Milk Co-operatives Help Hungry Haiti

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions



SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The global food crisis has hit the impoverished Caribbean country of Haiti especially hard. Already suffering from decades of food crises brought on by the collapse of domestic farming, the country has become notorious for its people being reduced to eating cakes made of mud to stave off hunger pains. It is the poorest country of Latin America and the Caribbean and one of the poorest in the world.

Haiti imports some 52 percent of its food, including over 80 percent of its rice. Local food production only covers 43 percent of the country’s demand and food aid supplies only 5 percent of its needs. Of the estimated 9.8 million Haitians, 5.1 million live on less than US $1 a day and 7.6 million on less than US $2 a day. At current prices, one dollar buys only half a meal per day (Source: United Nations Country Team in Haiti).

Haiti’s problems are made worse by a global food crisis. So-called agflation (agricultural inflation) has seen spiralling food prices around the world, which in turn are causing food shortages, hunger and malnutrition. On international commodity markets, food prices have gone up 54 percent over the last year, with cereal prices soaring 92 percent (FAO – World Food Situation). U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for food production to increase 50 percent by 2030 just to meet rising demand – and right now there are 862 million people worldwide who are undernourished (FAO).

In Haiti, most agriculture is done on a small scale by about 700,000 family farmers. Few belong to any production association or mechanism to market and distribute their products, and local produce has been pushed out of the market by imports.

Subsidized U.S. rice began flooding in 30 years ago, becoming so cheap that Haitians began eating it instead of the corn, sweet potatoes, cassava and domestic rice they grew. The U.S. imports drove rice farmers out of business and incited a rural exodus that swelled the slums of the capital, Port-au-Prince. That dependence on imports has caused dangerous food insecurity. Today, the U.S. rice that is the staple of many Haitians’ diet has doubled in price in little more than a year.

“The problem is that Haiti doesn’t have the land to give every peasant family enough to allow them to make a living,” said Bernard Etheart, head of the National Institute for Agrarian Reform. Etheart estimates that if all arable land was planted, each farmer would have no more than half a hectare, or 1.25 acres.

A cooperative of dairy farmers is doing its bit to revive domestic production of milk products and reduce the crippling costs of importing milk for Haiti. Importing 85,000 tonnes of milk from Europe and the United States costs Haiti US $40 million a year. A walk through the capital, Port-au-Prince, will reveal how much milk is imported in one form or another: tiny cans of evaporated milk are sold in the street markets, while the wealthy can buy powdered and long-life milk in the air conditioned supermarkets of the upscale neighbourhood of Petionville.

Dairy production in Haiti was in decline for 20 years until, in 2002, the country ceased to produce any milk at all. The urgent need for milk in Haiti is shown in the average consumption: per child, only 110 ml is consumed per day. In Uruguay, for example, it is 520 ml a day (190 litres per head of population per year).

Lèt Agogo (Creole for Unlimited Milk) is a cooperative using small-scale farmers to bring milk to the hungry. Founded by the NGO Veterimed six years ago, it now has a network of 13 dairies across the island.

Lèt Agogo is hoping to get Haiti’s milk production up to 145,000 tons a year from the current 45,000 tons. So far, the product’s single biggest client is the Haitian government. It buys bottles of sterilized milk below cost and distributes them to 130,000 school children in 44 government-funded schools. Dr. Michel Chancy told the Miami Herald that the government would like to expand the distribution to 800 schools.

“Haiti is a country where we consume a lot of milk,” said Chancy, a veterinarian and one of the visionaries behind Lèt Agogo. “After rice, milk is the second-largest import.”

At present, Haiti has 500,000 dairy cows out of more than a million head of cattle. The problem came down to marketing and distributing the dairy products. With no structure in place, few farmers bothered milking their animals. But by the end of 2007, 600 farmers had joined the network and 400 producers in dairy product making and grass pasture management. In 2007, they turned 540,000 litres into yoghurt and sterilised milk that can stay on the shelf for six to nine months without refrigeration. Made from sterilized milk, the yogurt comes in 280 ml bottles and sells in stores throughout the country and has a shelf life of nine months.

The farmers have seen their income almost double, from 4 (US 10 cents) to 8 (US 20 cents) gourdes per litre, from 10 (US 25 cents) to 12 (US 30 cents) gourdes per litre.

Farmers walk to processing centres with their litres of milk and receive US $2.20 for each US gallon (4.55 litres).

“The milk is here,” Chancy said, but the lack of roads and electricity in the country pose huge challenges. “The problem is transporting it.”

Haiti’s president, Rene Preval, has cited Lèt Agogo as an excellent example of how Haiti can recover its domestic food production capability. The scheme won a US $10,000 first prize in the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean Experiences in Social Innovation Award.

Lèt Agogo believes it will take 100 dairies throughout Haiti’s rugged terrain to truly take over the import market, and would cost US $10 million to set up. ”Normally in five to ten years, a dairy would pay for itself. But you need the investments,” Chancy said.

“It’s not the production of milk that is important here… It’s accomplishing it together,” said Philippe Mathieu, from Oxfam International in Quebec, Canada, who is working on helping the brand produce cheese, noting that Haiti is at a difficult crossroads with today’s global price hikes. “The goal is to show Haitians there is a way to do things — a way to construct something collectively.

“Haitian peasants have always taken care of their cattle; tying them, feeding them and giving them water to drink,” Mathieu said. ”The cow has always been their bank book, something they could sell for money during hard times. Now it has become a revenue source for them.”

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