Jardins Hydroponiques d’Haiti (JHH)

Background

Jardins Hydroponiques d’Haiti (JHH) use the innovative method of hydroponics – using a water solution with nutrients and minerals, to grow plants, so that no soil is needed. This hydroculture approach allows for a dynamic and cost-efficient production system as the plants can make the most of the nutrients available in the water. Inputs, particularly water and fertiliser, can be maximised, and it can result in yields that are up to ten times more per square meter than would be the case with conventional methods.

Pierre Francois Benoît, the founder of Jardins Hydroponiques d’Haiti, had been in exile for 29 years when he decided to return to his home country and in 1992 start JHH. It remains the only hydroponics farm in the country, and is the result of the founder’s background as an expert in quality control and personal interest in hydroponics. Starting with a one meter squared tables fashioned out of wood, the first batches of crops grown on a trial basis were six heads of lettuce, which with additional research and much effort, doubled to twelve heads of lettuce and then multiplied to two hundred heads of lettuce. In addition to lettuce, JHH also experimented with a variety of other crops which reflect its mission to locally produce healthier fruits and vegetables in greater volumes. These included strawberries, tomatoes, sweet corn and cauliflowers. With a growth in variety and volumes of crops being grown, JHH expanded from table top production to various other areas of the Benoît residence, including balconies and the rooftop. Today, the JHH farms have expanded to operate on 1,200 m2 which includes an especially built greenhouse, complemented by reservoirs that have been installed to provide water.

Transforming a Crisis into an Opportunity

The 2010 cholera epidemic in Haiti presented an unprecedented opportunity for Jardins Hydroponiques d’Haiti, as locals became wary of consuming conventional soil-grown lettuce due to fear of contamination. This resulted in a sharp growth in the interest of the general public around hydroponics, and an increase in the demand for JHH hydroponically grow lettuce. In order to exploit this opportunity, the production of other crops was ceased and the JHH began growing lettuce on an almost exclusive basis, and even then, could not satisfy the level of demand. Presently, the farm grows 204 heads of lettuce, in a 16 m2 along with herbs, which are a more recent introduction, and tomatoes.

A significant challenge that the Jardins Hydroponiques d’Haiti faced when it first began operations was that locals in Haiti were unfamiliar with the verities of lettuce which it was growing and also with hydroponics more generally. As a result, initially the JHH involved friends and neighbours of Mr Benoît to act as test subjects in order to provide feedback on the products. The opinions given were overwhelmingly positive, with particular praise given to the quality of the produce harvested from JHH. It was at this stage that JHH began to commercialise its operations, as initially it was operated as a hobby by Mr Benoît.

Scaling up the Business - Marketing and Finance

A significant challenge in the transformation of the hydroponics farm into an agribusiness related to finance. In the beginning, the project was funded through the personal savings of the founder, but as it expanded, the management considered the need to access external finance in the way of a commercial loan. They were able to secure a G325,000 loan after two years of negotiations with a bank, to be disbursed in four instalments, and which JHH hoped to use as finance for the construction of a new greenhouse. However, due to the very high interest rate of 36% p.a., Jardins Hydroponiques d’Haiti eventually repaid the loan in full after just the first quarter, and the company finances its operations through the reinvestment of profits into its operations. This is possible due to the very high demand for its high quality products, as a result both of the circumstances surround the cholera epidemic, and also due to the prior marketing activities of the JHH to increase awareness of their products in the commercial sector.

The business started its marketing locally, by visiting supermarkets and making direct contact with consumers. Sampling stands were set up where consumers or potential buyers would be able to taste the lettuces and other products sold by JHH, with the result that interest in the previously little known varieties of lettuce grown by JHH increased and soon the consumers were placing orders in such volumes that demand outstripped supply. Nowadays, it is restaurants, supermarkets and hotels which contact Jardins Hydroponiques d’Haiti for the high quality lettuce and herbs that it sells, and the company has had to change its production model to a client based or “by demand” approach, so that it grows specific crops in specific amounts according to the orders that it receives.

From Quality to Niche Products

JHH has been focused on quality production from the beginning, and this quality of its products have been instrumental in creating and reinforcing demand for its lettuce and other goods. Hydroponics involves a highly technical process which can be significantly tailored and simplified, and gives the producer control over the quality of procedures throughout the production process – from what inputs and how much of each go into the solution, and also in relation to the processing and packaging. Some key quality controls are in place to ensure compliance with food safety rules and standards:

  • Each head of lettuce is gathered by a worker wearing a pair of gloves.
  • Each is then washed with chlorine water to remove insects and finally placed into its own small box inside the greenhouse.
  • At no point in this process are workers allowed to handle the lettuce with bare hands.

Value addition is the latest strategy for the business to increase revenues from the produce it sells, allowing it to differentiate itself further from imported products, and also as means of developing linkages with new markets, such as ready-to-eat consumer goods. JHH’s lettuce can now be found sold with an accompanying sweet and salted vinaigrette. The basil is sold both fresh, and also in a pesto sauce which is made from ground basil. The company is now looking into a new line of products, such as micro greens, which are particularly in demand from the hotel sector.

Bridging the gap between Farm and Tourists

Haiti has significant tourism potential, evidenced not only through its historical status as a leading tourism destination in the Caribbean, but also due to its unique characteristics (language, history, culture) and presently low entry point as the market there is not as saturated in comparison to neighbouring countries. JHH has identified linkages with the tourism sector that have allowed it to generate greater exposure and also work with sectors beyond agriculture in order to promote Haitian goods and products.

Catering to the tourist sector requires a particular attention to quality of produce and a reliable supply which is consistent. A specific example of the dynamic between JHH and the tourism sector in Haiti can be seen in its relationship with the hotels on the island:

The large hotels where the tourists have acquired a palette for the company’s vegetables are supplied with fresh produce on a regular basis. This is particularly important and aligns well with the healthy diets and lifestyles being adopted by these individuals. While the Marriott has been a customer, other smaller hotels and resorts have utilized the company’s lettuce in their different recipes. In addition, supermarkets stock the company’s fresh produce and value-added products – pesto and the lettuce in vinaigrette. These value-added products are also available to tourists. Where transportation proves difficult, the vegetables are packed in igloos and sent by public transport to these hotels and supermarkets. This promotes a good relationship as provisions are made to facilitate every customer, irrespective of their location. This model has, thus, sought to develop local vegetable production and cater to both local and international palettes. In addition, it encourages the establishment of linkages and has bridged the gap between the producer and the final consumers. While exports are being viewed as a viable future prospect, the primary focus is currently on supplying the local market with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Sources:
Rhiney, K. 2015. Study on Agribusiness Development – Strengthening Agritourism potential in the Caribbean. CTA and IICA