Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Re-Emerging Market: Reviving Ayiti's Coffee Industry

The cataclysmic earthquake that has devastated the nation of Ayiti has created a global outpouring of sympathy, prayer, and aid both financial and physical for the people of my homeland. There has been a global collective consciousness that has resulted in the often repeated phrase “we must do something to help.” For those that have left their homes to travel to Ayiti to help in the relief efforts, contributed their time or donated money to assist Ayiti in her time of need, I offer a deep and heartfelt merci. The work that you do will become a part of our shared history for centuries to come.

During the next few months, the principal focus on Ayiti will be survival. As we look further down the time-line to many many months, to one year to two years, and beyond, the focus on Ayiti will shift to re-building or in development parlance—nation building. The re-building will not only be in-terms of adequate construction that complies with hurricane and earthquake codes, but also in-terms of industry, trade, education, and tourism. Ayiti in recent history has had a limited industrial base, but that has not always been the case.

Prior to Ayiti’s Revolution in 1804, which resulted in Ayiti’s independence from France, Ayiti at the time called Saint-Domingue, was the most prized colony in the New World. Sainte-Domingue was often called the "Pearl of the Antilles," because it was the richest and most prosperous colony in the French empire, and one of the wealthiest colonies in the world. Sainte-Domingue was the most important trading port in the Americas because of the sheer volume of trade that flowed to and from Europe. By 1780, Saint-Domingue produced about 40 percent of all the sugar and 60 percent of all the coffee consumed in Europe. This single tiny island, roughly the size of Maryland or Belgium, produced more sugar and coffee than all of the British West Indies colonies combined.

After the Ayitian Revolution, trade with Ayiti ended abruptly, in large part because the world’s nations (the United States included) did not recognize the former slave colony that had defeated Napoleon’s army, as a legitimate government. The Republik d’Ayiti was ignored by the world for approximately one century. The richness of the Ayitian Revolution and the aftermath is a wonderful story, and has been written by a number of historians, political economists, novelists, and journalists. Time and space does not permit me to retell the story now. However, I encourage you to read the works of C.L.R. James, Robert Heinl, Paul Farmer, Hans Schmidt, and Edwidge Danticat.

Since the 1990s, Ayiti’s coffee industry has experienced a stop and go paradigm. U.S. Agency for International Development sponsored the Haiti's Coffee Planting Project to help local Ayitian planters meet the standards of gourmet coffee drinkers in the United States. The project spent $5.8 million to help 20,000 farmers belonging to 24 local cooperatives. Haiti's Coffee Planting Project united the farmers into a single federation, which acquired an export license in order to sell the coffee directly to customers abroad. However, it has been a struggle to market Haitian coffee not because Ayitian coffee is not delicious or in gourmet parlance--yummy, rather because the Haiti's Coffee Planting Project did not including roasting plants. The project helped the farmers set up 23 processing plants to wash the beans, sort out only the ripe beans, and then sun-dry them on clean, cement drying beds. However, the coffee beans would then be sold to U.S. companies, which would ship the coffee beans to their own roasting plants and then market the coffee to U.S. gourmet retailers.

The project had minimal success. In South Florida for a few years in the early 1990s, an Ayitian coffee called Haitian Bleu was available in 14 Barnie's Coffee & Tea Company stores. ''When we first started purchasing it, we didn't know how it would sell. Then it took off,'' says Scott Young, who managed the Barnie's store in Plantation, FL. ''We have carried it a little over a year, and it's just a delicious coffee,'' Young added. Haitian Bleu has the same type of coffee plant and grown in the same region as the wildly successful Jamaican Blue Mountain bean. In the end, as a matter of practicality U.S. coffee retailers do not want to surrender precious retail shelf space to unknown coffee growers from a country that is known primarily for its poverty, and dictators rather than its agricultural acumen. Unfortunately, due to political and economic unrest in Ayiti, the foreign investment capital needed to build the infrastructure necessary to grow, cultivate, process, roast, market, ship, and sell Ayiti’s coffee never materialized.

Over time, many Ayitians farmers lost the skills needed to grow, harvest, and process coffee. Ayiti’s neighbors in South America, in particular Brazil eventually cornered the regional coffee market. Brazil’s coffee industry was aided by foreign investment to modernize its facilities including processing and roasting facilities. As a result, between 1998 and 2002, annual coffee exports from Ayiti fell to a mere four million dollars, less than one sixth its former sales volume in early 1990s. Ayitian coffee export industry has declined during the past century because of infrastructure issues more so than concerns regarding the quality of the coffee or Ayitian politics. The principal reason for the decline of Ayitian coffee industry has been a lack of investment in processing facilities needed to process quality coffee beans, and roast the coffee beans to provide the quality assurance to sell Ayitian coffee to U.S. gourmet market. However, that may be changing. The devastating Ayitian earthquake a few weeks ago, may have assisted Ayiti's potential as a coffee exporter, to turn the proverbial corner.

A few years ago St. Thomas University in cooperation with the Archdiocese of Miami’s sister Archdiocese in Port-de-Paix, Ayiti located on the northwest Atlantic coast of the island, entered into collaboration with COCANO fair trade coffee cooperative that received support from the Catholic Relief Services Fair Trade Fund. Tommy Bassett of the Just Trade Center is a seasoned fair trade expert who is providing guidance to the COCANO fair trade cooperative, and has accompanied members of St. Thomas University on several trips to Ayiti. Bassett believes that growing coffee in an environmentally and economically depressed landscape like Ayiti is not easy. However, the success of the cooperative lies with the spirit of Ayitian coffee farmers who are intrinsically connected to the land. “They have a rural existence that’s very much in tune with nature,” Basset stated. Poets have referred to the connection as symbiotic. Bassett recalls his own symbiotic moment as he stood on the edge of a mountainside in Port-de-Paix, under a leafy tree sipping velvety smooth chocolate infused locally grown coffee with Ayitian farmers, he turned and with a bit of surprise and elation in his voice stated “man we can see the ocean.” That is the beauty of the land and the magic of Ayiti.

As Ayiti struggles to rebuild herself yet again, I have no doubt that she will rise from the ashes, the pain, and the suffering with a deeper understanding of herself and stronger spirit. In the interim, Ayiti will need the help of every person who believes in the right of self determination and the unfailing power of the human spirit. If you wish to purchase one-can-or-two-or-three of the COCANO Ayitian coffee, please contact me via email. It is a tax deductible contribution and proceeds are sent to the coffee farmers in Ayiti. With your help Ayiti will rise again.

Lydie Nadia Cabrera Pierre-Louis


  1. This article has really helped me realize that Haiti can have a solid economic base. I didn't know that there was a coffee industry in Haiti. It's interesting how you never hear anything about it in the media. The only things you hear about Haiti is its poverty, corrupt govenment, or voudou. We should definitely help.

  2. We should do more than buy coffee, but it is a start. Maye be we can get a major U.S. coffee company to partner up with the farmers. We should also help in getting Haiti's national debt with the World Bank and IMF forgiven. I don't know if Haiti owes the U.S. money, but that should be forgiven as well.

  3. This is an excellent post that provides much needed context to the economic issues that have plagued Haiti.

  4. Davis Oswalt

    A great post that speaks to some of the long term underlying issues that Haiti has had to deal with. Hoepfully once the world has done its part with the intial recovery, it will look for ways to place Haiti in even better shape then it was. The way to do this is through foreign investment and favorable trade policies in industries, such as the Coffee industry, that can be easily created on the island.

  5. Excellent post. Here we see that outside the natural disaster Haiti just experienced, the fair trade market offers small coffee farmers a chance to benefit from globalization through links to markets in industrialized countries. But these advantages do not come automatically. Small farmers, who lack the experience, knowledge and skills to navigate in a global marketplace, depend on NGOs and other social partnerships for guidance on promoting their coffees and other crops.

    There are significant barriers to entry to these new markets for most food producers. The cost of meeting the standards, particularly for certified organic certification, can be staggering. Long term success of fair trade initiatives depends on partnerships and whether or not there is a mutual commitment by the NGOs and the nations government itself.

  6. Although Haiti has just suffered a tremendous economic and physical downfall, this impoverished country must remain hopeful that help is on the way. Aside from the "good samaritans" fleeing to facilitate aid, this article informs us that Haiti can also be helped through its coffeee industry. Purchasing coffee is definitely a start to the revitalization of this country -- revitalization that will only evolve with the help of the world.

  7. As I read this very informative blog, I was saddened but yet I had questions that were not answered. I was saddened because Haiti needed development prior to the earthquake; unfortunately, it required a major disaster for individuals to finally focus on this country. My initial question was why a roasting plant was not developed during the 1990’s after the United States spent $5.8 million in the Coffee Planting Project. As I continued reading the blog, my next question was why didn’t the United States help the farmers modernize their facilities? It finally occurred to me, the Coffee Planting Project was incomplete, leaving the Farmers of Haiti at a disadvantage. In the next few years Haiti is going to undergo come substantial changes which will be very beneficial for the country. Although pain is currently present, I anticipate joy.

  8. Professor Pierre-Louis,

    Once again, thank you for an enlightening and informative post! Are there other agricultural projects similar to this one that you know about in Haiti?

  9. This was a very interesting post. Before I read this I knew very little about Haiti's coffee industry. Hopefully, the coffee industry will help boost Haiti's fragile economy. Providing support for the coffee industry in Haiti is a realistic and feasible way for other nations to help Haiti. Also, purchasing coffee from Haiti is a great way for individuals to contribute to improving Haiti's economy.

  10. Haiti has a lot of things to worry about on top of the earthquake aftermath, the biggest obstacle being their government. But I think that Haiti has a lot to offer, including their beautiful Caribbean location. I hope Haiti can turn their tragedy into an opportunity to start anew. Capitalizing on things like the coffee industry as stated in the article, textile factories, and tourism will be very important to pull themselves out of poverty. I have hope for Haiti and think they can do it, but it will take some focus, and convincing other countries to do business with them (or better yet, bring their business to Haiti), especially the U.S.