Back in Business in Haiti | Sojourners

Back in Business in Haiti

1100222-haitibusinessMore than a year after an earthquake stalled the country's economy, some business owners in Haiti have recovered and expanded production faster than expected. "The key word is innovation," says Daniel Jean-Louis, business professor in Port-au-Prince.

Just west of the earthquake's epicenter, dairy business owner Maxime Sidrac is back in full operation, producing 4,400 bottles of milk a week for local schools in a town where 90 percent of buildings and homes were crushed. The hundreds of children -- as well as local dairy farmers, employees, and distributors -- have all benefited from rapid recovery of the business.

Employing more than 20 young men, another business owner, Wilsonor Jean, remains one of the only local construction suppliers in the city of Gonaïves, offering high-quality blocks and employment in post-earthquake Haiti -- particularly needed as tens of thousands fled 90 miles north to Gonaïves following the earthquake for shelter, protection, and jobs.

News on business survival is rare in Haiti these days. According to The Washington Post, the immediate and massive response of foreign aid has damaged an economy already under siege. NPR states that overall recovery has hardly begun. Others estimate the quake cost the nation a minimum of 25 per cent of the GDP; recovery to pre-quake levels may take a quarter century.

In the meantime, business owners try to remain intact at the new height of competition in charity and foreign aid -- both unintentionally detrimental to the market. NGOs can distribute food and products with no taxes required upon entry. Even more alarming, there are no restrictions on donated quantities. In spite of arguments made by a few, foreign aid continues as usual.

"Businesses here are struggling to begin with," says Jean-Louis. "It depends on what kind of industry you're in. If you're in the water or pharmaceutical industry here in Haiti, there's no way you can stand up against the competitors of foreign aid."

"When you kill an industry, you kill the complimentary markets. The biggest hurdle is when foreign aid drives out any incentive for all the private businesses to meet those demands themselves. Local ownership for the long haul is lost."

So how have these few businesses survived? According to Wisconsin businessman Jack Van Der Ploeg, "Instead of getting our money from donors, buying things in our home country, then taking it to Haiti and giving it away, we take ourselves to business owners that produce the needed products in Haiti and stimulate the economy through local business, where you then see that money reused six or seven times." As a retired CEO, Van Der Ploeg has traveled to Gonaïves and Port-au-Prince five times this year, advising the dairy operator and construction supplier as they returned to full production.

"Looking back over this year, these businesses are essential to Haiti," he says, noting that employees bring home an income for their families and other survivors instead of relying on free food that undermines the agricultural community spanning the country. "We don't have stuff we give away."

Targeting social capital already in place, Van Der Ploeg and other business professionals have mentored small and medium business owners in Haiti for half a decade through Partners Worldwide, a faith-based business development network based in Grand Rapids, MI. Partners Worldwide connects Christian businesspeople around the world with business training opportunities, mentoring relationships, and access to capital. The shared vision is to create jobs and overcome poverty.

"Great opportunities exist right now to expand the influence of Christian businesspeople in Haiti," says Jean-Louis, who also serves as the Partners Worldwide manager of Haiti by facilitating mentoring relationships within the growing business network throughout the country. "Right now, all Haitian businesses involved with us are back to work at full potential -- and most are now expanding."

One of these innovative businesses is a cabinetry and casket production company in Port-au-Prince. "We've taken a crash course over the year," says Evelien de Gier, co-owner of Maxima S.A. Her company ventured into transitional housing production within weeks following the earthquake. Starting with 59 employees, the company now employs 275 Haitians full-time in housing production, and in 2010 alone fulfilled contracts totaling 3,500 housing units.

She's also thankful for her business mentors. "We've spent a lot of time talking about streamlining production, workplace safety and employee motivation," she says. "[They] would love to see the clean and crisp floors!"

"We prefer to have an order instead of a donation or loan," says Jean-Ronel Noel, another business owner in the network since he first launched ENERSA in 2005. Manufacturing solar-powered streetlights in Port-au-Prince, most of his 30 employees reside in the shantytown nearby, Cité Soleil. "They work to support their own families," he says. "If we have an order, we're more comfortable with that. We want to show that even in this situation we can work and deliver something. It's a matter of dignity."

Local capacity building is essential, says Jean-Louis. "With the results this year you can see that these businesses and others have been a key instrument in the recovery so far, not only in the initial healing process, but also the Haitian economy for the coming years."

Market-driven innovation also plays a psychological role in restoring Haiti's culture, he adds, including the sense of independence and ownership in a country founded more than two centuries ago.

"It's their determination to press on as businesspeople willing to make a difference in the world in the name of Christ."

Jacqueline Klamer is a writer with Partners Worldwide, a faith-based international business development organization based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Partners Worldwide provides small and medium enterprise support via business mentoring and training in 20 countries, and is co-sponsor of the upcoming Haitian Business Convention in Port-au-Prince, March 25.

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