Three Social Entrepreneurs Driving Growth And Change In Haiti
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
This is the fourth in a series of articles from Haiti
Yesterday, I met not one but three remarkable social entrepreneurs here in Haiti. The first is a young woman who is leading a local effort to help other entrepreneurs in Haiti, the second a young man who now runs the larges plastic recycling business and the last, a returned political exile from the Duvalier era that now runs a promising aquaponics business off of his roof!
Isabelle Clerie, just 28 years old, returned from the U.S. a few years ago after finishing a masters degree in the U.S. and now runs the Haitian operations of EGI, an entrepreneurial support organization that rejects the labels incubator and accelerator, but if you want to think of EGI that way, I can’t stop you.
EGI is an acronym for Entrepreneurship, Growth and Innovation. The organization was founded by Steven Keppel in 2005; it grew out of the work of Deacon Patrick Moynihan at the Louverture Cleary School, as did the subject of yesterday’s post, HELP.
Isabelle Clerie, Country Director, EGI. Photo by Devin Thorpe.
The goal of the organization is to foster entrepreneurs, including especially young ones, within the formal sector of the economy. Board member Patrick Brun explains that something on the order of 30 percent of the Haitian economy takes place in the informal sector, a virtually unregulated and untaxed gray market dominated by solopreneurs. EGI wants to move more people into the formal economy where they can access resources to growth their businesses to scale.
EGI has a lawyer who offers pro bono formation advice, services and mentoring to the entrepreneurs in the program to help ensure that they take advantage of the doors that open in the formal economy, including improved access to capital.
To help young entrepreneurs get over their fear of banking, they introduce them to bankers. A common misconception in Haiti is that a bank can send you to jail for nonpayment. The loan sharks that prey on entrepreneurs in the informal sector can’t send you to jail either—but that isn’t what entrepreneurs who borrow from them should be worried about, says Robert Laforest, the attorney who sits on the EGI board and mentors the entrepreneurs.
There are a few promising entrepreneurs in the EGI fold, including Felder Jean Paul, a resourceful young entrepreneur who is building a sandal business. Presented with a $5,000 prize in 2014 by EGI, he opened a store where he could sell his handmade wares. He continues to struggle with raw material supplies, but opened a barber shop in his store where he braids hair to keep cash flow up.
About 50 entrepreneurs have now been through the EGI program, which includes a formal accounting module to help entrepreneurs master basic financial concepts and learn to track sales and profits. They also run a boot camp with support from MBA students at the University of Notre Dame. A group comes down to Haiti each year to provide intensive training.
EGI is committed to building a better Haiti one entrepreneur at a time.
The second social entrepreneur I met yesterday, Edouard Carrie, is the founder and CEO of Environmental Cleaning Services, SA (ECSSA, pronounced ecksa) the largest plastic recycling firm in Haiti. Founded in response to the earthquake, Carrie, now 28, wanted to do something that would help in the recovery. And help it has. As I traveled around the city, I noted the conspicuous lack of plastic garbage in the streets of Port-au-Prince—something that is nearly ubiquitous in the developing world.
Edouard Carrie, CEO of ECSSA, collects virtually all of the plastic bottles used in Haiti. Photo by Devin Thorpe.
The business started as an entry in a business plan competition while attending the University of Tampa; he won the contest and prize money to help him launch. I did an internship with USA Hauling and Recycling, prosperous recycling business in Florida. Owner Jerry Antonacci made a deal with Carrie to sell him a critical piece of used equipment at a bargain price with no cash down and only a promise to pay for the equipment when he could. Carrie boasts that he paid for it long ago.
ECSSA generates over $3 million in revenue annually, though that is down from its peak. Lower oil prices have dropped the value of recycled plastic. Carrie is looking for ways to boost his razor-thin margins, noting jealously that some recyclers in the U.S. still get paid to collect recycling and then get to sell the material, while he pays to collect it, leaving ECSSA with only one volatile revenue stream.
Nonetheless, Carrie is proud of the people that earn a living from his work. Not only does he have 43 current employees, he also has 75 “go getters” on contract who help him arrange the collection of plastic from nearly all of Haiti. He calculates that between 9,000 and 20,000 people are earning at least the country’s minimum wage collecting plastic for ECSSA. His impact on Haiti is huge.
The future, however, is uncertain. If he can’t find a way to improve margins, the business may struggle. He’s looking at using lower grade plastics, some of which he doesn’t even buy today, for the production of artificial wood. The plastic is processed with wood chips to create boards that work much like real wood for construction purposes.
He gets excited thinking of the additional social benefits. Haiti’s biggest environmental problem is deforestation and is thrilled to consider the impact of reducing the demand for real wood in Haiti by supplying the new product. He also notes with enthusiasm that he could start buying one the last, pesky types of plastic. The bane of country are the single serving water sachets sold for a few cents that are strewn about the cities and countryside alike. This low grade plastic could be used in the wood, allowing him to buy it from collectors for the first time.
And the margins have the potential to add real power to the income statement as well.
The last entrepreneur of the day was certainly different from the rest. Past 70, Francois Benoit was exiled by Papa Doc Duvalier in 1963 when he, a competitive marksman, was accused of attempting to kidnap Duvalier’s children. He spent about 25 years in exile. When he returned, he became Haiti’s ambassador to the United States. In the early 90′s, Benoit also launched Haiti’s first internet provider. He set that aside, however, when he was called upon to serve as the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
For the past 25 years, Benoit has been working to create a model for aquaponics that would work at scale in Haiti. He wants to help restore Haiti’s agricultural exports, slow the rural to urban migration and feed more Haitians better food.
He started with a small table-top garden. He quickly graduated to the roof of his beautiful home in the foothills of Port-au-Prince, where he grows mostly lettuce. He loves growing lettuce because it is ready for harvest so quickly using his model. He can have it ready for the table in just six weeks from a seed.
It takes four months to get the first tomato from one of his vines, but he can keep the vine producing for 11 months and ultimately get more than 100 pounds of tomatoes from each plant, which he grows in a greenhouse in the back yard of his home. From his admittedly large residential property he is generating about 300,000 of annual revenue from his production.
Francois Benoit, former Ambassador to the United States, ascends to his rooftop farm. Photo by Devin Thorpe.
He’s now scaling further, having acquired land where he has built one large greenhouse and has space for three more.
His approach is remarkably technical. He has developed methods for using remarkably little water. He gets 100 percent of his water from collecting rain. He has his own water treatment system that allows him to purify the water and then add just the right mix of chemical nutrients. He controls pests without pesticides and is looking to add bumblebees to pollinate the tomatoes–he’s been hiring a person to pollinate them using an electric toothbrush.
On his new property, he’s planning to build a school where he can train other people to do what he does. He’s hoping to create a financing mechanism that would allow rural small-hold farmers to use his technology, thus allowing them to launch profitable farms.
He hopes to create a business that would handle all of the marketing for the farmers so that he could give the small farmers a steady flow of orders so that everything they plant will have a guaranteed market. Using his 25 years of growing in Haiti, he has an incredible repository of data that will allow him to predict exactly when products are ready for harvest and delivery.
At scale, he not only sees Haiti become self-reliant but becoming a significant exporter of lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, strawberries and micro greens.
After visiting with these three remarkable entrepreneurs, I was filled with hope for the future of Haiti. Entrepreneurs hold the keys to its prosperity!
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