By Jackie Brennan
This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
If you live in a household that always has a jar of peanut butter handy, no matter how much you love it, you probably get to take this always-satisfying staple for granted.
Not so in Haiti. In a country where 54% of the population lives below the poverty line and 22% of children are chronically malnourished, generations of families have subsisted on peanut-based foods both financially and nutritionally.
“Around the world, peanuts are known as a poor man’s crop, as they are a great source of cheap protein.”
Unfortunately, Haiti’s peanut harvest has been on the decline for decades, exacerbating the twin cycles of poverty and malnutrition. But a local social enterprise has been working since 2014 to revamp the peanut farming industry across Haiti, bringing a better life to tens of thousands of people.
In a “nutshell,” that’s why Lavi Spicy Peanut Butter exists. But it’s worth cracking open this particular shell to fully appreciate how a simple choice like buying a different brand of peanut butter can begin to undo decades of despair.
Some Like It Hot
For most American households, the flavor profile of Lavi’s peanut butter will come as a surprise, initially. But the person behind the product, Sergeline Malvoisin René, says she based the recipe on the peanut butter she grew up with, made by her mother.
The secret is a touch of scotch bonnet peppers, or piman bouk in Haitian Creole.
“In Haiti everything is hot—the weather, the music that’s part of Carnival season and Rara celebrations,” says Sergeline. And while spicy peanut butter may not be the food item that most outsiders associate with Haitian cuisine, it’s as pervasive as the heat that suffuses everyday life. “We eat it alone or with bread, cassava and crackers, for breakfast, lunch, or a late snack,” Sergeline says.
Bringing Haitian peanut butter to American households was no small feat. As the commercial director for Acceso, an agricultural social enterprise group, Sergeline and her team have been working for years to empower local peanut farmers.
“Around the world, peanuts are known as a poor man’s crop, as they are a great source of cheap protein,” Sergeline says. “They also grow well in sandy, less fertile soils that don’t work well for other crops.”
In recent decades, however, peanut farming has become less and less viable in Haiti, due to a perfect storm of economic and environmental challenges
The economic dimension is familiar in many countries and communities where family farms struggle to remain profitable. Smallholder farms, the source of all peanut production in Haiti, are truly small. On average, they’re less than 1 hectare — about the size of a baseball field — and cultivation practices are typically dated and inefficient.
“Growing peanuts, farmers lack access to key inputs required to increase yields, formal training to increase their efficiency, and profitable markets to sell their products to,” Sergeline says. As a result, farmers are seeing their income decline, and many are giving up.
In a country where 60% of the population relies on farming for their livelihood — including the 35,000 Haitian households who get the lion’s share of their income within the domestic peanut sector — that’s a huge problem.
The environmental dimension compounds all of this with a complication far more specific to Haiti. It’s called aflatoxin contamination.
“Peanuts are particularly susceptible to aflatoxin contamination in warm, humid climates with possible pre-harvest contamination, linked to high temperatures and prolonged drought, or post-harvest contamination, resulting from poor storage conditions without proper ventilation,” Sergeline says.
Consuming contaminated peanuts has been linked to immune suppression, stunted growth, and increased risk for cancer. A coordinated system of quality control would help to combat aflatoxin contamination, but the supply chain in Haiti’s agricultural sector is largely informal and unregulated.
“With a lack of quality control, traceability, and prevention efforts, buyers are wary of dealing directly with smallholder farmers or farmers’ associations,” Sergeline says. “And exports of peanuts or peanut products from Haiti were nearly impossible prior to Acceso’s intervention.”
The solution was a rigorous quality control mechanism for aflatoxin-free peanuts, helping to restore confidence in the output of smallholder farms. Turning that output into peanut butter reinvigorates the domestic peanut sector by expanding the market for the crop. And having a product that can be delivered outside of Haiti only accelerates this virtuous cycle.
Sergeline notes that with a large Haitian diaspora contingent in the U.S. and Canada, there’s a growing desire beyond the Caribbean for the taste of home that is spicy peanut butter — the good stuff, made in Haiti from Haitian peanuts.
Growing Local Solutions
Improving the health of Haiti’s peanut crop, helping small farmers get a more equitable return on their harvest, and creating a made-in-Haiti consumer brand that can be enjoyed the world over — that’s the kind of disruptive impact that any social enterprise would be proud of.
But one of the indirect benefits of healthier domestic peanut production is how it can be harnessed to address yet another widespread issue in Haiti: child hunger.
As Sergeline notes, peanuts are known as a poor man’s crop because they’re easy to grow and high in protein. In a nation where school meals may be the only food a child gets all day, something as nutritious as a peanut is a huge asset.
Through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Model School Network, peanuts purchased from Acceso’s farmer network and produced by local processors and manufacturers help to feed 4,000 students a day in 11 schools. That’s the kind of holistic, local solution that often gets overlooked.
“In many cases, feeding programs in Haiti are supplied by imported goods, harming or destroying local markets,” Sergeline says. “Acceso’s feeding work enables farmers and local processors to be part of the food system solution — both helping feed kids in need so they can learn better as well as creating economic opportunity for their farming families.”
For every jar of Lavi Spicy Peanut Butter sold, a nutritious peanut-based snack is provided to a child in Haiti. And whether you find you like the heat index of your Lavi Spicy Peanut Butter mild, medium, or hot, you can enjoy it knowing that your purchase is making a coordinated and measurable difference across systems in the heat-loving country of Haiti — a difference on the magnitude of 3,500 farmers’ livelihoods, 1,700 metric tons of aflatoxin-tested peanuts, and 840,000 meals and snacks for school children to date.
Spend for good: If you’re ready to experience the unique flavor of spicy Haitian peanut butter, head over to Lavi’s website for your choice of three heat levels. Purchases of three jars or more ship free! And if you find yourself in Brooklyn, you can always find Lavi Spicy Peanut Butter at Lakou Café in Crown Heights.
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