A version of this story is in the summer issue of Modern Farmer.
Believe it or not, Haiti was once the largest coffee producer in the world. By the late 18th century, this small Caribbean nation was exporting half of the world’s supply of coffee. But over the intervening 200 years, political instability and an extreme lack of infrastructure made it hard for the country to compete in the global coffee market. During the U.S. embargo in the mid-‘90s, most coffee farmers, struggling to survive, began burning their trees to make charcoal—Haitians' only form of fuel—or ripping them out to plant staples like corn and beans.
A decade ago, a delegation from St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Florida, visited Port-de-Paix, in the Northwest department of Haiti. This small Catholic university has had a 36-year-long relationship with the Port-de-Paix diocese, and it has a long-term commitment to economic development in the region.
“It’s the poorest region of the poorest country in the Western hemisphere,” says Anthony Vinciguerra, director of the university’s Center of Community Engagement. It also happens to be one of Haiti’s oldest coffee growing regions, with heirloom Arabica coffee trees scattered about.
When Vinciguerra asked local church and community leaders how the university could support development in Port-de-Paix, the answer was clear: Farmers wanted help reviving their coffee industry.
“We didn't know beans about coffee!’” recalls Vinciguerra. But St. Thomas has a large population of Haitian students—many of whom study business, trade, and marketing. After an initial investment of $10,000 from a private donor, Vinciguerra launched a student-run project that allowed students to get hands-on experience with commodity import marketing, sales, and direct trade.
The Cafèière et Cacouyere du Nord Ouest (COCANO) cooperative was born. Since then, over 200 students from disciplines ranging from international business to plant biology have worked on the project. “We even have science students who are trying to eradicate the coffee bean bore beetle with organic treatments and traps,” Vinciguerra says. Giving students these key jobs obviates the need for a coffee broker, which ensures more money for the farmers.
Crucial to the project’s success was finding roasters who could bring COCANO coffee to the global specialty coffee market. The Italian roaster Pascucci Torrefazione was the first to sign on, followed by Miami’s Panther Coffee.
Panther owner Joel Pollock, a former roaster from Stumptown, remembers his first cupping of COCANO coffee vividly.
“We tasted defects from many angles,” he says. “There were drying problems, uncontrolled fermentation, mold problems, storage problems.”
But after showing farmers how to install drying racks (to get coffee up off the ground), and emphasizing the importance of processing coffee on the same day it’s picked, he’s seen vast improvements. The 2015 harvest, he says, was the best yet. “It’s got this sweet, chocolatey flavor with some acidity and some red fruit,” says Pollock. “It was miles ahead of the first cup I tasted.”
Before COCANO, farmers in Port-de-Paix had been earning a measly $0.60 per pound. But now, they get $3, $3.25, or $3.50 a pound, depending on the quality of their beans. (Pollock employs the “Direct Trade” model, which rewards farmers for quality by paying them well above the Fair Trade price of $2.20 a pound.)
Pulling farmers out of poverty via high-end specialty coffee is a compelling story, but Pollock, whose next cafe is opening in Miami’s Little Haiti, thinks the quality of the coffee should speak for itself. “You have all these people marketing Haitian coffee by tugging at people’s heartstrings,” he says. “We don’t want to make you feel bad about the plight of Haiti. We’re trying to make it so that if we go away, these people are still making killer coffee.”