Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mangoes in Haiti

This is an article from the online newspaper the Epoch Times dealing with the mango sector in Haiti. The author contacted me in my capacity as research director of the film "Hands that Feed", and I told her that exported mango and coffee don't have much impact on Haitian food security, because they are not eaten by Haitians, and export volumes are too low to make a major economic impact in the lives of most farmers. The article's main thrust wasn't food security issues, so my quotes didn't make it in.

Anyway, the article has punctured my skepticism regarding large schemes to export mangoes in order to promote Haitian agrarian development. Usually selling exotic, perishable crops for export isn't a good idea. The foreign demand is not reliable for what is ultimately a luxury food. But beyond that, the math usually doesn't favor farmers' earning much money from export crops, because there are so many middlemen that take a cut of the final consumer dollar. On the other hand, producing staple foods for local markets usually gives the farmer a more stable demand and fewer middlemen, so farmers can sell retail instead of wholesale.

In the case of Haitian mangoes, my first set of concerns still stands. Selling highly-perishable mangoes to wealthy US consumers is a very risky proposition, especially if farmers have to dedicate lots of time and capital to focusing their operations on mango production.

But according to this article, the economics of mango exports are at least favorable for Haitian farmers.

According to the excellent FAOSTAT database, Haiti's mango production has gone from about 180000 tons a year in the 1960s, to a height of about 350000 tons a year in the 1980s, and after a drop in the 1990s it is climbing back to around 300000 tons a year now. Exports of mangoes, on the other hand, have gone from about 3000 tons a year in 1980 to about 8000 tons today. It thus seems that both increased production and export of mangoes is a viable possibility for Haiti. According to FAOSTAT, exported mangoes represent only about 3% of the quantity of mangoes produced in Haiti, while the blue "Facts" box in the Epoch Times article tells us that mango exports earn about 14% of the value of mangoes produced in the country. Hence this is one of the few cases I've seen of exported crops being worth more than those sold on the local retail market, even when the producers themselves are only getting half of the export value. It would seem then that exporting more mangoes would be a good proposition for Haitian farmers, as long as exports didn't come to consume too large a share of mango production. (When a country exports too large a share of a given crop, genetic diversity goes down as farmers plant only a few exportable varieties instead of a wide range of varieties for home and local consumption. In addition, an economy too dependent on exports is fragile and volatile, and often local nutrition suffers as people export for cash instead of producing for food.)

One last worry of mine about pushing too hard for mango exports in Haiti has to do with demand. I have to wonder where increased exports of Haitian mangoes would go. What if the meager increase in mango exports from the 1980s to the present is due to a lack of demand? Mr. Buteau, the big exporter quoted in the article, claims that demand is essentially limitless, but neither he nor the author offers any support for this statement. It would be a shame to put a bunch of resources into promoting mango exports only to find that the fickle world markets for exotic fruit don't want that many mangoes!

Perhaps the best policy is for donors, government, farmers, and processors to focus on increasing total mango production, reducing postharvest losses, and promoting food transformation industries. Such measures would benefit both the local and export markets, and allow the option of focusing more or less on exports, depending on the economic and infrastructure climate. Even if exports don't pan out, mangoes can do a lot of good for Haitians. They are a nutritious food, rich in vitamin A. Beyond this, mango trees provide erosion control for soils, and they are great shade trees. Promoting mangoes might not bring in a cash bonanza for Haiti, but maybe the next great ideas will come from a conversation between Haitian youths sitting under the thick foliage of a mango tree!

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