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Sweet idea: New fuel may bring relief to Haiti's poor

Jules Walter unzipped his backpack and removed a plastic bag of charcoal briquettes made from sugar cane refuse in an MIT lab. He weighed it in his left hand before placing it on the table at the Miracle of Science Bar and Grill, which sits a few blocks from the school where the first International Development Design Summit was winding down.

Walter, 21, played a key role in organizing the dozens of participants from 20 countries who gathered for a month to collaborate on and showcase affordable technologies for developing nations. That work served as an apt prelude to a more personal cause. Within days Walter would board a plane for his native Haiti, where he will lay the foundation for the country's first clean-burning charcoal factory.

"I always thought I'd return to Haiti," said Walter, who arrived in the United States as a college freshman three years ago. "I just didn't think it would be so soon, and so often. I knew I wanted to help in some way, but I couldn't have guessed the circumstances."

The circumstances begin with Amy Smith, the MacArthur Fellowship-winning lecturer whose popular Introduction to Development Course (or "D-Lab") created the alternative charcoal to help alleviate Haiti's deforestation, lack of affordable fuel, and respiratory illnesses created by existing charcoal.

Smith, 44, of Beverly, soon teamed up with Gerthy Lahens, a leading activist in Boston's Haitian community whose daughter was a student in D-Lab. The duo has been traveling to Haiti over the past four years, attempting to provide impoverished rural villages with the tools and techniques for producing their own charcoal.

Smith will join Walter and Lahens in Haiti this week. In addition to refining the charcoal press, she wants to check on the water purification devices she introduced on a previous trip, as well as field-test vetiver, a fragrant grass used in perfume production, as another potential charcoal source.

"I want to meet with individual farmers and see what works well and what doesn't," Smith said.

Meanwhile, Lahens and Walter will attempt to launch Bagazo, the first commercial version of the alternative charcoal project.

Lahens, 56, who always envisioned the charcoal as the basis for a business that would empower communities throughout Haiti, found a kindred spirit in the entrepreneurial Walter. The two, along with MIT graduate students Amy Banzaert and Kendra Leith, recently won $30,000 from the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition.

Traveling together throughout Haiti, Lahens and Walter are surveying factory sites, meeting with local investors and government officials, interviewing potential workers, and plotting paths for distributing the charcoal.

"The lack of infrastructure in Haiti makes it difficult to get any sort of project off the ground," said Walter, eyeing the bag of charcoal. "We have specific goals and motivation. The problems we're trying to solve affect people's daily lives. It's not abstract. There's an immediate need for affordable, safe fuel. When you make less than $2 a day, every cent counts. When respiratory problems are on the rise, something has to be done. But I realize it will take some time."

Paradoxically, it's Lahens who admits to impatience -- not the youthful sort, but that born of age and experience.

"I feel so fortunate that Jules and I found each other and that we work so well together," said Lahens from her Fenway home earlier this month, a day before departing for Haiti. "I understand how he can think of the future in terms of this year and next year. But I want to see a change today, not next year. Every day counts. For so many people in Haiti there will not be a next year."

"I had a nephew who would've been about Jules's age," added Lahens. "He died trying to make it to the US. I see so much of his spirit and optimism in Jules. There are hundreds, thousand of kids like them in Haiti. I pray, and work, for the day when people like Jules or my nephew will not have to leave the country for an opportunity to learn, to work, to live."

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