Anne Reynolds and her daughter, Stephanie, put boots on the ground in Haiti in the year 2000, quite accidentally. They were vacationing in the Dominican Republic and inadvertently crossed the border into the western half of the island of Hispaniola, which they found a great deal more difficult to depart than to enter. So, while biding time until their documentation was cleared, they decided to explore the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, which has groaned under an eerie cloud of systemic dysfunction for most of its recorded history.
While Anne and Stephanie indeed saw signs of the discouraging plot lines most often associated with the Haitian narrative, the lasting impression of their visit was a stark and hopeful contrast. They were so captivated by the intersection of the inspiring people and abundant natural resources that they decided to invest their lives’ work becoming part of the Haitian story themselves. And as they began to mirror the indomitable spirit of the people they served, this sex educator and student from Alabama have helped create an agribusiness enterprise worthy of recognition in Forbes and a model for a new rendition of helping that I hope and pray the world’s aid organizations and NGOs consider adopting.
The ingredients for their success are the following: humility, curiosity, collaboration and vanilla (yes, vanilla).
Humility, Curiosity and Collaboration
Anne and Stephanie carry themselves with humility and insist that they are guests in this foreign land, not affluent do-gooders come to save a wayward people. That Americanized view of helping is often referred to as paternalism. Here’s how Brian Fikkert, author of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor, explains “resource paternalism”:
Being from a materialistic culture, North Americans often view the solution to poverty in material terms and tend to pour financial and other material resources into situations in which the real need is for the local people to steward their own resources. In addition, legitimate local business can be undermined when outsiders bring in such things as free clothes or building supplies, undercutting the price that these local businesses need to survive.
Paternalism takes many forms—resource, spiritual, knowledge, labor and managerial—but they all boil down to doing things for people that they can do for themselves. Its roots are found in ignorance and a false sense of superiority tied to the internalized “messages of centuries of colonialism, slavery, and racism,” on the part of helpers and short-sighted pragmatism on the part of those in desperate need of help. The unfortunate result of so much of the well-meaning aid that is provided throughout the world by governments, NGOs, small groups and individuals is a subconscious condescension on the part of givers and a culture of dependency on the part of recipients.
Reynolds acknowledges that she brought her Americanized view of helping to Haiti, but it was the people of Haiti who helped teach her. She required only the humility and the curiosity to be taught. She did what so many of us are prone to avoid when faced with discomfort personified—she looked people in the eyes. She saw them as people not as projects, and she came to know them, their joys and their struggles. Anne describes the moment at which it all became clear for her: she was getting ready to come home to the States and one of the Haitian farmers she’d been working closely with asked her, “Are you coming back?”
“Haiti doesn’t want or need our help,” Anne says. “They want our collaboration.”
The Vanilla Project
Anne’s initial assessment was that the remote village in Haiti, with which she and her daughter, Stephanie, had fallen in love, was in need of some basic necessities. First, they helped create a feeding program to ensure the children were receiving adequate nutrition. And there was no school, so Anne relied on her background in education to help build and staff a school. This was all in 2000, long before Haiti became part of the global conversation following the earthquake that devastated the capital city of Port-au-Prince and many surrounding areas on January 12, 2010.
But Anne’s insistence that her work not merely create a cycle of dependency led her to search beyond the boundaries of her education and experience to find a way to introduce a sustainable source of revenue that could ably support the village into perpetuity. Certainly, she might help introduce some expertise to enhance their primary vocation—farming, specifically cacao used to make chocolate—but doing so might only serve to stabilize the village economically to the point of subsistence. In order to actually grow their micro-economy, they would need to introduce something new. Having the second most popular ice cream flavor already covered, Anne and Stephanie pondered the world’s most popular—vanilla.
There is much good news about introducing vanilla as a crop. This adaptable spice, both sweet and savory, is the second most expensive in the world, after saffron. To put it in perspective, you’ll pay over nine dollars online for McCormick’s Gourmet Collection vanilla beans jar at Walmart[i]—and it includes exactly two beans! One of the reasons that the Reynolds women were so attracted to vanilla is that a single producing vanilla vine can support an entire Haitian family financially for a year, much as a cow might help a poor farmer subsist. Haiti’s nearby neighbor, the United States, imports 70% of the world’s vanilla, while the largest producers of vanilla globally—Indonesia and Madagascar[ii], are worlds away. So why not make Haiti a major producer of vanilla, raising the standard of living of this impoverished nation?
Enter the bad news. Vanilla is expensive for a reason—it’s very hard to grow. Vanilla is only indigenous to Mexico, where it is pollinated successfully by the local variety of the Melipona bee.[iii][iv] The rest of the world learned of vanilla’s existence after Cortez brought it back to Europe, along with chocolate, in the 1520s.[v] Mexico remained the world’s dominant producer of vanilla for three centuries until an adventurous botanist discovered that it could actually be pollinated by hand in the mid-1800s.[vi] Since the plants must be pollinated within a mere twelve hour window, the crop didn’t proliferate outside of Mexico until later that century, but now nearly all of the world’s vanilla is hand-pollinated. Doing so is work-intensive and requires training—and not only of the farmers, but also the plant. Vanilla is a vine that requires a tutor, another plant or tree on which to grow, and some work better than others. Oh, and it takes five years to produce fruit—not optimal for families in dire need of an economic boost now.
Undeterred, the Reynolds women and their Haitian counterparts brought vanilla plants to Haiti to begin test trials in 2002. With the help of “The Vanilla Queen,” Patricia Rain,[vii] they solicited the expertise of agronomist, David Gardella, who conducted a scientific feasibility study and confirmed success was a possibility. But yet again, the only way success was possible was through collaboration. They needed to find the optimal tutor for the vanilla vines. And after many attempts to court a suitable tutor, the most natural partner of all accepted the vanilla vine’s proposal—cacao—chocolate.
The potential was extraordinary. “If this works,” Anne thought, “we’d have a vanilla rainforest extending for hundreds of acres. And with sizable cacao growing regions in both the north and the south, a new industry could potentially be born! Paris of the Antilles [an 18th century nickname for the northern coastal city of present-day Cap-Haitien][viii] is still here, and it’s capable of being cultivated!” But it would take over a decade of dedication—and more partnerships, ideally with an ice cream company that needed a lot of vanilla—to make it possible. “More” called in March of 2012, in the form of Darius Wilmore, a former Def Jam Records Art Director, known for working with artists Jay-Z, LL Cool J, Run DMC and Haiti’s own, Wyclef Jean. But it wasn’t music Wilmore wanted to discuss with Anne Reynolds. He wanted to talk about ice cream. Darius, a Severna Park, Maryland native, had left the corporate realm to put his creative weight behind a fledgling social enterprise in Baltimore called Taharka Brothers Ice Cream, and they were interested in Anne’s Vanilla Project and Haiti, in particular. Wilmore found Anne at the end of a Google search for “Can you grow vanilla in Haiti?” So he picked up the phone and called.
Taharka Brothers Ice Cream
Taharka Brothers bears the name of Taharka McKoy, a young man who grew up, and sadly died, in the Baltimore city housing projects. The trajectory of his life was re-directed several times as he was mentored as a teen, watched his mother rebuild her life and interacted with the criminal justice system, but as a young man of 25, he had become a neighborhood activist for social change. He was tragically and fatally shot wrestling a gun out of the hands of a boy he mentored, only 14. Mirroring their namesake, Taharka Brothers Ice Cream is now owned and operated by young men who are attempting to rise above the culture of drugs and violence in Baltimore’s toughest neighborhoods. Although it was founded as a charitable non-profit, Taharka is now an employee-owned B-Corp—a benefit corporation, or for-profit company with a charitable mission. Creative capitalism as a tool for social change.
While the Taharka Brothers vision has never faltered, the company has limped along for the bulk of its existence, but after surviving the Great Recession (when most of the local and regional ice cream producers in Baltimore folded), Taharka Brothers is picking up steam. They’re being served at nearly 60 scoop shops and some of the finest restaurants in Baltimore. And orders from outside of Baltimore are also coming in, including a recent boon from the renowned DC-centric restaurant chain and “community where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted,”[ix] Busboys and Poets. Taharka Brothers acquired a larger production facility that is helping them keep up with demand, and Darius Wilmore is helping to crystalize their brand and tell their story.
Taharka Brothers’ interest in the Vanilla Project was twofold: First, they need vanilla—lots of it. In addition to vanilla ice cream, the spice is a primary ingredient in many of their delectable flavors (like Blueberry Pancake, Gravel Road and my personal favorite, Honey Graham, as well as the more culturally significant, the Jazz Man’s Blues and A Richard Pryor Moment). Second, Wilmore’s appreciation of black history led him right to Haiti, to which he feels black Americans owe their freedom in part. What?
Long story short, the indigenous population of Haiti was decimated shortly after the Europeans landed in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Beginning with Spain, European powers battled over the territory until France officially colonized it in 1664, then repopulating it with African slaves to work the plantations rich in natural resources.[x] The Haitian Revolution—a slave revolt—began in 1791 and finally rebuffed Napoleon’s last gasp effort, to become a free black republic in 1804,[xi] emboldening future abolition efforts in Britain and the United States. Essentially, as Darius puts it, “The fall of the African slave trade began with Haiti’s revolution.”
Wilmore’s fascination with the role that the Haitian Revolution played in the fall of slavery in the States was spurred by a visit from a delegation of Haitian government officials and media representatives, who ended up tasting Taharka Brothers ice cream and the spirit behind it on a U.S. tour following the devastating earthquake. They were searching for social enterprise business models to emulate in Port-au-Prince, and the World Trade Center Institute in Baltimore connected them to Taharka.
But it’s not African Americans alone who have the Haitian Revolution to thank, Wilmore posits. “Americans of every color, from the Mid-West to the left coast don’t speak French today because of, in large part, the Haitian revolution.” Indeed, the loss of his Caribbean jewel, the key to Napoleon’s dreams of a western empire built on trade, significantly devalued his American assets and likely hastened the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.[xii] So as far as Darius and Taharka Brothers are concerned, “Black folk, as well as all Americans, we feel, owe the people of Haiti a debt and not charity. A debt.”
These sentiments are also echoed by Anne and Stephanie Reynolds. Stephanie has complemented her work in Haiti with a Master’s degree concentrating in African American and Latin American/Caribbean studies, and the Haitian Revolution specifically. “Being from Montgomery, Alabama—a city that prides itself on being the ‘birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement’—we see the Haitian Revolution as a pivotal event that paved the way for domestic progress,” says Stephanie. “Given that so many of our nation’s own policies have negatively impacted the economy of Haiti, we have an obligation to do what we can to improve the economy of Haiti today. To do so is to carry on the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.”
The Big Payback
The collective effort to repay the debt is called “The Big Payback.” Why? “Snatched from the chorus of one of James Brown’s greatest funk singles—1971’s ‘The Payback’—the song has lived forever immortal in the music collections of the African American community since its release and has been the funk foundation of countless rap and R&B songs up until the present day,” Wilmore educates. He saw the youth and vibe represented in the ice cream company harmonizing with their partners in Haiti, a country in which 60% of the population is under the age of 24, and deeply impacted by music. “The least Taharka Brothers could do, being a company primarily run by young black men under the age of 25, would be to buy ice cream flavor ingredients from the farmers of Haiti as ‘payback’ and thank you for their ancestors’ courage and for their continued perseverance over tremendous daily struggle.”
While waiting for the vanilla project’s expansion into mass production, De La Sol: Haiti was born. The De La Sol / Taharka connection began with a single employee in Haiti on a makeshift rooftop factory, using a grinder attached to a lawnmower motor. “Six months later,” says Darius Wilmore, “that one person has ballooned to eight people (and growing), working in a new facility as of March 1, 2013. These are people who did not have jobs six months ago, and who spent their days trying to figure out how to eat. It’s been an incredible thing to have helped instigate and to see blossom.”
And they’re just getting started. After a year of working with everyone from the Haitian farmers to the country’s Embassy, they expect to begin buying 100 pounds of cacao monthly “for starters.” Then next year, they’ll begin importing the precious vanilla that will be ready to harvest, as well as sea salt, coffee, mango, cinnamon and other delectables that will find their way into ice cream consumed by Baltimore and beyond.
Humility, curiosity, collaboration and vanilla; and now, chocolate, sea salt, coffee, mango and cinnamon. Inspiring, isn’t it, to hear a story about young black men in Baltimore that isn’t stereotypically about guns and drugs, and of Haiti that isn’t about what the country lacks, but about beauty and abundance? How much, furthermore, could the practice and business of helping improve over the next generation if we began to focus less on what hurting people need and more on what they have to offer?