Selling Haitian Coffee to American Hipsters
Why coffee fanatics from Brooklyn to San Francisco are clueless about the superb coffee growing in their country’s backyard
“Bon,” starts Jérôme Banave, “it’s good quality coffee, for export.” We’re standing in Banave’s rainforest-like four-acre garden just outside of Thiotte, a mountain town in south-east Haiti, not too far from the border with the Dominican Republic. Banave is 76 years old. Gray hair peeks out from underneath his baseball cap, forest green with the red and white flag of Peru. He smiles and tells me he’s always happy to show off his garden to visitors.
There are two main ways to process coffee from the so-called cherries that grow on the plant into beans that are ready for roasting: dry and wet. In Haiti, the traditional method is the dry one, largely because the hard cocoon formed during the process can preserve cherries for a year or longer. Virtually all Haitian farmers process at least some of their crop this way and keep it on hand as a reserve – a coffee farmer’s bank account. The for-export product Banave is talking about is washed coffee, wet-processed beans. This is the type of coffee he processes each spring after the harvest, the type favored by American coffee drinkers from Brooklyn to San Francisco, and the type that earns some Haitian farmers three times the price of dry-processed beans.
A COLONY, A TREE, AND A TERROIR LIKE NONE OTHER
By the late 1700s, the French colony that would become Haiti grew half of the world’s coffee and was the most profitable colony on the planet, its riches built on the backs of half-a-million slaves from Africa. Though the colony was only about the size of Massachusetts, historian Laurent Dubois notes that “it was more valuable to France than all the thirteen colonies of North America were to England.”
“We kept the original typica tree,” says Douglas Weiner, referring to the heirloom coffee plants first brought to the island by Europeans, “and when you drink coffee from Haiti, it’s like drinking coffee from 200 years ago.” Weiner is part of the fourth generation of Geo Weiner, which sells coffee locally under the name Cafe Selecto and is one of the few remaining coffee exporters in Haiti today. Wiener’s great-great-grandfather, a Polish-Austrian Jew, fled New Orleans with his black Haitian wife during the Civil War. They settled in her hometown on the tip of Haiti’s southern peninsula, and the family has been in the coffee and cocoa trade since.
All of Haiti’s coffee is Arabica, the high-quality bean used in gourmet coffees. Ninety percent is the typica variety and may derive from a plant that a French naval officer brought to Martinique in the 1720s. Because coffee growing methods in Haiti have hardly changed for three centuries, the country’s plants remain effectively unchanged from the earliest trees brought to the Western Hemisphere. As a result, coffee from Haiti is unique from that produced anywhere else in the world.
Haiti’s crop is organic by default – most of the nation’s 200,000 coffee farmers couldn’t afford to use chemical fertilizers or pesticides even if they wanted to. The humid mountain gardens where the crops grow are bastions of biodiversity, home to tropical oaks, laurels, and fruit trees that provide shade needed for coffee production. In a country with only 2 percent of its virgin forest remaining, coffee-producing areas are lush and green. While 60 percent of Haitians are farmers, the country’s booming cash crop of late doesn’t sprout from the ground – it’s charcoal, the cooking fuel of choice for the country’s 10 million residents. Coffee has proven to be one of the few trees that’s economically worthwhile to leave standing in lieu of cutting and charring it.
‘CORN DOESN’T MAKE YOU MONEY’
Haiti now produces less than 1 percent of the world’s coffee.
“Today,” says 56-year-old farmer Mitriche Colin, “the biggest problem is price.” World coffee prices plummeted during the early 2000s, largely thanks to a glut of new production from Brazil and Vietnam. Many Haitian farmers responded by cutting down their coffee trees and replacing them with subsistence crops, like corn and beans. Since the 1980s, production and exports have plummetted, and the number of Haitian coffee exporters shrunk from 20 companies to just two main players today, Geo Weiner and Rebo.
Jobert Angrand, executive coordinator of the National Institute of Coffee, lists other factors that contributed to the decline of production and exports. Pests like borer beetles and diseases like coffee rust have decimated trees. Angrand says that 70 percent of Haiti’s coffee trees are over 20 years old, while most Columbian trees are less than 9 years old. Prime producing age is between 5 and 15 years. The small, diverse parcels that Haitians farm are good for quality but awful for efficient production, another reason that per-hectare coffee yields in Haiti can be as low as one-tenth of what they are in other Latin American countries.
“I don’t think today we’re looking into going mainstream,” says Gilbert Gonzales. “We can’t. There is not enough volume for that.” Gonzales is vice president of Rebo, the other main player left in the Haitian coffee export business. He says that the ideal U.S. retailers for Haitian coffee would be groceries like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods or specialty cafés. “It’s looking into the higher-end gourmet shops, things like that,” he says, “so that we could really share with the rest of that world the quality available from Haiti.”
For nearly two centuries, coffee was arguably Haiti’s most important cash crop, thriving despite heavy taxes that the government levied on exports. Today, Haitians in the trade have a popular refrain: “Coffee paid for Haiti’s independence.” Revenues raised by the export tax helped pay the hefty 1825 indemnity that President Jean-Pierre Boyer agreed to pay France in exchange for diplomatic recognition as a free nation. Under the 20th-century father-son Duvalier dictatorship, the sector was governed by the Code du Café, which regulated every aspect of supply. The iron-fisted control helped keep production up, but at a price. A farmer could be fined, or caned, for bringing beans to his local market that weren’t quite clean enough, for instance.
Walking through his coffee garden in Thiotte (pronounced “chut”), Colin uses one word to describe Haitians’ attitude to coffee since the late 1980s: “negligence.” I ask him why he hasn’t cut his coffee to plant something else. “I have another vision,” he says. “For me, coffee is a guarantee for the land.” Emile Pierre, 72, looks at me incredulously when I ask him the same question. “Corn doesn’t make you money,” he says, “it’s coffee that makes you money.”
But, for the past 30 years, Haiti hasn’t been making money from its coffee crop – at least not the kind of money it made in its heyday. At the same time, the blueprint for exporting lucrative coffee has been laid out over the last decade like model car assembly instructions for anyone to try to follow.
THE RWANDA MODEL
Irish coffee company Java Republic has purchased 97 tonnes of Haitian coffee from Rebo since 2010. The farmer association that Colin and Pierre belong to in Thiotte grows and processes the beans that are now available in every village and town in Ireland. After a 2010 trip to meet partner farmers in Haiti, CEO David McKernan wrote that “with no sense of a coordinated national coffee strategy and no control of coffee pests, the country could learn so much from Rwanda in the past 10 years.”
Rwanda exported scant amounts of coffee in 1994, the year of the genocide that claimed 800,000 lives. Today, the country is known for its high-end coffee sold in cafés in Manhattan and Washington, D.C.
“I think there are a lot of lessons from Rwanda for Haiti,” says Michael Fairbanks, author and advisor to Rwandan President Paul Kagame since 2000. He also consults in Haiti and has testified before U.S. Congress on business solutions to poverty in the country.
Fairbanks says that coffee was the most important export for Rwanda’s 500,000 smallholder farmers, all of whom had coffee trees in their backyards. But the low-quality product that farmers were producing meant that they lost money on every pound. “The difference right there,” says Fairbanks, “is that Rwanda had to figure this out. It was an existential challenge to the country.”
So Rwanda invested heavily in washing stations, learned to add more value to their beans in-country, and now exports sizable quantities of high-end beans.
Washed beans that sell for high prices abroad account for less than 2 percent of coffee grown in Haiti. Unwashed beans make up 90 percent of Haitian production, most of which is consumed by the domestic market or slips across the border to the neighboring Dominican Republic on donkeys, duty-free.
Poor farmers have sporadic cash flows, and most prefer to sell as quickly as possible, with little regard to price or who happens to be buying. The farmers’ cooperatives that sell washed beans for export lack financing and pay only a portion of the price up front; members have to wait until the end of the season to receive the remainder, or ristourne. Local and Dominican traders can often pay immediately upon purchase and are happy to buy low-grade coffee or even raw cherries. The majority of Haitian farmers wind up selling low-value coffee at correspondingly low prices.
Starting in the 1990s, a project called Haitian Bleu tried to bring the washed-bean export model to Haiti. USAID spent $5.8 million to form FACN, an export-licensed federation of co-ops that would supply roasters abroad with washed beans sold at three times the market price. But as the aid subsidies dwindled, no one proved willing or able to manage the venture as a viable business.
“Because the Haitians are used to all this aid from bilateral donors and NGOs,” says Fairbanks, “there is a rent-seeking mentality because of the short-term nature of donor fashion and aid.
“When USAID built 120 washing stations in Rwanda, the Rwandans didn’t think that this was a passing phase, because they had never received this kind of aid before. They took it more seriously.”
FACN couldn’t provide roasters with the volumes they’d contracted for, its administration didn’t manage finances properly, and it ultimately couldn’t pay its farmer members. After over a decade of aid assistance, the endeavor went bankrupt, leaving little behind besides the Haitian Bleu trademark.
TO WASH OR NOT TO WASH
Marcel Duret served as Haiti’s ambassador to Japan from 1991–2003, during the height of the Haitian Bleu project. He helped champion the washed beans to coffee-crazed Japan, connected FACN with Japanese importers, “and for the first time, they sold the Haitian coffee for $3.00 a pound,” Duret says. He’s optimistic about prospects for high-end Haitian coffee in American markets, if the country’s supply can evolve.
“We have identified 50 micro-climates all over the country,” he says, “that could be planted and produce very high coffee that can compete in the international market with Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, for example, which fetches about $15.00 a pound in the Japanese market. And we have reached only $5.75 as the highest price.” By comparison, unwashed coffee sold in Haiti currently fetches from $0.92 to $1.37 per pound.
These days, Haiti and Rwanda produce about the same volume of beans each year. But Rwanda has exported nearly 20 percent of its coffee in recent years as washed beans for gourmet markets, up from just 1 percent in 2002. Haiti sells 90 percent of its production as cheap, dry-processed beans that never leave the island of Hispaniola. The upshot is that in 2010, Rwanda made $55 million from coffee exports. Haiti made $1.5 million.
“Haitians like their coffee,” says Weiner, the fourth-generation coffee man. “Rwandans drink tea.”
“I visited Rwanda in 2007 and saw how much was invested in coffee processing,” Weiner says. “I thought at the time that it was the best way forward for Haiti.” But after investing $80,000 in washing stations, he says the company hasn’t been able to fill even one shipping container with washed beans.
“There is no market for coffee inside of Rwanda,” he says. “In Haiti, there is a market for coffee, and a bigger one in the Dominican Republic. The Haitian farmer for less work has a market available.” And he’s been supplying that market with cheap, unwashed beans for decades.
Angrand, the coordinator from the government’s coffee institute, says that “it’s not really a problem of the Haitian mentality to produce washed coffee. It’s a problem of access.” Most mountainous coffee growing areas have terrible access to the country’s paved national highways. If farmers can’t get processed coffee to market quickly, then they may as well dry it and save it as a rainy-day fund or to pay expenses like children’s school fees.
GETTING HAITIAN COFFEE TO URBAN HIPSTERS
Americans like their coffee too. The giant and lucrative market in Haiti’s backyard has, in theory, potential to improve farmers’ livelihoods while also introducing coffee nerds in U.S. cities to Haiti’s unique terroir. Today, the coffee sells only in the most niche of U.S. markets and through a hodgepodge of small ventures.
Philadelphia-based La Colombe has exported four shipping containers of Haitian coffee to the United States since 2010, supplying high-end chefs like Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud. A handful of small companies or non-profit ventures market Haitian coffee as a way to help the country’s farmers, but they move tiny volumes. A retailer startup called Kafe Pa Nou – “our coffee,” in Haitian Creole – started selling Rebo and Cafe Selecto roasted bags online in April. Haitian-American co-founder Jean René Faustin says he would like to get into wholesaling eventually, but that it would be a much more difficult “second step.”
“We’ve talked to Starbucks a few times,” says Gonzales, the Rebo vice president. “We were referred to them, and they also contacted us.” But he says that Haiti’s yields and production are too meager to consistently supply such a large distributor, which is why he wants to focus on niche markets for now.
The average coffee yield in Haiti is 250 kilos per hectare; recent Rwandan yields have been double or triple that. By improving per-hectare yields, Haiti might one day be able to supply its domestic market while also exporting a significant volume of high-end beans.
“Haiti was for a brief moment in time the biggest producer of coffee for export in the world,” says Gonzales. “Right now, most people would say it’s impossible” for Haiti’s coffee sector to return to international prominence. “We’re not saying that it’s possible in the next two years, maybe not even in the next 12 years. But it is possible.”