News Summary:Having being asked to taste the Coffee in May 2010 we ordered a Container and recklessly paid $100,000 upfront....
5 Minutes (4 days) in Haiti
The views are my own in a tight little window of time in Haiti and just maybe wrong but they don’t feel so….. All facts happened.
Understanding how Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.
- Found by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and called it Hispaniola.
- Fernando Columbus (his son) began slavery in 1502.
- The Island is shared with the Dominican Republic (Independent in 1821) with two thirds of the island belonging to the Dominican Republic.
- Port-au-Prince 1749 established. In 1770 an Earthquake and Tsunami destroyed the City.
- Declared a Black Independent Republic of Haiti in 1804 from the French.
- Recognised by the French as sovereignty in 1825 in exchange for 150 million gold francs later reduced to 90 million francs and grossly unfair interest rates and paid in full in 1947 in order to lift crippling trade embargoes by the French, English and the Americans.
- Occupied by the United States from 1915-1934
- Duvalier Family (Papa Doc and son Bebe Doc) Dictatorship from 1957-1986
- Tontons Macoute 1988-1990 Coupé d’état
- Aristides Presidency 1990’s removed by the USA in 2004
- MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission to Haiti) 2004 led by The US Earthquake followed by Cholera outbreaks on the 24th of January, 2010, 316,000 people killed and 30,000 commercial buildings destroyed.
- Michel Martelly ( former Musician called Sweet Mickey) elected President in 2011.
Haiti Coffee History and the Stupid Dutch Mayor
Having very cleverly stolen the first Green Coffee Beans from the Yemenis in 1616 and after a disastrous attempt to grow Coffee in India the Dutch built the first hugely successful coffee plantations in Java, Sumatra and Celebes. At the same time as these plantations were blooming one of the most stupid commercial decisions in the history of agriculture was made by the Lord Mayor of Amsterdam on a visit to Paris to meet with the French king Louis XIV in 1714. The gift he brought was a young Coffee plant and 9 years later in 1723 a young French Naval Officer on his maiden trip to Martinique, Gabriel de Clieu, visited the Royal Botanical Gardens where the king had ordered the tree to be planted and took a seedling from the original tree. This one Coffee plant spawned 18 million trees and eventually led to South America becoming the biggest producers in the world.
How one Coffee seedling created a revolution and the first Black Republic in the world in 1804 to the shock and revulsion of the western world?
A full 2 years after Coffee landed and grew in Martinique; Coffee was introduced by the Jesuits to Haiti in 1725 at Terrier Rouge. The crop thrived so much that in 1788 Haiti was producing 60% of the worlds coffee, at 67 million pounds and most going to the Colonial Masters in France. The slaves were treated so horrendously on the Coffee plantations that they eventually tired of the treatment and revolted from 1791-1804 and established the first Republic of Haiti and more importantly the first Black Republic. At the time of the revolution 3 out of every 5 slaves brought to the Island were used on the 3,117 Coffee plantations. It is estimated that there were 790,000 slaves on the island. For the next 50 years up until 1949 Haiti stayed in the top 3 producing countries. In the 1970’s as coffee prices crashed, Haiti production dramatically reduced and with US embargos in the 80’s Coffee production was decimated.
Having being asked to taste the Coffee in May 2010 we ordered a container and recklessly paid $100,000 upfront which you just don’t do for Coffee. The container delayed by the BP Oil spill eventually arrived here in July and we created two separate blends called Zombie and Voodoo for the Hospitality and Retail Market. To date we have ordered 4 containers with a value of $500,000 and have become one of the biggest importers of Haitian Coffee in Europe. The Coffee is now sold in every village and town in Ireland.
Both myself (Founder of Java Republic ) and our Managing Director Grace O' Shaughnessy along with 2 customers travelled separately to Haiti from the 16th of January until the morning of the 20th of January.
As we flew over Haiti from the air the landscape was more like the Burren than a tropical Island and as we landed we saw hundreds of houses unfinished which we found out later was a household tax loop that only when the house was painted, it was liable to a new house tax. We arrived from New York which did not help the adaption on a rattle ship American Airlines antique into a very small airport and in the intense heat lined up in passport control with one official for over 200 travellers made up of NGO’s, trade people and load of elderly wheelchair natives on the way back from a Trip to New York. My first Haitian was a black, cannon balled head, pig of a man and when I joked “welcome to Haiti” he looked at me as if I should have been shot on the spot. We collected our bags in absolute chaos all around the stopped, broken carousel. As I was giving out hell about the welcome one of the gang said “did you ever see our guys smile in Dublin?” To which I half agreed still simmering.
We were met outside by one of our Dublin customers hanging off a pole dying in the heat along with our Coffee trading partners from Rebo. A great big smiley Jean-Marc on introduction opened a pack of chewing gum and offered me one and then dropped the wrapper on the ground to which I said “that’s fucking out of order pal” with a quick retort and shrug “that’s what everybody does”. If I was to pin point everything wrong with Haiti it starts there and an attitude to the environment from the middle class and as I write this up still surprises in its ignorance of what Haiti should have been, but the Haiti I imagined, was probably lost in the 70's if it ever existed. We were taken straight to the warehouse (well armed and ready security present) and cleaning facility where the coffee needs to be milled and cleaned and shipped to New Orleans and then Dublin. We stayed at the hotel Karibe, a safe, well run 4 star Hotel in the hills of Port Au Prince. From the little we saw on the first evening the heavily armed UN presence and filthy run down streets, the odd collapsed building and busy street vendors and their little fires, the harsh reality of Haiti emerged quickly.
We left PAP at 6am to avoid serious traffic the next morning and diverted back to the factory for supplies and a store. It was already extremely hot as we headed East for Thiotte (pronounced Chut) only 111km. As we headed towards the Dominican Republic boarder on the main Croix des Bouquet Road we passed tented fields (was the Golf Course) which the activist and Actor Sean Penn was running and it was seriously shabby and difficult for animals to live let alone families from the earthquake 2 years previous.
We then headed South East up through Granite mountains (rumored to contain $40 Billion reserves of gold veins) and went through small villages and markets (La Tremblay, Ganthier and Fondes Parisians). At this point as we were mostly following an empty river bed with enormous boulders and 3 yards from 600metre drops to avoid and push through we heard the wonderful Haiti saying “it's not the distance but the time it takes to travel" and for us having visited many Coffee Countries this was the equivalent of doing the Wicklow Way in a car.
At 1300 meters we entered La Forets des Pines and a half decent road / track .You could have been in a forest in Ireland and this National Park of stunning thin Pines held 36,000 hectares in 1986, is currently at 8,000 due to charcoaling for fuel (only source of fuel used by the really poor to cook) and cheap furniture.
As we climbed to 1400 meters we entered Zombie Savannah spelt in Creole Zomby and French Zombie. Having had its name used in so many movies, books and music videos, games and apps making billions around the world nothing marked the area with the exception of a lot of well-built schools and beautifully turned out kids along the way.
After six hours battering we finally arrived in Thiotte a farming village, clean, surrounded by jungle forests and with a sense of positive commercial activity. There were 3 churches or more like buildings as 50% Catholic, a Haiti religion, Protestant and Christian. Voodoo spelt Voudou was also practiced by the Catholic community.
We stayed at the Esperanta guesthouse (perfect except for an appalling Jacks and beds for Midgets) and the owner (Leon Ernst Mondesire) also had coffee drying patios and 11 hectares of fields that were growing every type of fruit and vegetable possible from coconut, bananas, cabbage and a beautiful fruit called chadeque. We were all fascinated with this orange / grapefruit huge natural high yield fruit which lay on the grounds and in the trees but rarely harvested. The juice was beautiful and easily picked and peeled but no commercial activity and just left to waste. Amongst this jungle were old stonewalls where they once terraced the fields but now in disarray and overgrown.
The Coffee shade grown by oak, eucalyptus, trompete and coconut tress was just finished harvesting and the few remaining trees were being stripped of Coffee cherry. Because of the spread of trees and difficult access the yields would be half what a well run farm could produce and at least half the trees had Bore worm, a pest that eats at least half of the 2 green beans to a coffee cherry. No one seemed concerned except us.
The farmers had learnt that by creating Co-ops there was less chance of exploitation and the area was once run by 8 loosely connected Co-Ops. Some had collapsed and merged leaving only 2 Co-ops Upab (100 farmers) Apkab (850). Our trading partners Rebo had to fight hard to persuade Upap that they could find trading partners like Java Republic in Ireland and the Council who we met the next morning were the toughest bunch of negotiators that would do any Kerry Co-Op proud. These guys and their fathers fathers had been burnt for years with the Coffee Crop commodity swings and by a local export plan under the brand Haitian Blue and were extremely cautious of us.
Their Vice President Oriel Jean Toussaint a very young (25) good looking confident man spoke about their 800,000 Lbs of Green Coffee, their History, the prices, their dry process and potential for wet process which gives the Coffee a cleaner flavor and wanted to know what we would do for them? I then explained,"we're no Starbucks and that with the demand for good Haitian Coffee they made more money than we did”. I explained we paid $100,000 up front and that the only way we could guarantee further supply was based on quality coffee and a promise from both sides."If we received one shipment of poor quality coffee it's over".
After plenty of discussion where most of the 8 members openly declared that all of their children would be sent to America for education and remain there because life as a farmer was not a good living we toured some local farms and a huge mill in disrepair and in its day could process a 1000 times the output it now did. How long ago in Thiotte that was we never asked. At the end of the day we asked the group to go for a beer and they declined twice and our Rebo guys said it was not well received with their religion (must have been Catholic). We then insisted and after one round and a challenge of an arm wrestle with the VP Oriel it turned into a great little session with the Co-Op delighted with their hammering against our big-mouthed white president Mc Kernan.
Next morning after another mauling on treacherous roads in the Mapou area with stunning scenery we were diverted to Cascade Pinchon an incredible waterfall but no one enjoyed it as we were so shit scared of getting out on really dangerous 90-degree rubble tracks. After hours we emerged on the coast and stopped at Belle Anse for food. From there we went on to a great hotel of Kabic Beach Club where the Swiss owner rudely demanded the money upfront as we offered to buy him a beer. Great dinner followed by an early dash to Jacmel for a late drink with no joy. As we entered Jacmel (once called the Pearl of the Caribbean) we all had some perception of a wonderful seaport with huge potential and investment from American Actor friends of Sean Penn for regenerating the area. It reminded me of New Orleans but with huge challenges no matter what is invested.
After a considerable amount of Rum we rushed for Port Au Prince to complete the circle on Route de L'amitie (road of friendship built by the French as a gift) and avoid the traffic. We missed the really bad downtown area where so many were killed and with a little detour managed to get the iconic Presidential Palace and Parliament building destroyed by the earthquake. Again the dirt and polystyrene litter and fires was beyond any African or Indian city I had ever visited.
From a Company point of view we met the Co-ops, saw at first hand the challenges, and built a good relationship with Rebo / Upab and Haitian Coffee will remain a serious growth Coffee in our Company as the coffee its self is wonderfully sweet, and with a deep flavor of chocolate and toffee. 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. We met many Irish Business people who were great and a few cynical assholes that should leave or be sent home. In a four-day visit you should never here "what a total Bollix" from fellow travellers as opposed to "a bit of a Bollix” about your own nationality. On the other hand the business culture must be tainted, the Haitian Nation is still in ruins and most probably will never emerge as long as they rely on Foreign aid and food, foreign army (huge UN presence on every Street), foreign professionals and NGO’S and most from the very same Country with an appalling record worse that the French in Haiti, the United States. The people deserve better after at least a hundred years of constant turmoil and struggle equal to any African Nation but how it plays out over the next 50 years if the earthquake is a new beginning I certainly did not see the blocks being built, but I was only there for 4 seconds in reality. It has to be said we did see a lot of schools on our route and huge investment and development in communications by our own Digecel. In a funny way Ireland and Haiti are very similar and maybe history will show sovereignty is not as important as survival in the long run. What is shocking is the complete absence of Culture and the wonderful heritage built up over 200 years and at the cost of so many slaves and a remarkable achievement in 1804 to create the First Black independent state.
To see more images on the Haiti trip, please visit the Flickr Page.