"There's a big opportunity to sell 100x more" - Haitian Coffee From Duvalier to Walmart

  • Posted by Marina Vatav
  • September 26, 2014 4:49 AM EDT

While Europe vaguely remembers the taste of fine Haitian coffee since the 50s when Haiti was the Queen of the market, decades and hardships later, the US is just now about to discover the wild, creamy and organic Haitian coffee.

Haiti has never sold large amounts of coffee to the US. Because of its colonial history it sold mostly to Europe. For the first time in its long coffee tradition, the Haitian beans are breaking into a large American store chain, Walmart. 

The Walmart Deal

Beginning with September 17th, six Walmart stores in Florida are carrying the brand Towo Supreme, by one of the biggest Haitian producers - Geo Wiener S.A.

"It's just a new product for Walmart, but for us in Haiti it made national news," says Douglas Weiner, one of the fourth generation owners of Geo Wiener, a company founded in 1898.

The reactions to this news were overwhelming.

"Everybody in Haiti got excited, the President invited us to personally greet us. We're getting a lot of support from the Ministry of Commerce. JetBlue is helping us with tickets for our travels. It's a pride for all Haitians, I can say, because there aren't that many good news from Haiti. Since so many people are involved in the product, from farmers to people that work on the chain, to people that design the packaging, it was an exciting moment for everyone," shared Douglas.

After the euphoria calmed down, it's time to take a closer look at how much coffee can Haiti export, and can it keep up with its famous history of quality.

Production, production, production

Six Walmart stores have begun to sell Haitian coffee. Haiti could have been selling more, if there was a bigger production capacity.

"The deforestation is endangering coffee production, so we're very careful not to deal with too many companies so we can deliver on time and work on replanting coffee trees in Haiti," says Douglas.

For Haitian coffee companies, supply is one of the biggest issues that has its roots in the 60s when Duvalier closed all ports to international trade except the one in Port-au-Prince. and no one could own large pieces of land. It was a way to undermine businesses and reduce people's power. Those times determined the way the Haitian agriculture functions to these days, including the coffee industry.

"We spent a generation not consolidating anything in Haiti during the Duvalier era, any dictatorship era in Haiti. This is why there are no big plantations, organized plantations in Haiti. It's wild coffee," says Douglas.

Today Geo Weiner buys their coffee beans from at least 5,000 farmers that form 5 coops.

Besides coffee, farmers also grow other crops and use the coffee as "a bank".

"Farmers keep the coffee as a bank, so they sell a little bit at the beginning of the crop, and then they conserve most of it [to be sold] when they have needs," notes Douglas.

This practice makes the planning process uneasy.

"New business models need to be put in place that will encourage lots and lots of production," said Douglas.

"In lower altitudes we need new varieties that are adapted to the climate of Haiti. We need a lot of research in that, and getting farmers to know the varieties. A lot of education needs to happen. Farmer training needs to be incorporated for the long-term strategy."

After the Walmart deal, the Ministry of Agriculture signed an accord with Geo Weiner to help with finding land and farmers that can embrace a new business model.

Increased costs

The other challenge for the coffee producers is the increased operations cost in Haiti. The general state of the country, the weak infrastructure, particularly when it comes to roads and communications, increase the operations cost for coffee production that needs to be competitively priced in order to reach the global market.

Sell 100 times more coffee

Now Geo Weiner sells almost all of its coffee in Haiti, and just a tiny portion abroad. However, with an increased production, they believe that they can sell 100 times more coffee.

"There's a big opportunity to sell 100 times more," says Douglas.

"The coffee is intrinsically good quality. Not many countries have this type of coffee quality, so we can rival any good coffee in the world from our blends. Haiti has to find ways, new business models to reinvest in its core crops, get more investors to come in and work in coffee."

With an increased production Douglas believes they could bring the Haitian coffee back even on the European market that is more familiar with it than the US.