Every Child Thrives – Growing Haiti’s food systems with determination and partners

Original article appeared in Every Child Thrives by Amy Bracken

This post is also available in: Español (Spanish) Kreyòl (Haitian Creole)

Even before the novel coronavirus became a global threat, the United Nations had dire predictions for Haiti in 2020. A UN humanitarian agency report in December 2019 forecast that within months 40 percent of Haitians would “require urgent humanitarian assistance.” Causes included political upheaval, insecurity and rising food prices. Adding a pandemic to the mix would trigger a possible humanitarian catastrophe.

That warning is all too familiar in Haiti. And although frequent aid shipments from the U.S. and elsewhere are welcomed by some, others wonder why such an agrarian country can’t source more food domestically.

Greater food sovereignty in Haiti would support local farmers and reduce the risk of hunger crises in the future. A growing network of organizations is pushing Haiti in that direction, allowing more Haitian farmers to support their own families while getting food to those most in need.

Acceso Haiti is part of that expanding ecosystem.

 

Robert Johnson, Acceso Haiti’s chief operating officer, says the network is crucial to building food sovereignty and getting through this tough time. It’s about “[holding] the bigger vision, staying the course and kind of fighting through, but doing it with your partners and getting stronger together.”

The social agribusiness was launched in 2014 to support an initiative of the health care non-profit Partners in Health (PIH). PIH makes Nourimanba, a fortified peanut butter for treating malnourished children, and Acceso became the majority supplier of peanuts to their factory in Haiti’s Central Plateau. The business’ mission was to help farmers increase income through technical assistance and value chain improvement. Keeping PIH as an anchor buyer, Acceso went on to add dozens of other peanut butter companies as customers, and to expand into other crops.

These buyers represent just one of many types of partnerships Acceso has forged in Haiti, which have positioned the business to endure an onslaught of challenges over the years – political, economic, environmental and health-related. More than that, the collaborations have enabled Acceso to step up and meet community needs created by those very challenges.

The idea of forging alliances to promote food sovereignty and food security is not new in Haiti, but opportunity and necessity have increased its prominence. In the Haiti Peer Learning Network (HPLN), a community of W.K. Kellogg Foundation grantees and partners across sectors, WKKF Program Officer Dana Francois says that together the organizations have become a powerful engine.

“The efforts of partners that are operating on different levels, across value chains, across sectors, across places,” she says, “can support one another to scalable impact.”

At an HPLN convening in Port-au-Prince in 2015 partners, including Acceso, Quisqueya University’s Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (FSAE), Haiti Christian Development Fund, Heifer International, Haiti Projects and Fonkoze, mapped out an income-generation ecosystem they could develop and strengthen together, along with others in their communities. Acceso was a central feature, a “middleman” between growers, testers, agro-industry, investors and agricultural service providers.

Since that meeting, Francois says, the value and urgency of that ecosystem model has only increased in Haiti.

Recent achievements by Acceso and partners grew from the HPLN collaborative work. They illustrate the power of partnerships as they upend notions about progress amid crises.

A GOURMET HAITIAN EXPORT

In 2020, Lavi Spicy Peanut Butter made its debut in North American stores.

In another Acceso-Partners in Health collaboration, employees at the PIH Nourimanba factory began mixing and jarring the creamy, spicy peanut butter that’s a staple in Haitian households.  The brightly labeled Lavi was intended for a new market, but it was not an easy time to start exporting a product from Haiti. The country was under virtual lockdown due to political unrest, with schools and offices closed and streets frequently blocked.

“The boats would come,” says Sergeline Malvoisin René, Acceso Haiti’s commercial director, but often “there was nobody there to load them … or there was nobody to do the paperwork.”

Finally, the first shipment made it to two online retailers in the U.S., and in early 2020 it began hitting stores in Brooklyn. Within the year, several online retailers and more than a dozen stores in the U.S. and Canada were selling it.

By mid-fall, Lavi was available on Amazon.

In North America, Lavi is a luxury good – selling at $10 a jar. In Haiti, it supports farmers and their families by connecting them with a new and growing pool of customers. It also helps children by injecting proceeds into nutritious school snacks: for every jar sold in the U.S., a snack is provided in Haiti.

Robert Johnson calls Lavi “the perfect example” of what can come from hard work and the right partnerships. When Acceso began operations in Haiti, he says, exporting a peanut product that met U.S. standards would not have been possible.

“We still have day-to-day challenges, of course,” he says. “But just looking at where we are now versus where we were five years ago, it’s a whole new opportunity.”

DOMESTIC FOOD ASSISTANCE THROUGH PARTNERSHIPS

These recent initiatives show how collaboration across sectors can mitigate food insecurity today and help prevent it in the future.

Farm to School

In the spring of 2020, HPLN partners explored how to collaborate across sectors to meet urgent needs created by the pandemic. As a result, St. Boniface Hospital procured masks made by Haiti Projects; Haiti Projects broadcast coronavirus radio PSAs made by Blue Butterfly Collective; and Acceso expanded its delivery of local food to schools in the Model School Network (MSN) and hospitals in the HPLN.

When schools were closed due to the coronavirus, they became pick-up spots for families to take home snacks and peanut butter to last them for weeks at a time. When classes were back in session, Acceso began providing dry goods for hot meals to schools that had not previously served them.

Cassandre Regnier, director of programs at Summits Education, says school snacks and meals in poor communities are important for learning as well as health.

Summits, a nonprofit operating a network of 40 primary schools within the MSN, assessed the main constraint to learning in their schools. What they learned, Regnier says, was “it wasn’t teacher pay. It wasn’t teacher competency. It wasn’t books. It was simply [about] school feeding.”

Farm to Medicine 

Food is critical for health care providers as well. Much of the medicine they prescribe should be taken on a full stomach. And increasingly, the food itself is the medicine, helping prevent and treat malnutrition.

As part of its pandemic response, Acceso delivered 250 food kits a month to its long-time collaborator Zanmi Lasante (PIH’s Haitian sister organization). Zanmi Lasante was working at the Dominican border, where Haitians who had lost jobs due to the pandemic were returning by the hundreds each day.

In addition to COVID tests and other services, Zanmi Lasante could now give out a food kit that feeds a family of four for two weeks.

St. Boniface Hospital, in southern Haiti, also received Acceso food kits.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) projected that Fond-des-Blancs, where St. Boniface is located, will be among the regions facing crisis-level food insecurity in 2021. Already, the hospital has a unit dedicated to acute cases of malnutrition and a community outreach program that regularly finds children who are malnourished or losing weight.

Dr. Miliane Clermont heads a team of health workers who screen children in communities near the hospital every month, identifying dozens who need assistance. In the past, St. Boniface supported the family with a box of dry goods, usually imported donations. For two years this was not possible – until Acceso made a series of deliveries over the summer.

During the five months of those Acceso deliveries, Dr. Clermont says her team saw a dramatic increase in the number of children screened who gained weight. They also saw more children with malnutrition, likely because hearing about the food kits inspired parents to get their children screened.

Another perk of these kits, Clermont says, is the local sourcing. Parents are familiar with the food and know how to cook it, she says, and also, “if the product is purchased locally, that increases the buying power of the producers … and that means fewer people with malnutrition.”

It’s a view shared by many in Clermont’s community. Fond-des-Blancs-based Haiti Christian Development Fund worked for years with other organizations on a plan to improve social and economic conditions for local children and families. Today they are collaborating with the University of Quisqueya and Acceso to improve agricultural production and strengthen value chains to boost income generation in the community.

Charity Sourcing

The biggest international food assistance organizations still mostly deliver food from outside of Haiti. However, in 2020 Food for the Poor, one of the largest U.S.-based charities, purchased hundreds of jars of peanut butter from Acceso. So did LIDE, an arts and education program for at-risk youth (the name is Creole for both leader and idea), which also bought 500 food kits.

Finally, in a flip of the narrative around Haiti and food aid, Acceso partnered with actor Sean Penn’s organization Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE) on its COVID-19 relief work in the U.S. A thousand jars of Lavi were included in food boxes distributed to needy families in Georgia and North Carolina.

“It’s kind of letting people see Haiti in a different light,” Robert Johnson says about the CORE distribution.

PLANTING MORE SEEDS

The challenges keep coming, and Acceso is forging new partnerships to tackle them.

Johnson hopes a collaboration with the Quisqueya University Agriculture School will help improve farmer productivity. The university has long been a pioneer in agricultural research and innovation in the service of Haitian farmers. Its new Innovations in Agriculture project includes work with Acceso on increasing yield through small-scale mechanization.

In October Acceso acquired Extensio, an agricultural digital information business. This will allow Acceso to expand its network of farmers, while connecting them with valuable reports on weather and pest forecasts.

To guide the ongoing push for greater food sovereignty and food security in Haiti, partners are building road maps.

Over the summer, Acceso and the Smallholder Farmers Alliance conducted a ”Haiti Food Security Survey” of organizations working in seed bank development, food production and food distribution, to learn more about how local agricultural production can be increased for local distribution. The resulting report will contribute to ongoing WKKF-funded efforts to assess possibilities for developing local economies and strengthening local food systems.

It’s about [holding] the bigger vision, staying the course and kind of fighting through, but doing it with your partners and getting stronger together.
– Rob Johnson, Chief Operating Officer for Acceso