LIMONADE, Haiti — At first sight, the nearly four acres of farmland in this rural hamlet in northeast Haiti resembles more of a desert than a thriving agricultural experiment. The soil is brown and barren, battered by a lack of water and neglect.
But walk further inland and the seemingly lifeless terrain soon turns green: Cabbages and pumpkins rise out of the ground, papayas hang from trees and workers plant rows of hot peppers in the freshly plowed dirt as a generator hisses in the background.
A year ago, such a lush landscape was unimaginable for Fransik Monchèr, a farmer and father of seven who couldn’t even grow fiery habanero peppers because they quickly died.
All that changed the day a group of entrepreneurs decided to take a gamble to launch a socioeconomic experiment with the goal of answering a simple, but daunting question: What if a Haitian farmer, like Monchèr, had everything he needed to be a successful grower?
“That farmer who has the land, how do you get him to upgrade his way of production — and how do we recuperate that cost?” said Maxwell Marcelin, one of the entrepreneurs.
The quest for the answers has birthed an unusual partnership among four Port-au-Prince-based friends and entrepreneurs, and local farmers and agronomists in northern Haiti. Together, they are pushing locally grown peppers and sweet potatoes while also aiding farmers like Monchèr in transforming their sun-scorched land, restoring hope in the only livelihood they’ve known: agriculture.
Though 75% of Haiti’s population lives in rural areas, the country can’t feed itself. Nearly half of the population, 4.9 million people, are experiencing acute hunger, according to the United Nations. The blame, the U.N. says, can be placed on a number of factors, including poor irrigation systems, lack of capital, political instability and the intensifying gang violence that has spread beyond the capital of Port-au-Prince to rural areas.
In areas where gangs are not occupying farmland or distribution routes, small-scale farmers are fighting to grow crops with limited or no government support. Crops fail due to increasingly frequent and severe droughts and tropical storms, and higher-than-average temperatures.
None of it makes for a hopeful scenario where agriculture can once more become the driving economic force in the countryside.
“Everybody is locked into the idea that it can’t be done,” said Geoffrey Handal, the accounting and logistics expert in the friends’ group, who challenges such pessimism. “We have all of the qualified agronomists, we have all of the techniques needed, we have all of the land, we have all of the water, we have everything.”
Handal and Marcelin launched their experiment with Monchèr, and also invested in cultivating hot peppers and sweet potatoes about 30 miles to the east of Cap-Haïtien in Paulette, a rural village once known for its old sisal plantations. They’ve dubbed their socioeconomic lab “Ayiti Demen” — The Haiti of Tomorrow.
When Marcelin first arrived at Monchèr’s farm in Limonade, the northeast city that is part of the Marihaboux Plain, he believed, like the farmer, that the land was unworkable.
“It was total despair,” Marcelin said, as a group of workers dig a hole on a dirt mound to plant habanero pepper trees. “He said every time he tried to plant, there was no rain and he would lose his harvest.”
Refusing to accept that the expansive plot was a wasteland, Marcelin and Handal began to think about how they could help. Monchèr not only needed seeds, but also financing. But most importantly, he needed a steady supply of water so he wouldn’t have to depend on rains.
“That’s the basis of agriculture. Otherwise it’s like you’re playing the lottery” waiting for rain, Marcelin said.
In Haiti, crops failed not just because of too little or too much rainfall, but also due to a lack of access to irrigation, even when water is available.
Just across the border 45 minutes away in the Dominican Republic farmers are successful, Marcelin said, so the issue is not the availability of water.
“The only thing is there is no investment on our side of the border to bring the water to the producers,” he said.
(This is why farmers in the region have been constructing a controversial canal off the nearby Massacre River, which divides Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in hopes of exploiting the potential of the once-lush Marihaboux Plain.)
Armed with a study showing that there was indeed water under Monchèr’s arid land, the group sprang into action. Magalie Dresse, a well-known designer who works with women artisans, helped with financing. Handal, who is also experimenting with producing a bank of high-quality seedlings, provided the seeds. And Marcelin crunched the numbers. With a background in management economics, he wanted to show Monchèr that he could have a successful harvest and rely on it for income to feed his family.
“We provided him with a well, a submersible pump, a generator —a propane one because there is no gas,” Marcelin said. “He has the support of one of our agronomists to help him on what to do and what not to do. We plowed his field.”
The contributions have not gone unnoticed. Since January, Monchèr has grown more than 2,000 pounds of habanero peppers in addition to other fruits and vegetables.
‘“They backed me up,” he said, flashing a smile and standing upright in his field. “I could not have accomplished this on my own. I could not have dug a well because I don’t have the means to do that.”
Whereas before he saw despair, he now sees hope.
“My children are starting to eat and I am beginning to make some money. If they tell me they are hungry, I can come here, grab two or three papayas and sell them to find money to buy food,” Monchèr said.
The group’s initial investment of about 480,000 gourdes — about $3,600 — is expected to bring Monchèr about $7,000 in sales, which he will make from selling his habanero peppers to AGRILOG/Ets JB Vital, S.A., the company that Marcelin and Handal use to export peppers to Miami.
“This is someone we’ve taken out of poverty when we gave him this opportunity,” Marcelin said.
“Because we invested in Fransik,” he adds, walking through the papaya trees, “we’ve created an oasis.”
From coffee to sweet potatoes
Growing up in a poverty-stricken Haiti as a member of a well-off family, Handal knew he was blessed, a feeling he’s wanted to share with others.
“I’ve always felt like every Haitian should have it and we should show the world this is how we live,” he said.
For 200 years, the Handal family exported coffee, once among the island’s most lucrative cash crops. But deforestation, natural disasters and the increasing need for coffee to be grown at higher elevations due to warming temperatures led to a rapid decline in coffee production. In 2008, Handal said the family was shipping 33 cargo containers of coffee beans each season.
A year later, before the devastating 2010 earthquake further decimated production, the family shipped only two containers “because we couldn’t find any coffee.”
Handel said that an investigation into the demise of Haiti’s coffee market led him to conclude that the family needed to invest in agricultural production. But more than a decade went by before he revisited the idea of exports, spending most of the time working in the family’s shipping business in Port-au-Prince.
“I realized the only two things we could export here would be, first of all, textiles and second, agriculture,” he said. He decided on the agriculture route as a way to boost his export volume. “It was purely a logistic play to see what could I do to get containers full of agriculture products out of Haiti.”
Then he met Marcelin, who pitched him on growing peppers and sweet potatoes, and helping farmers boost their harvest.
“The Dominican Republic is the same size, same economy as Haiti and there is no reason why we can’t reach that level of GDP,” Handal said. “If we do this right, if we invest properly in Haiti in 20 years, we can have 10% GDP growth every year. With that measure, this is how billionaires get made. This is how you create a real economy.”
Marcelin said he became interested in agriculture through the work of his wife, Kalinda Magloire. She is the founder of a clean cooking social enterprise known as SWITCH, which encourages Haitians to move away from charcoal in favor of propane.
One of the effects of Haiti’s declining agricultural sector is that when farmers can’t cultivate their land, they turn to cutting their trees down for charcoal production, which gives them about $400 every two years. For farmers to stop cutting trees to survive, said Marcelin, they need a path to production to get replace that revenue.
Cutting down the trees is “the easiest choice today because he doesn’t have money to invest, so he just lets the trees grow and then every two years, he sells them,” he said. “But if he had the financing, the know-how and access to market, he would have an alternative.
“When we were presenting clean cooking as an alternative, the question we were always presented with was, ‘What about the farmer who lives off charcoal?’ “ Marcelin adds. “This is why we started thinking about agriculture.”
Bringing back the Scotch bonnet, saving the Bouk
About 17 miles to the east of Limonade along National Highway 6 in the rural community of Paulette is the for-profit side of Marcelin and Handal’s vision. Together with the Peasant Movement for the Development of Paulette they are growing sweet potato and several varieties of pepper, including the high-in-demand “Piman Bouk,” whose first shipment arrived in Miami in April.
Despite the demand for Bouk, it is hard to find, said Handal, who has built a nursery to provide high quality pepper seeds.
“Today, even if a farmer wants to go plant Bouk, he won’t find quality seeds to do it,” Handal said.
The entrepreneurs also want to bring back production of the Caribbean Scotch bonnet, a variety of chili pepper. According to local lore, the Scotch bonnet, popular in Jamaica, was bountiful around Cap-Haïtien before the Haitian revolution but soon disappeared after Haiti won its independence from France in 1804.
The two are also working on exporting sweet potato, which for now is being sold on the local market as they continue to improve the yield for export to Europe with the help of agronomists from Honduras, who have expertise in growing the vegetable.
To make the agricultural project work, the duo invested in a drip irrigation system, similar to what’s used in the Dominican Republic, and fertilizer. They also brought onboard interns from the nearby University of Limonade to assist and to learn.
The financial model, which Handal came up with, calls for the Paulette farmers to get 30% of sales.
“At the end of the day, when you look at the investment, it comes up to 50-50 in terms of profits,” Marcelin said. “In Paulette, it’s a Fransik Monchèr magnified. We created jobs but the profit sharing is for the whole organization…. Everyone who is in the ecosystem is making money.”
Handal also sees another important result.
“For me as long as the community is involved, that’s all you need,” he said.
The two also focus on finding creative ways to get around problems. After some of the habaneros and Piman Bouk ripened before they could be shipped out, Marcelin and Handal decided to go into the pepper sauce business.
With their next harvest less than 30 days away, they are hoping the sweet potatoes will be ready so they can be shipped out. If not, they will just continue to sell it locally.
The effort is “a bet that this country will not die, which is a bit of a leap of faith these days. But if it’s not going to die, it’s going to grow at some point,” Handal said. “And that’s why we invest.”