Berkeley-Haas Part-Time MBA students Anurag Aggarwal, Sam Kanakamedala, Mohan Krishnamurthy and Nitin Nagarkatte are working on an IBD project with Acceso Peanut Enterprise Corporation in Haiti.
Haiti greeted us with its sultry heat and its total chaos at the airport. We fueled the chaos further by showing up on three separate flights, and a lost piece of baggage. This was surely going to be one fun ride. The ride to the hotel indeed came with its own share of fun as our driver zig-zagged through crowded streets and even some street markets. We eventually reached Petion-ville, a neighborhood high up the mountain overlooking Port-au-Prince, and sporting significantly cleaner streets, and bigger houses. From the balcony of our hotel we saw gorgeous mansions jostling for space with makeshift shanties and crowded makeshift houses. Quite an extraordinary mix it was.
Why did we travel to Haiti, you ask ? Our goal was to test and propose a traceability solution for the Haitian peanut supply chain. Acceso Peanut Corporation, a Clinton Giustra Enterprise partnership, is systematically building peanut supply chain in Haiti to help local farmers grow their income by 300% in two years. To achieve this goal, Acceso decided to target international buyers. The traceability of peanuts is a critical part of the infrastructure development to target international buyers.
The next morning brought our introduction to Acceso’s staff. The office was housed in a brand new building overlooking the mountains on one side and the bustle of Port-au-Prince next to the ocean on the other. Ushered in to the conference room, we were told that Acceso’s IT person would meet us soon. A few minutes later in walks this Haitian prodigy—Jacquelain. He is a determined young man, who lost his father in the earthquake and has seen his fair share of struggles. Today he juggles between his roles as a grad student and as a dynamic app developer for Acceso. He was also going to be our translator for most of our stay.
We spent the rest of the day understanding the current state of the peanut supply chain and the challenges they have faced so far. After three days of ideation, diverging and converging, and market research, we finally arrived at the first ever technologically enabled Farmer Identification system. We also went on to create a workflow for using tablets and scanners to automate and modernize farm to market traceability of peanuts. After all of this, we realized that we also needed real validation from the actual users in the field.
We headed out into the Peanut country in the fertile central plateau of Haiti to a sleepy little town called Mirebalais. The journey took us through some sharp contrasts—from the bustling Port-au-Prince through the crowded markets along the way (again), to some steep winding mountain roads and finally on to the lush green plateau of Mirebalais. “Let’s see our peanut garden,” said Rob, our client, as we made a quick stop. For the next 15 minutes he walked us through different nuances of peanut farming and the steps that Acceso has been taking to improve yields.
Next stop – Peanut Depot. We walked across the garden to a small warehouse, which had been converted into one of Acceso’s depots. Inside the depot were sacks full of farm-fresh peanuts waiting to be shelled and eaten. Yet we knew those were forbidden fruit, because Haitian Peanuts may carry Aflatoxin, a deadly carcinogen. “These peanuts are safe,” said the Depot Manager and soon four hands dug into the large bag. No points for guessing whose hands they were.
Experimentation is a challenge anywhere. This challenge was especially compounded during our trip due to the fact that we do not speak any French or Creole (the two most common languages in Haiti) and that the full extent of our practically nonexistent vocabulary included “Bonjour” and “Merci” (NO not Messi the football star). Thank God for Google Translate and Jacquelain, who made it possible to interact with depot managers and local staff who spoke no English. Though we did not inherit any Creole, we did give them all a taste of spicy Indian food. After a week of miming to communicate we now feel confident challenging anyone to a game of charades.
No travel to an island is complete without a trip to the beach, and we made no exception. The beautiful white sand beach, the grilled seafood, and the unlimited supply of drinks, not to forget the World Cup Final broadcast with Creole commentary, was all we needed to recharge.
Heading back to Mirebalais, we launched the first part of the traceability strategy: grower ID cards. This was the first time in Haiti any corporation has ever issued an ID card. These cards are simple but very effective way of identifying each individual farmer. Each ID card has a visual code that the depot manager can easily understand to quickly determine where the farmer is located; the cards can also be scanned using standard barcode readers.
As a second step, we ran training sessions for all 5 of the depot managers and the regional manager. These Proof-of-Concept experiments helped us determine the usability of various solutions. It was another hot and muggy day, but excitement and anticipation filled the air. We were blown away by how quickly the depot managers learnt the process and how effectively they were able to help each other out. Though lacking formal education, the depot managers displayed excellent competence and definitely did not hold back from taking on these new challenges. As a third step, we gathered feedback from the depot managers on various aspects of the solution that they tested.
The feedback at the end of experimentation from the managers, and our observations gave us all the data we needed. Before heading back though, we made it a point to gorge ourselves on some amazing Haitian mangoes.
Back in Port-au-Prince after putting together our final recommendations we took the opportunity to explore the city. Signs of construction everywhere amidst the ruins left behind by the earthquake stood testament to the resilience of this country and its people. Virtually every street was filled with people hawking everything under the sun ranging from clothes and shoes to paintings and the local rum and sometimes even baskets full of vitamins and medicines.
We spent the last day of our time here brainstorming and discussing new ideas at our client’s home high up in the cool mountains in the midst of nature, away from all the hustle and bustle.
After the heat and sweat, mosquitoes and Deet, dehydration and electrolytes, beaches and mountains, and new friends along the way, “We are coming home.”
A short 2 hour flight later, we reached U.S. Customs and Immigration at the Miami Airport on our way to our respective post-IBD destinations.
The immigration officer asked us – “Where are you coming from?”
We responded “Haiti.”
To which he responded – “Keep up the good work, Sir”.
Then and there we knew we were carrying one more powerful brand – “The Haitian Brand”