Haiti: A Bright Business Horizon

If you have ever traveled to Haiti, you know as well as I do there is one defining characteristic that you can’t miss: the entrepreneurial spirit that the Haitian people possess everywhere you go. In fact, business classes and managers around the world could learn a thing or two from entrepreneurs on the streets of Port au Prince, particularly around market adaptation.

In the last two years Haiti has forced companies to think more strategically about how to run a successful business in a country that not only requires market adaptation but also social investment. These two elements are equally as important. Working in Haiti has forced CSR and business units to fuse their respective tenets to find opportunity for market success and social improvement.  

Many say nothing has changed in Haiti since 2010. Well, I find that argument invalid and inaccurate. As of 2012, the country has a democratically elected a president and a functioning parliament. According to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the Haitian economy is projected to grow by 8 percent in 2012 (while the region as a whole will grow by 3.7 percent). Angel Aloma, executive director of Food for the Poor, has said he sees signs that the Haitian government is coming through on promises. In addition, according to the World Bank, there are more signs of positive development:

  • Two-thirds of Haitians who were previously displaced and living in camps after the 2010 earthquake have now a proper roof over their heads.
  • Almost half of the debris from the earthquake has been cleared.
  • Most children in Haiti have gone back to school -- the result of joint efforts by the international community and the Haitian government.

The business sector was a key participant in the emergency response to the 2010 earthquake and, since that time, continues to be a driver of economic prosperity in Haiti’s communities.

While many NGOs continue to focus on providing basic humanitarian services in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps (still very important), various companies have invested in programs that meet community needs while also providing economic opportunity and stimulating market growth.  

Last week the New York Times covered the story of Digicel in Haiti. The CEO, Denis O’Brien, explained that the company’s business model in Haiti is not just about making money but also investing in the people and communities where it operates. Digicel, Haiti’s largest telecom company, not only drives economic activity and delivers a needed service, but has also helped build 50 schools, pledged to build 80 more by 2014 and allocated funds for teacher training programs. 

Digicel is not alone in Haiti. More and more companies seek to meet community needs while also stimulating the local economy and fostering positive change, including some BCLC members. Companies including Abbott, Accenture, Citi, CSS Global, Dow Chemical Company, Greif International, Marriott, MasterCard, Microsoft and Western Union are all making a social and economic difference in Haiti.

For example, Marriott will open the country’s first international hotel, offering 173 rooms next to the Digicel’s offices. In addition to creating more than 100 new jobs, Marriott will also invest in hospitality training to benefit Haiti's tourism sector. In addition to the business expansion Marriott provides volunteers and partnerships with local NGOs to solve community challenges. As a large employer of Haitians living in the United States, Marriott learned that at one of its South Florida properties, Harbor Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, more than 20 percent of Haitian associates lost family members in the earthquake. This particular hotel sent a team of associates to Haiti to help with relief efforts soon after the earthquake.   

Abbott Laboratories has set out to make nutrition a sustainable business in Haiti. Joining forces with Partners in Health, the company is leveraging its technical expertise in the health arena to produce Nourimanba, a high-calorie, high-protein, peanut-based paste that addresses malnutrition in children (a severe problem in Haiti). The company has invested in a new facility approximately 30 miles outside of Port au Prince that will both create jobs for Haitian peanut farmers and medical professionals and also dramatically increase the capacity to produce Nourimanba.

Citi has had a presence in Haiti since 1971 and has continued to invest in the country both economically and socially. Citi partnered with the Soros Economic Development Fund in 2010 to launch a professional training program for employees of CODEVI, an apparel company located in the northern part of the country (Quanaminthe). To date, approximately 1,000 Haitians have been trained, with several now employed in managerial positions. The program relies on a train-the-trainer model that will continue to enhance internal efficiencies and job opportunities over the next few years.

You can find more examples of how companies are making a difference in Haiti via the BCLC slideshow here.

So this year, as 2012 marks the second year that we observe the inspirational rise from the rubble the earthquake left, join me in reflecting on the lessons from Haiti -- and the opportunity that is thriving there. We have seen firsthand why it’s imperative to understand the value of knowing how to run a business that builds people up and that is adaptable in tumultuous times, one that balances economic gain and social progress.

The ROI in Haiti is clearer than ever before and the future looks bright.