In the largest conference room in Haiti, deals were made, contact information swapped, and the air buzzed with excitement at a business fair hosted by Partners Worldwide and a dozen sponsors targeting small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and international organizations to work together and more effectively restore the country and economy.
"The best way to help Haiti is to purchase goods and services locally," says Daniel Jean-Louis, who serves as Partners Worldwide partnership manager in Haiti. "It's essential for the long-term growth of the Haitian economy."
One business that attended is pasta producer SPIA-Stanco that employs over 200 Haitians in the manufacturing district of Port-au-Prince, and distributes the product through hundreds of microenterprise sales around the country. According to president of the company, Stanley Theard, the earthquake wasn't the first catastrophe he faced. After launching the business with his wife in 1978, they also endured dictatorships, coups, embargos, natural disasters and more.
"We've lived through a lot of difficulties over the years, yet still made local pasta affordable to the poor," says Theard. "My best contribution to my country is to create jobs to overcome challenges together-to create opportunities for others."
Currently, the greatest challenge businesses face is the competition in imported foreign aid. Just 12 months following the earthquake, The Associated Press stated that out of every $100 spent by U.S. organizations in Haiti, merely $1.60 was won by Haitian contractors. That's right, $1.60.
Theard saw the negative results like many others. For six months, production was reduced by over 75 percent, shifting from four production lines to two-and only twice a week.
"Key reason? Manje se gratis," he says in Creole. "Food all over Port-au-Prince was free."
Tax-free incentives for NGOs also encouraged donated imports rather than supplies offered locally. The result? Many local hospitals, pharmacies, food production companies and manufacturers in Haiti were wiped out.
Free donated goods also held first priority in shipping and customs. In spite of a factory standing and hundreds of employees ready to work, according to Theard, "We couldn't produce as usual. Our wheat flour for pasta production sat for four months there in the harbor." Employment was cut by nearly half.
Today, his pasta production is back up, and even expanding. Now, 217 employees have also returned to work fulltime. One of them, Maurice Joseph, has been with SPIA-Stanco for 19 years, hoisting corn meal and wheat flour into the production equipment that generates 6,600 pounds of spaghetti per hour. "From 6:00 in the morning to 6:00 at night, I'm earning an income through regular hours plus overtime," he describes. "I'm putting my three kids through school."
"Jobs are all about dignity," says Theard. "If you have an income, dignity comes with it. The first thing our employees do is educate their children. That's why I run this company."
At the conference, companies like SPIA-Stanco found new hope needed to survive in the new economy. "If NGOs desire to purchase locally, it requires commitment and collaboration," says Jean-Louis. "As we link organizations to Haitian businesses, we want to see contracts made, procurements obtained, and a new momentum to strengthen Haitian businesses. Our follow-up now is to see what real impact this networking will have on both sides."
Theard seems optimistic. "It's a benefit to be involved with other businesspeople committed to the country," he says. "Unlike ever before, this conference opened new doors for the private sector and NGOs."
Attendees from the Haitian private sector included Laboratoires Farmatrix, Maxima, Acieri d'Haiti, ENERSA, Let a Gogo, and SPIA-Stanco. Representatives from international organizations such as World Vision, Red Cross International, Samaritan's Purse, Catholic Relief Services, Beyond Borders, CRWRC, Habitat for Humanity, Food for the Poor, IMA World Health, and Salvation Army also attended.
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.