Although a small country in the face of South America’s giants, Haiti is slowly developing its cocoa industry, earning better incomes for thousands of farmers and refuting the stereotype that culinary art is the preserve of wealthy countries.
Haiti’s annual production of 5,000 metric tons of cocoa is paltry compared to the 70,000 metric tons produced per year by neighboring Dominican Republic, but the development of the sector is recent in the island nation.
Feccano, a federation of cocoa cooperatives in northern Haiti, became the first group to organize exchanges in 2001 with prioritizing farmers’ profits.
“Before, there was the systematic destruction of cocoa trees because the market price was not attractive to farmers who preferred very short-cycle crops,” said Guito Gilot, commercial director of Feccano.
The cooperative now works with over 4,000 farmers in northern Haiti.
By fermenting the beans of its members before exporting, Feccano was able to target the fine and aromatic cocoa market.
“Feccano clients pay for quality: they don’t have the New York Stock Exchange as their benchmark,” Gilot said.
Just in time collection
Sensing potential, the Haitian private sector finally began to invest in the cocoa industry, which until then had been supported only by non-governmental organizations and humanitarian efforts.
By installing its fermentation system in 2014 in Acul-du-Nord, 15 kilometers from Cap-Haïtien, Haiti’s second largest city, the company Produit des iles (PISA) entered the market. But there are many logistical challenges.
“The producers with whom we work farm less than one hectare, often divided into several plots, whereas in Latin America, a small producer already has four or five hectares”, explains Aline Etlicher, who developed the sector at PISA.
“We buy fresh cocoa, the very day of the harvest so that the farmer no longer has the drying and storage problems he would have if he sold it to an intermediary,” said the French agronomist.
In recent months, this just-in-time bean collection at all sites has been more difficult as many roads were regularly blocked due to socio-political unrest.
Maintaining organic and fair trade certifications for cocoa is tricky, but the Haitian style has made its mark abroad.
“Today there are bars sold in the United States called Acul-du-Nord,” Etlicher said proudly.
“With our customers, we are part of the ‘bean to bar’ movement of chocolatiers who transform the cocoa bean into a chocolate bar,” she said, adding that by removing intermediaries, the income of Haitian producers has double.
And at the other end of the chain, the processing of beans remains local.
‘Plant your cocoa’
For master chocolatier Ralph Leroy, making rum ganache – Haitian, like all the products he uses – was not an obvious choice.
After years in Montreal, he returned home to Haiti as a haute-couture designer.
His turn to cocoa began when he made chocolate clothing for a culinary trade fair. The training he then followed for a year in Italy fueled his passion as much as his pride.
“The first week I think I was insulted when the teacher said, ‘Chocolate is made for Europe. You there, plant your cocoa, we buy the cocoa and do the work, ”he recalls.
Today, Leroy runs the chocolate company he founded in 2016, Makaya, and the edible sculptures that come out of his workshop are a sensation at parties. His company now has about twenty employees who share his passion.
“Even in cooking schools, you don’t learn that. I learned everything here and I am very, very proud, ”said Duasmine Paul, 22, head of the Makaya laboratory.
Echoes of car horns reach the ears of Makaya employees carefully sorting cocoa beans, a side effect of the chaotic traffic that paralyzes the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince at the end of the year.
From his workshop, where he also concocts chocolate-based cocktails, Leroy sees the great commercialization of his bars as a sweet revenge.
“The greatest pleasure is when, before traveling, Haitians come here to buy a lot to offer abroad. It has become their pride. And also when the Europeans come to buy all the stock… I tell myself I’m doing a good job, ”he said with a burst of laughter.