Here in Haiti, shopping for fruits and vegetables is not as simple as hopping over to Sainsbury’s or Fairway, filling your shopping cart with whatever’s been trucked or shipped in from the agricultural regions of the world (be it Spain, California, or, China…), and zipping through the cash register with your Amex. No, in Haiti the supermarkets have a slim and unappealing array of somewhat wilted fruits and vegetables at astronomical prices. I once contemplated whether I wanted a green apple badly enough to pay $5 for it. I hadn’t had an apple in several months and it looked really good to me. But in the end I decided against it.
As a result of this void in the supermarket sector, there is a niche that is filled by the street markets (in Créole people distinguish “marchés,” which sell produce on the street, from “markets,” which are indoor supermarkets). Most people buy their fresh produce in street markets because it is cheap and plentiful. There are a variety of items, which change with the seasons. Buying in the markets requires a better understanding of local customs, and at least a conversational grasp of Creole. After about 4 months in Haiti, I now feel able to buy fruits and vegetables myself, although no matter how long I am here, I will always be subject to the “prix blanc” – the white person’s price.
At the behest of our Director of Economic Development, a fabulous lady called Martine Théodore, I undertook a study of the supply chains for fruits and vegetables. I led a team of surveyors through 5 markets in the PV area, and I interviewed the owners of 5 restaurants in PV. What I found is that there are several markets of this kind around PV, and a few more scattered around the metropolitan area. They sell locally farmed products, including a long list of vegetables such as carrots, beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, leeks, cucumbers, broccoli, cabbage, zucchini, pumpkin, artichoke, aubergine, onions, garlic, avocado, lots of plantain, and mirilton. They also sell tropical fruits such as melons, papayas, pineapple, lemons, oranges, chadec (a cousin of the grapefruit), passion fruit, cherimoya, coconuts, bananas, and mangoes. But that’s it for the selection. If you have a craving for blueberries, no dice
The markets within Pétion-ville are the most successful because they have the best access to the buyers. They are right on the street, in the middle of this wealthy suburban town. Over time, Pétion-ville has siphoned off many of the business activity that used to exist in downtown Port-au-Prince. People who live in the upscale hillside neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince all descend on Pétion-ville to work during the day, and to drop off their children at school. Two scenarios predominate. Sometimes, wealthy suburbanites drive by the markets in their SUVs or Jeeps and roll down the windows as market ladies swarm trying to sell a couple of avocadoes or bananas at a jacked up price. Most of the time, they send their maid to the market, who will load up baskets and get a much better deal (and usually pocket the change).
The vendors arrive at the markets very early in the morning. They bring their wares from the mountainous regions above Port-au-Prince, where terraced farms grow vegetables. Most often, vendors don’t get their goods straight from the farms, but rather they buy them at the Marché Croix des Bossales, in downtown Port-au-Prince, next to the port. The system is fairly structured, albeit in an informal way, with a great lack of transparency with regards to demand and prices. Most farmers (or most often their wives) go down to the Marché Croix des Bossales to sell their goods. Then a secondary wave of vendors comes down there early every morning, fill several baskets with the goods they plan to sell that day, and return to Port-au-Prince in a taptap. It is not the most efficient system, as PV is much closer to Kenscoff than it is to downtown PaP. As a result vendors are spending hours traveling up and down, and much money, time, and even produce (damaged in transit) is wasted.
Restaurants don’t have an easy time of it either. In order to run a restaurant, you need to have a steady supply of high quality, reasonably priced fruits and vegetables. As I mentioned before, the supply in Haiti is seasonal. It is also highly susceptible to climatic disruptions ranging from rain or flooding to droughts. In addition, farmers do not know what produce is demanded on the market, so they repeatedly grow the same items and send them out blindly. There is a total lack of communication between suppliers and buyers. Unlike many places where demand drives supply (enabling “vote with your fork” initiatives for instance), it is supply that rules here in Haiti.
As a result, restauranteurs struggle to obtain a variety of ingredients locally and are often forced to create their own supply chains, relying heavily on imports, if they want to differentiate themselves from their competitors, or if they want to have a bit of culinary creativity on their menu. As I said before, if you want to make something that requires blueberries or mushrooms or figs or anything other than the items I listed earlier, you have no choice but to import them at exhorbitant rates. Not only do you have to pay a premium to import fruits and vegetables compared to producing them locally, but you also have to bribe your way through customs and the ports so that your produce doesn’t rot on its way from the shipping container to your fridge.
Restaurants like O Brasileiro, Quartier Latin, and Café Terrasse, which use all fresh, local produce in their cooking, deal with the irregularity in supply by keeping their menu to a short list of reliable items (mostly different types of meat with a side of fries), and supplementing it with a long list of daily specials. Others, such as Presse Café and La Coquille, serve a buffet of Creole food, which changes depending on what is available at the market any given day.
During the course of my study, I was introduced to a dynamic Haitian chef and culinary consultant called Stéphane Durand, who has a vision of revolutionizing the restaurant industry in Haiti. He wants to start by creating a restaurant association, with the help of Peace Dividend Trust. PDT is an NGO created after the earthquake to promote local business, by facilitating bids and maintaining an up-to-date database of Haitian enterprises. Chef Stéphane ultimately plans to bring together producers and buyers, by creating education and outreach programs that will help them develop new products. He also wants to set up intermediaries that can clean, package, and distribute local produce so that it can be sold in a more formal setting. He is launching his initiative with a food expo called Goûts et Saveurs at the Ritz Kinam on October 2. I’ll be watching closely as his project unfolds. Inherently, growing new types of fruits and vegetables will take time (at least one or two growing seasons). But this time next year, the fresh produce market in Haiti could look very different.