Alltech hopes to help Haiti by bringing in jobs

Alltech and Lyons build homes, schools and businesses in poor country

rcopley@herald-leader.comAugust 15, 2010 

OUANAMINTHE, Haiti — Haven Partnership's development sits atop a hill in Ouanaminthe, a city of 100,000 people in northern Haiti, on the border with the Dominican Republic.

The concrete, pastel yellow units modestly house 150 families, but it's far sturdier shelter than the makeshift homes lining the highway below the development. The families have cover from storms, shade from the heat, gardens and clotheslines in their community, even a school down the hill.

But at least one important thing is in short supply: jobs.

"The average income per family per month is $10," says Joe Grealy, an Irish builder who came to Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, to work as a project manager for Haven when the real estate market dried up. "Those lucky enough to have a job make $3 to $5 a day, if they are lucky. But jobs are thin on the ground."

Nicholasville-based Alltech plans to help by creating jobs for the village, as well as expanding its educational opportunities.

In a field down the hill from the village by Haven, sort of an Irish version of Habitat for Humanity, wild horses and pigs roam free. But the field will soon be home to an Alltech factory that will manufacture several of the animal-feed products the company sells in the Dominican Republic.

Alltech's founder and president, Pearse Lyons, said he already has a commitment from the company's Dominican distributor to buy $2.5 million of products in the factory's first year.

"The possibility of an Alltech plant and jobs, and the multiple people that takes out of a poverty-stricken situation and into a sustainable situation to support a family, is fantastic," Grealy says. "If it were 20 jobs, that's going to support 300 people with family and extended family. It's a huge difference in people's lives."

Alltech's Haitian adventure started with the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated the capital city of Port-au-Prince, about 80 miles south of Ouanaminthe.

The next day, Lyons decided to fly to the stricken nation to see how the company could help.

"One of the wonderful things about running a company like ours, where we don't have shareholders and we don't have stakeholders, is we can respond," Lyons said during a drive through Cap-Haitien, the largest city in northern Haiti, on a morning in early August. "You can listen, and you can read, but you have to see, and seeing is believing."

He had been to Haiti only once before, in his early years as a brewery consultant. So he boarded Alltech's jet the day after the quake and flew into the Dominican Republic and then helicoptered into Haiti.

"What compelled me to do it was I said, 'Let's go in there and find out if there is something we can do,'" Lyons said.

He found a country in chaos, particularly near the devastated capital. Lyons began consulting with Clodys Menacho, general manager for Alltech's Central American operations, for a project they could undertake to help change a little corner of Haiti.

Within three weeks, Alltech was in touch with a Haitian school and the city of Ouanaminthe.

"We searched for a place that was close to the border, where we could go in and have an impact, where we could be a big fish in a little pool," Lyons says.

While in Haiti earlier this month, Lyons gave the order to begin construction on its Ouanaminthe factory and look at some school projects in the area it was entering.

The Alltech staff also did some other business.

Haitian coffee with bourbon

On a steamy Wednesday night in Cap-Haitien, Lyons and a staff of nine met representatives from RECOCARNO (the abbreviation for a French name that translates Network of North Region Coffee Cooperatives), an umbrella cooperative that represents eight coffee cooperatives in northern Haiti. Over bottles of Barbancourt rum and dinner at the open-air Café Lakay, they discussed a deal that cooperative official Renaud Fils Jean Jacques said would make Alltech the co-op's first U.S. customer.

"We have been trying to get into the American market," he said, noting RECOCARNO exports to Europe, "but this will be our first time."

One specific destination for the Haitian coffee would be Bluegrass Sundown, Alltech's bourbon-and-coffee drink. Jennifer Frederick, an applications engineer and coffee expert at Alltech, said the company is also looking at importing coffee for internal company use and to be roasted and sold by Lexington Coffee and Tea Co., which owns Coffee Times Coffee House on Regency Road.

The morning after the dinner meeting, part of the Alltech crew helicopters from Cap-Haitien to the town of Dondon to visit Coopérative Agricole et Cafetière Gabart LeVaillant, a coffee bean-processing cooperative that has been open since 1955 and one of the eight cooperatives represented by RECOCARNO.

Coffee beans are brought by foot and mule to the cooperative, where they go through a process including drying and fermentation to make them ready to ship.

The staff of Coopérative Agricole is decked out in slacks and collared shirts for the official visit. While there, Lyons places an initial order for 7,500 pounds of coffee that he said would be expected in Lexington within a month. Lyons said Alltech also signed a contract for 150,000 pounds of coffee from all eight RECOCARNO cooperatives.

Coopérative Agricole president Cedieux Joseph says that could mean jobs in the village, which sits along a rocky, unpaved road that gives the Alltech crew one of its bumpiest rides during its quick trip to Haiti.

"Any time an organization from outside comes in to buy, it's better for us, because coffee is our livelihood," Joseph said through Frederick, who translated his French. "The more coffee we sell, the more we can invest in the people that are doing the planting and producing, and that benefits everybody. The more coffee we sell, the more jobs we can create."

Lyons says Alltech will also launch its own line of coffee for general sale, possibly named after the historic fortress Citadelle Laferrière, reflecting the company's involvement in Haiti.

Work comes at right time

Outside the walls of Coopérative Agricole is a village teeming with children. Lyons says that if Alltech gets involved in Dondon the way it is working in Ouanaminthe,there is a possibility the company could work in local schools as it is in the border town.

Lyons' initial foray into Haiti included a visit to the Centre Educatif l'Union des Coeurs, an inner-city Ouanaminthe school, where Alltech is now supporting a music program run by the University of Kentucky's voice department. At the Haven Partnership site, Lyons and Grealy discuss a plan to expand the school, which currently ends in sixth grade, to a full program ending at 12th grade.

"This will become a magnet school for kids, almost like a Dunbar, in science and in music," Lyons said, referring to Lexington's Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. "That will give us jobs for people, and the mayor — his name is Ronnie Pierre — wants to build a model and show people this is what's possible."

Grealy, who will supervise construction of Alltech's Ouanaminthe factory and the secondary school, says Alltech's involvement came at a time and in a place where it was needed.

"When the earthquake hit, all the aid effort shifted down to Port-au-Prince, and it needed to," says Grealy, who himself helped organize earthquake-relief efforts in the days after the disaster. "But plenty of help is still needed up here, and jobs are a big need."

Lyons estimates Alltech's initial investment is about $500,000, though he hopes for Alltech's efforts there to grow, both in business and philanthropic efforts such as its school developments.

"We can't fix Port-au-Prince, we can't fix Haiti," Lyons says, standing in the schoolroom at the Haven village. "But we can make a little imprimatur, a little stamp here. So that's what we're going to try and do."

Reach Rich Copley at (859) 231-3217 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3217.

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