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“Buying coffee for Haiti – direct contracts with farmers and technical assistance from the United States

It is almost 2 years since the earthquake that devastated Haiti and killed more than 300,000 people. In the United States, a movement to help the Haitian economic recovery by buying coffee from Haiti is gaining popularity. The idea is to purchase coffee beans directly from Haitian growers, sell them in the United States, and set aside the profits to support the farmers.

La Colombe Torrefaction is a coffee importer and retailer based in a Philadelphia suburbs. The burlap sacks of coffee now filling its warehouse are Haitian coffee which La Colombe’s founder Todd Carmichael (48) travelled to Haiti to buy directly from growers’ associations.

The first time Carmichael set foot in Haiti was 11 months after the earthquake, in December of 2010. “Even in the midst of a harsh environment, I was impressed by the quality of the beans. I think I surprised everyone by suddenly signing a contract to import 40,000 kilograms,” he says with a laugh. The coffee is off to a promising start; the famous New York restaurant Jean Georges has placed an order for La Colombe’s roasted Haitian beans. This year Carmichael quintupled his order, and decided to send a machine to clean the beans to the associations he’s buying from, free of charge. “It’s important to help the growers increase their exports to improve their incomes,” he explains. Several times a year he visits technical trainings, helping to improve quality.

The type of coffee cultivated in Haiti is similar to Jamaican Blue Mountain; highly valued for its delicate aroma and mild taste. Until the middle of the 20th century the country was a leading coffee exporter, but after the military coup in the 1990s, coffee production took a direct hit from the unstable political situation. By 2007 the country’s exports had dwindled from more than 200,000 tons to about a tenth of that. The earthquake gave it a final push.

Coffee production for the domestic market continued. Small cooperatives of the farms that dot the mountainous growing region sprang up, with several hundred to several thousand farmers working together to bring in the harvest and clean the beans. But the purification quality dropped, and exports were basically limited to the neighboring Dominican Republic.

“Haitian farmers lack the capital and know-how to make coffee-growing a business,” says Molly Nicaise (48), who runs a marketing firm in Madison, Wisconsin.

In 2009, Nicaise and her husband Christoph (47) used their own money to start a non-profit organization called the Singing Rooster. Making time while continuing to run their own business, they continue to help Haitian farmers export and sell their goods. All of the profits are put back into support activity for the farmers.

During their visits to Haiti, which happen several times a year, they don’t stop at buying coffee. They also assist farmers with loans, or help cooperatives with management and capital expenditures, with the ultimate goal of helping Haitian coffee growers build self-sufficient businesses. This spring, as part of its plan to assist charitable activities, Google gave Rooster free advertising. This allowed the organization to expand its sales to small retail stores.

For Haiti, Japan has long been an important coffee importer. In one of the coffee-growing villages Todd Carmichael visited, the only form of transportation was a small truck. On the body was a Japanese flag with a message of support: “From the people of Japan to the people of Haiti.”

For two countries who share a common suffering, the phrase has new nuance: the message is now also a call for mutual revival after a devastating natural disaster.”

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