In Haiti’s Big North, kasav remains a favorite snack and staple of pride


Cassava, a staple crop in Haiti whose production goes back to the Indigenous inhabitants of the Ayiti Kiskeya, is largely produced in Haiti’s northern region and recently saw an increase in production.

CAP-HAITIEN — As a boy growing up in the 1970s, anytime Oriel Jean’ parents gave him pocket money for school, he would almost always spend his coins on one food and one food only: kasav ak manba or wayal. A round piece of cassava flatbread, with peanut butter spread all around. 

Jean often ate the snack with his cousin, whose name he did not provide. The two became so obsessed with the ubiquitous food that one day, Jean’s cousin murmured ‘kasav ak manba’ while dozing off during a prayer at their Catholic school.

Jean recently shared this tale with a grin on his face as he sat at Place d’Armes, the public plaza in Haiti’s second-largest city.

“That’s how important cassava is to us,” Jean, now 59, said. “It’s part of our culture. When you eat it, it fills you up, you won’t get hungry anytime soon.”

Like Jean, generations of Haitians are fond of the crispy flatbread made from manioc, a ground vegetable native to the land. As schoolchildren and through adulthood, they typically eat cassava with peanut butter all across Haiti. Some of the most distinct flatbreads may be flavored with herring, cinnamon, coconut or sugar. And besides peanut butter as the favorite spread, some people also eat cassava with avocado ‘zaboka’ or the traditional Haitian pikliz made of shredded cabbage carrots, and hot peppers.

In Cap-Haitien, many farmers and mill owners have mastered traditional methods of cultivating and processing cassava, and their efforts have paid off. Cassava production increased by 1.5% from 2021 to 2022, according to Haiti’s National Statistical Office. 

Rigaud Louis is co-owner of Boske Lavi cassava factory in Haut-du-Cap, located on the outskirts of the downtown area. Louis grew up in Limbé, a northern commune about 17 miles south, where his father planted manioc, the crop used to make cassava. That background prepared and inspired Louis to start the outdoor cassava factory in 2016. 

“They make cassava better in the Big North,” Louis said while scraping manioc at his factory in April. “They make cassava elsewhere too but it’s not the same. It represents our substance.”

A snack with a hefty economic bite

On May 1, as Haiti celebrated its annual Agriculture and Labor Day, cassava once again stood out as a native, sustainable and nutritious product.

Cassava has been a staple of the land since the native Tainos and Arawaks populated the island, now split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. These days, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), an online tracker of economic activities, Haiti exported $6.37 thousand in cassava in 2022. The main destination was Canada.

“All the food from my home are my life. I’m in love with fruits and vegetables. Cassava means a lot to me because we’re the ones making it. It’s local.”

Wilson Talien, cassava consumer

It is such a cultural mainstay that in 2021, Haiti joined forces with Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Venezuela in a bid for cassava to gain United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognition. The news brought joy to scores of Haitians, especially farmers and amateur cultivators like Wilson Talien, who grows plantains from his home in Madeline, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Cap-Haïtien’s downtown area. 

“I live for the food in my home [country],” said Talien, 49, from his seat near Jean on a recent afternoon. “Cassava means a lot to me because we’re the ones making it. It’s local.”

Besides serving up pride, some have said cassava is one of the major products that could also play an instrumental role in reviving agriculture in Haiti. If that is, infrastructure initiatives such as the irrigation canal in Ouanaminthe can be sustained, experts have said.

These days, a piece of kasav now goes for 50 or 100 gourdes, about 38 or 76 cents. In a country facing hunger, kasav has remained a reliable, nutritious snack people all over can still afford to buy from street vendors. 

Town draws kasav factories, despite struggles 

Cassava is produced mostly in the country’s Northern Department. Its production involves the cultivation of manioc or yuca, a root tuber, in sun-drenched soil. After purchasing maniocs, employees at cassava mills, moulen in Creole, peel and then grind the roots into flour. 

Some people then add special ingredients or flavoring, mashing the mixture into a dough. The final step is baking atop squat brick ovens in the sun.

Farmers typically plant manioc during the summer and harvest it in December to sell in time for the holidays or in August to pay for their children’s school tuition. 

The entire process — which goes back to pre-colonial days — may take eight to 24 months, Wilfrid Sinclus, an agronomist, said. Yet, the snack has become so popular, its production is having an impact already on the essential ingredient.

“Manioc is evolving because more people are getting into making cassava now,” said Sinclus, speaking rapidly with excitement, in a recent phone interview. “There is a growing demand for more cassava that has led to the establishment of more cassava factories, which in turn has increased the production of manioc.”

Onz Chery, cassave, Kasav, Haiti, Haut du Cap, Cap-Haitien, okap,
Rigaud Louis, owner of Boske Lavi cassava factory, scraping manioc at his factory in Cap-Haïtien on Apr. 29, 2024. Photo by Onz Chery for The Haitian Times Credit: Onz Chery

One town in the Northern Department better known for producing cassava is Quartier-Morin, on the outskirts of Cap-Haïtien’s downtown area. Roobens Dauphin, a cassava mill owner, said the town has seven such factories. 

Dauphin, a soft-spoken man, sported a tank top and shorts as he spoke inside his outdoor cassava factory near the platin, iron plates, used to bake the cassavas. To Dauphin, cassava is beyond a business because it gave him a name and close relationships.

“I love kasav a lot,” Dauphin said. “It gave me a lot of contacts. Who am I for the director of [Bank of the Republic of Haiti] to call me Mister Frantz? It gave me a lot of friends.

“I never prioritize kasav money,” Dauphin added. “Relationships are what I care about.”

Business owners struggle to hold on

Dauphin owns Frantz Kassaverie, a 100-year-old mill passed down in his family that is one of the oldest cassava factories in Quartier-Morin. About 30 years ago, Frantz Kassaverie was the only factory in town and a main source of income for numerous residents, Dauphin said. 

Dauphin has watched other cassava factories spring up and expand near his in recent years. Yet, Dauphin is contemplating closing his business, partially because he is in debt. Business has significantly dropped in recent months, he said, as multiple clients based in Port-au-Prince opted not to make the dangerous trip from the capital to the north. He still has four full-time employees, whom he pays between 3,000 gourdes to 5,000 gourdes, about $22 to $37, per day.

“By the end of a year, I should be a millionaire in gourdes,” Dauphin said. “Ever since I started, I’ve been fighting to run things. I borrowed money from banks and all that. But it’s a beautiful business.”

Louis, the Boske Lavi’s co-founder, said he has yet to evaluate how much he earns per week. But he knows that sometimes, business is bad. He sells one batch of cassava for 2,000 gourdes, about $15. 

By: admin
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