Women in Production 2012

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From May 5-6, the second edition of Women in Production—an international trade fair featuring Haiti’s top women entrepreneurs and artisans—was held in Miami Beach, FL. The fair took place at the Miami Beach Convention Center to launch Haitian Heritage Month.

Beautifully gowned in a printed dress and royal blue jacket, First Lady Sophia Martelly of the Republic of Haiti encouraged the audience during her public address to invest in mothers and women entrepreneurs of Haiti. Sitting next to Pierre Saliba (President of the Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce of Florida), Matti Herera Bower (Mayor of Miami Beach), and Katherine Fernandez Rundle (State Attorney), Her Excellency Mme. Martelly cut the ribbon to kick off this year’s Women In Production. The Haitian national anthem followed shortly thereafter. Fashion designer Elmire Desrouleaux played Catherine Flon sewing the Haitian flag as the anthem was performed.

Sixty exhibitors took part in the event to celebrate Haitian creativity and cultural expression. A wide variety of products were showcased, from alcoholic beverages to hot sauces, clothing, handbags, jewelry, and paintings, to name just a few.

Serge Gay Pottery was the booth to visit for home décor. Masks, sculptures, pots, frames will give your house a refined look while keeping a Haitian authenticity.

Madichon Sauce, awarded Best Booth Display, carries its name very well. Their hot sauce is amazingly good. Se koupe dwèt!

Bijou Lakay was offering bullhorn jewelry. Her designs reflected Haitian culture and she played with different textures, even loofah! Daphnée Karen Floréal was very innovative this year with her unique pieces.

Maelle Creations presented Opulence, which is a line made to flatter every woman’s curve. The Haitian style embroidery on the vests and jackets, the oversize pocket or simply the contrasting ribbon made the designs look sophisticated.

Collections Xaragua was very popular for its crossbody bags and clutches. The woven straw (commonly called latanier in Haiti) added the Haitian authenticity to a trendy purse that will make you stand out.

Miss Haiti Caribbean Beauty with Nadege Beauvil Presidente of Femmes en Democratie

It was very pleasant to see Miss Haiti Caribbean Beauty 2012, Cassy Edmond, visiting each booth and taking the time to introduce herself and chat a bit with every exhibitor. International model and youth ambassador, Nayeli Fanfan, who has done a lot for the Haitian community, was also among the visitors. Her support was proven by each additional shopping bag she would carry as she walked around.

Many exhibitors shared the opinion of targeting a more diverse clientele. “The customers were mainly Haitians. Women In Production should also aim for buyers from boutiques and art galleries,” says Daphnée from Bijou Lakay. Although the customer traffic was significantly less than last year, Women In Production successfully provided a platform for Haitian women entrepreneurs to showcase and sell their products.

-Nora David, BrandHaiti

Mélissa Laveaux: A Lyrical Genius Singing for Change

A fundamental component of our branding campaign includes highlighting success stories of Haitians and members of the diaspora who are actively changing their country through innovative initiatives and development. None of which is present in the “poverty porn” that mainstream media has found contagious Haiti. Given the critical role that music plays in Haitian culture due to its ability to tell stories and share the inexpressible, creating a stronger sense of unity, we are seeking interviews with Haitian and francophone musicians to help us change the international perception of Haiti. Recently, the talented Mélissa Laveaux, welcomed the opportunity for a BrandHaiti interview to promote her work. As a highly-acclaimed international artist and a  member of the Haitian diaspora, we eagerly sought to gain her insight on advancing Haiti while we also promoted her work.  Mélissa exemplifies the very capacities and contributions of Haitians abroad that BrandHaiti features.

A few years ago while on vacation in Montreal, I discovered Mélissa Laveaux, a vocal goddess. My cousin was playing a song called “Dodo Titit”  in her room, which brought back sweet memories of my mother singing this old Haitian lullaby to me when I was young. Her sultry and raspy voice triggered something in me and left me wanting more. I instantly purchased her album, Camphor & Copper, on iTunes and have been listening to it on repeat ever since. The elegance and beauty of singing so eloquently in English, French, and Creole—the languages of my heart and tongue—brought me much joy. Her music not only satisfies my palate for rich, jazzy, folk-like acoustic tunes, but also evoked feelings of pride, as she was one of the most visible Haitian musicians, I knew of next to Wyclef Jean.

Mélissa Laveaux is a brilliant and soulful vocalist, songwriter, guitarist, and poet based in Paris under the French label No Format. A mix of blues and folk, her lyrical genius shines in her songs, birthed from lived experiences. “Writing what I knew was the best advice I got from my sister,” Mélissa remarks. Abiding by this rule has helped pave her success. While her musical career began in Canada, she now lives and performs in Europe, occasionally touring in Asia. Unfortunately, she has yet to perform in the United States due to a lack of interest from US labels and distributors. As such, we hope this interview will help expose her music to a wider audience; we at BrandHaiti are certain her voice will captivate you.

Mélissa was born in Montreal but raised in Ottawa, Canada to a Haitian couple that immigrated in search of new opportunities for their expanding family. She visited Haiti once as a child, but nevertheless she sings and composes in Creole. Mélissa inherited her love for music from her father, a guitarist himself. When she was six, she wanted to take piano lessons in order to fit in better with other girls in her class. However, things did not work out as planned: “I lost the payment for my first class, and my mother was so upset that I never got to touch an instrument until I turned thirteen, when my father bought me a used classical guitar with very high action; in other words, it was very difficult to play.”

That experience humbled her. She has spent the last fourteen years playing the guitar, and the last nine years singing. As a student at the University of Ottawa, she performed local gigs on her campus. Since then, she has performed three times at the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Cully Jazz Festival, the Donostia Jazzaldia Jazz Festival, the Festival du Bout du Monde (2008), Les Francofolies de La Rochelle (2009), the Sakifo Musik Festival in La Réunion Island, and le Printemps de Bourges.

The year 2007 was a remarkable year for this young artist. She graduated with honors from the University of Ottawa, and she also won the Lagardère Jeune Talent Award for Music. Additionally, she received a songwriting prize for her composition in Creole, “Koudlo.” After a performance in Quebec, she was immediately offered a contract with No Format. She has since relocated to Paris, and under a new label and management team, she officially released her first album Camphor & Copper in 2008, which was a compilation of songs she wrote while living in Canada.

Today, she has grown accustomed to her new life in Paris. In conversation with her, one cannot miss her confidence, poise, and caring demeanor.  She is humbled by the opportunity to live her dream as a musician, and explained that she has fallen in love with Paris’s artistic culture and network of musicians that has challenged her to grow.

“Making music in Canada wasn’t for me, so I moved to France. Canada requires artists to have a day job…” while she wanted to focus solely on her music. She did not want to be stuck singing only French songs or be forced into pop music; moving to Paris has allowed her to stay true to her musical soul. She is currently in the process of completing her second album, which will be released in October in Europe. She says her new album will not be as folky as her previous work, acknowledging the potential risk of losing some fans. However, she remains pleased with the direction of both work and her life in Paris, as they reflect more accurately her growth and freedom. Melissa has remained true to the musical tunings of her heart throughout her versatile journey as an artist. I admire Melissa for her bravery to be different, her zest for life, and her refusal to be boxed in by an industry that ignores the skills and musical callings of artists such as Melissa in order to perpetuate a particular narrative or simply to make more money. Melissa provides a face and voice to provide hope for young Haitian girls, a hope that counters the negative narratives about Haitians in the media.

Below is the transcription of my interview with Mélissa Laveaux, and we hope you find it as informative and inspirational as we did. Enjoy!

MG:  What artists have you worked with, and why?

ML:  I’ve opened for a lot of musicians—Feist, Rokia Traore, Amadou and Mariam— because of our professional links and because they are inspirations to me. Right now, I’m working on a collaboration concert with Thea Hjelmeland, a Norwegian artist, where we are fusing our bands, our songs, and our sounds together. We’ll play it in Paris.

MG:    You’ve written some songs about Haiti. Why, given your strong Anglophone supporters? Have you worked with Haitian artists?

ML:    I write songs for myself before thinking of an audience to whom to target that song. I’ve never worked with any Haitian artists, but not because I haven’t tried. Several attempts have failed. But someone I’m dreaming of working with is Mimi Barthélémy because she’s a storyteller and she lives right here in Paris. I think there’s so much I could learn from her, her experiences, her storytelling, her repertoire of traditional songs…

MG:    Can you share with us, your reasoning for the songs you wrote about Haiti?

ML:    It was just a song written to my mother who never really tried to impress “Haitianess” into us as we were growing up as she hoped we would better assimilate by only speaking French or English. Only later did she regret our Creole wasn’t strong enough, for instance.

MG:   What’s the perception of Haiti in Canada?

ML:    Canadians are actually quite familiar with Haitians—well at least people in Ontario and mostly Quebec because the latter is one of the target destination cities for the Haitian diaspora. I am one of the many fruits of that diaspora as Montreal is my birthtown. There’s such a diasporic culture in central-eastern Canada that Canadians know a lot more about Haiti than we give them credit for. They even know common words, some slang a few insults here and there. Furthermore, most of the Haitians in popular culture rising out of Quebec make a pretty big name for themselves—writers, screenwriters, television producers, musicians, and singer-songwriters. There’s a flock of famous Canadian Haitians.

MG:  Do you think the perception of Haiti in Canada needs to change? If so why or why not?

ML:  I actually think Canada doesn’t need a different perception of Haiti; however, perhaps its leaders who send troops to the country that have a real impact on the local population do. While I’m sure that Canadian policies mean well, it can only be a win-win situation if Canadian troops have a better understanding and respect for the citizens whom they aim to support.

MG:    What are some differences and similarities between Canadian and Haitian music?

ML:  These days, I think there’s definitely a sense of a shared global culture growing. I think every country has their own traditional music. In Canada’s case, it’s difficult as it’s a country that’s been occupied and colonized and migrated to many times over. Add the internet to general history and you can pretty much hear listen to the same bands in Haiti as you can in Canada. You’ll have people listening to Celine Dion or Rihanna, just like you’ll have people listening to underground metal bands.

MG:  What has been your impression of Haiti as a member of the diaspora?

ML:  As a member of the diaspora I am more heartbroken by the lack of diversity in the images shown of Haiti in the media than the crises that are disrupting the daily lives of thousands and perhaps even millions of Haitians. How can the world properly direct its support to an emerging country when it doesn’t really get access to the full picture? I think there are so many positive aspects of Haiti to feature.

MG:  Why do you think Haiti needs to be re-branded?

ML:  I’m not sure Haiti needs us to re-brand it so much as it needs us to show its true branding. We, as a diaspora, know how great of a country it is and most of us share a positive outlook on its future. Most of us are proud to claim we’re Haitian and all the knowledge and traditions our families have passed on. This project is important because it needs us to reflect the positive image of Haiti our families and friends—on the island and off—have impressed upon us over time and to this day. Each one of us is a witness bearing truth. I think I hear far too much pity in the voices of my peers when they speak about Haiti. But I’m not afraid to call them on it.

MG:  I am a huge believer in the empowerment of people. What are your thoughts on how best BrandHaiti can empower the people of Haiti?

ML:   We can bear witness to what’s going on. We can extend the reach of the voices of Haitians on mainland as well as in diaspora. We can be attentive to the need to be heard and talked about with dignity instead of pity.

MG:  What would you like the youth of America to know about the people of Haiti from your observation?

ML:  Teenagers are the same everywhere. I’m sure they’d be surprised at how much they could relate to and learn from a Haitian penpal.

MG:  Before we conclude our interview, what song would you like to share with students from the US? And how can they support your work?

ML: I’d like to share with them “Needle In The Ha”  and I guess if they have social network accounts, they can share videos of my work. I have a hefty team of folks who on my promotion, but it’s always pleasant to see a new face or two in the crowd at my concerts.

MG: Thank you kindly Mélissa for taking the time to speak with BrandHaiti. We really appreciate your support and are continually inspired by you and your work. To our viewers, I hope you have enjoyed our interview with Mélissa Laveaux and that you will support her work by buying her album or by following her on Twitter (@miellaveaux) and facebook for tour schedule and release of her new cd. Today, our hearts go out to her talented voice.

To learn more about Mélissa Laveaux, please visit her website at http://www.melissalaveaux.com/

~Marie-Gabby Isidore, CEO and Co-Founder of BrandHaiti

Lèt Agogo: More than a Quality Product Made in Haiti

When we first encountered Lèt Agogo (“Milk in Abundance” in Haitian Creole) at the supermarket around the corner, I assumed it was simply a delicious Haitian product. To this day, a quart of Lèt Agogo strawberry yogurt can always be found in our refrigerator at home. Nutritious, not too sweet, balanced, made completely from local ingredients, and full of vitamins, Lèt Agogo yogurt makes for the perfect breakfast on a sunny morning in Ayiti Cheri.

Little did we know Lèt Agogo is much more than a quality product made in Haiti. Lèt Agogo provides essential nutrition for tens of thousands of school children everyday across the country. Lèt Agogo has shown that it is possible to scale up local production adapted to infrastructural realities in Haiti, using very little electricity and integrating traditional Haitian agricultural practices. Lèt Agogo offers a new model for national food sovereignty. When you buy Lèt Agogo, you are not only choosing a quality product that tastes good, but you are also choosing to support an alternative, sustainable model of agricultural development in Haiti.

After the 2011 Investment Conference in Haiti, Dr. Michel Chancy, the brains behind the Lèt Agogo operation, invited the BrandHaiti team to tour one of the dozens of laiteries (milk production centers) around the country. A veterinarian by training, Dr. Chancy and other young Haitian professionals conceptualized the project while working at the Haitian NGO Veterimed, which supports sustainable rural agriculture development projects. Created in 1991, Veterimed empowers the 700,000 families of small farmers who are responsible for over 90% of livestock production in Haiti by increasing their income and improving their technical capacities in the domains of animal health and production by providing training, research, and direct assistance.

Maintaining livestock and earning a profit is extremely difficult for an individual farmer, especially since the international community slashed tariffs for foreign dairy products and decimated local production. Indeed, Haiti belongs to a small minority (7%) of countries in the world that are not self-sufficient dairy producers. Paradoxically, Haiti imports the vast majority of its dairy products, despite the fact that Haitian dairy farmers are quite capable of producing milk nationally. As such, Veterimed conceptualized Lèt Agogo’s cooperative system of pooling small farmers together to change this reality. Together, farmers are guaranteed a steady income and earn much more as a cooperative than they do trying to survive—and compete—individually. The initial laiterie built over a decade ago was so successful that Veterimed quickly built three others, and the project became sustainable shortly thereafter. Today, fourteen laiteries around the country form the Lèt Agogo diary cooperative, and the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission recently provided funds to construct four more facilities over the next three years. Dr. Chancy’s innovative rural development project was so successful that President René Preval appointed him to the Ministry of Agriculture in order to scale up his food sovereignty model. After being elected, President Martelly retained Dr. Chancy from Preval’s administration, an extremely rare occurrence. To this day, Dr. Chancy remains the Secretary of State for Animal Production in the Ministry of Agriculture.

The simplicity in design of Lèt Agogo’s business model is also the source of its ingenuity. Lèt Agogo organizes these cow and goat farmers into a cooperative around local laiteries. Farmers register at a local laiterie, where they bring all of the milk they have produced at the end of each day. At the drop off window, the number of gallons of milk is meticulously recorded and tracked. Simultaneously, another technician tests the quality, acidity, and sub-density of the milk using testing probes in the distillation center. As such, the milk is standardized to guarantee safety and quality. If a farmer has a problem with his or her livestock, they may use this time to explain the circumstances, and Lèt Agogo will send a veterinarian to provide the necessary services, such as vaccinations, to guarantee the health of the farmers’ animals and ensure the quality of their product. This system also creates a new job market for Haitian veterinarians.

At the entry of the facility, we are required to remove our shoes, sanitize our hands, and dress in Lèt Agogo uniforms. We enter the laiterie and find ourselves in the reception room, where a variety of milk, yogurt, and cheese products are found. Each laiterie is constructed identically such that the architecture of the building flows according to the stages of production, which guarantees maximum production. Dr. Chancy brings us a handful of local ingredients that are added to the milk to create the Lèt Agogo taste in accordance with Haitian tradition: vanilla, sugar, anise, citronella, and cinnamon, among others. All of these are produced locally, and the increased demand aids in creating yet another job market, this time for spice farmers.

We continue into the pasteurization room, which consists of several gas stoves. After the milk is tested, it is pasteurized and spiced in a large pot over the burner, a process which takes approximately twenty minutes. Dr. Chancy enters the next room, where the cooling process takes place, and strikes up several conversations with the workers, asking how their families and jobs are going. He also shows us the refrigerator where syrups used to flavor the yogurt are stored, which include locally-produced strawberry, guava, lemon, vanilla, and orange extracts. In this room, the workers strain the heated milk in large buckets to remove the cinnamon and vanilla remains. Another person begins bottling the milk by hand in a special container and placing them into a crate. After filling a crate, the bottles are hand-capped using a simple press. Lèt Agogo employs personnel to recuperate the standardized glass bottles, which creates more job opportunities for those involved in the cooperative. To aid in this process, recycling programs have been arranged in schools to ensure that the glass bottles are more easily collected and reused.

Once the bottles have been successfully filled and capped, they are returned to the pasteurization room for a second round of sterilization. For another twenty minutes, filled bottles are placed in a high-temperature cooker to kill any remaining bacteria. Finally, the bottles are placed in a large metal basin full of cold water, which brings them back to room temperature. With the specially sealed bottle caps, the milk can remain at room temperature without spoiling.

In the last room, milk bottles are labeled for schools, and the yogurt is labeled for commercial retail. A giant cooler full of yogurt, a refrigerator full of cheese, and a water pump are the only appliances in the entire facility that require electricity, which is generated by a solar panel on the roof of the building. Beyond that, a Lèt Agogo facility functions using natural lighting and manual labor, which means a laiterie can easily be opened in the countryside where electricity is scarce and the sun, abundant.

Each facility is an autonomous enterprise that employs locals for every stage of production. The national program managed from the Ministry of Agriculture and Veterimed provides a model to scale up these facilities, and the brand label “Lèt Agogo” is provided free of charge for these local sustainable enterprises.

To date, Lèt Agogo is the only Haitian dairy product sold nationally, despite difficult conditions of road and electricity infrastructure. As we saw, the pooling and scaling up of local dairy production easily overcomes these traditional challenges in a profitable way. No other program has yet replicated Lèt Agogo’s low-electricity, cooperative, sustainable model. Perhaps this milk production model is the only beginning of food sovereign Haiti, but the question remains: can these mechanisms be replicated in other fields of agriculture, such as vegetable and grain?

Lèt Agogo is not seeking to export, as the domestic market has not yet been saturated, especially since 80% of the products go directly to schools and are not for commercial sale. With the expansion of commercial sales of Lèt Agogo milk, yogurt, and cheese, this farming cooperative is only in an early stage of development. Scaling up has also rendered sustainability somewhat difficult. While each laiterie generates approximately four million Haitian Gourdes ($100,000) profit annually, the cost of a new laiterie is roughly six million Gourdes. For the moment, the Haitian government subsidizes a portion of the construction of new laiteries until commercial operations can generate a sufficient profit. Nonetheless, the more Lèt Agogo can scale up production, the less the Haitian government will need to subsidize the program in the future.

Regardless, it should be clear that Lèt Agogo is not just another state-run program that is losing money. When strictly discussing accounts, one can prematurely reach this conclusion; however, this price tag for the State is a minimal cost given the long-term benefits of the program. The Haitian Government spends a large percentage of its budget on importing food to Haiti, which is entirely illogical given that Haiti is an agricultural country. If Haiti can achieve food sovereignty, the government will spend hundreds of millions less on importing foreign dairy products—among others—each year. Furthermore, no monetary value has been calculated for Lèt Agogo’s school program, which provides thousands of children with access to essential calcium and protein nutrition, nutrition to which they had no access prior to the program. Health care costs for treating protein- or calcium-deficient children are being lowered, and arguably even more beneficially, between 50 and 75 families are employed in each laiterie, which has an enormous environmental and economic impact on Haiti. For every family employed, they no longer cut down trees to make a living. Given that 98% of Haiti has been deforested, the long term environmental impact of Lèt Agogo is necessary for Haiti’s future development.

Traditional economic profitability schemes do not take into consideration these social and environmental impacts on the economy. Yet, in a country in which complicated problems require even more complex solutions, we must start thinking beyond red and black accounts. “We are not worried,” Dr. Chancy concludes. “The State needs to construct for now, and profitability will inevitably come.”

When environmental, social, health, and political benefits are added into Lèt Agogo’s books, this farming cooperative is far beyond profitable. Something as important as producing one’s own food does not have a price tag; neither does turning the tables on deforestation, nor does providing school children with one of their only stable sources of nutrition. When you choose Lèt Agogo, you are choosing much more than a brand and a quality product; you are choosing a new future for Haiti based on a local, sustainable economy.

To learn more about Lèt Agogo, please visit their website at http://www.veterimed.org.ht/let_agogo.htm.
Also check out the YouTube film here: http://www.veterimed.org.ht/page%20video-lait-fr1.htm

-Nick Stratton, President of BrandHaiti