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Valentin Abe

Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures alumnus

Ivory Coast native Valentin Abe got his master's degree in fisheries at Auburn University in 1991, completed his Ph.D. here in 1995 and was doing postdoctoral research in the Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures when two of his faculty mentors volunteered him to go to the impoverished, politically volatile Caribbean country of Haiti on a six-month project to set up a model fish farm. He arrived in Haiti on April 2, 1997--and in Haiti he has remained, fully dedicating himself to establishing a viable fisheries and aquaculture industry there. Today, Abe and the highly successful tilapia hatchery he has built from ground up are allowing Haitians not only to feed their families, but also to increase their income two- and threefold. In 2010, Time magazine recognized Abe for the dramatic difference he makes in the lives of Haitians by naming him to its annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. He was nominated for the honor by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who, on a visit to Haiti, met Abe and witnessed his tremendous impact in the economically developing country.

1. You went to Haiti on a six-month project. How did six months turn into 14 years?

The original plan was to build the model farm and leave. Construction was to take about six months. We ran into two problems: first, construction took more than six months, and, second, we could not find anybody to run the farm after completion. So I was asked to stay two more years and train a young Haitian agronomist to take over. The reality was that building a fish farm was the right idea but the plan for implementing that was wrong. It took me more than two years to figure that out, and at that point, I knew it would take me more than two years to achieve it. Also, I met the person who would later become my wife three months after I got to Haiti.

2. You've been quoted as saying that the Haitian people are part of what keeps you there. Can you elaborate on that?

Unfortunately, Haiti has always received--and sometimes justifiably--bad press. Natural disasters and violence have always characterized the country. For natural disasters, there is nothing we can say about that. However, violence has always been confined in Port-au-Prince--not even all areas of the city--and around. Outside of Port-au-Prince is very peaceful. It is relatively easy to find wonderful people and I have met quite a few. I have had the privilege to visit about 80 percent of the country. There are poor, but there are also good, heartwarming people.

3. What did you mean earlier when you said building a fish pond was a good idea but the original plan was wrong?

The original idea was not a good one. The land we chose for the hatchery did not have enough clay to hold water, and we did not have a good plan for extension services. We were hoping the government would jump on the band wagon, but unfortunately it was not the case. I redesigned the original plan and used my own money to demonstrate the feasibility. Unfortunately, Haiti was a bad place to invest, especially during the years 2004-2006. Political turmoil made it impossible to realize anything. I had to send my wife and kids to the Dominican Republic for safety. After 2006, we started to see some results.

Haiti is a very small country with a completely degraded environment. Conventional aquaculture simply does not work. People have tried to force traditional aquaculture (fish ponds) in Haiti for years. I came with a different approach, drawing from some of Auburn's successful fisheries experiences in Latin America and Asia. I believed that using natural bodies of water and man-made reservoirs to produce fish was the way to go as long as we could protect those waters. The first thing I did was to build the hatchery. From there, I trained people to grow fish in cages using the same design that Auburn fisheries professor emeritus Rudy Schmittou used in Asia. I did not go and give out cages. I used some cages for myself to grow fish, with the Haitians as employees. After two years, I gave them the cages to continue producing fish for themselves.

4. Had there been other efforts to establish fish farming in Haiti before you arrived in 1997?

There have been many attempts at fish farming in Haiti over the years, but most of them have failed. To give an example, in 1999, I visited about 135 fish ponds in the northern part of Haiti alone. In 2006, only 19 were still operational. NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] have come and set up fish farms, but as soon as the funding period was over, the beneficiaries never saw them again, except sometimes they would come for some photo opportunities. I have been successful because I made the commitment to stay through the good and the bad times.

5. What are the greatest achievements of this project thus far, and where do you take it from here?

First, I have set up one of the most successful hatcheries in the Caribbean, although we still have room to grow. Second, we are taking extremely poor people and making them entrepreneurs.

Now that I have demonstrated the idea could work, I want to expand it to the max. The goal is to develop a new industry in Haiti including several other entities. The goal for the next two years will be to produce about two million pounds of fish and within the next five years to produce about 10 million pounds. We want to be able to produce fish enough for domestic consumption as well as the export.

Feb. 7, 2011