The Smell of Success

An Indian plant is of growing importance to Haitian livelihoods

A Haitian farmer, Roger Muscadin, pulls out a vetiver plant. The roots contain an oil used in perfumes. Haiti enjoys the quiet status of being the fragrance industry’s favourite source of vetiver. Joseph Palmer
31 July, 2023

“Write this down,” Franck Léger II said, “Seventy-five percent of all men’s colognes use vetiver.” This is promising news for Haiti, given its status as one of the world’s largest commercial producers of vetiver oil. Léger’s family-owned company, Frager Essential Oils, is based in Les Cayes and specialises in the production and export of vetiver essential oil. The largest city in southwestern Haiti, Les Cayes is the center of the world’s commercial vetiver trade and a crucial link in the fragrance industry’s global supply chain.

Léger’s claim that three quarters of men’s fragrances contain vetiver seems high, but pinpointing an exact, independently verifiable figure on this front is tricky—fragrance recipes remain jealously guarded trade secrets. Broadly speaking, however, Léger’s point stands. It is difficult to identify a luxury fashion label which does not incorporate vetiver in at least some of its fragrances. Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Armani, Chanel—all sell products containing vetiver.

Les Cayes resembles many smaller Indian cities. Families on motorbikes compete with chauffeured businesspeople for space on roads in need of repair. Market stalls offer clothing, vegetables, and roadside snacks at major intersections. Uniformed schoolchildren run home in groups. The similarities to India may be more than a coincidence. Vetiver has Indian roots. The plant’s English-language name is an approximate transliteration of vettivẽru, meaning “root that is dug up” in Tamil, and its presence reaches far back into Indian history. According to Jyoti Marwah, a historian specialising in the history of aromatic cultures, taxes on vetiver were first introduced during the reign of emperor Harshavardhana in the seventh century CE, in present-day Uttar Pradesh.

It is unclear when the first vetiver plant itself arrived in Haiti, but the commercial harvest of vetiver was kick-started in the 1940s by Louis Déjoie, a wealthy planter and politician who was later exiled by the dictator François Duvalier, commonly referred to as Papa Doc. Under Duvalier’s government, as well as the government of his son and successor, Jean-Claude Duvalier—or Baby Doc—the Haitian state maintained a monopoly over vetiver exports. Corruption and mismanagement during this era pushed the vetiver industry into a state of decline. Following the overthrow of Baby Doc’s rule in 1986, however, the private sector re-entered and reinvigorated the vetiver industry.