How engineering and chocolate are building a stronger Haiti, Part 1: Meet Corinne

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Corinne Joaquim Sanon, co-founder of Les Chocolateries Askanya and University of Michigan engineering alum, sifts through the dried beans in the drying facility outside of Ouanaminthe. She built the fermenting and drying facility there to properly process cacao beans.

Story: Gabe Cherry
Photos and Video: Marcin Szczepanski

Corinne Joachim Sanon makes chocolate. She has slogged through floodwaters, hauled concrete, hired, fired and haggled to build a system that coaxes thousands of artfully-wrapped, high-end bars from a factory she designed herself in the Haitian border town of Ouanaminthe. She can tell you about harvesting, fermenting, drying, cracking, conching, tempering and all the other steps that turn fresh cacao pods into chocolate sold at Haitian hotels, online and at high-end shops in major U.S. cities. But her story is not about chocolate.

Watch the video to learn about Corinne’s background, what inspired her to start Askanya, and how her industrial operations & engineering degree is helping Askanya succeed.

Two years ago, when she walked away from a six-figure consulting career in New York, she wasn’t thinking about chocolate at all. Being Haitian, she was thinking about her home country, where most people live in grinding poverty and jobs are nearly as scarce as indoor plumbing or electricity. Being a Michigan Engineer, she believed she could make a difference.

“I was one of the lucky ones, far luckier than the majority of Haitians,” she said. “I went to a good school and a great university and have a great life. But I didn’t want to wake up at 60 having never tried to do anything for Haiti.”

Corinne Joaquim Sanon, co-founder of Les Chocolateries Askanya and University of Michigan engineering alum, enters the amount of cacao purchased from a farmer into a spreadsheet. Behind her, other farmers wait for their cacao to be harvested. Today, the team will turn some 5,000 cacao pods into 1,600 pounds of raw cacao beans.

Using Haiti’s rich agricultural heritage as a starting point, she invested her own savings and did extensive research. Drawing from her background as an industrial operations engineer, she looked for a way to make the crops produced in Haiti generate more benefit for more Haitians — from small farmers in long-ignored rural areas to city dwellers struggling to find work.

“My goal was to create blue-collar jobs in the Haitian countryside, and at first I was kind of crop agnostic,” she said. “I thought about oranges, but then I realized that Haiti grows some of the best cacao in the world. I thought, why not go from the raw cacao bean to the finished bar, all in Haiti. We can have a local product and transform the economy.”

A cacao farmer waits for Corinne Joachim-Sanon’s team to buy his harvest.

Sanon knew that setting up a cacao harvesting and processing operation in one of the world’s toughest places wouldn’t be easy. Electricity is expensive and intermittent at best. Roads are poor, especially in the remote areas where cacao is grown. Government regulations can be stifling and arcane property laws make it difficult to even secure a site. Not to mention the seemingly unending string of manmade and natural disasters that plague the country, most recently Hurricane Matthew in 2016. People had tried bean-to-bar in other developing countries, like Grenada and Ecuador. But not in Haiti. While the country has exported raw cacao beans for decades, no one had ever made finished bars.

Cacao farmer Deceus Jean Gilles, 58, climbs a tree to harvest cacao pods for sale to Askanya. Unlike most crops, the vast majority of the world’s cacao is grown by small farmers like Gilles. This makes it a good fit for Haiti, where mechanized agriculture is rare. Cacao is easy to grow alongside other crops and the trees help reforest Haiti’s countryside.

But Sanon was confident that she would succeed where no one else had. She had years of experience in industrial and operations engineering, a field that designs systems to solve problems in difficult environments. Haiti was simply a different environment. And having grown up there, Sanon knew it well.

Sanon graduated from U-M in 2006 with a BS in industrial and operations engineering. Before co-founding Askanya, she worked on hog processing lines at Hormel, as a lipstick engineer at L’Oreal and as an IT consultant for Barclays Bank.

Amy Cohn says this combination of engineering theory and on-the-ground know-how is what sets industrial and operations engineers apart. An Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Industrial and Operations Engineering at U-M, she teaches the methods class that Sanon credits with helping her start Les Chocolateries Askanya two years ago.

“Engineers like Corinne have to understand this whole world outside the core equations. And there’s something exciting about that. Whatever you care about, you can take this set of IOE tools and use it to make a difference,” she said. “So it’s not surprising to me that this is something that an industrial engineer would choose to do. Plus, there’s chocolate.”

Askanya production head James Dobson Belizaire, left, buys cacao pods from a Haitian farmer

Sanon worked with chocolate consultants to design the self-contained harvesting, processing and production system that today stretches from isolated farming villages in the Haitian mountains all the way to Askanya’s factory in town of Ouanaminthe. It’s not glamorous or high-tech — Askanya runs on hired pickup trucks, hard labor and endless patience. But for Sanon, engineering isn’t about machines or technology. It’s about designing the best system and making it work, day in and day out.

“I’m a U-M IOE engineer — that’s how we are, right?” she explains. “We’re tough. We try hard. We try different ways until it works.”

Two years later, Askanya is a growing company that employs dozens of workers and works with thousands of farmers. Sanon divides her time between the company’s distribution center in Brooklyn and its factory in Ouanaminthe. She makes a fraction of her old salary, but she says running Askanya is far more rewarding in other ways.

Recently, Sanon invited Michigan Engineering to see how she does it, traveling through dense jungle and flooded streets to coax chocolate and opportunity from one of the most demanding places on Earth.

Askanya co-owner Corinne Joachim-Sanon (first right) and her workers package chocolate bars at Sanon’s chocolate factory, part of the first bean-to-bar chocolate operation in Haiti.

Part 2: The Harvest

Part 2 follows Sanon and the Askanya team to a remote Haitian farming village to harvest the cacao that will become high-end chocolate bars. See how careful systems engineering makes bean-to-bar possible in Haiti and meet the farmers who are reaping the benefits.

Read it now

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