Earthquake Shocks Haitian Rice Market

Earthquake Shocks Haitian Rice Market

Haitians load bags of food donated by the United States onto a truck for distribution to earthquake victims in Port-au-Prince after the January earthquake. Photo: Jenny Vaughan/Mercy Corps
Haitians load bags of food donated by the United States onto a truck for distribution to earthquake victims in Port-au-Prince after the January earthquake. Photo: Jenny Vaughan/Mercy Corps

In Haiti, rice is king. It’s consumed at every meal and forms an important source of income for many people — wholesalers, street vendors, and farmers. But the January earthquake has left the rice market in shambles.

Cheap rice from the United States made up about 80 percent of all rice in Haiti before the earthquake. But Haiti’s ports were damaged by the earthquake and could only receive a fraction of the shipments they used to. Shipments of military and humanitarian supplies were prioritized above commercial shipments of rice, which led to rice shortages and huge price increases that many people couldn’t afford.

Foreign aid flowed in to make up the difference, but this has long-term consequences for Haiti's food supply chain, says NPR. Most people get their rice from street vendors, who get theirs from mini-wholesalers. These wholesalers buy from larger wholesalers, who buy imported rice. But the influx of donated rice means that many people have flat-out stopped buying rice.

The situation has become especially dire for the street vendors and mini-wholesalers. The large wholesalers have access to credit to help them survive the crisis, but small businesses aren’t so lucky, as NPR and Frontline explain in this video.

As commercial rice imports start to flow back into Haiti and supply increases, rice has become cheaper than it was before the earthquake. The plunge in prices is forcing rural farmers to choose between eating the rice that they grow and selling it to pay school fees for their children. To make matters worse, the rice-growing regions are largely outside the earthquake zone, where foreign food aid isn't being distributed. As a result, many farmers are going hungry to send their kids to school.

So what are aid groups doing to solve the free rice problem? Now that the rice supply is beginning to stabilize, the World Food Programme has begun distributing cash or vouchers that can be redeemed for rice. In the Frontline video, WFP analyst Ceren Gurken said that the voucher program was in the works; it has been implemented since the video was filmed. Because the WFP pays street vendors for the rice, who pay that money back up the supply chain, the economy gets a chance to recover. At present, it doesn't look like farmers are being included in the program, though that may change.

Sure, the vouchers have their downsides — hand out too many and demand spikes, bringing sky-high prices — but for now, they’re the best way for aid groups to make sure that Haiti’s food supply chain stays connected. If it breaks, there could be a whole new disaster.

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