Haitian Coffee Becoming a Hit with American Connoisseurs

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

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The Caribbean country of Haiti has had to deal with the twin challenges of recovering from a devastating earthquake in 2010 while also pulling itself out of the economic and social chaos that has resulted in its status as the poorest place in the Western hemisphere.

Violence has also led to a number of UN peacekeeping missions in Haiti over the years, and there is now a substantial international presence in the country to aid in stabilization and economic recovery (http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/minustah/).

Haiti has a lot of potential when it comes to agriculture, but this would require substantial changes in the way land and agriculture are managed.

Haiti is ranked 77 out of 79 countries in the 2012 Global Hunger Index. Access to sufficient quantities of nutritious food remains an issue for millions of Haitians. An estimated 3.8 million Haitians, or 38 per cent of the population, is food insecure (WFP 2012). Despite its fertile potential, Haiti is dependent on food aid and imports to meet its food security needs.

Fifty per cent of the country’s food requirements are imported, and food prices have been rising since the end of 2010, the year of Haiti’s devastating earthquake. This increase has led to an overall loss of purchasing power for the majority of Haitians. Low agricultural productivity and urban encroachment on arable land provide additional challenges for Haiti’s rural populations. Eighty per cent of farms fail to produce enough to feed their households (http://www.foodsecurityportal.org/haiti/resources).

But some are trying to create a new market for Haiti’s agricultural products to help boost farmers and farming as an occupation and an industry.

It’s hard to imagine now, but Haiti was once the world’s largest producer of coffee in the 18th century when it was a French colony. Today Haiti produces less than 1 per cent of the world’s coffee.

The targeting of niche coffee drinkers in the United States has introduced a new market to the special taste of the Haitian brew. While the market at present is small, some are hoping, with the right measures, it could be grown significantly, boosting both the country’s revenue from agricultural exports and incomes for coffee farmers.

Several US-based companies are carving out a market for Haitian coffee and boosting awareness about the country’s unique coffee beans. La Colombe Coffee Roasters (http://lacolombe.com/), based in the city of Philadelphia, has already been able to export four shipping containers of Haitian coffee to the United States since 2010. The company supplies high-end chefs such as Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud.

In Florida, Kafe Pa Nou (kafepanou.com) – “our coffee” in Haitian Creole – is owned by Haitian-American Jean René Faustin and sells online coffee from Haitian suppliers Rebo and Cafe Selecto.

So far, Haitian coffee has not been able to gain wider distribution through mass buyers such as Starbucks because it has not been possible to supply the quantities required to fulfill such a contract.

Haiti would need to boost its current average coffee yield of 250 kilograms per hectare to double or triple that yield to gain large-scale contracts.

“Haiti was for a brief moment in time the biggest producer of coffee for export in the world,” Gilbert Gonzales, Vice President of coffee exporter Rebo (http://rebo.ht/The%20Technics.htm), told Medium for Haiti (https://medium.com/medium-for-haiti). But “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,” he said. “But it is possible.”

The coffee cherries used to make the popular beverage are processed in one of two ways: a dry process and a wet process. In Haiti, the dry process is more commonly used to form a hard cocoon on the outside of the coffee cherries to help preserve them for a year or more.

This enables farmers to preserve the coffee cherries so they can keep a portion of the crop back as a safety reserve.

The wet processed beans are first immersed in water and then the pulp is washed away before the beans are dried (http://coffee.wikia.com/wiki/Wet_process). The superior flavor this creates has attracted fans in the United States, especially in the trendy neighbourhoods of Brooklyn, New York and San Francisco, California. By bucking the traditional Haitian dry processing method for the beans, it is possible to earn three times the market price by selling wet-processed beans.

Haiti’s history of coffee growing goes back to the 1700s. At the time, the country grew half the world’s coffee. This helped to make the French colony highly profitable.

This long heritage has left the country with a unique asset: original Arabica typica coffee trees first imported by Europeans to Haiti. These coffee trees are considered to be heirloom because they are so old and untainted by modern breeding methods. According to Douglas Weiner in Medium for Haiti, “when you drink coffee from Haiti, it’s like drinking coffee from 200 years ago.”

Weiner is part of a family business, Geo Weiner (http://selectohaiti.com/home/), which has been selling Haitian coffee for four generations and is one of the few surviving coffee exporters in the country.

The country has an estimated 200,000 coffee farmers. Because their methods have not changed much, they are effectively organic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_food). Most farmers can not afford chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

The coffee farms are located in mountain areas with a rich biodiversity of plants and trees. This stands in stark contrast with much of the rest of the country, where deforestation has left the country with just 2 per cent of virgin forest left. Coffee-producing areas are lush and green because coffee is one of the few cash crops that makes enough money to keep it worthwhile to preserve the trees and foliage. In other parts of the country, many are making money from turning trees into charcoal for cooking fuel, the most common fuel for most of the country’s population.

Haiti’s coffee growers have had a hard time coping with the rise and fall of world coffee prices. The world market price for coffee dropped in the early 2000s as the markets were flooded with coffee from Brazil and Vietnam. In response, farmers then cut down the coffee trees and replaced them with subsistence crops such as corn and beans.

With the amount of coffee grown in Haiti dropping quickly, the number of exporters in the country plummeted from 20 companies to two companies today, Geo Weiner and Rebo.

Jobert Angrand, Executive Coordinator of the National Institute of Coffee (http://www.icefda.org/), believes coffee production declined in Haiti because of a wide range of problems, from diseases and pests to aging trees, too-small plots and inefficient production methods. Per-hectare coffee yields are as low as one-tenth of production in Latin America.

The Vice President of coffee exporter Rebo says these problems are holding things back. “I don’t think today we’re looking into going mainstream,” said Gilbert Gonzales. “We can’t. There is not enough volume for that.”

Because production will be small, Gonzales believes Haiti would be wise to target the higher end of the marketplace with American grocery stores such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods: “It’s looking into the higher-end gourmet shops, things like that,” he said, “so that we could really share with the rest of that world the quality available from Haiti.”

Significant purchases of Haitian coffee have been made by various overseas companies, which does give hope that this plan could work. Irish coffee company Java Republic bought 97 tonnes of Haitian coffee from the Rebo exporter in 2010.


1) National Coffee Association: Ten Steps to Coffee. Website: http://www.ncausa.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=69

2) International Coffee Organization: The International Coffee Organization (ICO) is the main intergovernmental organization for coffee, bringing together exporting and importing governments to tackle the challenges facing the world coffee sector through international cooperation. Its member governments represent 97 per cent of world coffee production and over 80 per cent of world consumption. Website: http://www.ico.org/

3) Coffee Research: Growing Coffee Beans at Home. Website: http://www.coffeeresearch.org/coffee/homegrowing.htm

4) Puro Fairtrade Coffee: Puro is a leading brand of Fairtrade and Fair Trade Organic coffee that works in partnership with the World Land Trust to purchase and protect areas of precious rainforest in South America. Website: http://www.purocoffee.com/

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