Rebuilding Haiti With a Passion for Business

By Jacqueline Klamer 5-17-2011

1100517-partnershaitiEvelien de Gier moved to Haiti 28 years ago from the Netherlands to work for a picture-frame production company. Her vision had three objectives. First was to create desperately needed jobs for Haitians. Second was to generate money for missionaries working in Haiti. Third was to witness good deeds to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In a country brimming with obstacles, the greatest obstacle Evelien faced was from Christians who did not affirm her call to business.

The moment she and her husband, Kees, stepped foot into business, they experienced harsh critique. In many Christian circles -- including peers in mission, community development, advocacy or humanitarian work -- people questioned why those suffering in poverty around Evelien needed something like a picture frame.

"Nobody seemed to see the direct connection between consistent income for our employees and the call of business people to facilitate that income," Evelien says. "To me, providing employment is the most obvious and effective way a Christian can care for the poor."

Evelien struggled for years with the dichotomy between "traditional ministry" and business. In churches around the world there is hierarchy of holy activities, with missionaries and pastors at the top, educators and social workers in the middle, then business people somewhere near the bottom.

Many Christians do not see how business can be a holy activity on par with the vocation of pastor, Evelien says. But she came to the conclusion that helping people work themselves out of poverty through business is a biblical mandate.

"Yes, Jesus fed the 5,000 with a few fish and breads, but on another occasion," Evelien notes, "he told his disciples to put their nets out on the other side of the boat, and that was hard work when their nets got so full."

She points to another example in the Book of Ruth where "owners are instructed not to work their whole field but to leave the edges for the poor to work, and yet many people these days tend to work the whole field, bag the excess, and then hand out the bags to the poor."

Evelien did not grow up with a passion for business. She studied and practiced physical therapy in the Netherlands. But other passions and interests began to emerge: building capacity in those around her, practicing stewardship, accountability, and leadership. "It all seemed to fit the vocation that God was calling me to -- business," she says.

She met her husband when both were leaders at a Christian youth camp. They courted for four years, married in 1982, and one year later moved to Haiti and began producing and selling picture frames.

In 2003, Evelien and Kees joined a good friend in launching another company, Maxima S.A., in Port-au-Prince to produce wooden cabinetry and caskets. By 2009, they employed 59 Haitians.

The Port-au-Prince earthquake in January 2010 killed more than 200,000 Haitians and displaced a million more. With no more demand for cabinets and caskets, the team at Maxima got creative. Their business took on a mission -- to put homeless families back into homes. They repurposed their production equipment to manufacture houses and took contracts from large NGOs like World Vision and Tearfund.

Sixteen months after the earthquake, Maxima has manufactured homes for 5,000 families. To fulfill these orders Maxima increased its number of employees from 59 to 275. Those 275 jobs provide for more than 1,300 people (it's estimated the 1 full-time job provides for 5 people, and in Haiti that ratio may be higher). More orders are on the horizon.

"It's been a crash course for over a year and I feel like I'm being molded by the Potter's hand," Evelien says, "but my story is no superwoman story. I avoid ever thinking that I myself have come this far alone. I am a product of what so many people around me have done for me and my family, using their talents to help me build mine. I try to do the same for others. This is the body of Christ."

That body of Christ includes Evelien's church, l'...glise de la Communauté Evangélique d'Haiti in a fast-paced middle class neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. The congregation is filled with Haitian doctors, lawyers, and business professionals who don't just affirm her calling to business -- they live out their own passion for business as she does.

"Take the doctors and therapists," Evelien says. "They've been providing care to the poor in the countryside as volunteers this year, on top of the 70-hour weeks they work in their own for-profit clinics -- clinics that provide jobs and fuel the economy."

Once seemingly alone in her call to business, Evelien is now encouraged. "They used to hold us businesspeople as far away as they could," she says. "The biggest surprise now is that organizations and churches are looking to us for advice, long-term strategic planning, discernment, and guidance! Something good is starting to happen here."

Jacqueline Klamer is a writer with Partners Worldwide, a faith-based international business development organization based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Partners Worldwide has worked with Haitian businesspeople since 1999, connecting Haitian entrepreneurs and business owners in the SME sector with business training, access to capital, networking opportunities, and business mentors. Partners Worldwide is active in 20 countries.

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