Co-operatives are helping Haitian farmers to become self-sufficient

Haiti, which is still recovering from the catastrophic earthquake of 2010, remains the poorest and most environmentally degraded country in the western hemisphere, with a population of 10...

Haiti, which is still recovering from the catastrophic earthquake of 2010, remains the poorest and most environmentally degraded country in the western hemisphere, with a population of 10 million.

Food and seed donation in the aftermath of the earthquake made it harder for farmers to compete and protect their remaining seed stock – but co-operatives can help them gain access to education, technology and training.

Often these co-ops are working in collaboration with international NGOs or charities. A USA-based Christian charity, Join the Journey (JTJ) was set up in 2010 in an attempt to address global hunger and poverty. Their work in Haiti focused on food relief, medical attention, education, Bible teaching and micro-credit.

JTJ has recently partnered with the Foundation for International Development Assistance (FIDA), which has been working in Haiti since 1984, specialising in agricultural development. In November 2014 they launched a two-year project to develop agricultural and poultry co-operative enterprises in Zoranger, which lies an hour north of capital Port-au-Prince. The project aims to help 1,500 farming families in the community improve their lives by self-organising through co-operatives, so they can begin production and become self-sufficient.

Through the programme, farmers will receive training in co-operative formation, as well as in agriculture and poultry. Training covers vegetable gardening, organic composting, soil and water conservation, organic pest management, environmental protection, and new cultivation techniques. Literacy teaching will also be provided, particularly because more than 60% of the 35,000 people living in Zoranger are illiterate.

FIDA’s working arm, Productive cooperatives Haiti (pcH), carried out an initial pilot project in 2010. Six families received co-operative formation and literacy training. A Canadian charitable organisation, FIDA works with 25 co-operatives, which have around 7,000 members between them. It includes a staff of 30 Haitian agronomists, technicians and educators who help rural communities use the co-operative model to lift themselves out of poverty.

The project is faced with some serious difficulties. Over the years, the region has been affected by natural disasters such as hurricanes, famine and drought. These calamities, along with deforestation practices, have made the land arid and difficult to farm. And Betsy Wall, executive director of FIDA/pcH, says there are other barriers.

“Challenges occur on two levels: one is the myriad of obstacles that exist within the Haitian psycho-social landscape. We identify these as ‘the twin demons of fear and mistrust’, the powerful leader syndrome, community conflict, the ‘lajan blan’ (foreign aid) impact, and so on.

“We also face the unforeseen challenges of weather and of political insecurity. On another level, our great challenge is being able to meet the demand in Haiti for co-operative formation. We presently have about an additional 14 communities at our door asking for our assistance in helping them to achieve economic independence. We quite simply do not have the resources to meet the demand. But our aim is to be able to do so.”

She added that not every co-operative in Haiti followed the same set of rules or guidelines. “Co-operative is very loosely applied in Haiti,” she said. “Our policy is to follow the seven international co-operative principles but I believe we are the only ones that follow them as strictly as we do – having just visited two new established social enterprise co-operatives that don’t.

“I am very sceptical as to the likelihood of their survival. However, the legislating body of the government (CNC) has loosened the guidelines to find their operation to be accredited. I suspect it is merely to satisfy the investors (Grameen and USAID).”

Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA) is another non-profit foundation using the co-operative model to invest in Haiti’s farmers. Launched in February 2010, SFA works to establish farmer co-operatives, build agricultural export markets and contribute to community development. After a three-year incubation period with external funding and training, these co-operatives become farmer-managed and self-financed social enterprises.

To make trees more valuable in the ground than cut down and burnt for charcoal, SFA is encouraging farmer members of co-operatives to plant trees in return for the seeds, tools and training they need for higher crop quality and yields. More than a million trees are planted each year, while 3,200 farmer members cultivate around 2,500 hectares of cropland.

With support from SFA, farmers have increased crop yields up to 40 to 50%, depending on the crop. The average farm livelihoods also increased by 30%.

“Our core business is establishing agro-forestry co-ops,” said Hugh Locke, co-founder and president of SFA, who has been in Haiti for 10 years.

The foundation has also been running a micro-credit programme for women farmers, with 102 loans granted so far, with a 100% repayment rate over the last two years. While agricultural co-operatives are recognised by the government as a business model, there is little support available for them, particularly when it comes to finance.

“We have been keeping the Ministry of Agriculture and Environment informed of our work and began exploring with the ministry some standards for farmers’ field schools,” added Mr Locke.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, food and seed donation made it harder for farmers to compete and protect their remaining seed stock.

“One of the challenges of working in any developing country is that the current model of development assistance tends to focus on hand-outs rather than capacity building,” said Mr Locke. “It tends to take the form of cash for work. This is essential after a disaster, but detrimental because it almost always creates a dependency without developing a real capacity that can function after the cash stops.

“This is not only an issue in Haiti, but for other developing countries as well.

“We cannot begin to establish a co-op in an area where there was a cash for work programme because we don’t pay farmers anything. It’s like having a rural ATM machine that keeps spitting out cash but when the ATM leaves, nothing’s left.”

FSA is currently partnering with Fonkoze, Haiti’s largest micro-finance institution, to develop a micro-franchise model of adult literacy training for smallholder farmers. The foundation is also working to secure Fairtrade certification for its co-ops.

While the number of farmer co-operatives continues to grow, the main barrier they face, according to Mr Locke, is how to engage farmers in really improving their agricultural techniques. “Most co-ops find it difficult to get access to any kind of funding because they are very small so that’s a big issue.”

Another challenge is accessing export markets.

Hugh Locke handing out training certificates to farmers
Hugh Locke handing out training certificates to farmers

Haiti was a major lime exporter until 1991, when the the USA imposed a full-scale trade embargo in response to a coup d’etat. The resulting loss of a market saw the lime trees cut down for charcoal – but the FSA is reintroducing them and has teamed up with Firmenich, an international producer of perfumery and chemicals, which will be buying limes for the extraction plant it is building in Haiti. The organisation aims to use farmer co-operatives to plant 2 million lime trees over next couple of years.

Mr Locke, who did humanitarian service work for years before setting up the foundation, thinks the most important contribution of small groups like the FSA is the flexibility of pioneering new models.

“Smaller groups like the FSA have the capacity to be very flexible. Once we begin a programme, we can very quickly modify our approach to suit that, larger foreign aid programmes locked into rigid models that are impossible to adapt,” he said.

In this article

Join the Conversation