iguacu’s Lead Researcher for Haiti, Kirsti Aventurin, speaks with young Haitian entrepreneurs who are passionate about their country and committed to positive change, and finds out what it’s really like to be an entrepreneur in Haiti.
In Haiti, the search for economic opportunities often leads to moving abroad. The unemployment rate among youth is very high, with at least two thirds of the labor force lacking formal jobs. Being an entrepreneur in Haiti comes with considerable challenges; and the Caribbean nation is not the most business friendly environment.
Guel Rochelin, a MBA graduate from Harvard Business School who returned to Haiti four years ago to start Mana Haiti, a cornflakes company, knows this well:
“To invest in Haiti is very challenging. If you are coming to Haiti for the short term, don’t come. In fact, in less than a month, I believe I would have been able to set up my company in the US…but in Haiti, it took nearly 1 year.”
In spite of the challenges however, this is not enough to discourage entrepreneurs like Guel, for whom coming back to Haiti was always part of the plan.
Mike Bellot’s university, Université Quisqueya in Port-au-Prince, was among the many buildings which collapsed in the powerful earthquake of January 2010. He was granted a scholarship to attend Taiwan University where he completed both his Bachelor and Master’s degrees.
Now back in Haiti, Mike regularly engages in events to promote entrepreneurship through workshops and conferences, and is working on promoting his two most recent innovations, in partnership with the World Bank.
Winner of the prestigious Hult Prize, Mike’s first innovation, Solo bag, was launched last June.
Solo bag is a school backpack with an integrated solar lamp system to provide light, and an in-built USB port to charge smartphones. In a country where less than 30% of households have access to electricity, Solo bag is revolutionary in that it allows students to study when it’s dark and to also charge their phones, both using clean energy. The idea was born from grief after Mike lost his dear cousin in a tragic accident.
“My cousin fell asleep in his room as he was studying using candle lights. The room caught fire and he was unable to escape.”
The problem of steady electricity in Haiti is a recurrent issue which President Jovenel Moise vowed to tackle when he was sworn in last year. Meanwhile, with just one hour of sunlight, Solo bag can safely illuminate a room for up to 6 hours.
Full of ideas to impart positive change in Haiti, Mike also invented the world’s first mobile aquaponic garden system, Ancora BoxFarm, which could help farmers and peasants in areas vulnerable to natural hazards and disasters, which in Haiti, is 90% of the population.
“With Ancora BoxFarm,” Mike said, “farms will be protected. The container is very robust; it is basically made of an aquaponic system which is inside a single mobile container.”
Having worked on a pilot project, Mike is now exploring possibilities to develop the product on a larger scale.
Daphné Floréal, a jewellery designer who created her business Bijou Lakay10 years ago, holds a deep affection for her country:
“Haiti is like a diamond. So long as you have not worked with it, you have not uncovered its beauty.’’
When asked if she considered moving abroad, she confided “I have had some interesting proposals to work in high-level positions outside Haiti but I am emotionally and sentimentally attached to Haiti”.
“Sometimes, things can be very discouraging here and you may be tempted to think that you should have embraced an opportunity to migrate abroad. But no, after all, I decided to stay here.”
With her business, Daphné employs artisans and craftsmen who had to get used to her somewhat unusual sense of creativity and asymmetry. Making the most of what Haiti offers, she uses mainly wood and beef horns in her creations.
“The craftsmen are people who have been working for years with this sort of material. But I am a very abstract person, I am very asymmetrical too in my creations, which is quite unusual for most craftsmen here in Haiti.”
The World Bank estimates Haiti to be among the worst countries when it comes to the ease of doing business. Of 190 countries, Haiti holds the 151st position and the second to last place in terms of the overall difficulty to start a business.
“I have encountered many challenges,” Daphné said. “Everything is quite complicated here. For example, we cannot do any procedure related to opening a business online and since we must do everything physically, we end up losing a lot of time.”
Still, Daphné is committed to showing the potential Haiti has to offer through ‘the beauty of perseverance’. She is regularly invited to take part in conferences on entrepreneurship to inspire other Haitians to do the same.
In western Haiti’s Croix des Bouquets, 22 year old Jacques Obenson is seeking to bring hope to his neighborhood. With his initiative S’ Orienter (in English, “to orientate oneself”), he teaches young people to work with metal and encourages the 15 youths he supervises to pass on the knowledge to others.
Jacques was exposed to tough conditions growing up, sleeping in the open and on the streets. These experiences forged in him a determination to bring a different future to the youth in his community who have faced similar challenges.
“There are many abandoned children here. Many youth are living in the streets, wandering through markets. These are young people who are looking for life in the streets and who do not know what to do.”
With S’Orienter, Jacques also organises singing, acting and dancing activities to enliven the day-to-day life of many in his neighborhood.
“My thinking behind creating S’Orienter,” Jacques said, “has been that as young people, we should set an example to the younger generation, rather than being completely demotivated.”
Jean-Pierre Vertil graduated in 2017 with a dual degree in Electrical Engineering and Economics from the American University, University of Notre Dame. He decided to come back to Haiti straight after his studies and now works as a Development and Deployment Engineer with Sigora International in the North West of the country.
Jean-Pierre is also a member of Haiti’s biggest youth forum Elan Haiti, which takes place every two years over three days. The aim of the forum is to highlight the potential of Haiti’s talented youth who are committed to engaging with the country’s future, while equipping them with a network enabling them to address some of Haiti’s issues. Working on the follow-up of Elan Haiti’s forum, he and a team created the initiative PUSH last August.
“PUSH exists to train Haitians who live in Haiti to become more competitive in the job market,” Jean-Pierre explained. “We train Haitians on how to better sell themselves and climb the career ladder. After the training we match them with companies for an internship or full time position.” Internships are not the norm in Haiti. Many young people graduate without any work experience. PUSH enables students to gain professional experience.
With a team of about 20 people, and half of them based abroad, for Jean-Pierre, PUSH is also a way to show that even “though you are not in Haiti, we can all still contribute to making a positive change for the country.”
iguacu’s recommended charity in Haiti is Partners In Health which operates in two of Haiti’s poorest regions, providing critical and lifesaving healthcare to Haitians, and expert training to medical professionals.
Learn more about Haiti and PIH at weareiguacu.org/haiti