For many of us, the Dominican Republic is synonymous with palm trees, golden beaches and turquoise waters. Günther Shichl from Austria soon got bored with that and turned to agriculture. He has since converted an idea into a small empire.

“We have just dispatched a giant load of our coconut products. Oil, milk, water – the market is booming and we have achieved some good sales,” Günther says, who has managed to squeeze in a short conversation with us despite his many other commitments. His business is thriving. No one ever quite knows what he is working on. But what everyone knows for sure: he is already on to his next idea. Linz-born Günther Shichl, who came to the Caribbean in 2006, is a real workaholic. However, he assures us, compared to Europe, his life in the Dominican Republic is considerably more relaxed.

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Arriving in paradise

Günther originally started out in architecture. In Austria, he worked with recyclable polyurethane, was a one-man-show and took care of everything himself. Looking back, he admits that he overextended himself. When his health and private life began to suffer, he pulled the brakes, packed his bags, left Austria and took off to paradise.

“I was no longer willing to put up with a never-ending workload and all those hours of overtime. At some point, it affected my health.” He went on an extensive holiday along with a friend. Although he enjoyed it initially – the workhorse in him was not happy for long. Gunther looked for a new professional challenge, which had to meet one condition: “I must have two days off a week. I can do that now. I don’t even have cell phone reception in my house.” Not that he needs it. Even on his days off, Günther is a busy man: he became a father. This idyllic family life makes up for his hectic work week, though he loves that too.

Caribbean top export product from Austria

His first project in his new home country: cigars. The Caribbean’s top export product fascinated smoker Günther from the start. “I guess it was my love for tobacco that led me to cigars.” For Günther, it was imperative to be present in all stages of production, from cultivating the tobacco on the fields, through air-curing the leaves in the tobacco barn, to fermentation and, finally, cigar rolling. The processes are somewhat different from those in Europe: “Industrialisation has not yet reached the Dominican Republic,” Günther explains. “Donkeys and machetes are still used on the fields, even hectares of sugar cane are still harvested manually. A lot here is like it was a century ago.” And anyone who attempts to introduce a machine soon understands why. On the one hand, there is a lack of expertise; on the other hand, the machinery gets damaged by the high temperatures and the humidity, which makes machine maintenance difficult. But some things are made easier by these old technologies: “Without the new methods, we can be sure that everything is organic. Pesticides and Co. are not an issue here.” Even with these time-honoured methods, Günther has been successful: his “Tabacalera” tobacco farm produces the material for well-known cigar brands. The fact that Günther does so on a small but selective scale, and that his cigars are wholly manufactured in the Dominican Republic (bar Günther’s minor Austrian influence), is well-received.

Off to new fruits

The hard-working Austrian immigrant soon felt his tobacco business was not enough. As soon as he had generated some capital, he looked for new challenges to invest in. But Günther stayed loyal to agriculture. He began to grow turmeric, cocoa, passionfruit, pineapples and, last but not least, coconuts, and processed some of these products. His passionfruit schnapps is a top seller. Günther approaches every business endeavour in the same fashion: he invests capital, cultivates a product from start to finish, and presents the final product to the investors. “If they can see what the end product looks, smells and tastes like, they will become excited about it. Anyone who just talks about visions will have a difficult time convincing people.” Giving something back to the rural population is another thing close to the Austrian’s heart. “One should not forget that, despite palm trees and the beautiful Caribbean Sea, the Dominican Republic is still a developing country. That is why I employ many locals and show them the trade. If they get to know agricultural processes, they will be in a better position to build their own business.” But sometimes the lack of know-how in the country makes life difficult for Günther: he has been trying for years to obtain organic certification for his products. He clearly meets all the requirements, and has done so for a long time – but there are barely any inspection bodies in the region. So the resourceful Austrian is now trying to promote certifications in the Dominican Republic, not least because of the large demand for organically certified products in the importing countries.

Eco de luxe

That “eco” is a topic close to his heart, is made evident by his current mammoth-scale endeavour: Günther has been recruited as a project manager of a luxury eco-resort on the Samaná peninsula: an apartment complex is being built on an area of almost 3000 acres that is to be largely autonomous. Fruit and vegetables will be cultivated and processed on the land. “The guests are to have the opportunity to go to the field before breakfast and pick the leaves for their breakfast tea. Electricity will be generated by solar energy, and we will save water wherever possible,” Günther explains. The entrepreneur from Linz is clearly very passionate about the concept, which envisages the processing of natural products from start to finish. And he is also doing himself a personal favour: he likes the new location so much that he will move to Samaná with his small family. The province, that includes the eponymous peninsula, in the northeast of of the country is more expensive, but also even more idyllic. So Günther can look forward to an additional dose of heavenly peace on his days off. No wonder he does not want to return to Austria. The only thing he misses? “Styrian pumpkin seed oil”.

Text: Malin Müller