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EcoCafé Haiti Update for September, 2013

Cultural Lessons Learned

Geert Hofstede is perhaps the greatest contributor to the study of culture of any who have attempted to define cultural differences across national borders. I use Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory as part of one of the classes I teach at the University of Oregon. Hofstede contends that five primary dimensions of culture are recognizable between nations. These include: uncertainty avoidance, masculinity/femininity, power distance, individualism/collectivism, and time orientation. If only I had practiced what I preached earlier in my Haitian endeavor, my approach to conduct business in Haiti would have made life far easier. Nevertheless, some cultural change has been made.

Uncertainty Avoidance: “Haitians don’t throw rocks at green mangoes”

I sat next to a Haitian American on my plane ride into Port au Prince last month. As part of our conversation, I described the purpose of EcoCafé Haiti (to enable economic self sufficiency in rural Haiti) and the difficulties we face to realize our purpose. Among other things, I mentioned how difficult it was to change the way in which Haitians tend their coffee crops, changes that require diligent cultivation practices such as composting, picking and burning leftover coffee beans after the harvest season (pest control), and pruning plants to encourage abundant fruiting. My newfound friend responded with a Haitian proverb, “Haitians don’t throw rocks at green mangoes.”

One could interpret this proverb in one of three ways. These include: 1. Haitians know that green mangoes have a low pH (highly acidic) and cause GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease); 2. Haitians know that some varieties of mango don’t ripen after separation from the tree, thus rendering them less useful for consumption; or, 3. Haitians only exert effort when such effort knowingly provides benefit. The more I thought about the proverb, the more I am convinced that the last interpretation is the correct interpretation.

Taking the proverb to heart, there is a key lesson we have learned over the years. To affect cultural change one has to firstly convince the Haitian people of the benefit before expecting a change in ways. This conforms to Hofstede’s cultural dimension known as uncertainty avoidance, the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The greater the uncertainty of the proposed benefit, the more one avoids potential negative consequence. Despite this deeply rooted cultural value, EcoCafé Haiti has affected some cultural change.

This is evidenced by the improved livelihood of our employees and farmers, an improved livelihood as best illustrated by one coffee farmer who told our Haitian agronomist, Frantz Pierre Rosner:

In the past my sale of coffee provided me with enough money to buy a chicken. This year, my coffee sales to EcoCafé Haiti allowed me to buy a pig. Today, I can afford to purchase five times more food and pay for the schooling for all my children.”

Power Distance: Digicel Corporation/Clinton Foundation, Northern Haiti Entrepreneur of the Year

Creating an entrepreneurial spirit in rural Haiti has been a challenge over the years. With so many Haitians expecting to receive donations of $/food/education/medicine (aka handouts) from the many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Haiti, it is difficult to wean the people from dependence on the NGOs and to assume control of their future. Many Haitians feel powerless to affect change, a cultural value akin to Hofstede’s power distance, the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. We believe that the key to affecting cultural change is to provide a “hand up, not a hand out,” encouraging Haitians to provide for themselves. EcoCafé Haiti is a for-profit corporation created for the primary purpose of enabling economic self-sufficiency in Haiti. To this end, we are making progress.

Such cultural change is evidenced by the recent competition sponsored by Digicel Corporation (cell phone service provider) and the Clinton Foundation, a competition whose intent is to encourage increased economic development in Haiti. Overcoming competition from 24 larger well-funded concerns, EcoCafé Haiti was awarded the agricultural Entrepreneur of the Year award for Northern Haiti. The award is emblematic of the aforementioned cultural shift. Frantz Pierre Rosner accepted the award on the company’s behalf, an award that afforded Frantz the opportunity to attend a one week leadership seminar at Florida International University. We are proud of each/every employee and coffee farmer. Collectively they deserve all the credit.

Collectivism vs. Individualism: EcoCafé Haiti’s Coffee Farmer of the Year

Last year’s top ten coffee farmers received a special bonus for their efforts, $20/each as a token of appreciation, $20 that goes a long way in rural Haiti. These farmers were recognized and distinguished in front of all our farmers at the annual 2012 coffee farmer meeting, a distinction that was intended to not only recognize the highest volume farmers but also to motivate other farmers to harvest more coffee.

As a capitalist, the special bonus for the top producers made much sense. Unfortunately, I did not anticipate the repercussion of the bonus scheme. As conveyed by our Executive Director, George Derval, the farmers who did not receive a bonus were not only disappointed, but angry as well. Further, those very same farmers shunned the top ten producers who benefited from the extra money. Consequently, I unknowingly created a bit of a crisis, a crisis that has festered over the last 12 months. Geert Hofstede would define this cultural dimension as a collectivist characteristic, a dimension in which the cultural milieu places primary importance on group cohesion over/above individual achievement.

In response to this dilemma and in anticipation of this year’s annual coffee farmer meeting, George Derval promised that all farmers would receive a bonus, regardless of their contribution to the company’s coffee volume. If only George had informed me ahead of time, all would have been well. Unfortunately, George only made this bit of information known to me the day after my arrival in Ranquitte.

With only $200 in hand as a bonus for the top ten producers, my traveling companion and good friend, Mike English, came to the rescue. Mike “pre-purchased” $200 worth of green coffee from EcoCafé Haiti’s 2013 crop, thus providing extra bonus money to accommodate all 140 farmers in attendance. Although each farmer received some bonus, I could not abandon my individualistic value system and, therefore, gave bonuses to each farmer based upon the volume harvested. As a result, most farmers were placated and further crisis was averted.

This year’s top producer was Mme. Dissomat, a diminutive 4’ 2” Haitian woman with an infectious smile and jovial demeanor, both of which greatly eclipse her physical stature. With her children at her side and with the help of our employees (and two donkeys), Mme. Dissomat managed to harvest almost 800 lbs. of cherry coffee, 25% more than the second place coffee farmer.

Masculinity vs. Femininity: Women work harder

Mme. Dissomat is not the only woman working the coffee fields. In fact, better than 50% of the 140 coffee farmers at our 2013 meeting were women. Further, 7 of the top 10 coffee farmers, as measured by volume, were women. In Haiti, women are the ones who are expected to sell goods at the local marketplace, to harvest crops, and to tend the homestead. In most rural areas, men plant gardens, but women are thought of as the owners of harvests and, because they are marketers, typically control the family’s earnings.

What does this say about the current state of affairs in Haiti? I assert that the women of Haiti represent the key to affect change, change which results from their entrepreneurial drive, thrifty/judicious money management, and commercial savvy. Although Geert Hofstede would characterize Haiti as a highly masculine country, to a large extent this characterization is a pretense. Women move the economy while men tend to serve as the figureheads of Haitian society, figureheads of government, churches, medical institutions, schools, and corporations.

Time Orientation: The future is always better than the past

Like many Caribbean and Latin American nations, Haitians’ sense of time is future-oriented. This contrasts with a short term orientation found in many Western, economically developed cultures, including the USA. In societies with a long-term orientation, people believe that truth depends very much on situation, context and time. They show an ability to adapt traditions to changed conditions, a strong propensity for saving and investment, thriftiness, and perseverance in achieving results.

It is no surprise that Haitians primarily look to the future, for the alternative of looking to the past as a predictor of the future (i.e., short term orientation) is replete with many examples of suffering, violence, corruption, and controversy.

This orientation bodes well for EcoCafé Haiti, largely because we have been able to improve upon the results from the previous year, doing so each/every year since inception. Last year, for example, we doubled the number of coffee farmers contributing to the harvest, increased coffee volume by 50%, and expanded our roaster/customer base twofold. Despite our achievements, we have yet to fully realize our primary purpose of enabling economic self-sufficiency in rural Haiti, using Ranquitte as the stepping stone for the resurgence of coffee cultivation and processing throughout Haiti.

Concluding remarks

Ironically, I am the one who has learned from the Haitian concept of a long-term orientation. I have been forced to develop patience, perseverance, and thriftiness.

Although I embrace uncertainty as a challenge, confront power when it is askew, acknowledge the benefit of a collectivistic approach, remain gender neutral, and accept a longer term orientation, albeit somewhat reluctantly, I now know that my cultural values and norms have been impacted positively by my experience in rural Haiti.

Even though I have endeavored to change Haitian culture and have been partially successful in doing so, it is I who has learned, learning just as much from my Haitian family/friends as they hopefully may have learned from me.

So, if you find it in your heart and have the ability to support our efforts, your donation in any amount would be greatly appreciated. If you choose to support the program through donation, kindly send a check to Christian Flights International, 3160 Deep Creek Road, Perryville, Kentucky 40468. Be certain to write “EcoCafé Haiti” in the memo section of your check. As in the past, your donation is fully tax-deductible.

Thank you for your support, prayers, and blessings. Without you, this program would not have gotten off the ground. More important, without you, the people in Ranquitte, Haiti would be far less able to lift themselves out of their precarious condition.

God bless you,

Tom Durant





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