Vetiver Solutions: A company striving to decrease malnutrition and poverty in Haiti using one little plant

vetiver M background
Grand Challenge Curriculum sat down with Becca Desens, Elizabeth Alonzi, Dalton Schutte, and Jesse Abelson for an interview in November 2017, where they shared their journey developing Vetiver Solutions and their recent experience attending the Clinton Global Initiative University conference. (Leeore Levinstein, the fifth member of Vetiver Solutions, was regretably unable to join the interview.)
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How did Vetiver Solutions begin?

Jesse: We started out in GCC 5003: Seeking Solutions to Global Health Issues. We were a select group of three people who wanted to work in Haiti. Dalton and I had been to Haiti previously. All of us-Dalton, Leeore, and I- are all premed, so we wanted to do a project that related to health.

 

Health is such a broad topic. How did you end up focusing on the vetiver plant?

Jesse: A lot of the health issues in Haiti have to do with poverty and malnutrition, and through our research we realized that Haiti is an incredibly agricultural economy. We shifted our focus to agriculture to try and reduce rates of malnutrition, and we also tried to find some sort of resource that was already in Haiti that we could use. We stumbled upon this plant called vetiver, and we realized that it is very good for preventing soil erosion. But vetiver is not commonly used in Haiti to prevent soil erosion. With guidance from [our professors], we were pretty much able to pinpoint that people in Haiti don’t use it for soil erosion prevention because they can’t afford to. So we set out to come up with some innovative solution to incentivize people to plant vetiver.

 

People can’t afford the plant itself?

Jesse: People can afford the plant, but they can’t afford to take up the space on the cropland. Because farmers in Haiti are subsistence farmers, they can’t afford that small amount of space. They need it for the cropland. We pretty much wanted to turn it into a cash crop so that they would be able to plant, and they could afford to plant it.

 

How do you turn something like vetiver into a cash crop?

Dalton: The way we initially thought to incentivize vetiver was to take the leaves- which are sort of a waste product trimmed off the plant every six months for its health- and then turn that waste product into something profitable. First we thought to have people weave baskets and things that would sell here [in the US], but we realized that market is saturated and kind of silly.

Jesse: And we are probably not the best type of people to teach other people how to make baskets.

Dalton: So we decided we would be better suited to making thread, which is even more specialized. We happened to find a single research paper from Thailand where someone was able to extract cellulose fibers from vetiver, mix it with cotton, and produce thread or yarn to make products and things with.

 

How long have you been working on this project?

Jesse: Since September of 2016, so a little over a year.

Dalton: Once we got the $3,500 from the Grand Challenge on March 1st, things picked up quite quickly, so then we had two months to plan [for our pilot].

Jesse: We were encouraged to continue working on our project by Fred and Megan. We met every week with either Fred or Leo, [our GCC 5003 professors]. To continue this, we entered into the Acara Challenge, ended up getting silver in the international division. So we got $3,000 from that, and then Dalton gave a 60-90 second pitch during the award ceremony and we were voted the crowd favorite. So we won an extra $500 from that, which we put into our Vetiver Solutions award. After that, we did some fundraising on our own. We were able to get quite a bit more money, and then we went, and did our pilot!

 

Jesse and Elizabeth, you both went to Haiti this past summer for the pilot. What exactly did that involve?

Jesse: [The pilot] was this past summer between May and August. What we set out to do after the semester was over, and after we got funding, was to test whether or not this was feasible in a non-laboratory setting. What we were wondering was, could this be used for the good of the general population? Can someone with minimal equipment and no electricity benefit from this innovative solution?

 

What was the outcome?

Jesse: So, our pilot was successful, we were able to create the fiber. We still do have a fair amount of efficiency that we are still working on to improve. We are going back in February and March, and we are hoping we can officially launch and start selling our product shortly after that.

 

You said this started as a three group project. When did it grow to five?

Elizabeth: So Jesse is our chief CEO, Dalton is our Chief Financial Officer, I am the Chief Science Officer, Leeore is Chief of Operations Officer, and---

Becca: I am the Chief Marketing Officer.

Elizabeth: It was originally Leeore, Dalton, and Jesse on the project. Once the pilot started, they brought me onto the project.  They wanted somebody with a little bit more of a science background with fiber extractions. My major is Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering. I’ve been working on more of the technical side of our fiber process. Once we came back [from the pilot in Haiti], and we realized that we had a viable process and wanted to try and turn it into an actual business, we realized none of us knew anything about business. And that is when Becca came into the picture.

Becca: I major in Marketing and Supply Chain and Operations Management. I am in my last semester of my two business majors, so business is kind of my thing. It is interesting being the only one with that background. I think it’s cool, because it is nice to work more cross-functionally with people than I have in classes and in my internships. It reminds me to tone down the technical terms. It also helps me realize what I need to understand better. I guess my main role is just asking questions that [the others] don’t think to ask.

Jesse: I think that one of the coolest parts about who we are is the fact that we are five different people but represent four different colleges. It is really interdisciplinary. We have our own niche and different strengths, but we play off of each other, and it actually works very well. You know, there is definitely a lot of teamwork, and none of us are afraid to speak up. It’s always fairly respectful. We all work very well together even though we have different backgrounds. Actually, being able to see a problem from different points of view and being able to analyze it from multiple points of view have really benefitted us.

 

Vetiver Solutions attended the 2017 Clinton Global Initiatives University (CGIU). What exactly is the CGIU?

Elizabeth: The Clinton Foundation hosts an annual event called the Clinton Global Initiative, which is for world leaders to come together and do this big event. So university students looking to be change makers come together for a similar conference, which is called the Clinton Global Initiatives University.

 

The CGIU website says the conference convenes “global and emerging leaders.” Would you call yourselves emerging leaders?

Jesse: I think that as university students, we are always told that we are ‘leaders of tomorrow,’ or future leaders. But one thing CGIU showed me was that we also have the potential to be emerging leaders today. We don’t have to wait for the future to do something like this. Take matters into our own hands, and work to make the world a better place. So I definitely consider us all emerging leaders.

Elizabeth: It doesn’t always feel like you’re an emerging leader when you are sitting in a frat library, with your laptop out just doing work… But when you think about it, we are university students starting a business and that is a pretty cool thing.

Dalton: The cumulative effect of everything that we have done over the last 14 months is pretty indicative of being an emerging leader. If you think about where we were just 12 months ago in November, we were still just trying to weave baskets and things. Now here we are, with a more thorough understanding of the issues surrounding what we are doing. We have become much more organized. We went from three people who were all pre-med, without any idea of what was happening, to six people.

Jesse:  I think that even if this solution doesn’t take off, and we don’t end up becoming a sustainable company, the lessons that we have learned from this will help all of us become leaders in the future.

 

Did your experience at the conference change the way you think about global issues and Vetiver Solutions?

Elizabeth: For sure. It was a very high-level conference that brought in a lot of high-level leaders to talk to university students from around the world. Who all was there? Paul Farmer, President Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, Representative Joe Kennedy…

Jesse: President Clinton and Chelsea Clinton were kind of the co-chairs of the event. Madeleine Albright was there, the former general for Barack Obama was there, the CEO of the International Refugee Committee was there…

Elizabeth: There were just a lot of cool people that you could look up to. They were people who might not have been in our exact shoes twenty or thirty years ago, but they were all likeminded and followed through with their goals. They reached these really cool positions and have had widespread impact on things.

Jesse: CGIU didn’t necessarily change how we are going to think about Vetiver Solutions. It didn’t really change our trajectory or anything, but the biggest thing it did was inspire us. Knowing you have 1,200 leaders- university students- who are all working toward one goal of making the world a better place… it really is number one.

Elizabeth: Sometimes it feels like you’re faking it until you make it. We are doing stuff, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. So I think we all were a little bit nervous going to this big conference that we were accepted to attend. I couldn’t help but think, “Do they really understand where we are at?” We really didn’t know if we were on the same level as the people attending this huge, international conference. But we got the opportunity to present there, and it was really cool! A lot of people were excited about our project, and a lot of people asked us questions- and we could answer them! So it was nice to realize that we are not faking it, and we are not way down below where we should be. We are in a really good spot. We know what we are doing.

Jesse: There were also smaller breakout sessions, which were incredibly helpful and gave us ideas on how to analyze what kind of impact we are making. It was definitely a useful conference for us, and very inspiring.

Dalton: I do most of the numbers and bookkeeping. I care a lot about data and that sort of thing, because I am a robot. So I found the session I attended [at CGIU] especially useful. It gave me methods to better understand how to quantify what we are doing, especially with more qualitative questions and such. Farmers may not be familiar with something like a lifestyle or needs assessments, but learning how to get data from them over time and track the actual impact we are having is really important in the context of grants and investors. So for me, I took away a few pages of notes that could be tangibly beneficial to what we are trying to achieve.

 

What is the best part about working on something like Vetiver Solutions?

Elizabeth: So far, my favorite part has been when we did our pilot in Haiti- we actually worked with people in that community and lived with that community. Seeing how excited people are about this project, even though we are students, was super inspiring.

Jesse: I think for me, I like seeing a large scale problem and solving it on a smaller scale, and actually being able to see that impact with our pilot. Seeing how this actually helps people, and the potential for it to help more, is my favorite part.

Becca: In Carlson you learn a lot about things like, “How do we sell more cereal?” It matters, but it doesn’t have a big impact on the world. But this is something where you can use business to make an impact on peoples’ lives, which is really rewarding and really cool.

 

If you’re interested in learning more about Vetiver Solutions, you can find them on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and at vetiversolutions.org.

vetiver group
Jesse Abelson

Jesse Abelson, GCC student and Biology and Nutrition major.

Elizabeth Alonzi

Elizabeth Alonzi, Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering major.

Becca Desens

Becca Desens, Marketing major and Supply Chain and Operations major.

Dalton Schutte

Dalton Schutte, GCC student and Mathematics major.