Move over, Juan Valdez…

Posted by on Dec 1, 2011 | 0 comments

I was invited to attend a coffee summit in Haiti last week, where people from all over the country and every part of the sector came together—from farmers and coops to speculators and processors to buyers and roasters—to see if we could figure out how to restore Haitian coffee exports to the levels they were before the 1980s.

To make it clear what this was all about, I should give a brief history lesson. Coffee arrived in Haiti in 1727, planted by French colonists, and within 50 years the country was producing 77 million pounds of it a year–or 40% of the world’s supply. Soon Haiti had more than 3,000 coffee plantations, owned by colonists and worked by slaves of African descent under brutal conditions. In 1791 the slaves broke their shackles and started a long and difficult revolution that left much of the country’s agricultural sector in shambles. By the mid-1800s, the coffee industry had more than recovered–only to decline again until a century later, when Haiti was again one of the largest coffee exporters in the world. The last half-century has once again been a period of steady decline, fueled by volatile markets, political instability, and an embargo in the 1990s that left starving farmers with little option but to chop down their trees and sell the wood and charcoal for fuel.

So now, we’re hoping that coffee can once again help Haiti to rebuild its economy. There’s a lot of potential here: the right climate, high mountains, and established trees of high-quality arabica typica. That said, most farmers have lost the equipment and know-how they’d need to produce the highest quality beans, and there are terrible roads and few trucks connecting farmers to processing facilities.

About 95% of what’s grown here is processed as natural or dry coffee (where ripe cherries are laid out in the sun to dry) that’s sold locally and in the Dominican Republic; dry coffee has an earthy flavor that American companies say their customers don’t like. (Interestingly, Italians don’t mind those lower notes in their espresso and have always been fans of Haitian coffees.) Washed coffee, in which the cherries are pulped and then soaked in water to remove the fruit from the beans before being dried, requires a much more sophisticated operation and careful handling but can earn more from gourmet buyers. That said, a little bit of education and training–knowing when to pick the cherries, how to dry them, and how and where to store the dried beans–goes a long way toward improving the quality of any coffee.

There’s a lot of potential here: the right climate, high mountains, and established trees of high-quality arabica typica.

I started this post with a history lesson, so maybe I should also add an economics lesson. A value chain refers to commercial goods that go through different stages of processing, in which every link in the chain adds value to the product. Take strawberry jam, for instance: someone picks the fruit, then that fruit gets cooked and processed with sugar and pectin, put in a jar, labeled, and sent to a distributor and then a supermarket. The picker, wholesaler, processor, canner, marketer, etc., each get paid for what they contribute. In the case of my grandmother’s strawberry jam, she did all of it herself. To quote a credit card commercial: “priceless.”

One of the goals of economic development in emerging markets like Haiti is to add as much value as possible to a product early on in the chain, so that the farmers and coops reap greater benefits. In simple terms, the more processing that farmers themselves can do, the more money they can get for their beans. I was glad to hear folks here talking about developing a high-quality natural coffee that might satisfy American customers, because it means more of what you pay per cup is going to help the person growing it in the first place.

Folks here have been optimistic. The American buyers I met made it clear that the big issues for them are on the supply side, that they just can’t get enough to meet their demand. That doesn’t surprise me; I’ve been ordering my coffee from Singing Rooster for a while now, so I know it’s good stuff. La Colombe has also been buying Haitian coffee for the last year, and they can’t keep it on the shelves. Meanwhile, the Haitians at the meeting were talking about planting thousands, if not millions, of young coffee trees in the coming months and years–so those buyers may just get their wish.

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