“My grandpa was a coffee entrepreneur sending coffee around the world, back when Haiti was a major global supplier of coffee beans…. I want to put Haitian coffee on the map again. It will help both of the countries that I love so much."
Frentz Neptune leans back in his home office in Orlando, Florida – an office that triples as the headquarters of a Haitian coffee company called Avanti Coffee Company, of an artisan initiative driven by Haitian women called Gift of Hope Haiti, and of a non-profit called the Haitian Foundation Against Poverty… all organizations launched by Frentz and his wife Mallery in the last few years. Frentz’s warm smile comes across remarkably clearly across Zoom – a testament to the fact that, he explains, he is a photographer and uses his DSLR camera as his webcam. Though he has a disarming humility, Frentz is aware of the weight of the work he is doing as a representative of both the nation that raised him and the one that adopted him.
The world’s first Black-led republic and the first nation to permanently ban slavery, Haiti’s enduring place in world history is that of a pioneer for independence and human rights. In recent years, however, Haiti’s mentions in the global conversation have been focused on tragedy. 2010 saw a massive earthquake, 2016 saw Hurricane Matthew, and 2021 saw a July presidential assassination and another major earthquake in October. The result of discussing all this strife is that the strength, hope, resilience, and creativity of the people of Haiti is too often missed.
Through his entrepreneurship, Frentz seeks to paint another side of the picture – to rewrite the story of Haiti, with its gorgeous mountain’s richly flavored coffee beans as his instrument. But before rewriting the story and putting Haitian coffee “back on the map,” he knew, he had to tap into the pain of a nation devastated far too many times… and search within that pain for a dash of hope. His own story was his starting point.
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The Little Jeweler
Entrepreneurship was a way of life for Frentz way before Avanti Coffee Company was even a sparkle in his mind. Like it is for so many who grow up without meaningful economic opportunity, entrepreneurship was a lifeline for a young Frentz and his family.
“My parents passed away during my childhood and I needed to step up and provide for myself and my five younger siblings as a young teenager.” Without any other option, Frentz had to take on a parental role for his family at a very young age. At just 14, he began looking for ways to make money to put food on the table. He would purchase cell phones on credit and sell them at a profit, and he eventually used those earnings to focus on a sector where he had a more sustainable advantage: the jewelry business. When a kind woman provided him beads one day, he began carefully designing his own jewelry and selling them at the local markets… a little Frentz scurrying around the bazaars with his handcrafted necklaces and bracelets. With the jewelry business moving smoothly, Frentz diversified again and began translating between English and Haitian Creole; he paid a friend to provide him coaching, and then focused his services on supporting missionaries.
Mallery was on a mission trip when she met this version of Frentz: the enterprising translator. She immediately noticed his entrepreneurial spirit, which was driven by an immense love for others: “Frentz’s most powerful qualities are his empathy and his creativity,” Mallery says. “He has overcome immensely difficult obstacles in his life, and rather than run away from them, he uses them to relate to others in his country who are suffering in the same way. He channels his creative and entrepreneurial mind to constantly find ways to lift other people up. It is incredibly inspiring.”
Despite his deep love for Mallery, Frentz’s eventual move to America to be with her would cause some anxiety. He remembers his first visit to meet Mallery’s parents: “I finally got a one-year visa to come to America. It was a really good experience until my second week. I was feeling guilty at that time… I was away from home, where my mother’s house had crumbled and my siblings were sleeping under a tent.” As had already become a pattern in his life, however, Frentz’s instinct was to look for hope in moments of weakness. And now he had Mallery by his side – a partner in crime with whom to search for that hidden hope. He resolved to take the many opportunities he saw in America and bring them back to his family, friends, and neighbors in Haiti, so that children in situations similar to that of a young Frentz would have opportunities he could have never dreamt of.
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An Idea Born in Jérémie
The longing for home was strongest, however, in 2016 when Hurricane Matthew shocked Haiti. Frentz was heartbroken to watch this unfold from a distance. He immediately travelled home with Mallery to provide support where he could. “Hurricane Matthew destroyed the crops in my home area. I traveled back to do food distributions.” When he arrived, he was most disturbed that the hope he had seen so often in his Haitian sisters and brothers was lower in supply, especially among the farmers he knew. Mallery shares the moment she recalls most vividly: “I remember watching Frentz process the devastation he saw when he went to Jérémie to find his family members after Hurricane Matthew. Entire villages had nothing left standing. He witnessed the pain of material loss in the eyes of his relatives, but he also witnessed an even more damaging loss that their hope had been taken from them. Their livelihood found in coffee farming was entirely ruined.”
It was at that moment that Avanti Coffee Company was born. Frentz and Mallery wanted to rekindle a hope among local coffee farmers that they would again have productive businesses and livable wages. They wanted to rebuild a meaningful and lasting industry that would provide for families – not just in the direct aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, but for decades and generations to come. “Our organization’s core mission is to help Haitian farmers to be sustainably employed.” Specifically, Frentz knew there were some specific changes that needed to be made to the farming model. The farmers in Haiti would often farm coffee beans in close proximity to other crops, like potatoes and cocoa beans, that were not good flavor complements to the coffee beans. Frentz advocated changing this method, along with some other new approaches like planting banana trees nearby to help provide much-needed shade for the coffee plants. But Frentz knew he had to lead by example. To demonstrate his model, Frentz used land he inherited from his uncle to do a test run, ultimately convincing the farmers that his methods led to higher yields and better tasting coffee.
The result is top-quality coffee beans that are sent to Avanti Coffee Company in Orlando, where Frentz and Mallery partner with a local small business for roasting. Frentz travels to Haiti once a month or so, sometimes with Mallery and their two boys, to check in with the farmers and other partners. Avanti’s two coffee flavors are its Ayiti medium roast and its Frize dark roast, both fittingly named for Haitian Creole words (meaning “Haiti” and “owl,” respectively). The Arabica beans are farmed at more than 1,000 feet above sea level in the mountains of Haiti, roasted in Orlando, and placed in beautiful white and black packaging before being sent to farmers’ markets, stores, and direct to consumers through Avanti’s online store.
In all this, though, the farmers that Frentz convinced to work with him remain the center of Avanti’s mission. As he writes, “At Avanti, direct trade means we not only know who our farmers are, but we take time to understand their needs, get to know their families, and even work alongside them in the field on occasion. We buy our beans directly from the farmers, ensuring they are paid appropriately and that their dignity is protected…. Our farmers are proud of their work. They tend to their crops with extra care and attention because Avanti coffee beans are the future of their families.”
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Avanti is changing the narrative about Haiti, helping farmers and their families pursue lives of meaning and opportunity. As Mallery discusses the impact on farmers’ lives: “Even when they couldn’t see it, Frentz believed it for them and began planting seed by seed until they were strengthened enough to continue on their own. Together, with our farmers, we have now planted over 100,000 coffee trees, and we believe this is only the beginning!” Avanti’s products highlight the Haitian farming team that it partners with, telling their personal stories in an uplifting fashion – not a patronizing or demeaning one. The farmers are rightfully portrayed as powerful, confident, and proud, often pictured within their elements… standing on the coffee fields. Every Avanti shipment includes a small magnet highlighting one such farmer’s story – most recently that of Madam Remy – and a notecard that shares the company’s motto: “Sip with Purpose.” Madam Remy's quote is a powerful one that demonstrates the purpose of Avanti:
“I am a widow and the mother of five children. My parents raised my siblings and I through coffee farming and even built our house with its benefits. Hurricane Matthew tore away all of our coffee crops, but now I am looking forward to my first harvest since the storm. I love being part of Avanti Coffee Company."
Frentz is rewriting the narrative – and the beauty of the new narrative he is telling ties directly into Avanti’s business model. The narrative is both deeply important in and of itself and an emotional value – of support, connection, and joy – offered to Avanti customers. Frentz explains how Avanti builds a community of purpose: “When you get an Avanti product, you know you have helped change a life. So now it is not just us and the farmers that have a purpose; it also that person that is drinking the coffee over other fancy coffee options. It’s all part of changing the narrative.”
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A Life of Purpose
Frentz believes that his life was saved by a miracle. “In 2010, the earthquake struck just seconds after I walked out of a building… literally. God saved me.” He believes he was spared for a reason, and that his work to support Haitian farmers is an act of living out that purpose.
“Success is not about the money for me. Not about the money. It’s about making a difference in people’s life. It is all about creating opportunity for people. Yes, for myself, but also for the people back home to be able to eat, to be able to send their kids to school, to have money to repair their homes when the next hurricane comes around.”
While the world of entrepreneurship often celebrates founders with a high self-orientation, Frentz is remarkably others-focused. While the Silicon Valley view of business focuses on dollars raised and valuations, Frentz cares more about lives changed. And while he had the option to use the opportunity afforded him in America for only himself, Frentz proudly represents Haiti and contributes back to it in partnership with his home community. Asked for advice he would give his past self – the little Frentz dashing the marketplaces with his beautifully crafted jewelry – Frentz hesitates. It’s a tough question. But quickly he returns to his core values that he learned back home in Haiti, in the midst of some of the most painful moments imaginable:
“Hold on through the dark times, dream for bigger things, and believe in yourself… no matter where you come from.” Why these three things? Because he is a living testament to their power… a life miraculously saved amidst an earthquake, now inspiring hope and unity in both Haiti and America. “If you believe enough, you can change things. You can change your life. I never knew I could affect so many people in my life.”