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Volunteering in coffee: Haiti

This blog was originally published on March 30, 2015.


As promised, we let owner Shawn Steiman off his leash to take another international volunteer coffee trip.  This time, he went to Haiti to participate in a conference and work with cooperative leaders.  We are humbled by the effort and passion of coffee growers around the world and are very glad we can help support them in ways other than just purchasing their coffee.

This trip and conference were organized by Haiti Coffee in the U.S. and Makouti Agro Enterpise in Haiti.  These two companies have spent years working together to help the Haitian coffee industry.  They’ve supplied resources, training, and support.  Their efforts are largely funded by USAID and the Farmer-to-Farmer program.  The following is Dr. Steiman’s personal account of his trip.

Coffee conference at Makouti

The Haitian coffee industry has plenty of challenges.  Throughout its past, it has been incredibly successful and was able to earn a fair reputation for its coffee.  However, the country of Haiti has struggled in many ways and the coffee industry has suffered, unsurprisingly.  Political turmoil, natural disasters, and poverty all have wreaked havoc on a once-proud industry. 

Unfortunately, much coffee knowledge has been lost in the country in recent decades for a variety of reasons.  Generally, coffee quality in Haiti has not been very good, rarely attaining the SCAA’s score of 80 points to mark it as “specialty”.  Moreover, green coffee prices are relatively high, turning off buyers who feel they can purchase better tasting coffees at much lower prices.  Mostly, only buyers with a long vision to the future or charity buyers have been acquiring green Haitian coffee.  While this is well and good, it is not sustainable and there are too few companies participating.

The Haiti coffee industry faces many challenges.  Fortunately, there’s increasing support from buyers and aid organizations.  While progress is slow, I think in 4-8 years time, we’ll see and taste the hard work of these supporters and be grateful for their efforts.

This was my second volunteer trip to Haiti.  My first was in 2013 and, back then, I also worked with Makouti.  On my first trip, I saw a greater range of coffee regions as I traveled in both the north and south of the country.  This trip, I was based strictly in the north, in Cap Hatien, at Makouti headquarters, though we did make trips to both Don Don and Plezans to visit cooperatives and farms.

Women in coffee nursery

Dr. Myriam Kaplan-Pasternak, an amazing woman and owner of Haiti Coffee, invited me to return to Haiti to participate in a conference she was putting together.  The conference was targeted towards regional cooperative leaders and the topics it covered ranged quite a bit.  I was asked to discuss agricultural issues and I was all too happy to oblige.  Although, I couldn’t resist myself and I assisted Beth Dominick of Sacred Grounds with cup quality and green coffee sorting as much as she’d let me.  Also in leadership roles were Tommy Bassett (engaging in contracts), Arthur Bassett (production and sanitation), and Christa Pettis Michaud (women in coffee).  Local issues were discussed by Benito Jasmin (owner of Makouti) in addition to guiding some team building experiences.

Throughout the two day conference, I was astounded by the passion and hunger for knowledge displayed by the attendees.  I really feel as if we made a difference and were able to convey useful knowledge to these leaders.  Nearly a day of flying (each way) and driving over many bumpy roads is well worth it when I feel as optimistic as I do about this industry. 

While there are many experiences I’d like to write about, there just isn’t space for them all.  So, I’m going to share a video I took on my first volunteer trip to Haiti.  This video is from a workshop in Picot where we were preparing soil medium for use in planting seedlings.  In the video, the community is pulverizing dung which will serve as the nutrition source for the seedlings.  I find it impossible not to get caught up in their energy and joy of working with coffee and each other.

It makes me think of the slogan that the recent conference participants came up with for themselves: cafe se num nu.  Coffee is my soul.



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