Friday, April 17, 2015

Agriculture Considered Vital To Haiti's Economic Development

Agriculture considered vital to Haiti’s economic development

Aline Etlicher flips a hemp cover to one side and buries her hands in freshly delivered warm white cocoa beans fermenting in a specially constructed wooden box. In Acul-du-Nord, in the northern province of Haiti, she is on the frontline of recent interest in organic local production.
The French agronomist works for Pisa, a Haitian company focused on coffee roasting and export, but now expanding into coffee and chocolate production. It trains and also buys from local smallholders, cutting out the middlemen to offer higher prices.

“The agricultural sector has huge opportunities,” says Gilbert Gonzales, her boss. “Haiti missed the industrial age. Our agriculture is totally natural. That means we obtained organic cocoa certification in one and a half months, where other countries may take seven years” — waiting for land to be cleansed and organically certifiable.

They are not alone. Further west, Chocomax, a chocolate company from Saint-Louis du Nord, is planning exports to the US. Mexican investors are discussing putting $60m into the country’s first greenhouse farm to grow organic vegetables.

Denis O’Brien, the Irish entrepreneur who founded Digicel, Haiti’s largest mobile phone operator, is eying investment in rice. “Haiti used to be self sufficient and can be again,” he says.
Agri-Success, a Haitian subsidiary of Florida-based Haiti Originale in Léogâne, is investing $22m in bananas. Agritrans, an agricultural company, has planted a 1,000ha-plot for banana export, primarily to Europe, but also closer to home. “There’s an enormous demand for Haitian exports from the US and the Caribbean,” says Jean Lucien Ligonde, a local backer.

“The future economic development of this country lies in the agriculture sector,” says Fresner Dorcin, Haiti’s agriculture minister.

Rafael Juliá, a Haiti-based expert in international trade, says: “Textiles and tourism are indeed important, but the agricultural sector is key when it comes to stable job creation and sustainable development.”
With some $300m in banana, palm oil, coffee and vegetable investments in the pipeline, “agriculture is the big thing this year”, says Norma Powell, general director of Haiti’s Center for Investment Facilitation (CFI), which believes these projects will ultimately create more than 27,000 jobs.

In the current fiscal year, the government estimates the agriculture sector will attract 73 per cent of Haiti’s total investments, while creating 74 per cent of the country’s new jobs.

A man carries bananas at the public market on August 16, 2012 in Cabaret, near Port-au-Prince©Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty
Selling fruit at Cabaret market

Haiti was once self-sufficient in many crops. But now, much of its rice is imported cheaply from the US and accounts for the country’s single largest import, consuming foreign currency reserves. Low-cost imports from the Dominican Republic undermine production of chicken and eggs.

Mr Gonzales, also vice-president of Rebo, a coffee producer, says Haiti was once the world’s largest exporter of the bean. As recently as the early 1980s, it was one of Italy’s preferred suppliers and an essential part of the blend used to make espresso. Its export was a national priority, the source of a specific tax earmarked to help reimburse the country’s outstanding post-independence debts to France, which were then acquired by the US.

Once that money was paid off, he says, government interest in the product waned.

Foreign donors initially helped by supporting the development of co-operatives. But then the US trade embargo in 1991 undermined the market, driving down prices and prompting many farmers to switch to alternative crops.

Haiti’s traditions have not helped. Michèle Oriol, a sociologist and executive secretary of the Interministerial Committee for Planning, says the tradition of ownership en indivision means that after a death property is often divided into tiny subplots. This is inefficient and is a disincentive to invest in or sell land. The practice of “neo-locality”, whereby each generation abandons their parents’ house to build a new one, keeps them impoverished.

“It is hard to figure out who owns land in Haiti. It’s extremely confusing,” says Laurence Dubois, a historian at Duke University. “The point has been to figure out how to make sure that foreigners don’t get your land, partly by having very intricate family structures.”

Mr Gonzales is in discussions with the authorities to take control of larger land parcels to plant coffee beans. Like others in the agro-industry, he points to frustrations including undercapitalisation, lack of finance, poor training of farmers and weak infrastructure such as roads, with the result that much of the crop perishes before being exported.

One reason for Mr Gonzales’s decision to invest is the need to compensate for falling yields, as farmers have failed to replace coffee plants infested with rust, which he estimates has halved production in the past two years.

In Rebo’s warehouse in Port-au-Prince, Mr Gonzales points to a small pile of sacks of beans. “We are worried. By this time of year, this space is normally half full.”

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