Nico Rodriguez and Habib El Magrissy Turn Capstone Project into a Reality

imageBy Nico Rodriguez

DRIP (Domini­can Repub­lic Irri­ga­tion Project) started as a cap­stone project for Advanced Stud­ies in Social Entre­pre­neur­ship dur­ing the spring of 2013. The ini­tial vision for the project included the instal­la­tion of a drip irri­ga­tion sys­tem to increase the yields of the crops being grown in Mata Los Indios, Domini­can Republic—and ulti­mately the incomes of the peo­ple that live there. Dur­ing devel­op­ment of DRIP, our team applied and was accepted to the pres­ti­gious Clin­ton Global Ini­tia­tive Uni­ver­sity (CGIU)  con­fer­ence, after which we were thrilled to learn that our project would be fully financed, thanks to the gen­er­ous sup­port of Dr. Iacono of the North­east­ern Office of Fel­low­ships. All our hard work on DRIP was going to become much more than just dia­grams and busi­ness plans—it was going to become reality!

Our first step with this new fund­ing was to pur­chase the drip irri­ga­tion sys­tem through iDE (Inter­na­tional Devel­op­ment Enter­prises), which spe­cial­izes in irri­ga­tion solu­tions for the rural poor. The sim­ple sys­tem includes a human-powered trea­dle pump to extract the water from the ground, a tank to store the water, and a series of tubes and ropes that irri­gate the water through the farm. Through weekly phone calls, we worked closely with the com­mu­nity lead­ers in Mata to make sure all aspects of the plan fit the community’s needs and capabilities. 

Finally, thanks once again to the fund­ing pro­vided by Dr. Iacono, Habib and I were able to actu­ally travel to the Domini­can Repub­lic in late May, and soon were in the field along with Pro­fes­sor Adomdza and the SEI field study stu­dents. After finally get­ting to meet face to face with Mesillé and Tomás, the pres­i­dent and vice pres­i­dent of Mata’s coun­cil of elders, and tak­ing a tour of the actual farm, we sat down to dis­cuss some of the chal­lenges the com­mu­nity was fac­ing with the project.

First, only about half of the land orig­i­nally des­ig­nated for the farm was cur­rently being used, as the owner of that land could no longer afford to grant access to this land for free.  Sec­ondly, there was some mal­con­tent in the com­mu­nity regard­ing the farm, due to a per­cep­tion by some peo­ple that the lead­ers were not hand­ing out enough food and were instead pock­et­ing prof­its made from the sale of the farm’s crops. This prob­lem was enhanced by the fact that very few com­mu­nity mem­bers were work­ing the farm; they received hand­outs at the end of every har­vest cycle, but since the lead­ers could not afford to pay them wages, they had no moti­va­tion to work. Yet, the elders argued, they could not con­tinue doing it all by them­selves. Com­pound­ing these issues was the impact of Hur­ri­cane Sandy, which caused them to lose an entire squash har­vest this past fall and left them with no money to pur­chase inputs such as seed and fer­til­izer for a new round of plant­ing. All that was left was 6,000 pesos (US$144) that they were deter­mined to leave untouched as an emer­gency fund.

Just one day into the project, we were already work­ing to shift our plans to address the chal­lenges we had learned about. After another day of long meet­ings with Mesillé, Tomás, Ramón, Yolanda, Nena, and other com­mu­nity lead­ers, we came up with a solu­tion: the estab­lish­ment of a Labor Fund worth 38,000 DOP (US$925) to act as a starter fund through which com­mu­nity mem­bers would be paid for their labor on the farm (200 pesos for a half day, the stan­dard and accept­able local wage for agri­cul­tural labor), in order to cre­ate an incen­tive for more of them to work the farm.  We also brought a sim­ple lam­i­nated daily sched­ule and dry erase mark­ers in order for work­ers to sign up for shifts (5–10 per day) and make it eas­ier to track hours worked and wages paid, as well as pro­mot­ing gen­eral transparency.

On our final day in Mata, we tack­led what we had orig­i­nally come there to do: install the drip irri­ga­tion sys­tem! With our guid­ance, the elders assem­bled the sys­tem them­selves, and quickly dis­played that they under­stood how it worked and were excited to begin using it dur­ing the dry sea­son. How­ever, of course the day wasn’t with­out chal­lenges. Though early dis­cus­sions had led us to believe that the water table was in the 20–25 foot range, we came to real­ize that it was actu­ally prob­a­bly closer to 40–50 feet. This became our most dif­fi­cult issue, as the pump we had pur­chased was not capa­ble of reach­ing such depths. Thus, we arranged for a new elec­tric pump to be installed next to the farm (17,500 DOP, or US$425) in com­bi­na­tion with a new well (18,000 DOP, or US$450), which would be dug by a con­trac­tor trusted by the com­mu­nity elders.

Though we were only in Mata for a few whirl­wind days, our job is not done yet. Mov­ing for­ward, our tasks include con­tin­u­ing biweekly calls with the com­mu­nity lead­ers to check on the sta­tus of the irri­ga­tion sys­tem and the har­vests, as well as pro­duc­tion num­bers, rev­enues, and expenses. This com­mu­ni­ca­tion has been very pos­i­tive so far. We have learned that the new well was suc­cess­fully installed in mid-June, and they are thank­ful and opti­mistic about the new technology.

Our role in this project was to help sup­ply the tools that the already-knowledgeable mem­bers of the Mata com­mu­nity need for suc­cess, and we feel con­fi­dent that Mata’s lead­ers will use these tools to the best of their abil­ity and work dili­gently to make this farm a suc­cess for the ben­e­fit of the community.