PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Former President George W. Bush ambled into a steamy, fragrant mango warehouse in Haiti on Tuesday and surveyed several long tables neatly packed with the luscious fruit.
He clapped Ralph Perry, the warehouse owner, on the shoulder. He shook hands with farmers, dressed in button-down shirts and ties for the occasion. Then Bush — who is co-leading a fund to help Haiti since the Jan. 12 earthquake, along with former President Bill Clinton — talked of rebuilding.
He confidently said that mangoes will help the country "grow into prosperity" and spoke of a half-million dollar grant to help 25,000 mango farmers.
In Haiti, the mango is a symbol of both the country's potential, and its dysfunction.
There are 10 million mango trees in Haiti, and tens of thousands of mango farmers scattered about the country. Mangoes are the Caribbean nation's second-biggest export, behind coffee, and are a $10 million a year industry. Fruit industry leaders think they have the potential to blossom into a tasty, $90 million a year export business.
Most of Perry's mangoes are exported to New York and Miami, home to large Caribbean populations that grew up with the fruit. But Perry and others say there are vast untapped markets of future mango lovers elsewhere in the United States and that the fruit is also growing more popular in Europe.
"Twenty years ago, mainstream America didn't know what a mango was," Perry said.
Yet bruising and a lack of irrigation thwart many crops. Bad roads and the unavailability of seemingly simple tools such as plastic crates have also threatened the success of the country's mango export in recent years. In 2009, only about 10 percent of the crop was shipped abroad.
And that was before the quake.
Now a number of groups, businesses and people — from Bush to the Coca-Cola Co. — are trying to rebuild Haiti with the mighty mango.
Haiti grows a specific variety that is indigenous to the country. Called the "Madame Francis," it is juicy and sweet, and a bit fibrous.
"It is most appreciated by the mango connoisseur," said Jean Buteau, a mango exporter in Port-au-Prince.
Perry, who also has an export business that ships to stores such as Whole Foods in the United States, said there are many obstacles from getting the fruit from "tree to truck."
Sometimes farmers sell too early, allowing it to be picked when unripe. In other cases, they lack proper pruning tools. And the fruit is often so damaged that 20 percent to 40 percent of the harvest is lost somewhere between picking and exporting. And Perry knows that customers at Whole Foods, who pay $2 a mango, don't want bruised fruit.
Another knotty problem is transportation. Even before the earthquake, most roads were a disaster; today, piles of rubble, demolished cars and construction trucks clog traffic.
"We need to fix the roads and have better transportation conditions to the warehouses," acknowledged Haitian Agriculture Minister Joanas Gue.
In spite of the setbacks, Haiti actually produced a decent mango crop this year, which gives exporters hope.
"If you had asked me in January, February, after the earthquake, if we were going to have some kind of a season, I would not really think so," Perry said. "We're lucky and maybe next year we will get a better one."
Perry will work closely with TechnoServe, the nonprofit group receiving the $500,000 grant from the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund.
The money will go to help Haitian farmers with everything from improving their crop yields to building regional drop-off centers where they can sell the fruit to exporters.
"Right now, at every step, there are challenges," said Bruce McNamer, president and CEO of TechnoServe. "And the crop has languished. But the beauty of this program is that there is a serious market for mangoes, and that ultimately, (the program) aspires to improve the income of 25,000 farmers."
In March, Coca-Cola announced a similar, $7.5 million, five-year project to help mango farmers. The Atlanta-based beverage giant said it will invest $3.5 million in the project, with the Inter-American Development Bank also contributing an undisclosed amount.
Proceeds from the sale of Haiti Hope Mango Lime-Aid made by Odwalla Inc., will go toward the project.
Karen Christensen, global produce coordinator for Whole Foods Market, said the upscale grocery chain has increased sales of organic and conventionally grown Haitian mangoes by 40 percent this year, compared to last.
Christensen said they would buy more from Haiti — if more were available.
"There's a lack of infrastructure in Haiti that makes purchasing there quite challenging," Christensen said in an e-mail. "Bringing the fruit to market is a complex endeavor — it may involve several layers of middlemen who provide financing, transportation and resale functions."
Still, Christensen said, Whole Foods wants to push Haiti to export more mangoes. Because so much of the countryside in Haiti has been deforested over the years, Christensen and others believe that giving farmers incentives to plant and cultivate mango trees will help reduce the impacts of deforestation and erosion — and provide much-needed cash for the Haitian people.
Mango farmer Paul Joseph Merize — who eagerly shook Bush's hand Tuesday at the Port-au-Prince warehouse — is convinced that mangoes can lift the Haitian economy. The 33-year-old lives and works in a region that was devastated by hurricanes in 2007 and hit hard by the earthquake.
Merize, whose home was destroyed in January, isn't surprised to hear that people pay so much for a single mango in the United States, while folks here pay about 50 cents for three.
"They are delicious mangoes," he said.