Growing Haiti

BR man’s nonprofit focuses on farming to help islanders become self-sufficient

Photo provided by Alex Tupper -- A hillside in Haiti provides food for children living at the Respire Haiti compound. Baton Rouge native and LSU graduate Alex Tupper founded an organization to provide food and agricultural education to those living in Haiti.
Photo provided by Alex Tupper -- A hillside in Haiti provides food for children living at the Respire Haiti compound. Baton Rouge native and LSU graduate Alex Tupper founded an organization to provide food and agricultural education to those living in Haiti.

The self-described “world’s worst farmer” is Alex Tupper, a 22-year-old who wants to teach Haitian schoolchildren to become more self-sufficient by growing their own food.

This contradiction is not lost on Tupper, a recent graduate of LSU and a Baton Rouge native who started farming after founding a nonprofit, Love Your Neighbor International, which focuses on growing fruits and vegetables to supplement the nutrition of schoolchildren in Gressier, Haiti.

With the help of a professional agronomist, Tupper said he hopes to teach the Caribbean island’s youngest residents to grow food and care for the land, so they can slow or end the cycle of poverty there.

“You give a man a fish he eats for a day. You teach a man to fish he eats for a lifetime,” Tupper said, repeating a well-known maxim that is his inspiration for Love Your Neighbor. “We’re big on empowering and educating people in whatever aspect we are involved in ... so eventually they can take over, and we just empower them and help them get started.”

Tupper, a driven and earnest young man with a broad smile, talks excitedly about his goals. He started Love Your Neighbor last year after visiting Haiti and connecting with Respire Haiti, a Lafayette-based group that runs a Christian school in Gressier, Haiti, for 500 students. The school’s founders needed fresh fruits and vegetables to supplement their students’ main diets of rice and beans.

With only basic knowledge of agriculture, Tupper developed a strategy to farm a hillside on the property Respire Haiti owned. He studied farming via Google, he said, and hired the university-trained agronomist to lead day-to-day operations.

Tupper has a vision of Love Your Neighbor that extends beyond the hillside in Gressier. For now, the organization employs four laborers to grow food. In the future, Tupper said, he wants area children to learn responsible agriculture at the hillside farm.

But Tupper also wants to use his business acumen to help people in Third World countries break the chain of poverty by becoming entrepreneurs, through farming or filling the needs of their communities. He envisions an organization that generates its own money by raising coffee or another venture so it can help the impoverished to start their own small businesses.

“A big buzz word we use in Love Your Neighbor is ‘whole community development,’” said Jana Richards, who will work in Baton Rouge to raise funds for and manage the organization. “Physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, (meeting) all the needs they have.”

Tupper’s plan unfolded while he majored in business at LSU. Raised in Baton Rouge as the son of the dean of the Dunham School, Tupper created a successful lawn business as a teenager. Early in college he changed his life.

“I grew up really selfish and, then I guess my freshman year of college when I had everything I wanted, I realized it wasn’t enough,” he said.

He sought clarity in his Christian faith and became active in the Chapel on the Campus church at LSU. His sophomore year he visited rural Brazil on a mission trip, and the next year he led a trip to Uganda.

In rural Brazil and in Uganda, he saw “half clothed people struggling to make ends meet,” Tupper said. “There wasn’t a lot of formal business. It was more just people trying to survive.”

At LSU, he changed his major from business to agribusiness, which he thought would be more useful in Third World countries where hunger remains a main symptom of poverty. In classes, he said he learned a great deal about the business of agriculture, but very little about the hands-in-the-dirt side of farming.

On his first trip to Haiti, during spring break last year, Tupper visited a school with 2,200 students. The director wanted help with a business plan to become more self-sufficient, so Tupper worked with him to create a chicken farm, Tupper said. Then he connected with Respire Haiti and began the small hillside farm there in May.

Back in Baton Rouge, Tupper learned, again from the Internet, how to set up a nonprofit organization. He received help from friends’ parents and contacts he made growing up, he said.

As for funding, the first $2,000 donated to Love Your Neighbor came from Tupper’s earnings made while mowing lawns. Since then, he said, friends and family have contributed donations.

Tupper returned to Haiti for two months in the summer, then went back in October. He graduated from LSU in December.

He will move there next month, while Richards, a friend from college, will remain in Baton Rouge as the director of operations with a focus on raising money.

Today Love Your Neighbor employs three laborers and the agronomist, who studied at a Haitian university and took an internship in the United States. The organization provides fruits and vegetables for 15,000 meals a month, Tupper said.

“With a business, you either have to do something better than everyone else or do something different,” Tupper said. “We saw an opportunity to couple economic development and business development as a means to eliminating poverty.”

Richards, who worked a year in China for an organization that fought sex trafficking, said she was excited to start this journey with Tupper.

“I feel like I’m more a part of it in its growth stage,” she said. “I believe in it. It’s definitely going to be sustainable and it’s going to be big.”

In Haiti, Tupper and Richards envision transforming Love Your Neighbor from an organization that relies on raising funds into a self-sustaining enterprise. He is researching coffee farming, which was once a major industry in Haiti, as a means to fund the nonprofit so it can provide small loans of $20 to $2,000 — called microfinancing — to people in Haiti so they can get help in starting small businesses.

Loan sharks who charge exorbitant interest rates remain a problem in Haiti.

“They charge you interest rates you could never afford to pay back, but it’s just enough to give you hope to keep at it,” Tupper said. “So they’re never getting ahead. It’s just day in and day out.”

One day Love Your Neighbor could be able to give people hope to create a better life, Tupper said.

“These people are not incapable of running a successful business,” he said. “They just need a little help getting going and a little guidance.”