Haiti’s chocolate industry just got a serious Vitamin shot in the veins, thanks to Askanya, a start-up founded by three entrepreneurs based in Haiti: Corinne Joachim Sanon Symietz, Gentile Senat and Andreas Symietz. Sanon Symietz holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial and Operations Engineering from the University of Michigan and an MBA from The Wharton School of Business, while Symietz has a degree from a German University, and Senat graduated from the University of South Florida with an undergraduate degree Economics—in addition to being a candidate for a Master’s in Economics at Faculté d’Économie de Grenoble, a prestigious school in France.
Corinne Sanon Symeitz, one of the co-founders of Askanya graduated from Wharton’s School of Business.
Barely two years old, the start-up is giving jobs to farmers in Haiti. The brand is currently available at 25 locations in Haiti in addition to 10 retailers in the US. Among the latter locations locations are: The Chocolate House in DC, Le District in New York City, Grandchamps in Brooklyn, The Marriott ABN Boutique in Port-au-Prince, La Boutique Du Karibe in Juvenat, Giant Supermarket in Pétion-Ville, Bèl Zèb store at the Port-au-Prince Airport and the Artisan Boutik, a store at Haiti’s Cap Haitian Airport.
Each of the co-founders are using their work and educational experiences to experiment with strategies and apply best practices to take Askanya beyond the business plan goals they have for the company. Senat is a Certified Project Management Professional has a background in quality control, budgeting, and purchasing. Sanon Symietz has a decade’s worth of experience in managing programs and projects, and has worked as a consultant and executive manager toppled with Symietz’s solid background in managing architectural projects.
The fact that these entrepreneurs were able to come together for this venture can be seen as growing evidence that there are plenty of business opportunities in Haiti, and that many Haitian-Americans and expats can overcome barriers of entry on the island to create sustainable businesses.
Above: Corinne Joachin Sanon Symietz gives the rundown on Haiti’s newest chocolate brand!
Kreyolicious: Most people may not realize that Haiti had and has a chocolate industry. How did you initially learn about it?
Well, there has always been some chocolate based products made in Haiti—Chokola Boul—for instance. However, Askanya is the first bean-to-bar chocolate company in Haiti. At first, we were not looking specifically to work with cacao, but to transform a local Haitian crop. After researching several (mango, orange, lime, coffee), we realize that Haitian cacao was among the Top 50 in the world and was used by high-end French Chocolatiers like Valrhona and Bonnat to produce gourmet chocolate bars. Hence we decided to do similar finished products in Haiti.
Kreyolicious: So, how did the concept for Askanya come together?
The team decided to produce delicious and high-quality chocolates in Haiti, made only with Haitian cacao. We wanted a product that Haitians, whether in our ten Departments or in the Diaspora could enjoy and be proud of. We also wished for every chocolate connoisseur and lover worldwide to savor and fall in love with our chocolate treats – “Grown in Haiti, Made in Haiti, Enjoyed Everywhere”. We worked with a Haitian-American designer, Marlie Decopain to elaborate the colorful packaging highlighting part of the fauna and flora of Haiti. Our current three bars showcased the flower of paradise, “Paradis”, night butterflies “Minuit” and colibri [hummingbird] “Wanga-Nègès”.
Kreyolicious: What a cute name. How did that come about. Bet there’s an interesting story behind it?
We named our company after one of our founder’s German hometown “Aschersleben”. In its Latinized form “Ascania,” it connects to the ancient figure Ascanius. Just as Ascanius became the legendary King in Roman mythology, we are sure Askanya will become the Queen of Chocolate in its new Caribbean home.
Above: Gentile Senat sports his Askanya wear. Senat is one of three co-founders. He has a background in Economics and Business Administration.
Kreyolicious: Coolness. Your company is fairly new. What’s been the feedback thus far?
Our clients love to see a produce made in Haiti, of international standard and tasting so good! But don’t take my word for it: see some feedback [on Bien-Aime Post and our Facebook page] from actual clients and try a bar to make an opinion for yourself.
One of the other co-founders of Askanya, Andreas Symietz has a background in managing projects, and he uses his knowledge of photography and management for Askanya’s administrative and branding duties.
Kreyolicious: Alright. In terms of operations, what are some challenges you’ve come across?
We wanted to decentralize and create work opportunities outside of Port-au-Prince. While our distribution center is in Port-au-Prince, our factory is in Ouanaminthe, a small town in the North-East of Haiti. Having power from the grid is our main challenge (only six hours per day): we have back-up generators to run the factory. We also need to manage and overcome any issue that we encounter (equipment break-up, transport delays, ingredients availability, etc.): we’ve mastered having plan B, C, D, and are now able to produce our chocolates smoothly.
Kreyolicious: What would you say to a Haitian-American, or an expat about creating a business in Haiti?
It’s challenging, but possible! You may need to constantly update your implementation strategy as you run into unexpected or more difficult to solved issues. Starting slow and growing incrementally has helped us solve in a timely manner the challenges we’ve encountered. In addition, make sure you don’t run out of money before you have a product ready for sale: cash flow management is key as financing is not readily available.
The workforce is determined, smart and willing to work hard, for the proper incentives. Hiring smart is important: select the most dedicated and qualified person – not obligatory a relative.
Kreyolicious: What’s the next move for the brand?
We have launched three flavors (Milk “Paradis”, Dark “Minuit and Rapadou/Brown Sugar “Wanga Nègès” in three size (Regular – 2oz, Half – 1oz and Bite). We are continuing our expansion in both the USA and the Dominican Republic. We also have additional flavors that will be coming up. Stay tuned for more. Our chocolates will continue to be available on our website for purchase in Haiti and the USA.
[Product photos: Andreas Symeitz]