How engineering and chocolate are building a stronger Haiti, Part 2: The Harvest

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Because of Haiti’s battered infrastructure, a trip into the countryside often requires a river crossing. The team’s loaded truck is too heavy to get across, so Corinne and her workers unload it and carry supplies across by hand. The empty truck will follow behind.

Story: Gabe Cherry
Photos and Video: Marcin Szczepanski

Mapou, Haiti
Saturday, 8:00 a.m.

Sun streams through the banana trees overhead at one of Askanya’s mobile harvest centers — a clean plastic tarp spread at the dirt crossroads of an isolated farming village. The road stretches down a hill to the river, where women do laundry and pigs snuff hopefully through piles of discarded sugarcane peelings.

Beyond the river, the Haitian mountains rise in the distance. Once lush with forest, the mountains’ trees have mostly been cut for charcoal. Today, they manage a delicate green stubble of brush. “The mountains are getting old — you can see their bones poking through,” Haitians say.

On this trip, Askanya will work with about 50 farmers, having travelled 70 miles over cratered dirt paths to get here. They’ll turn more than 5,000 cacao pods into 1,600 pounds of raw beans.

Farmers unload cacao pods at the harvest site. Corinne buys only the highest quality cacao pods so the Askanya team pays close attention to the pods. Farmers are paid in cash on the day of the harvest.

As the day begins, that cacao begins to arrive. Farmers bring the oblong, grapefruit-sized yellow pods on the backs of donkeys, in old rice sacks and in metal pans that women carry on their heads. The farmers gather in a crowd to wait for their cacao to be processed. Lanky and strong, the men wear secondhand t-shirts from forgotten American soccer teams and family reunions, while the women wear worn but carefully coordinated dresses.

In the middle of it all is Askanya’s founder, Corinne Joachim Sanon — dressed in a pink tank top, khakis and a printed scarf, she clutches a clipboard and directs traffic, carefully noting what time each farmer arrives. It’s first-come, first-served; some farmers have to wait hours for their pods to be processed. It can get tense but Sanon keeps things moving.

Women unload cacao pods. Most farmers tend a few cacao trees on small plots alongside other crops like avocado, mango, plantain and manioc. They eat much of what they grow and sell what’s left over. Farmers make their own chocolate; they also dry and grind the beans into a powder used in hot drinks. It’s considered a health food.

It might seem a bit haphazard. But in fact, it’s a carefully engineered system that’s designed to be efficient, resilient and nearly indestructible. Askanya’s agronomist, the first link in the system, has scouted this location in advance, using a mix of GPS mapping and on-site visits to make sure there’s enough fresh, ripe cacao to make this trip worthwhile. The team travelled from Ouanaminthe the day before, spending the night in a nearby town to get an early start. And Sanon’s negotiations and people skills are key to making it all work and maintaining good relations with farmers.

Corinne counts a farmer’s cacao pods at the harvest site. While most chocolatiers buy cacao by the kilogram, Askanya buys by the pod . This enables them to inspect each one for quality.

Amy Cohn, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Industrial and Operations Engineering at the University of Michigan, says this mix of people and process is a hallmark of industrial and operations engineering (IOE).

“The softer skills are important in IOE, which includes that scoping component. That skill of understanding where the boundaries are, how big a chunk of the system you have to look at. Do you buy the chocolate, or do you buy the beans, or do you buy the land?”

Farmers get seven Haitian gourdes per pod, about one-third more than they’d get from a larger company. At this rate, a grove of 100 cacao trees can earn a family 800 U.S. dollars a year, a solid middle-class income in Haiti.

After the pods are counted, two workers begin extracting the beans. One holds a pod in an outstretched hand and hacks through its thick husk with a machete. After a few hacks, he deftly twists the machete blade, prying open the pod with a crunch like a bitten apple.

A worker hacks through the tough outer skin of a cacao pod. This is one of two teams working simultaneously at separate sites to process the day’s harvest.

Inside sits the payoff: a lemon-shaped mass of cacao beans surrounded by glistening white pulp. The second worker scoops the beans into a white plastic bucket and tosses the husk into a pile. When they’re full, the buckets are sealed and loaded into a pickup for the journey to Askanya’s fermenting and drying facility.

The cacao beans’ white pulp has a tart, fresh taste. Both the pulp and the beans can be eaten raw. Haitian cacao has a delicate, mellow chocolate flavor, even before roasting.

In many places, the 70-mile journey to the processing facility would be easy. But not here. Decades of neglect have made rural roads nearly impassable. Up to 40 percent of Haiti’s crops are wasted, often because there’s no good way to get them to market.

Sanon has engineered a workaround, cobbling together a network of the covered pickups called tap-taps that are Haiti’s chief mode of transportation. She has built relationships with the drivers to make sure they’re available when she needs them, and she pays two helpers to travel with each driver. The helpers can push a stuck vehicle out of the mud or unload it before a difficult river crossing. The drivers won’t travel the treacherous mountain roads without them.

The extracted beans are loaded into a pickup for the 70-mile trip to Askanya’s fermenting and drying center. Behind the truck sits a yellow pile of discarded cacao husks and a grove of banana trees.

This transportation network makes it possible for farmers to sell more of their crops. It enables Askanya to get the beans from their pods to the fermentation facility within 24 hours, which is essential for getting the best-tasting chocolate. But in Haiti, even the best systems don’t always work as planned. And today’s trip is about to get particularly treacherous.

Part 3: The Flood

Part 3 slogs through a flooded city in a race to get the beans to the fermentation center in time. Learn how Sanon engineered and built Haiti’s first vertically integrated cacao processing system — and why it’s essential to making Askanya work.

Read it now.

In the meantime, visit the Les Chocolateries Askanya website or learn how you can help Michigan Engineers build the infrastructure that’s desperately needed in the developing world.

Watch the video: If you missed the video that’s included with Part 1, you can watch it here.

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