The Common Good

Haiti: Faith-Based Business Partnerships Seek a Sustainable Recovery

Three days after a 7.0 earthquake rocked their city, hundreds of Haitians returned to work at SPIA, one of the largest pasta production companies in the country. Some employees are living in refugee camps, others in the homes of friends. Personal losses have been great, but all are eager to continue working. They come in tap-tap (taxi) and by foot across town each morning. They clock in at the front gate just outside the factory for an eight-hour shift.

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Since 1986, SPIA business operations have served multiple bottom lines. Starting with two small pasta machines and 40 employees, the company began supplying the poor with pasta as a staple food. "We created the pasta market in Haiti," says Sylvie Theard, wife of Stanley and commercial director of SPIA. "Before that, poor people couldn't afford it." At the current capacity of the plant, 235 employees are able to come back to work, for now.

In 2000, the Theards leveraged their business success to help create a business incubator across the street from the SPIA factory. The vision was to use the building as a low-rent site for emerging entrepreneurs within an association they co-founded called Haitian Partners for Christian Development (HPCD). After ten years, HPCD members are operating micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises throughout Port-au-Prince with the shared vision of a country full of employment.

"Work is a biblical given," said Evelien de Gier, HPCD board president and business owner, at a prayer breakfast last year. Sharing her vision of business as a Christian mission, she expanded on the Old Testament story of Ruth, someone who raised herself and her mother-in-law from poverty with dignity and hard work (Ruth 2).

"So often in our eagerness to help the poor, we feel we have to seek solutions ourselves," said de Gier. "Instead, we end up stealing the dignity of the poor by not allowing them to work toward the solution as well. In job creation, we are not handing something out, but helping someone help herself."

"Linking entrepreneurs across social sectors is key," says Ralph Edmond, another member. He's been a part of the network since the beginning, noting that it connects Protestants and Catholics, poor and rich, in spite of what he describes as "an apartheid society" of class and faith.

Employing more than 60 people in a successful pharmaceutical production company, Edmond has mentored nearly a dozen micro-entrepreneurs over the years through connections made by HPCD. The most recent mentee is a local tailor who employs two others in Martissant, a high-crime zone halfway between Carrefour and downtown Port-au-Prince. They were scheduled to meet the afternoon of the earthquake.

Looking ahead, Edmond holds the same view he did the first day he entered business. Normally the rebuilding after devastation is in infrastructure, says Edmond, but we also need to rebuild the vision of the country and mentality of the people. Short-term needs are being taken care of right now. As businesses, we need to focus on the long-term. HPCD can help shape that.

Another member, solar-panel manufacturer ENERSA, is looking to install solar-powered streetlights and phone chargers in refugee camps around the city. Of the 22 employees, six currently reside in camps near the plant, yet show up each day to secure materials from looting while the factory is being rebuilt.

Stanley keeps a glass-half-full view of the devastation from the recent earthquake. "It's just another challenge in the fight to succeed," he says. SPIA's challenges include damage to a section of their machinery that carries a repair estimate of more than $1 million USD.

This piece of machinery is of particular importance to their employees, says Fritz Hall, SPIA's administrator. "We fabricate our pasta products here in Haiti while others import their products and then only package them in bags here. We are the oldest company that produces locally. Many local jobs depend on our equipment and approach."

New challenges loom daily. Hall points from the corn flour stacked on one end to the wheat flour on the other. Although were hoping to retain these jobs, we don't know how long our raw materials will last. Each aftershock stresses the facility while sending plant employees scrambling for the door. Volunteer facility assessors from North America have identified one warehouse as too dangerous to walk near, and they've identified wall damage in others.

Despite the challenges, the SPIA team takes time to give thanks to God. "On New Years Eve, we started the new year with prayer to God," Hall says. "When we saw that our buildings were still operable and that no one had died, we were so happy and came together in prayer."

Relying on their faith while executing business, the SPIA team rebuilds day by day. Production is slow, Hall notes, but business is a way to start creating again.

Jacqueline Klamer is a communications associate with Partners Worldwide, a faith-based international business development organization based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Partners provides small and medium enterprise support via mentoring, training, access to capital, and advocacy in 20 countries.

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