The Danielle Saint-Lôt Haiti Women’s Foundation
Empowering Haitian Women through Yam
November 28, 2023
Tell us about your organisation and the work you do.
I have been working towards women’s empowerment since 1998. I’m the founder of the Danielle Saint-Lôt Haiti Women’s Foundation and I am also involved in the Vital Voices Global Movement which has a chapter in Haiti called Femmes en Democratie¹.
Within my foundation, I focus mostly on women’s political leadership and economic empowerment as business development is my area of expertise. I have served as Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, and I was also the Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Haiti, so I understand these sectors very well and want to see more women thrive in leading positions in the private sector.
For the past four years, I have focused a lot on yam production in Southern Haiti, integrating more women into this value chain and linking them with more profitable markets. Yam production tends to be a male-dominated sector while the women are vendors in the markets.
It’s important to integrate more women and have them participate not only in the trade but also in the production of yam so they can make more money to sustain their families.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your community and what impact does your organisation have?
Every day communities become poorer as many of the youth are leaving rural areas to go to the city or leave the country. In rural areas, you mainly find old women and children. So there is no resilience capacity as these communities lack the resources to retain productive workers.
Most women farmers have far less access than men to land ownership, financial services, training, and other means of increasing agricultural production and improving family income. They produce mostly low-value crops for domestic consumption and not for trade. When they do grow yam, almost 50% of it is consumed to provide for their families. What is left for sale is very limited, especially after being transported long distances on bad and insecure roads. We need to shift this economy of subsistence agriculture to one of commercial farming.
Integrating women into higher value chain crops like yam is also challenging because yam seeds are expensive so it’s difficult for women to invest. That’s why the foundation provides that extra support to help them plant yam mostly for income generation while growing other crops for their household’s food and nutrition security.
40% of households in Haiti are headed by single mothers and many women farmers are illiterate. Our work is significantly impacting and empowering these women as well as their whole households so they can approach farming as a family business.
Women need better access to finance so they can boost the amount of yam they can grow. In addition to facilitating their access to markets, the foundation encourages them to organise themselves into savings groups and to join financial cooperatives to secure agriculture financing, which is a big challenge in Haiti. Financial exclusion is severe in Haiti particularly among rural youth and women which represent the most marginalised populations. Thus, we organise female yam producers in savings groups which have emerged over the last two decades as a powerful economic and social development platform enabling women investments in agriculture, trade, education, health, food and nutrition, security and household assets. Through these savings groups, they save their money together and give credit to each other, creating their own financial system while strengthening their resilience to shocks and stress.
How are women’s communities affected by the link between harmful colonial legacies?
In 1804, Haiti made history by becoming the first country to be founded and run by former slaves through a successful revolution against French colonialism. Unfortunately, more than two centuries after establishing its independence, the country is still suffering with the struggle of a decolonised nation.
Nowadays, there is a negative image of Haiti that depicts poverty, natural disasters, violence and armed gangs. But one must understand there is a history that led to this. Haiti is not cursed. The legacy of chattel slavery and colonialism has impacted us on many levels – it’s not only economic, it’s mental and psychological. The trauma is still there. There was a widespread deforestation of the land as Haiti was forced to pay reparation to France with coffee, cocoa, mahogany and logwood trees, and all those resources.
So now, we must embark on a process of restoring our land, our food sovereignty and individual and collective dignity by returning to our sources, to our Alma Mater traditions through sustainable intensification and climate-smart yam production. According to the FAO, the world produced over 75 million tons of yam in 2021, where Africa’s contribution makes up 94-98% of global production.
Yam is a product that came from Africa on the same ships that trafficked our enslaved ancestors. There is a historic and cultural significance of yam for us descendants of enslaved Africans as this crop contributed to their nourishment in the face of dehumanisation and oppression. In Haiti we have a variety of yam called Guinea yam that came from West Africa. So, using yam with a historical and cultural link to Africa to advance women’s empowerment in rural communities is not only smart economics, as Jamaica exports 38 million per year, but also an overdue tribute to over 15 million enslaved Africans who were transported to the Americas.
What role do you think reparations can have in addressing these?
Before talking about reparation, we should start by getting together as Africans and people of African descent, so that we can have a common goal as well as a special focus on Haiti. This reparations process is a journey, and we should first come together internally to set the priorities and co-design strategies. Togetherness is important so we’re not each working on our own reparations processes.
We need a plan for Haiti that is not only within CARICOM but also within the black world so that we can better position ourselves in the global market. I am convinced that Haiti could be the Mecca for the black world, attracting Africans and members of the African diaspora to come and discuss community development and investment, similar to the yam festivals that take place in Benin, Nigeria and other countries. We have inherited from Africa our traditional “manje yam” festival², a ritual of thanksgiving which can revive our tourism industry attracting millions of Africans and African descendant visitors commemorating the connection made by yam between Africa and the New World. Reparations can make such a dream come true. I strongly believe reparations well thought and planned could support Haiti’s economic development by providing more infrastructure and technology to invest in key sectors such as agriculture, housing, and heritage tourism.
Meanwhile, I am pursuing my efforts to position Haitian women at the centre of the yam market system, so they are economically empowered, leading Haiti towards a new season anchoring our youth in our land and rooting our tradition alive.
- “Women in Democracy” in French
- Haitian Vodou festival of thanksgiving which commemorates the beginning and the end of the yam season.