Ebola has killed thousands of people. Act now to stop its deadly spread.

With new skills, tractor repair students scout for work in Haiti

By Kevin Ferguson
Sandra Menace has swapped a career in nursing for one in mechanics.She's now in her second year of training. Photo: Anna Fawcus/Oxfam America

At an agricultural mechanics training program, students learn how to repair farm machinery.

Sandra Manacé never knew what to expect from her patients. Diarrhea one day, pneumonia and fevers the next. Now, her patients present a whole new set of symptoms: cracked universal joints, leaking oil pans and frayed circuitry. That’s because Manacé went back to school in 2012 to learn agricultural mechanics after being laid off as an auxiliary nurse by the financially strapped health center for which she had been working.

Manacé  is one of 15 students—including two women—now studying agricultural mechanics under an Oxfam America-sponsored jobs-training program offered by the Association of Parents and School Teachers of Liancourt, known commonly by the Haitian Creole acronym APPEL. Now in her second and final year of training, she spends eight hours a day, four days a week learning how to repair the large, mechanized equipment that is in short supply in the nation’s chief rice-growing region.

“There is currently a lot of machinery that needs repair,” says Manacé, wearing motor oil-stained denim overalls and her hair pulled back. “Some machines were ruined because there was no one taking care of them.”

Yves Louidort vows not to let that happen. Yves in October became the first agricultural mechanic student placed by APPEL when he accepted a six-month internship at the Taiwanese agricultural mission, located a short walk away on the grounds of Haiti’s Development Organization of Artibonite Valley.Known as ODVA, it’s the government institution in charge of the main irrigation infrastructure and agriculture development leadership in the valley.

“I was chosen because I was top of my class of nine students,” he says proudly. Louidort and eight other students with previous mechanics training completed a one-year course in October.

The job market may not run as smoothly as his engines, however.

When his six-month internship ends in the spring, he has no guarantee that he’ll be hired full-time, Louidort said. That’s because, while a pent-up demand for agricultural mechanics in Haiti now forces farm owners to bring in mechanics from the Dominican Republic, relatively few farms are mechanized. As of 2008, fewer than 160 tractors, or 1.7 per 100 square kilometers, worked Haiti’s arable soil. So, APPEL-trained mechanics could replace the foreign workers, but until more farms can mechanize, opportunities for repair work will be limited.

“We can’t always employ people, so I’m giving them ideas about selling their services,” says Marc Édouard Dieujuste, director of equipment at the ODVA and manager of the agency’s agricultural mechanics. His chief idea at the moment is for graduates to band together in groups of two or three before approaching farming cooperatives that might need their services. In other words, he says, they should form small repair cooperatives to service the farming cooperatives.

“I want to work for the community,” says Eulda Pierre, 25, now in her second year at the school. “I’d like to operate heavy machinery in the field. But if there aren’t enough means to pay for mechanics, I’ll find another way to help the community. My objective is to help the community.”

She’ll get her chance in 2014, says an optimistic Dieujuste. “Money is always available, but you have to look for it. You have to be a disciplined group. But there are many machines all over the valley that need repair.”