Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Reviving Haiti's Formerly Vibrant Coffee Sector

by F2F Volunteer Andy Lohof
According to the World Bank, per capita income in Haiti is only $810, the lowest in the Americas. In the late 1700s, Haiti produced half of the world’s coffee. In 1949, Haiti was the third largest coffee exporter. But as shown in the graph, exports have declined significantly. In 2012, Haiti was not even among the top 35 coffee producers as tracked by the International Coffee Organization.

In December 2014, I traveled to Northern Haiti in collaboration with Partners of the Americas and Makouti to strengthen coffee cooperatives. Having worked with cooperatives in other countries, I have seen the positive impact they can have on smallholder farmers. By pooling their resources and organizing cooperatives, smallholder coffee farmers are better able to access financing, obtain technical assistance on improved farming practices, and sell their product at higher prices.

In field visits to 7 Haitian cooperatives, Makouti coffee specialist Jean Jacques (Jacquelin) Lucas and I found lack of working capital to purchase coffee from members, low coffee yields and production levels, and lack of management skills to be the main obstacles to increasing cooperative coffee sales. In addition, a few cooperatives had difficulties finding reliable customers for their coffee. 
Meeting over coffee and bananas with COEB cooperative, 
whose coffee sales have been limited by parasites,
lack of customers, lack of management skills,
shortage of working capital, and lack of a depulper. 

Following the visits, we designed a training workshop to address the needs identified in the field. To facilitate exchanges and discussions, we invited cooperative leaders to Makouti headquarters in Cap-Haitien for a 1 ½-day workshop on the following topics: organization and communication, entrepreneurship, marketing/sales, accounting, and planning/priorities. The teaching methodology was very participatory: limited lectures and numerous questions, discussions, and exercises. The presentation slides were in French, but the most important points were also translated into Haitian Creole.
Cooperative leaders learning the importance
of collaboration in a workshop game.
Part of the appeal of training cooperatives is that simple concepts of communication, organization, marketing, recordkeeping, and planning can be easily applied to improve the cooperatives and their farmers’ lives. By the end of the workshop, cooperative leaders were able to define and delegate responsibilities, circulate information among members, maintain financial records, locate and market to potential customers, and set investment priorities. 

The most valuable resources of a cooperative or country are human. Haitian coffee will not rebound overnight from its severe decline, but hard work and prudent management can gradually revive the formerly vibrant sector, improving livelihoods for Haitian smallholder farmers.

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