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Back in business

This season’s first shipments of organic mangos from the Carifresh fruit packing plant left for the United States the last week of April, almost two months later than usual. But this is not a normal season.

The resumption of exports was a significant achievement for this family-owned company, which like many other Haitian businesses was hit hard by the January 12 earthquake. It also marked the renewal of a broader effort to develop Haiti’s potential to grow and market tropical fruit.

“So far, the season’s going well. We’ve shipped about 30,000 boxes,” Carifresh’s president, Wilhelm Reimers, said late in May. “We got a call recently from one of our buyers in New York who said this is the best looking fruit he’s ever seen.”

Given its climate and its geographical location, Haiti has natural conditions to become a more successful exporter of avocados, bananas, coffee and cacao, as well as of other high-value agricultural products for niche markets such as its own Diaspora. Those opportunities, however, remain largely untapped and are hindered by various obstacles.

Mangoes are a prime example of those problems. Haiti grows some of the world’s finest mangoes but exports only about 10 percent of its annual crop. About half of the fruit is lost before it reaches markets, partly because of its dismal road conditions, but also due to poor crop management and post-harvest handling.

In addition, most Haitian mango farmers have tiny groves of fewer than a dozen trees, from which they make no more than $1,500 a season. Productivity tends to be low because small producers lack access to training to properly tend to their trees and to pick and transport their fruit adequately. As a result, as much as 40 percent of the fruit that reaches processing facilities is rejected.

According to some estimates, if all hurdles were cleared, Haitian mango exports could rise from about $10 million a year to as much as $90 million, generating benefits for hundreds of thousands of rural families. Naturally, this would require massive investments across the entire agricultural value chain. Companies like Carifresh are trying to do their part and become an example for others.

Carifresh is receiving financial support from the Inter-American Investment Corporation (IIC) and the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF), two affiliates of the Inter-American Development Bank. Using its revolving line for small businesses, the IIC gave the company a $300,000 loan in 2009 to upgrade its facilities and expand its working capital.

Through its Social Entrepreneurship Program, the MIF approved a $450,000 loan to finance Carifresh’s plan to develop its own mango grove and a $250,000 grant to start a program that will provide technical assistance to the small growers who supply most of the fruit it exports.

Under the MIF-supported program, each participating farmer will receive 30 mango seedlings. Agronomists will train them in how to plant, water and prune trees, which can take five years to bear fruit of commercial value, and how to best handle the mangoes after harvesting them.

Collection facilities will be built in four of the eight regions where Carifresh buys mangoes from. At each facility, agronomists will keep a mango grove in order to give farmers a practical point of reference of how their own trees should be growing.

The program will also purchase bins for farmers to transport the mangoes, which they traditionally ship loose by the truck load. This practice results in extensive bruising as vehicles have to trundle for hours along Haiti’s rutted rural roads to reach packing plants in Port-au-Prince.

In addition, the program will help farmers get organized to gain more bargaining power, start alternative productive activities and lobby government authorities who make decisions regarding public investments such as improving the roads network.

Carifresh, which is putting $800,000 of its own resources into the project, is turning a 100-hectare (about 250 acres) farm into a large mango grove. The company will also build a mess hall, washrooms with showers and a first aid unit for the farm workers, who will share in the plantation’s profits. While the mango seedlings are growing, the land is far from idle. Reimers has planted beans, pumpkins, spinach and plantains to generate cash flow.

These plans were ready to be put in motion when the earthquake struck. Luckily, no one was injured when Carifresh’s receiving plant came crashing down – during the export season, which usually runs from March to August, there can be as many 150 people working there. But the collapsing structures crushed the plant’s generator and a forklift, as well as 800 crates for transporting mangoes and different pieces of office equipment.

During the emergency, workers whose homes were destroyed or damaged set up camp in the plant. Carifresh employed them to clear rubble and prepare for reconstruction. IIC staff raised money for the workers, which was matched by the Corporation, and the MIF approved a $150,000 emergency spending allocation to help the company get back on its feet in time for the export season.

“The IIC is following this situation very closely to offer technical assistance through its trust funds,” said IIC General Manager Jacques Rogozinski. “Member countries such as France, Korea and Belgium are very interested in supporting projects to help Haitian companies overcome the crisis and become more competitive.”

Early in April, a few days before the U.S. Department of Agriculture certified Carifresh to export mangoes, the plant appeared to be in good shape. All physical evidence of the earthquake had been removed, patched or repaired.  The only reminders were the bags of corn and beans stacked in their warehouse, ready to be delivered to UN relief food programs.

The National Association of Mango Exporters (ANEM, for its initials in French, which groups 10 companies) set April 26 as the first day of the 2010 export season. Last year Carifresh ranked fifth in terms of volume, selling some 210,000 4.5-kg (about 10 lbs) to buyers in the United States and Canada.

Cassandra and Wilhem ReimersAccording to Cassandra Reimers, the company’s vice president, Carifresh goes for quality rather than quantity, as the price premium can be significantly higher if the exporter selects the fruit more carefully. “The last time my father was in New York to see a wholesale auction, he actually saw buyers fighting over our mangoes,” she said. “I’d like to see that one day, too.”

Carifresh’s experience may yield valuable lessons for a larger scale program the MIF and The Coca Cola Company plan to launch to help improve the incomes of some 25,000 Haitian farmers, said MIF General Manager Julie T. Katzman.

“This project goes far beyond boosting a single company’s earnings,” said Katzman. “It’s about developing an inclusive business model for Haiti that, besides making a profit, will help improve the living standards of employees and suppliers. If Carifresh achieves both goals, other Haitian companies may follow the same path and gain access to financing from investors interested in supporting this way of doing business.”

Photos by Catianne Tijerina