June 20, 2018

Recovery, Resolve, and Resilience: Dominica Presents Students with Unique Social Entrepreneurship Challenges

Students in UVA professor Bevin Etienne’s Social Entrepreneurship in Dominica field course clearly understand the important role local, independent businesses play in a country recovering from natural disaster.

Etienne, a native of Dominica, recently returned from his third annual trip with students to the mountainous Caribbean island, where he leads the two-week course.

“Now that we have had (the severe damage from) Hurricane Maria, which was a direct hit to the island (on September 18, 2017) and we’re looking at how to reset the economy, it presents the need to look at agriculture and sustainable practices as an avenue to re-imagine the economy, to get people back onto the land, and create value from utilizing the land as a resource,” Etienne said.

Etienne holds joint appointments at Batten and the McIntire School of Commerce as Assistant Professor, General Faculty, with an emphasis in Management. The Dominica course is sponsored by Batten’s SE@UVA research center; Etienne is affiliated with SE@UVA.

“The student projects are more grounded in a bottom-up approach, grounded in the inherent beauty and nature and livelihood of Dominica as Dominicans see it,” said Makeda Petiri, a 2018 UVA graduate and former SE@UVA fellow.

Petiri, who participated in last year’s Dominica experience, was one of eleven students who conducted research into four areas of economic development during spring semester. She and a second student, Sarah Falls, served as team leaders with the other students, whose projects emphasized agriculture, energy, eco-tourism, and education, to “focus on development, and on improving the livelihoods of Dominicans,” Petiri said.

“This is very much in the beginning stages,” she said of the ongoing commitment to Dominica. “The students are committed to meeting with different stakeholders in Dominica to try and understand how their projects can be sustained after (the students) return to the United States.”

UVA’s graduation ceremony and Final Exercises occurred while last month’s field experience was underway, preventing Petiri from traveling to Dominica again this year. Petiri, from Baltimore, graduated with Bachelor’s degree in Global Studies, with an emphasis in the Middle East and South Asia, and a minor in Economics. She will start work this summer with the global consumer products company Unilever.

“I think the main accomplishment is self-critique, in a way, to understand the feasibility of the programs in Dominica—and, after doing that, to put together an initial model to present to the island as a way to move forward,” Petiri said.

Much of the field experience is “a pilot program, testing how people are responding to (the students’) ideas,” and deciding what can work, Petiri said, adding that SE@UVA plans to create an ongoing “resilience lab” focusing on Small Island Developing States (SIDS).

Makeda Petiri, front, center, participated in the 2017 Dominica Global Field Experience and led teams in their preparation for this year’s course. The 2017 team is at Morne Watt, in Dominica’s Morne Trois Piton National Park. (photo by Keith Etienne)

Petiri and Falls began working with Etienne through the UVA chapter of a national non-profit organizaation, Net Impact, for students and professionals who are interested in using business for social and environmental purposes. Falls said the research done by all the students prepared them for an effective two-week immersion.

“Our field experience in Dominica was a great balance of learning about the island, experiencing its natural beauty and meeting with our project stakeholders,” said Falls, from Fairfax, Va., who will be a fourth-year at the McIntire School of Commerce in the fall.

Sarah Falls, left, and Makeda Petiri

“We were able to meet with the community in the village of Delices, which is where we’d like to establish a farming cooperative. The community members we spoke with were interested in creating a tea cooperative and working with us to market their current crop of toloma, which is a root crop ground into a porridge used as baby food.”

Primary school in the community of Delices

“Going forward, we will be working with them on this project, and students in the (SE@UVA) resilience lab will have the opportunity to participate in the project as well.”

The tea cooperative’s products will be distributed through a Maryland herbal commodities company, ZABICOLife, which is owned by Etienne’s brother, Gladstone.

Students William ‘Trey’ Smith, left, and Patrick Schopper hold freshly harvested coconuts

Falls is straightforward in discussing the challenges facing Dominica, including repairing the infrastructure to promote attractive eco-tourism. In addition, the rural educational system faces severe challenges, with many families leaving the countryside to move to cities.

“If we hadn’t gone to the island, we wouldn’t have really understood the full scope of how much there is still to be done,” Falls said.

“We were in one of the areas where the hotel cottages where we stayed were untouched by the hurricane. But we would drive by piles of galvanized steel and building materials, houses with roofs blown off, and I don’t think you really understand the scope of the damage until you see it.”

A bridge, damaged by Hurricane Maria, across the White River in Delices. Left to right: students Molly Newell, Shakira Hobbs, and Tryston Raecke. Professor Bevin Etienne is second from the right, and student Patrick Schopper is at right.  

“The effects on nature are pretty shocking,” including the obvious loss of tremendous numbers of trees and plants. “But it’s all starting to grow back, which is really cool to see.

“If you’re able to create something that’s self-generating that also creates jobs for people, I think it’s a great example of what’s possible to establish enterprises that are sustainable.”

Due to changes in the earth’s climate, “we don’t know how these islands are going to be affected. But we do know that natural disasters like (Hurricane) Maria are going to happen again, and happen more frequently.”

Falls said that the Dominica field experience showed students “that there are good models for how you can construct something that is resilient, something easier to rebuild or more difficult to tear down, while creating a viable path to economic development.”

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