June 23, 2014

What Happened to Coffee in Haiti?

More than two centuries ago, the colony that would become Haiti grew half of the world’s coffee. Today, Haiti’s coffee exports are a rounding error within the global industry.

I’ve been researching Haiti’s coffee sector for a while, and in the process I’ve come across a few historical sources with export data. I used them and more recent data from the USDA to plot a rough history of the country’s coffee exports, as seen in the chart above. The data points are sparse for stretches of certain decades, but the picture gives a glimpse into the story of coffee in Haiti from the time the French brought the plant to the island in the early 1700s until today.

So what did happen? Coffee’s story in Haiti is closely wrapped up in the broader history of the entire country. The coffee question could even just serve as a proxy for the superficial and gargantuan question that people always want to know about the place: Why is Haiti so poor? Or, put slightly differently: How did the richest society on the planet 200-plus years ago become one of the poorest ones today? It’s obviously a big question and one that I’ll happily duck in a blog post.

When it comes to coffee specifically, you can read more about Haiti’s sector here, in a Medium piece I reported last year.

Posted on Jun. 23, 2014 at 12:27 pm Link Share Comment
September 25, 2013

The animal spirits of European football’s transfer market

Ozy let me write about the outlandish transfer market in European football. Here’s the rub:

For all its waste and hysteria, the European soccer transfer market is relatively open when compared to transfers in major American sports — and perhaps more efficient, too. With five major leagues and more than 100 clubs, Europe is a hotbed of competition for players. In contrast, competition for players among American professional teams is limited and controlled. For instance, because the NFL is the only buyer of top professional football labor in the world, professional football players must ply their trade there. The situation is similar in professional baseball and basketball, where teams mostly just trade player for player. And controls like like salary caps and drafts indirectly suppress or alter the market, largely to the benefit of the leagues.

In the end, transfer-fee splurges by oil tycoons may just be the end result of billions of people, from London pubs-goers to sub-Saharan villagers, being fanatical about European football. As long as billions of zealots around the globe remain crazy about the game, its transfer market will likely only get crazier. It’s a state of affairs that suits the fanatics just fine.

Read the entire thing here.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Posted on Sep. 25, 2013 at 11:16 am Link Share Comment
September 21, 2013


New digital magazine Ozy let me write about bourbon: "How Much Bourbon Is Too Much Bourbon?":

Approximately 4.9 million barrels of bourbon are coming of age in the Bluegrass State, more than one for every resident. It looks to be not nearly enough.

That’s because from Kentucky to Japan, bourbon is booming. Domestic bourbon sales have grown nearly 30 percent over the past five years, according the Distilled Spirits Council, topping $2.2 billion last year. Whiskey sales abroad are increasing, too. Whiskey, which includes bourbon, logged a third consecutive record year for exports in 2012.

The surge in sales would be wholly excellent for distillers, except for one thing: It’s hard to keep up with volatile demand. Unlike clear liquors such as vodka or gin, which can be distilled today and bottled next week, bourbon makers must plan ahead. Sometimes way ahead. According to the 1964 Congressional decree that defines “bourbon whiskey,” the amber stuff must be aged in new, charred-oak barrels. The law doesn’t specify minimum aging time, but for the premium labels that account for much of the bourbon boom, aging can last as long as six years.

Read the entire thing here.

Photo by me

Posted on Sep. 21, 2013 at 11:52 am Link Share Comment

Venezuela has given Haiti tankers of oil under preferential financing terms for years. What’s not to love?

Giving electricity to people who would otherwise have none and cheap gas to everyone is good politics but terrible economics. The IMF notes that energy and fuel subsidies are expensive and inefficient ways to help the poor – and that every subsidy must be paid for by someone, somewhere, eventually. The rich use much more energy than the poor and therefore benefit the most, energy subsidies can crowd-out the very sort of ‘growth-enhancing’ public investment PetroCaribe is supposed to support, and fuel subsidies encourage overconsumption and increase pollution. Haiti’s years-long Venezuelan-fuel bender is more than enough to give pause to anyone whose parents ever told them not to buy gas or groceries on a credit card.

That’s from a piece I did on Haiti and the Venezuelan oil agreement that provides the country with cheap fuel: "Chávez’s Oil for Haiti, No Strings Attached." Read the entire thing here.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Posted on Sep. 21, 2013 at 11:45 am Link Share Comment
September 20, 2013

'The people in Haiti don’t want handouts. They want economic opportunity and good jobs.'

When apparel brand Boxercraft was searching for a new supplier for its T-shirts and tank tops earlier this year, it didn’t turn to factories that crank out millions on the cheap. Instead, the 120-employee business, based near Atlanta, chose Industrial Revolution II, a garment manufacturer in Haiti. What clinched the deal was more than IRII’s competitive prices and low importing costs: It was the venture’s promise to train unemployed Haitians, pay them more than the minimum wage, and donate half its profits to social programs. Shoppers are “feeling responsible for the actual employee that is making the products that everyone is wearing today,” says Boxercraft Chief Executive Officer Shelley Foland, noting that the garment complex collapse that killed 1,100 workers in Bangladesh this spring has brought renewed focus on the dismal conditions in some factories. Foland wants IRII eventually to produce about 40 percent of the millions of tops and bottoms Boxercraft sells annually through wholesalers and retailers in college bookstores and resorts.

Backed by designer Donna Karan, actor Matt Damon, and Joey Adler, CEO of Diesel Canada, IRII started production at its 35,000-square-foot facility in Port-au-Prince in early September. The ultimate goal is to land orders from Western brands for more upscale clothes—the sort that usually go to plants in New York, Los Angeles, or Milan—instead of the low-value work that is the mainstay of Haitian factories. IRII co-founder and CEO Rob Broggi says the venture was born out of frustration with the “outright failure” of global relief efforts after the 2010 earthquake. “The people in Haiti don’t want handouts,” says Broggi, a former U.S. hedge fund manager. “They want economic opportunity and good jobs.”

That’s from a piece Nick Leiber wrote and I helped report for Bloomberg Businessweek: "A Celeb-Backed Apparel Factory in Haiti Goes High-End." Don’t let the ‘celeb-backed’ part take your eye off the ball, this is an interesting and substantive venture.

Read the entire piece here.

Photo by me

Posted on Sep. 20, 2013 at 9:56 am Link Share Comment
September 17, 2013

Manufacturing touchscreen tablets in Haiti

My latest piece for Medium is about Made-in-Haiti touchscreen tablets and prospects for electronics manufacturing in the country:

In a country with a manufacturing sector known for producing cheap t-shirts, tablet-maker Surtab is a small effort at producing a big-value product. “We really want to re-establish Haiti as a destination for appliances and electronics manufacturing,” says Maarten Boute, Surtab’s 38-year-old Belgian CEO. “We put the bar very high doing tablets.”

For three years, Boute ran the Haiti division of cell phone giant Digicel, the largest company in the country. In 2005, the year Digicel acquired a license to operate in Haiti, there were 500,000 total mobile phone subscriptions. Today, there are 6 million, and Digicel dominates the Haitian telecom landscape. Boute sees huge potential to sell affordable tablets to a growing local consumer class as well as people in other developing countries. In Haiti, the education sector, government, and thousands of NGOs working in the country are also attractive potential customers.

Surtab filled its first order in August – 600 Wi-Fi-only tablets for a Kenyan law university whose students will carry around one device instead of reams of legal documents. The company makes two versions of its 7-inch tablets, both of which run the Android operating system. Almost all of the components come from China. The lower-end Wi-Fi model will retail for about $70. The other version, which Boute estimates will retail for $129, has 3G capability, dual SIM cards, and runs on a much faster dual-core processor. The company is currently working on an order for a Haitian university and has garnered interest from the Prime Minister’s office, other local schools and companies, and a handful of foreign organizations.

Read the entire thing here.

Photo by me

Posted on Sep. 17, 2013 at 2:38 pm Link Share Comment
September 5, 2013

Foreign aid and the long view

Earlier this year, Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck released Fatal Assistance, a documentary that eviscerated the international response to the January, 2010, earthquake that struck his home country. The gist of Mr. Peck’s argument is that most of the $11-billion in pledged aid went to foreign contractors who, along with international diplomats and celebrities, tripped over themselves to undermine local authority and capacity.

In one scene, Haitian officials complain to then-president René Préval about bottled water donations that had come into the country and undercut local water producers. Mr. Préval says that while he’d love to stand up to the unenlightened foreigners who had descended upon the country, Haiti is a weak state. Sometimes it has to sit by and let outsiders call the shots, he says, or else it might scare them – and their funding – off for good.

The scene sums up a dilemma about foreign aid just as the Canadian government considers significant cuts in funding to Haiti. Countries deliver aid to meet pressing needs today, but they might be undercutting chances for a recipient to stand on its own two feet tomorrow.

That’s from a piece I wrote for today’s Globe and Mail, which runs under the headline: "Less aid for a stronger Haiti". Read the entire thing here.

Photo via U.S. Navy

Posted on Sep. 5, 2013 at 6:59 am Link Share Comment
August 30, 2013

On the adventure and opportunity of immigration

Françoise Chérismond grew up in Haiti but simply “ended up” in the United States, she says, in 1990. “I was courted by a certain Clarens, a man who worked on a cargo ship,” she says. “After getting engaged, he helped me to leave the country in his boat, and I found myself in Miami.

“It was worth the happiness of being in a foreign land,” Chérismond says, despite the pangs of sorrow she felt while leaving her home country on that first trip. “I had no papers, I did a few small domestic jobs underground, but I made a lot more than I normally did in Haiti. And I think there also lies one of the points of difference between Haiti and the USA: Here we work, in general, for nothing, but elsewhere we see the fruits of our labor.”

That’s from my latest piece for Medium, in which Haitians compare previous work experiences in the United States to economic prospects at home. Read the entire thing here.

Photo by me

Posted on Aug. 30, 2013 at 10:20 am Link Share Comment
August 20, 2013

How Haiti’s institutions discourage value-adding economic production

Tom Adamson, CEO of a Haitian company that manufactures mattresses for the local market, says that his biggest competition comes from importers of U.S. mattresses, who pay relatively low duties, and from contraband brought over the land border with the Dominican Republic. Products imported through informal channels offer affordable and decent-quality purchasing options for Haitian consumers. But the informal, loosely regulated, and untaxed sector is largely about moving products from one place to another – a valuable and essential part of the economy, but one that produces no goods itself.

“Every time you add a regulation, every time you add a tax,” says Adamson, who is also treasurer of the Association of Industries of Haiti, “these are things that aren’t helping the formal sector but don’t affect the informal sector,” which provides about 90 percent of the country’s employment. “Why would you want to be formal?”

In practice, the two sectors operate under different sets of rules, with damaging consequences. Formal businesses not only pay taxes but are also responsible for most of the country’s value-adding economic activity – transforming raw materials into finished products. Informal activities add relatively little value in-country and operate outside the bounds of most regulations and taxes. The incentives funnel people toward lower-value activity.

That’s from a piece I wrote at Medium, "The Booming Sector of Haiti’s Economy That Produces Nothing.” Read the entire thing here.

Photo by me

Posted on Aug. 20, 2013 at 12:57 pm Link Share Comment
August 9, 2013

Port-au-Prince’s non-food-aid mobile-dining scene

Owner Blaise Edrick would have liked to expand his restaurant, Fanatik, in downtown Port-au-Prince. But he has “a real space problem,” he says. “It was only when I spoke to a cousin who lives in the U.S., who helped me a lot with this project, that I learned that this way of selling food already exists in other countries, particularly in the U.S.”

Edrick decided to follow the Willie Sutton strategy of mobile dining: set up where the money is. Every evening since its opening two months ago, Fanatik’s Fast Food Mobil truck comes to the Turgeau neighborhood to park in front of the sleek tower that’s home to telecom giant Digicel, the largest private employer in Haiti. “People are working up there at night,” Edrick says, “and they need food.”

That’s from my latest Medium piece, "The Fledgling Food Truck Scene in Haiti’s Capital Has Nothing to Do With Aid Distributions."

Photo by me

Posted on Aug. 9, 2013 at 11:57 am Link Share Comment

Tate Watkins

Independent Correspondent

Tate Watkins is a freelance writer and coffee guy between Haiti and Nashville, TN.