Maize, Resilience, and Women’s Empowerment: How Southern Haiti is Preparing for Future Challenges

RTI | Int'l Dev
5 min readOct 14, 2020

By Kaitlin Lesnick, RTI International

For the past two years, RTI International has been partnering with Papyrus S.A., which leads the Maize Adaptive and Innovative Solutions (MAIS) project, a five-year effort funded by Global Affairs Canada to improve the livelihoods of Haitian smallholder farmers and their families. Credit: Nadia Todres for RTI International.

In Haiti, you can find maize nearly everywhere. This staple crop makes up a key portion of the Haitian diet through products such as maïs moulin, maïs moulu, and farine, which are cooked with greens and protein. In fact, the average Haitian consumes approximately 20 kilograms (about 44 pounds) of maize per year, a number that increases for individuals living in rural, maize-producing areas. Of the 320,000 MT of maize produced in Haiti annually, about 70 percent is consumed as porridge, and approximately 10 percent is consumed fresh, either boiled or grilled.

Haiti’s southwest region is agronomically ideal for maize production, providing some of the most fertile soil and flat terrain in the country. But several constraints have limited the ability of the area’s small-scale maize producers to scale up their production and sell to urban markets or export abroad.

Altima (29, right) and Stanion (18, left) work the corn fields in Les Cayes, Haiti. Stanion says his proudest moments are when he collects what he has planted. When asked what makes Haiti special, he says, “the people.” Credit: Nadia Todres for RTI International

In 2018, RTI partnered with Papyrus S.A., a Haitian management firm implementing the Maize Adaptive and Innovative Solutions (MAIS) project, a five-year effort funded by Global Affairs Canada to improve the livelihoods of Haitian smallholder farmers and their families. While the project aims to reduce some of the common market constraints that inhibit the expansion of the maize value chain in Haiti’s south, it is also focused on building the resilience of smallholder maize and bean farmers to shocks and stresses.

“When any type of disaster hits a country, it’s likely that agricultural markets and food systems will be affected,” says Tracy Mitchell, Senior Resilience and Food Security Advisor at RTI.

“Therefore, building resilience to be able to withstand and ‘bounce back better’ from market system shocks is critical for maintaining food security, nutrition security, and economic wellbeing in a community.”

A Complex Context

There has been no shortage of shocks in Haiti, which ranks fourth among countries most affected by extreme weather events. In 2010, the historic 7.0 earthquake disrupted food production and access throughout the country. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew, a Category 5 storm, devastated crops and infrastructure. More recently, from 2019 to date, civil unrest has impeded progress in food security efforts, compounded by the spread of COVID-19.

Each time these shocks occur, there’s a threat that previous development gains can be eroded, and that the goalposts for economic success will be moved back through no fault of the citizens. “By consistently thinking about and integrating resilience throughout our development programs, we can help vulnerable populations to better manage risk and buttress their progress,” explains Mitchell.

From farm to market: The Global Affairs Canada-funded MAIS project works in southern Haiti to help small-scale maize and bean producers scale up their production and sell to urban markets or export abroad. Credit: Nadia Todres for RTI International

That’s just what MAIS has done. In addition to linking farmers to markets and improving producers’ yields through better tools and technologies, MAIS incorporates a climate event mitigation component to support communities in the south with tools and approaches that can improve their ability to adjust, mitigate, and respond to negative consequences that accompany external shocks and natural disasters. Part of this effort includes community disaster risk reduction (DRR) training, instruments, and awareness-raising, as well as tree planting in targeted areas by women and youth.

Local Organizations Take the Lead

Camp Perrin-based non-profit ORE (Organization for the Rehabilitation of the Environment) works to improve environmental, agricultural, and economic conditions in rural Haiti. Their work promotes high-value tree crops, improved seeds, cash crops, and marketing programs to increase yields and farmer income, produce nutritionally rich foods, and protect the environment. As part of MAIS’ effort to strengthen the market system to improve resilience, the project has partnered with ORE to help maize and bean farmers in the south build their long-term resilience to any number of shocks and stresses.

Through the partnership, MAIS works with farmers that have worked with ORE for decades to help them scale up their efforts and is pairing them with a farmer field school approach to reach more farmers in the area. MAIS is also working with ORE to formalize their status as a regional buyer and processor, opening up new access to buyers in the area.

Eliassaint Magloire is the CEO of ORE (Organization for the Rehabilitation of the Environment), which partners with the MAIS project to strengthen the market system to improve resilience in southern Haiti. Credit: Nadia Todres for RTI International

“This part of the island has a lot of hurricanes, and climate change brings with it a lot of drought,” says ORE CEO Eliassaint Magloire. “MAIS provides training and other support, so when a natural disaster comes, we can be better prepared.”

Magloire says that MAIS’ focus on training, climate-smart practices, and inclusion are helping southern Haiti’s farmers prepare for the next shock — whatever that may be.

“We have enough land,” he says of Haiti’s potential for agricultural growth. “We have 12 months a year [during which] we can produce. Some countries only have six months, [whereas] we have sun all year.”

But to build resilience, he adds that, “We have to take steps. We mustn’t be shy. We can’t think that the U.S. will feed us all the time. We have to take responsibility.”

Women’s Empowerment = Increased Resilience

Beyond training on climate-smart production practices and introducing new tools and technologies, MAIS is working specifically with women in male-headed households, knowing that women play a critical role in maize farming. Plots are farmed jointly by men and women, and women take on an even larger role during processing, sorting, taking the household’s harvest to market, and negotiating sales with wholesalers, or “Madam Saras.” MAIS’ baseline data show that women are contributing to their households through more than just maize production and sale, with 50 percent of women also working in petty trade and self-owned business to augment their household’s income.

MAIS Field Agronomist Ernst David (right) collects information from Les Cayes farmer Maille Gerda Chaidry. Chaidry says that her biggest challenge is a lack of fertilizer, seeds, and pesticides, to which MAIS has helped her gain access. Her hope for the future is to have access to larger tracts of land, and for the future of Haiti, she wants peace. Credit: Nadia Todres for RTI International

Initial results from deeper analysis of the baseline data on women’s empowerment show that women who are involved in market sales and trade activities are more likely to have greater influence on household decisions. As MAIS strengthens the market for maize, more women may join in these activities, resulting in increased gender equity which is recognized more and more as a resilience capacity that can transform nations.

To learn more about the MAIS program, visit the Papyrus website

To learn more about RTI’s work in food security and resilience, visit rti.org/food-security

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RTI | Int'l Dev

RTI's #globaldev team applies science and knowledge to improve lives in developing countries around the world. An official RTI International feed.