenna wants to grow and support.

In the future, the founders also hope to open a business incubation center to seed and nurture new business ventures in the country, like Métellus’s water project.

HAITI: A CULTURE OF GIVING BACK

The MTI founders hope that investment in top students and key industries within Haiti will have a widespread effect on the welfare of the country.

Due to a culture of reciprocity in Haiti, an investment in one individual student often trickles down to that student’s family members and community.

This culture of reciprocity is most clearly demonstrated through remittances — money the Haitian diaspora sends back to family and friends. As of 2014, remittances make up an estimated 20 percent of the Haitian GDP, according to the World Bank.

Since an estimated 90 percent of schools in Haiti are private, education is costly. Haitian parents spend an average of $130 a year on school for their children, almost 50 percent of the average per capita income, according to the World Bank.

With the relatively high cost of education, sending one student through school is often a community effort. Fr. Herald, for example, was able to go to university with the help of his older sister, who worked after completing secondary school to contribute to his education. Consequently, students often want to provide for their families and communities once they’ve completed their education.

Unfortunately, highly-educated Haitians often give back through remittances rather than staying in the country. Yet Haiti’s “brain drain” and remittance-economy is built on structural problems, not the diaspora’s disinterest in contributing to the country’s development.

Ysemona Jean, the accounting manager for the salt project, is one of those who stayed. She attended university in Haiti and is currently working toward her CPA.

She says for those in finance and accounting, getting jobs can be a bit easier — she worked for World Relief and the Salvation Army before coming to work for Bon Sel Dayiti. But for those in the social sciences or other professional jobs, it can be next to impossible.

With a dire job market and unstable political system, many Haitians like Jean choose to leave to go to the U.S. and Canada, or increasingly, Jean said, South America.

“Every Haitian likes their country and they really want to stay but if the situation doesn’t permit that, you will have them leave the country and stay over there,” Jean said.

But when highly-skilled Haitians leave, the country suffers, Jean said.

“I know that if all the young people with knowledge leave the country, we will not see a better situation in the country,” she said.

Canes Camil, the plant operation manager at the salt plant, left Haiti for a while to attend school in New York. As an engineer, he spent three years searching for a job in his field, working as a translator for aid groups in the meantime.

He first started working at the salt program as a volunteer. Now, he says, he views his work as a calling — a chance to share his faith with the plant workers and contribute to the eradication of lymphatic filariasis and iodine deficiency disorders in the country.

Jean hopes for the day where more Haitians will stay to build a future in their country.

“I really want to see in ten years that every Haitian could have every choice to stay in our country, to work and to help Haiti to become a better country,” she said. “I will not be afraid in my country, I will not be afraid to work, to live, to have a life in Haiti.”

MTI’s mission is to train and support the next Jean and Camil — Haitians with both the skills and desire to impact Haiti’s future.

“The best way to keep young Haitians at home is if they see they can put their skills to work in their own country,” Durandis said.

The Haitian Bioscience Initiative and MTI trains Haitians in highly needed skills, and also “insists that these trainees be proactive and create their own opportunities upon completing the program and not solely rely on leaving Haiti or waiting for someone to create for them,” said Durandis.

You can already see the MTI’s mission playing out in its first class of students.

Métellus wants every person in his community have access to clean, cheap water every day. Other students want to impact Haiti in other ways, using their bioscience training to give back to the people who helped them through, Métellus said.

“My dream is to be a man who serves Haiti,” he said.

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