Haiti is the third-largest country in the Caribbean. The island nation became the world’s first black-led republic and the Caribbean’s first independent state in the early 19th century.
Coffee production has historically been important for Haiti’s economic growth. French colonists first brought coffee plants to the island nation in the 18th century.
Since then, coffee has been a staple crop for Haitian farmers. Along with sugar, coffee helped to establish the country’s agricultural economy. However, today, coffee production has fallen by the wayside somewhat, with mangoes and cocoa now the most-exported crops from the country.
However, many people still see potential in the country’s coffee industry, despite the challenges and setbacks that its people face. I spoke with two local experts to learn more about Haitian coffee. Read on to find out what they told me.
You may also like our article on Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee.
A brief history of coffee in Haiti
It’s largely believed that coffee was first introduced to the country around 1715, when a French naval officer brought seedlings from the island of Martinique (located southeast of Haiti). At the time, Haiti and its neighbouring country the Dominican Republic were collectively referred to as Saint-Domingue.
Haitian coffee production steadily increased over the following decades. By the late 1780s, Saint-Domingue supplied around half of the global coffee market. As a result of this, Haiti’s economy was heavily dependent on coffee exports.
However, at that time, the country’s coffee industry was almost completely dependent on slave labour. French colonists forcibly transported African people to the island, who were made to work on coffee plantations.
The working conditions on these coffee farms were appalling, and it was not uncommon for enslaved Africans to be beaten or killed by European plantation owners.
In 1791, many African slaves revolted and became self-liberated, which resulted in violent conflicts between them and plantation owners. This ultimately led to the decline of Haiti’s coffee industry, and many plantations were burned down.
There were several attempts to revive Haiti’s coffee production over the next two centuries, including in 1949 when the country temporarily became the world’s third-largest coffee producer. However, after several US-imposed trade restrictions and years of dictatorial rule, as well as a declining agricultural workforce, coffee production waned again.
Over the past few centuries, a number of natural disasters have also devastated the country and its coffee sector. In 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, which left around 1 million people displaced and an estimated 316,000 people dead.
While the country was still recovering from this earthquake, another struck in 2021 – leaving 600,000 people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
A profile of Haitian coffee production
According to data from Index Mundi, the country’s coffee exports over the past seven years have been negligible, but small volumes of coffee are produced in its mountainous regions. These include Massif du Nord, Montagnes Noires, Chaîne des Matheux, Montagnes du Trou d’Eau, Massif de la Hotte, and Massif de la Selle.
The majority of coffee production in Haiti is organic, but this is largely not by choice. Most farmers are not able to afford expensive fertilisers or other costly farming inputs.
Justin Dena is the Director of Development for Singing Rooster, a social enterprise that has been working with Haitian coffee farmers for over a decade. The organisation helps producers to establish better farming techniques, as well as assisting with harvesting, processing, and exporting.
“Many of the coffee plants grown in Haiti are of the Typica variety and are old,” he explains. “The trees haven’t been pruned much, so they are tall, lanky, and produce low amounts of cherries.”
Other varieties include Caturra and Catimor, as well as Mundo Novo.
Instead of large farms and estates, Justin tells me that most coffee in the country is grown in farmers’ gardens.
“In Haiti, much of the coffee is produced by small farmers in what is referred to as ‘creole gardens’,” he says. “In them, you will find a few coffee plants, along with bananas, cassava, papaya, other vegetables, and fruits.”
He adds that many Haitian farmers will only produce around 5kg to 10kg of cherries per year. Many farmers work with co-operatives which own washing stations, along with dry mills and green coffee storage facilities.
Gumais Jean Jacques is the founder and CEO of Kaiser Kafe in the country’s capital Port-Au-Prince.
“The co-op members are organised smallholder farmers,” he tells me. “Most large estates or private farms are owned by Haitian companies like Rebo S.A. and Selecto.
“There are also coffee plantations which have been owned by families for generations.”
Haiti’s coffee harvest generally begins in September and can sometimes last until June. Farmers harvest by hand and the cherry is delivered to wet mills for processing.
Justin tells me that most of the country’s coffee is washed. He says that a programme in the 1990s helped to construct washing stations for many of the co-ops. However, farmers will usually opt for natural processed coffees for their own consumption. This is because producers have the infrastructure to carry this out themselves.
Because of water shortages and the fact that washed processing coffee makes water non-potable, Justin adds that Singing Rooster has also worked with farmers to introduce honey processed coffee. They’ve also planted tens of thousands of coffee trees to help small producers scale up production.
Export and domestic consumption
“Trade in the Haitian coffee sector is led by the National Institute of Haitian Coffee (INCAH), an independent government body which falls under the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources,” Gumais says. “The institute is the primary organisation for coffee research in the country.”
He adds: “Haiti is both a producing and consuming country. While we export our coffee as green beans with no real added value, roasters and major companies in the country are selling roasted coffee domestically.
“Promotion of the domestic market is carried out by traders, companies, and co-operatives.”
Some of the larger co-ops operate coffee packaging facilities and help to export coffees, but most of these work on a smaller scale.
In most cases, buyers purchase coffee directly from co-operatives that are unable to directly export themselves. There are also a number of exporting companies that buy coffee from Haitian farmers before exporting the green beans, although trade with individual Haitian farmers is usually not possible. This is because they typically produce such low volumes of coffee.
Direct trade models are also sometimes used in Haiti. Generally, a democratically elected co-op representative will oversee direct trade transactions, whereby the coffee is held until it has been paid for.
Justin tells me that most people in the country drink coffee at home, mainly because there are few coffee shops. Furthermore, most of the coffee consumed domestically is not of high enough quality for export.
However, when grown and processed to high standards, Haitian coffee can have a medium body with little acidity. It is usually described as mellow-tasting but refined.
One of the more well-known coffees produced in the country is Haitian Blue, which gets its name from the blue-grey tint it has as green coffee. This coffee is usually shade-grown and mostly undergoes washed processing.
What might the future hold?
Haiti’s long history of political instability continues to pose huge challenges to the growth of the country’s coffee industry. Furthermore, Gumais says that Haitian coffee is often rebranded as Dominican, which doesn’t allow for accurate export data.
“Stopping this from happening is an essential step towards improved sustainability and traceability,” he explains. “Furthermore, access to credit to support the whole supply chain is critically needed.”
A slew of natural disasters have rendered many Haitian coffee farms unproductive, and most farmers have little infrastructure or financial support to replant coffee trees.
However, Justin explains that Haitians are resilient, and that Singing Rooster has been working with co-ops and farmer groups for over 11 years.
He adds that these types of long-term partnerships are important to provide access to international markets and support farmers to increase production and drive up quality.
“People in Haiti are very resilient to these incidents because they experience them so often,” he says. “Farmers also have other ways of bringing in revenue.”
In addition, Gumais tells me that the rising cost of living in Haiti is encouraging many farmers to replace coffee with other crops which are more profitable.
“The problem is that farmers receive low prices for coffee,” he says. “Also, the lack of investment in the coffee sector creates a big vacuum for Haitian leaders to expand production.”
However, there is a growing amount of interest from private entities in improving Haiti’s coffee sector. As well as providing financial support, these private stakeholders are also replacing old coffee plants with newer varieties.
As such, Gumais believes that the future of Haitian coffee lies in the specialty coffee market.
“However, without huge financial support, coffee production might drop, to the extent that Haiti could become a net importer,” he concludes.
Although it’s unlikely that Haiti’s coffee production volumes will ever come close to previous levels, there is certainly potential for growth.
Despite many farmers turning to more profitable crops, there is an increasing focus on the country’s coffee sector, especially from private stakeholders. As a result of this, we may see Haiti’s coffee production begin to grow in the years to come.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article breaking down Caribbean coffee production.
Photo credits: Singing Rooster
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