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Haitian exporters look to shelve wares,woes

Herald.com
Posted on Sunday, July 13th, 2003

At Little Haiti's Cayard Market, the fresh produce aisles brim with plantains from Venezuela, ginger from Costa Rica and yellow yams from Jamaica.

But in this global marketplace, where most goods indigenous to the Caribbean and the Americas can be found, a key country -- Haiti - is unrepresented.

In South Florida, a search for products and produce directly from Haiti can prove exhausting and futile. The problem, business owners here and in Haiti say, is not one of demand but of suppliers.

They simply cannot get their products onto U.S. shelves - even in South Florida, where the booming immigrant population includes 213,000 Haitian Americans.

"I would love to have typical Haitian products in my store," said Lyonel Cayard, whose 26-year-old Cayard Market, at 1 NW 62nd St. in Miami, is often the first stop for Haitians searching for authentic Haitian products.

"Over the years, I have found people who come to the store saying they can deliver, but they always fail to deliver due to some factor," Cayard said recently from the offices of his distribution center in Northwest Miami-Dade.

From there, Cayard distributes a few Haitian products, including Couronne fruit champagne, a popular soda, although the other drinks on his shelves were bottled in Florida.

Unlike its neighbors Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, Haiti has not had much success in the export business. The reasons, observers say, are plentiful:

o Its political instability and lack of government support for private businesses make it difficult to meet customer demands. Businesses must overcome such physical hurdles as unpaved roads and such logistical snags as power shortages.

* There is no chemical-testing lab to help products meet U.S. import standards.
* Many farmers and entrepreneurs are unable to mass-produce their goods.
* And there is little money to properly promote authentic Haitian products here.

SMALL PRODUCERS

"The major constraint is that you are dealing with small producers and lots of them," said Timothy Aston, a Haitian exporters look to shelve wares, woes

Through the U.S. Agency for International Development, Hillside provides technical assistance to more than 45,000 Haitian farmers and about a dozen large exporters who mainly deal in cocoa, coffee and mangoes.

With farmers spread out across the mountainous terrain, coordinating the production of goods is more of a hassle than actually getting them out of Haiti to Miami, Aston said.

He recently discussed some of those challenges with business consultants and Haitian entrepreneurs during a seminar in Miami sponsored by the Florida Association for Volunteer Action in the Caribbean and the Americas, a state-funded, not-for-profit consulting agency that works in the Caribbean.

One of the group's newest goals is to bring more Haitian products into the United States by building links between Haitian exporters and U.S. buyers - difficult to achieve, given Haiti's poor business conditions and its image among potential investors.

SWEET SUCCESS

One reason for the group's optimism may be a success story often cited in the Haitian export business: mangoes.

Haiti leads the Caribbean in the export of its S-shaped mango, called Madame Francis or Haitian Francine.

The product reaps about $10 million a year for Haiti, $500,000 of which pays for U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors there, Aston said.

But the success of mangoes has been a mixed blessing. Many of the large exporters don't want to focus on anything else, Aston said. The few other Haitian products found in South Florida are primarily imported - often illegally - in people's suitcases and sold at roadside stands and open-air flea markets.

And the problems with Haitian exports aren't limited to the fresh produce market.

As vice president of CAFE REBO, Gilbert Gonzales markets the 30-year-old Haitian coffee and other products at food and trade shows. Since 2000, he said, the company has been slowly trying to reenter the United States.

CAFE REBO had some success here, but with the U.S. embargo on Haiti in the 1990s, it lost many of its distributors, Gonzales said recently via telephone from New York, where he was marketing his product at a fancy-food show.

With the Haitian coffee market experiencing a resurgence, he is trying to make REBO as well known - and widely available - as another internationally recognized Haitian export: Barbancourt rum.

It isn't easy, he concedes.

"Our current distribution in Florida is not reaching all the levels it should," he said, not surprised to learn that REBO is not available in many South Florida stores, including Cayard, that cater to a Haitian clientele. "The consumer right now is getting friends to come back [from Haiti] and bring coffee for them."

According to USAID statistics, U.S. imports for Haitian coffee totaled $101,000 last year - $30,000 more than in 2001. Hoping to increase that, REBO spends about $10,000 a year to promote the coffee at trade shows and seminars, Gonzales said.
"That is a tremendous amount of money compared to what we sell in Haiti right now," he said.

PDA NOT A BIG FAN

REBO exemplifies another problem plaguing Haitian entrepreneurs: the inability to get product approval from the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA because of a lack of necessary nutritional and packaging information.

While REBO's coffee meets those requirements, its jams, jellies and peanut butter - all of which are popular in Haiti - do not.

"To be able to export it, we need to get it tested at every batch," Gonzales said. "It's impossible in Haiti because there is not a private or national lab able to test such a product. We are stuck."

Roberte Laurent knows what that feels like. After moving back to Haiti from New York years ago, she launched her own line of herbal products - from teas and spices to bath and body lotions - each made with herbs grown in the Haitian countryside.

She currently sells her BeLZeB (Beautiful Herbs) line in boutiques and hotels around Port-au-Prince and is ready to enter the U.S. market. Her mustard-colored labels, however, lack the UPC number and ingredient list required by the U.S. government.

"I don't know where to start, where to go," Laurent said. ' 'The reason I don't want to give up is everyone asks why it isn't in the States."

To assist Laurent, FAVACA plans to send a chemist to Haiti in August. Laurent will still need help, however, with meeting other USAID requirements before she can export her products here.

Still, she's not giving up.

"If it takes in Haiti, it means it will take anywhere," she said by phone. "The Haitian customers are very, very demanding. They don't appreciate things easily."

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