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Rainwater Cisterns for Family Organic Gardens in Haiti

Empowering students to bring organic gardening practices from school to home by building their own cisterns with plastic bottle bricks.

Photo of Chris W. Low

Written by

At the Matènwa Community Learning Center (MCLC) on the island of La Gonave, Haiti, integrated programs for the development of organic gardens, making functional art from trash, reforestation, Creole literacy and non-violent education are slowly but confidently building peace and prosperity with a consciousness raising about ones environment. After a successful 20 years of creating an integrated community model, and spreading organic gardening techniques to other schools for the past 7 years, Matènwa teacher trainers have arrived at this conclusion: the next most vital initiative necessary to support MCLC's efforts to spread positive change at the intersection of peace, prosperity and the planet, would be to increase access to water for hundreds of families. In order to spread organic vegetable gardening, now taught at 45 schools on the island, there needs to be a concerted effort to not only collect water off school rooftops but also off students' home rooftops. Giving students’ families an opportunity to build affordable home water collection systems is crucial to increasing their garden's production, contributing to their food security. Climate Change has made rainy seasons unpredictable on this island.  Water access is presently at 2.5 gallons per person per day. Children carry buckets of water on their heads, walking for miles every single day. Their nutrition is limited, not everyone can afford even one balanced meal a day.   

Explain your idea

The proposal Friends of Matènwa puts forth is to provide its network of schools with money and training to build water cisterns out of plastic bottle bricks for the most motived students in the garden. After hurricane Matthew, local bricklayers experimented by building homes with discarded plastic drinking bottles. This resulted in cleaning up the environment, lowering material costs and having the community work together to gather bottles and fill them with dirt. This same technique can be used to build cistern walls. These cisterns will collect rainwater off the students' homes. This will make watering a garden possible. Even if there are times when the cisterns run dry, once their plants have started to grow, we believe that the students will be motivated enough to go to the nearest spring to fetch water and keep their plants alive. We believe this because when the schools' cisterns run out of water each child comes to school with a gallon of water in order to keep their school gardens alive. Family gardens have succeeded in the past. Matènwa gave training and smaller water drum collection systems to 6 families in 10 of their network schools. After this pilot, Matènwa received funding to train 25 more schools and give 6 families from each of these schools plastic chateau collection systems. As rain fall decreases and need increases, we feel that these plastic bottle cisterns will last longer, hold more water and be more affordable. Much more than 6 families per school need water! With no public trash collection system, nor a recycling center on the whole island of La Gonave, which is home to approximately 120,000 people, the environment is becoming increasingly littered with plastic bottles and other plastic trash. Trying to get rid of this non-biodegradable trash, people resort to burning it, unwittingly exposing their families and neighbors to toxic fumes. Repurposing the bottles in this way gets individuals to collect plastic bottles and other tossed trash with which they fill the bottles. People clean up their environment, and reduce their cost of housing, and protect their families from common natural disasters, since these walls are earthquake and hurricane resistant. Increasing the production of fresh vegetables also reduces a huge burden off market women who presently have the arduous task of traveling up and down mountains and across the sea, by donkey and overcrowded wooden sailboats, to bring these products from Port Au Prince all the way to their local markets. An elder in the community once shared a very peaceful joyful image of how life was before Climate Change and deforestation on La Gonave. She said, " When I was a little girl there was so much food that you couldn't sell your fruit at the market, no one would buy it because there were so many trees. There was fruit everywhere. And people would constantly be sharing food. You would see plates being sent here and there from house to house."

Who Benefits?

Students and their families from up to 45 different schools across La Gonave will benefit from this idea. Families already have access to tool banks and seed through the Matènwa school network. Their biggest obstacle is lack of water at home. Tomatoes, onions, eggplant, cabbage, were all transported from mainland Haiti before Matènwa trainers started teaching organic gardening. For the past few years students who live close to water springs have been able to grow vegetables at home for their own consumption and to sell in the open market. Their families have profited. But the majority of students live a 15 to 90 minutes walk from their water source. Thousands of children and adults can benefit from this simple solution of gutters and plastic brick cisterns. How many families will benefit depends on the dollar amount awarded to this project. Each cistern will cost about 700 dollars.

How is your idea unique?

Cisterns can be very costly. After Hurricane Matthew our community decided to rebuild homes using plastic bottle bricks. This cut down on the amount of cement needed to build walls since the bottles are filled with dirt or packed with non-biodegradable trash. This also reduced the amount of plastic trash, making the environment healthier. People are happily living in these new homes. They are confident that the plastic bricks are sturdy enough to build cisterns too. Using this material makes cisterns more affordable and makes the project a participatory one where families learn how to build their own cisterns. Many times organizations build one large cistern that collects water off a large church roof and then people pay by the bucket. This makes watering a home garden unaffordable.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Prototyping: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing my idea.

Tell us more about you

Friends of Matènwa is based in Cambridge MA. It was created in 2010 to support the Matènwa Community Learning Center's programs. Chris Low, an American educator, and Abner Sauveur, a Haitian teacher, co-founded the Matènwa Community Learning Center (MCLC) in 1996. The Center is located on the impoverished rural island of La Gonave, which is home to about 120,000 people. Its unique educational program is based on core principles that offer a fundamentally different approach to learning: 1. Elementary grade classroom instruction is delivered in Creole. Thus, students learn to think, read, and write in their native tongue. French is taught as a second language. 2. Students learn in an environment that prohibits corporal punishment and promotes mutual respect and dialogue between school administrators, teachers, parents, and students, with an emphasis on respect and equal opportunities for women and girls. 3. Elementary grade students learn to read by writing and illustrating Mother Tongue Books in Creole to be read by their classmates. These books are age-appropriate and culturally relevant. In this way, children solidify their reading skills, and develop their creativity through storytelling and art. 4. Teachers follow a curriculum that includes art, music, and physical education as well as organic gardening that promotes concrete skills as well as food security. Gardening includes a tree nursery and composting. 5. Teachers receive training to insure that excellence in educational content, communications, support and positive reinforcement is sustained in each classroom. 6. Parents and community members are encouraged to replicate the practices of mutual respect and group-level problem solving that is practiced in the classrooms. Over the last 20 years, MCLC’s programs have evolved to include a best-practices elementary school, a high school, a meal program, a school clinic, an arts based summer camp, and an Institute of Learning. In addition, the Center delivers programs designed to help families improve their food supply, their health, housing, social stability and equality. MCLC wants to make literacy and organic vegetable gardening available to all of Haiti’s people. By 2024, we envision a 200-school network of Institute-trained educators across La Gonave. All will have demonstration gardens and water collection systems. Parent committees will run community tool and seed banks, allowing families to expand on what their children have learned; reducing hunger, increasing prosperity. MCLC supports the United Nations “Rights of the Child”; rights to education, nutrition, protection, and social services.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

29 comments

Join the conversation:

Comment
Spam
Photo of David Krevitt
Team

This is awesome Chris, great concept.

Spam
Photo of Chris W. Low
Team

Thank you David.

Spam
Photo of Chris W. Low
Team

What do you like about this concept?

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Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard
Team

Thanks Chris W. Low for sharing your project. It's great to see Bettina Fliegel teaming up with you.
I really like how you are connecting prosperity and planet. I am less clear about "peace" although I agree that with prosperity and sustainability we increase the chances of peace. I like how there is a connection between your network of schools and local communities. And it's great to see that you have a lot of experience with the gardening and can show impact. And you also have some data on the use of the plastic bricks. I'm wondering if you could clarify the processes that you will teach to the kids and their families in order to allow them to be innovative. I'm curious if teaching them how to build these water cisterns can become a process they can use somewhere else. I also think you might want to highlight how this project (at least it seems to me) emerged from creating and nurturing an environment in the communities - through the schools and your curriculum, where kids and their families, become key actors in the process. Looking forward to reading more about this project. Good luck!

Spam
Photo of Bettina Fliegel
Team

Hi Anne-Laure Fayard ! Funny I was also curious as to whether teaching kids to build cisterns might be something they can use going forward. I was thinking of work opportunities, but I can also imagine that participating in a process like this might be something that they can build on in other innovative ways.
There is a school program in the South Bronx that focuses on food insecurity - The Green Bronx Machine. Chris, are you familiar with this program? It started with an in school gardening project. The founder/teacher then partnered with the Bronx Borough President and Green Living Technologies. High school students learned how to install green walls and from that they went on to have great work opportunities. Very inspiring! I can imagine that learning to build a cistern is also a marketable skill.

https://www.ted.com/talks/stephen_ritz_a_teacher_growing_green_in_the_south_bronx/transcript?language=en

Spam
Photo of Chris W. Low
Team

That is an excellent TED talk. That project is so inspiring. You have got me thinking about teacher exchanges between the US and Haiti, which we already do annually. Now I am thinking we need to visit the Bronx next year with a couple of Matènwa teachers!

Spam
Photo of Bettina Fliegel
Team

Cool! The teacher/founder of the Bronx Green Machine is so dynamic. The impact of that program seems to be so great - health, environmental, economic!

What has been the focus of the teacher exchanges between the US and Matenwa?

Spam
Photo of Chris W. Low
Team

One objective of the school is to get students and teachers to start thinking about reusable trash in general. The school system in Haiti is all rote memorization and copying of information either from the black board or from text books. There is no creative writing or demand for critical thinking in most schools. So in exposing people to repurposing trash, we want that to open minds to other ideas. The bottle wall standing at the school hopefully gets kids thinking beyond homes and cisterns. I think that it can produce new jobs, and or encourage people to see that they can do it themselves. We want people to take creative risks. The education system does not promote this. It stifles it.

Spam
Photo of Bettina Fliegel
Team

This is great! Have you had any "maker" events at the school?

Spam
Photo of Chris W. Low
Team

A great deal of exchanges. A couple teachers come up to the Greater Boston Area and observe in classrooms as well as share information about Haiti so that there is a cultural exchange. Teachers from some of the schools (Especially Fayerweather Street School in Cambridge, and teachers from the Cambridge Public Schools) come visit Matènwa to gain cultural exposure so that they can better serve their students in the US. They also give teacher trainings on topics that the Haitian teachers have asked them to talk about.

Spam
Photo of Chris W. Low
Team

We love having people come and share their favorite hobbies or courses they normally teach as a job. We have had so many interesting people share during July Camp. Beat Making Lab shared how to make a song using a electronic platform, Art Center College of Design has come to teach photography and soldering, other Cambridge teachers, parents, and students have come to teach arts and crafts, bookmaking, math and science kits.

Spam
Photo of Sarah
Team

Is plastic bottle trash a big problem in Haiti? It might be nice to hear a little bit more about how the scale of that problem there.

It looks like the Matenwa Community Learning Center has some similarity to what Nehemiah Gateway has been doing in Albania. You might check out the scholarship program for our University (which is also in this Challenge: Investing in Communities by Investing in People: Nehemiah Gateway University).

Cheers,
Sarah

Spam
Photo of Chris W. Low
Team

Yes, bottle trash is a big problem. Thanks for the suggestion. I will look you up.

Spam
Photo of Chris W. Low
Team

I added mored details in my write up about why plastic bottle trash is a problem.

Spam
Photo of Ron
Team

What a terrific endeavor!

Spam
Photo of Chris W. Low
Team

Thank you for your positive response. Why do you think it is terrific and would you like to be part of our team?

Spam
Photo of Chris W. Low
Team

The teaching of organic gardening is a way to do hands on learning. We feel that in addition to prosperity and sustainability, which increases the chance for peace, when there is more food, there is more peace because there is more opportunities to give food as a gift. Haitians show a lot of interdependency in their culture and sharing food with friends and neighbors is very important. Several years ago, one of the oldest women in the community, who has since died, shared with me, " When I was a little girl there was so much food that you couldn't sell your fruit at the market, no one would buy it because there were so many trees. There was fruit everywhere. And people would constantly be sharing food. You would see plates being sent here and there from house to house."

Spam
Photo of Bettina Fliegel
Team

Thanks for sharing this cultural context. There is an idea posted in this challenge that tackles reforestation and farming in Haiti. I wonder if they are active in La Gonave? https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/bridgebuilder/ideas/haiti-impact-alliance

(tagging Anne-Laure Fayard  so she see's your reply above.)

Spam
Photo of Chris W. Low
Team

They are not in La Gonave. I like this challenge. Well needed in Haiti. Our students make a fruit tree nursery each year and then give out the young trees on Earth Day.

Spam
Photo of Bettina Fliegel
Team

The tree nursery sounds amazing. How long has the school done this? How many trees have been gifted to the greater community?

Spam
Photo of Chris W. Low
Team

For the past 10 years.

Spam
Photo of Bettina Fliegel
Team

Awesome! Are these trees a source of food for the families that make up the school community?

The school has many mechanisms in place for creating environmental impact in the community. Is this aspect of your work being shared with schools you partner with for your literacy work?

Spam
Photo of Chris W. Low
Team

Yes, the school has an Institute for Learning. The Institute team is made up of teacher trainers and agriculture technicians. When they train a school, there are monthly supervisory visits. One visit for follow up on methods in the classroom and another visit for teaching organic gardening. This is from composting to setting up community tool banks. People love gardening. The biggest problem access to water.

Spam
Photo of Bettina Fliegel
Team

Thanks.
There is info in the comments that shows the project in a broader context in terms of the work the school is doing in outreach, on education, environmental educ, and sustainability.

Kate Rushton  Will reviewers access the comments thread as well as the idea post, since the post cannot be updated? Thanks.

Spam
Photo of Kate Rushton
Team

Yes the reviewers are considering both the idea and the comments. Thank you for asking Bettina!

Spam
Photo of Bettina Fliegel
Team

Chris,
Has the project started? Have any individual students built a home cistern, with plastic water bottle bricks, with their families so far?

Spam
Photo of Bettina Fliegel
Team

Hi Chris. Thanks for sharing this important project at the Matanwe Community Learning Center! I really like that it incorporates feedback and ideas from teachers, bricklayers and others in the community. I love that the project positively effects the environment, health, and education in a variety of ways! I wonder if older children who learn to build a home cistern might go on to utilize this skill for future work opportunities?

What goes into the cost estimate/cistern? Has the community considered a coop model where a few families share a cistern as a way to defray initial costs? Do families live in close proximity to each other?

In what way are the teachers at the MCLC involved in teaching organic gardening within the community? Can community members who do not have school age children also participate? It seems that the MCLC is a focal point for community centered initiatives in general. Is that correct? If yes, how did that develop? Is it common in Haiti for schools to function in this way?

Thanks for putting me on your team Chris! It is an honor.

Spam
Photo of Chris W. Low
Team

If you have other people from IDEO you feel would like to be part of this team please make suggestions. I am new to IDEO, but feel that this is a great way to meet innovators that can add valuable ideas and expertise to our ideas.

Spam
Photo of Chris W. Low
Team

Homes are not close enough to each other to share cisterns. The cost estimate is comparable to the price of existing gutters and chateaus or cement cisterns on other homes in the area.