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Efforts to Build Science and Technology Capacity Gain Foothold in Haiti

As the world's problems become more complex, so does the need for cutting-edge science and technology. But some transformational technologies are relatively simple. For example: the toilet.

The toilets that Stephanie Lansing, an assistant professor of ecological engineering at the University of Maryland, is working on building in Haiti are connected to "biodigester" tanks where bacteria turn the waste into biogas that can be used similarly to natural gas and burned for fuel. This technology meets a dramatic need in Haiti, which has no centralized sewage, and roughly 20 percent of the population has no access to any form of sanitation. The cholera outbreak has taken more than 8,000 lives in Haiti, and new cases continue to occur.


Anaerobic digester system in Haiti| Stephanie Lansing

The biodigester-sanitation systems also provide a fuel source in a place where only about 10 percent of the population has access to electricity, and about 70 percent of the energy used comes from wood and charcoal, which costs around 25 - 50 percent of a household's income. "So we're really dealing with the sanitation crisis in a way that also deals with the energy crisis," said Lansing, who described her work at the AAAS Annual Meeting.

To date, Lansing and her colleagues, in partnership with Haitian citizens and local organizations, have built three pilot projects, including one at a large hospital complex in Cange. And, they have trained more than 30 vocational students in how to install and operate the biodigesters. They continue to refine the business model, but early estimates suggest that local entrepreneurs could make a profit by selling, installing, and servicing these systems.


Biodigester training and installation workshop | Stephanie Lansing

Lansing was part of a 15 February symposium organized by the AAAS Caribbean Division, which examined some of the ways that the recommendations of a AAAS report have been put into practice. The report was the result of workshops and discussions organized by AAAS and its Caribbean Division after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti and involved over 100 scientists, engineers, educators, and government leaders from Haiti, Puerto Rico, Canada, Rwanda, and the United States. It called for Haiti and the international community to work together to build Haiti's science capacity. 

Although the efforts described in the symposium are still in their early stages, they show that Haitians are charting their own course toward realizing the benefits of science and technology.  Such efforts are important, said Gary Machlis of the U.S. Department of the Interior Strategic Sciences Group because science is not often treated as a foundation for development. "The financial system, the political system, governance systems, they all come first," he said, noting that in one of the original donor strategies for developing Haiti, which was about 25 pages long, the word science never appeared once.

"One of the things that has to happen is the scientific community when there is a major national crisis has to be ready to step up immediately, to be at the table to include science in development."


The portion of Haitians that pursues higher education

Patrick Attié

Secondary and higher education have also remained on the periphery of reconstruction efforts in Haiti, as international aid organizations have contributed money almost exclusively to primary education, said Ilio Durandis of the Haiti Bioscience Initiative. "Higher education is really not something that's being talked about," he said.

And, of the 2.1 million Haitian citizens that are between 15 and 25 years old, only 1 percent goes on to higher education, according to Patrick Attié, director general of the École Supérieure d'Infotronique d'Haiti (ESIH) and secretary of the Haitian Association for the Advancement of Science and Technology (HAAST). And, the poor quality of higher education in Haiti will not prepare these for the S&T-based careers that the economy needs, according to Durandis. "It's a big mess. It's unregulated," he said.

Haiti Bioscience Initiative

Taking matters into their own hands, Durandis and his colleagues at the Haiti Bioscience Initiative have created a program for training Haitian high-school graduates and others in basic scientific laboratory techniques.

"Our graduates shall be ready for industries such as biotechnology, biomanufacturing, and agroindustry," he said. "We want them to have the skills to solve Haiti's problems."

A pilot session launched in May 2014, and the organizers have in place a curriculum, teachers, supplies, and partnerships with Haitian universities. Their goal is to train 60 students each year.

Looking further into the future, higher education in Haiti may not involved brick-and-mortar institutions at all, said Attié of HAAST, especially when an average lower-end middle class student has a yearly budget of roughly $500 for higher education. He proposed that online courses such as the ones pioneered by Sebastian Thrun at Stanford might be a better model for higher education in Haiti.

Although the details are still hazy, Attié envisions an online learning system that would give Haitians a quality higher education for less than $600 per year. He and his colleagues are investigating various models for how to create a "new education ecosystem" tailored to Haitian students. They are also working with the Haitian ministry of education on a national strategy for science and technology.

With many other "massive open online courses" or "MOOCs" already available, Attié doesn't have to look far for inspiration. "The pieces of the puzzle are already there," he said. The next challenge is to assemble them correctly.