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Marcia DeSanctis

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On the Road in Haiti

Posted: 05/31/11 02:22 PM ET

In the far-flung town of Thiotte, located in the sliver of rainforest still left in Haiti, women in pastel-colored kerchiefs sit at outdoor tables piled high with pale dried Arabica coffee beans. Their hands move rapidly, picking out the blighted or damaged ones, which they toss into a separate plastic tub. This painstaking sifting process is one of the last laps in the coffee beans' long, labor-intensive journey from the plantation to your double-tall latte. And this year, the 4,000 members of this coffee cooperative will be paid in advance for their harvest, allowing them to pay for schools and other basic social services. The loan comes from Root Capital, a non-profit bank with 250 ongoing projects worldwide, whose mission is to finance the great overlooked middle -- projects too big for microfinance, and too small for the commercial banking system -- with low-interest loans. It's a rubric that would cover, in other words, a large portion of the small farms and cooperatives throughout the developing world.

Last week, I tagged along with Willy Foote of Root Capital and several members of his team, as well as Paul Leander-Engstrom and Kirsten Poitras of The World We Want Foundation (3W), a Swedish philanthropy, to check up on their many projects. Some of them were funded by 3W alone, and some of them by Root Capital, in which 3W invests. What I saw in their approach was surprising and encouraging, not only for Haiti, but for development overall.

We made our way through Port-au-Prince's nearly dead-standstill traffic, across broken down roads clogged with tricked-out UN vehicles, to our first stop on the outskirts of town. Val Abe's fish farm is one of 3W's flagship programs, and emblematic of the kind of project that attracts Paul and Kirsten, who look for a committed, experienced and visionary point person who can directly report on how the money is being spent, and where more is needed. Making trips to the field for hands-on oversight is the key to 3W's approach. "For me, it's about building and creating tangible, visible things," says Paul. "To have a positive impact that I can actually see brings me great satisfaction."

Among the typical questions he and Kirsten ask: can progress be measured here, what's working, what isn't and why, and what do you envision you need to make it grow?

Val holds a doctorate in aquaculture from Auburn University, and his farm is a series of giant tanks that resemble above-ground swimming pools made of corrugated metal. Here, he hatches two breeds of tilapia, which are put in cages as fingerlings. Then, the baby fish are transported to 100 (soon to be up to 300) satellite producers in villages surrounding a massive lake several miles away. The villagers tend to the fish which will ultimately be sold mostly for domestic consumption. Val's goal? To produce 15,000,000 pounds of fish a year, and shepherd in a vibrant fishing industry in Haiti. This not only will be an economic boon to fishermen, but will help increase the paltry annual protein intake of Haitians.

If birthplace is destiny, Haitian children born in a place like Madan Belize -- no plumbing, electricity or roads -- would appear to have few options and even less hope. But this is the kind of microcosmic ground zero where development can take root, and where benefits can beget more and more positive effects. It stands to reason that more income from more fish will bring better medical care and schools -- you can't expect a bright future from a population that is hungry or sick. Yes, fishing is their livelihood, but there is no rule that says tradition must be synonymous with permanent destitution.

The next day, we rode across Haiti to coffee country -- high, rainy, green and wet -- to a cooperative which receives loans from Root Capital. Willy Foote, and anyone on his team, could give a detailed exegesis on all facets of coffee growing, but access to finance, strong cooperatives, and Fair Trade were the key concepts. In short, with Coops and Fair Trade, workers have guarantees to a steady stream of revenues and some access to social services, so that with each crop cycle, they don't have to return to square one -- poverty, hunger, with no strengthened foundation on which to raise their children.

In Thiotte, enterprise is alive and well, and the farmers, like 54-year-old Vicennes Matin, a lifelong coffee grower, spoke with the confidence of any master craftsman. Paul and the Root Capital team peppered him and other growers with questions about their yield, their efficiency and their needs.

Vicissitudes in coffee bean yield is one thing, as is the price per marmit on the world market. What can provide stability are financial resources to ensure the growers can sell their coffee at a good price. This prevents them from having to sell locally at a cut rate to raise quick cash for their schools. Money also helps build infrastructure, which can multiply the crop yield. First on the growers' wishlist: a covered room where the beans can be dried to the requisite 88 percent humidity. Now, the drying goes on outside, under Haiti's notoriously fickle skies, leading to piles of rotting coffee beans.

The next day, we went to visit another Root Capital project, the Cari Fresh mango processing plant, where the fruit is prepared for export. After, we took the long drive out to the plantations in Mirebalais. Denis, a 35-year-old picker, plucked a Madame Francesque from a tree that was dripping with ripe fruit, and sliced it for me. It was warm from the sun, and sublimely sweet and juicy.

Here, the workers have formed an association to collaborate on bringing in the harvest. Money for the mango growers means that they can plant smaller trees, build new farms, and more efficiently process and harvest the crop. The simple equation is: when they have more money, they have more mangoes to sell. The loan from Root Capital allows the growers to hire more workers, so that they can gather more fruit, leaving less to spoil on the tree or on the ground. As always, the trick is in finding a dependable local partner - such as Cari Fresh - who has a social conscience, with a genuine interest in improving the lot of its laborers.

This basic logic can get muddied up with bureaucracy and middle men in large-scale development projects. The 3W and Root Capital approach is clean and direct. A close connection with a trusted grower allows for hands-on personal feedback; accountability is therefore a built-in benefit.

Without optimism, development and poverty alleviation is a non-starter. In the fishing village, children and even some adults had reddish hair and swollen bellies, the telltale signs of kwashiorkor, chronic malnutrition indicating a lack of protein in the diet. The coffee growers and mango workers are still very poor, and most live in excruciating conditions with no sanitation or running water. In Haiti, fifty per cent of the population makes less than $1 a day. In Port-au-Prince, there are still 600,000 people living in tents, or under filthy scraps of fabric in makeshift twig structures.

The key may be in Haiti's time-tested agricultural or farming tradition and expertise. Workers are ready to work and the lucky ones have cooperatives led by people who care about their employees' well-being. More fortunate still are those who work for enterprises with enough promise to be recognized and trusted with a meaningful investment. In Haiti, you have to believe that hope lies in contained initiatives like Val's fish farm, or Cari Fresh mangoes, where investment and the progress it brings can be seen and measured. "If these enterprises don't have strong financial partners," says Val Abe, "it's over."