Next time you walk into a Whole Foods and see mangoes from Haiti, take a moment to consider the journey they traveled to get there. All of the fresh mangoes shipped to Whole Foods stores across the U.S. came not from industrial orchards with tens of thousands of trees, but rather from thousands of individual Haitian farmers harvesting from an average of seven trees scattered throughout each of their gardens. These farmers were able to get their products on the shelves with assistance from TechnoServe’s Haiti Hope Project, a public-private partnership with The Coca-Cola Company, the Multilateral Investment Fund, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The Project is also supported by the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, the Soros Economic Development Fund, and other international and local organizations.
For the past three years, TechnoServe has sought to provide “business solutions to poverty” in Haiti by supporting an inclusive value chain for mangoes, providing technical assistance to smallholder farmers, and helping to create a direct export sales channel through farmer-led intermediaries. The goal of the Haiti Hope Project is to double smallholder farmers’ income from mango sales in five years through stakeholder support and training focused on best practices for harvest, selection, transportation and recordkeeping. There are currently 23,000 farmers enrolled in the program, of which 15,000 have already been trained, with plans to train the remaining farmers by the end of the year.
In some ways, the underlying problem seems simple: many smallholder farmers lack the skills and logistics to get their mangoes to the most profitable markets. A collective action problem rooted in weak ties between rural and urban Haiti prevents the farmers from having any real negotiating power, and as a result, intermediaries receive a large portion of the profits while farmers end up with a much smaller share. In reality, the problems are far more complex and involve non-tariff barriers to trade, competition from Mexican mangoes, high logistical costs, and climate variability. Part of the solution lies within the direct export channel that TechnoServe has helped to establish. Smallholder farmers are trained and work with local groups that help with selection of high-quality mangoes, Fair Trade and organic certification, traceability requirements, and arranging bulk transportation into Port-au-Prince. From there, exporters select the highest quality mangoes for export. This season, we have seen smallholder farmers receive double the price from this sales channel than that paid by local intermediaries for similar quality mangoes.
While in Haiti this summer, one question I asked myself was, “Why not cut out intermediaries who don’t add any value?” Many farmers prefer to hedge against the risk of an uncertain harvest by selling through multiple channels, even if some are less profitable, and some farmers prefer to sell to intermediaries who do all of the harvesting, giving the farmers more time to work in other income-generating activities. In the final two years of the Project, TechnoServe is working to change these circumstances by improving access to export channels and creating incentives for farmers to focus on generating more income from mango sales by planting more trees and purchasing better tools for harvest and transportation. I am also encouraged by global sourcing commitments from large corporations, like Walmart’s Sustainable Agriculture Commitment to buy from one million small and medium-sized farms. But Haiti still confronts the challenge of bringing producers closer to consumers and ensuring greater flexibility and resiliency in the supply of mangoes from smallholder farmers.
My experience in Haiti recalls my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso, where I worked on improving village food security through market gardening and food transformation. There, I saw rural farmers disconnected from markets and wondered why the market had failed to help them profit from excellent products. One initiative I undertook to improve the livelihoods of Burkinabé farmers involved helping train them to decrease waste and increase yields through improved use of seeds and compost. My experiences taught me that sometimes behavioral and structural changes have to occur for market drivers to take root in developing countries.
Haitian mangoes face similar obstacles. Buyers have to help build a more flexible supply chain that tolerates small variations. This is difficult because consumers (even customers who shop at socially-oriented supermarkets) do not often purchase based on goodwill, while supermarkets have to profit from sales regardless of the story behind the product. These Haitian mangoes have to be as fresh, uniform, and attractive as the competition from factory orchards, while smallholder farmers need to be more resilient to yield fluctuations, implement stricter quality control, and produce economies of scale to make their shipments profitable.
While corporate commitments from Whole Foods and Walmart are critical to generating demand, there exists a growing need to help smallholder farmers strengthen the supply side of the mango value chain. Technical assistance programs like TechnoServe’s Haiti Hope Project will continue to play a large role in helping small-scale Haitian farmers to reach global markets alongside more experienced and better-equipped competition from other countries.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TechnoServe.