Editor’s note: On Jan. 12, Haiti marked four years since the earthquake that devastated the country. This week and next, Global Atlanta is taking a look at how Atlanta-based organizations are continuing their often-challenging work in the country.
Fritz Vaval shatters the hapless image of Haiti so often circulated in media reports and charity pleas.
Wearing a straw hat and a white t-shirt emblazoned with the red Indian chief logo for Arawaks Distilleries, he exudes confidence born of experience as he shows off his pride and joy to Global Atlanta during a 2012 visit.
His English is better than passable, but Mr. Vaval also mastered Spanish while studying rural development at a Mexican university. He worked with non-governmental organizations upon his return to Haiti but now is trying to put a new spin on his old family business: making Haiti’s indigenous liquor, clairin vaval, a crystal-clear beverage that looks like water and goes down like dynamite.
The rural distillery is near Cavaillon, a small Haitian town not too far from the larger small town of Les Cayes on the peninsula that juts west of the Haitian mainland.
Built in the middle of a sugar cane field, it’s nothing fancy: a few cinder-block rooms and an open-air shelter supported by wooden beams topped with sheets of corrugated metal.
But the closed system it contains would make environmentalists green with envy. After harvesting by hand from nearby fields, laborers feed sugar cane into a mill that extracts the juice. Husks are piled to the side, some destined to fuel the distillery furnace and others to broken down into compost and sold as fertilizer to charities working on farming projects.
Leaning back in a rocking chair in the shade with a freshly hacked-open green coconut, Mr. Vaval discusses Haiti’s business environment. While keenly aware of the country’s challenges, he betrays no hint of fatalism.
What he lacks, he says, is not backbone or vision; he simply needs capital to fund improvements: a tractor, more land and – eventually – solar panels to replace the generator currently powering the mill. Haitian banks have improved, but the situation for small businesses is still far from Ideal.
“Everything you see here came out of our pocket,” he said, noting that his father was also in the clairin business.
Staring off at his workers laboring in bright red logo t-shirts, shorts, caps and flip-flops in the summer sun, Mr. Vaval says more sales could provide more jobs, which are sorely needed in Haiti’s deprived rural areas.
“All the people in the Port-au-Prince are coming from the provinces, and they are looking for opportunities, also. They are looking for commerce. They are looking for education. They are looking for everything. They don’t have that in the provinces,” he said.
Sales is another challenge, though. While clairin is still a niche product mostly served at Haitian events in the U.S., he is experimenting with rum that could find better market prospects here. He has a nephew in Atlanta working on a plan.
Beyond agriculture, Mr. Vaval sees a tourism future for his scenic corner of Haiti, which is close to the sea and boasts dramatic mountain landscapes.
“I think this part of the country has its potential.”