June 20, 2008

Giving Haiti a helping hand

Irish Times – 20th June 2008


Giving Haiti a helping hand

by John McManus

Ernst & Young entrepreneur of the year members turn their hand to repairing a dam and launching fishing boats.

Cequel Louima is happy today. The Haitian government may have stopped paying him years ago but he is still the guardian in the tiny hamlet of Dubreuill of sluice gates which control the flow of water into an irrigation system in a fertile valley of south-west Haiti.

Reportedly built by the French after the second World War, the weir had fallen into such disrepair that most locals saw it more as a footbridge than something that could allow them triple the output from their meagre smallholdings.

But what few teeth the elderly but dignified Mr Louima has left were prominently on display last Wednesday as he played host to members of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year programme who have been instrumental in organising remedial works on the dam.

Amidst much wheel turning and sluice gate opening and closing Louima confesses to being rather surprised that the sunburnt Irish business people who turned up in his village almost a year ago actually did something about the problems they saw that day. They must love the people of Haiti, he muses.

And, judging by the looks on the faces of Jenni Timony, of sandwich maker Doolittle, and Brian Irwin, of Portadown-based WD Irwin & Sons, Louima is not far wrong. Their sense of satisfaction at what they, along with other members of the 2007 Entrepreneur programme, have achieved is palpable. Organising some earthmoving equipment to clear out boulders from behind a weir may seem pretty straightforward, but in the poorest country in the western hemisphere where people survive on 2 a day it is an achievement, even if the moment was tempered by some of this week’s onlookers grumbling about how they were going to cross the river now that the weir was functioning.

Some 15 bone-crunching minutes back down the dusty road towards the coast, the repairs to the irrigation system have left some of the locals equally nonplussed. Boniface, another elder, rises from taking his ease beside the Solution Bank lottery kiosk to answer a few questions. Despite being a self-proclaimed member of the “dam committee” he says he knows nothing of the work on the weir, and attributes the fast-flowing water in the irrigation ditch by which he is standing to the recent heavy rain.

Another thing is clear; Boniface does not have any plans to start intensively farming three crops a year now that the local irrigation system has been significantly improved. His lack of interest highlights the depths to which the Haitian economy has fallen and the challenge that faces anyone who tries to do something about it. Fix one problem and another presents itself.

Sort out an irrigation system and then figure out how you are going to persuade smallholders who happily rely on the annual rains to grow one crop of corn to start growing three crops of something else. Given a local cabinet-maker some tools so he can expand his business and employ some apprentices, then figure out how to make sure he fulfils his promise (solution – get the local priest involved).

Entrepreneurs may love these types of challenge, but none of the 24 finalists of the 2008 programme who travelled to Haiti this week really anticipated the reality of working in a state that has failed and a society that has all but broken down in some places.

Fixing Haiti’s problems would require the US and the EU to invest 4 billion a year for the foreseeable future according to Dennis O’Brien, whose Digicel mobile phone business operates in Haiti and who is one of the partners in the Entrepreneur of the Year programme.

It is a forgotten enclave in an otherwise relatively prosperous region and only an hour and a half from the US, explains O’Brien. Digicel has been active in Haiti for three years and things are getting better, he believes.

“People are investing. The government has got a grip for the first time in 10 years. Security remains an issue, but there are opportunities being created by favourable trade treaties,” he says.

O’Brien’s optimism is at odds with the statistics. The Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts that the cost of Haiti’s food imports will rise faster than any other country this year.

Massive deforestation – 97 per cent of its forest has been cut down, much of it for charcoal – combined with a decision in the mid-eighties to lift tariffs on imported food have decimated the agricultural sector. The problems have fuelled recent food riots that cost the prime minister his job and are driving more and more Haitians across the border into the Dominican Republic. Given the extent of the problems in Haiti, it is fair to question the value of Irish entrepreneurs paying a fleeting visit to, at best, address a handful of small problems. “It’s not an exercise in vanity. These people are hunting for projects…I think 94 per cent of them will be seen through,” says O’Brien.

“When you bring business leaders who spend 90-95 per cent of their time trying to deliver profit and put them somewhere like this, it opens a window for them”.

A door was also opened this week for the inhabitants of a tiny fishing village on Haiti’s south coast. The discarded plastic bottles and other litter that deface much of the overcrowded Haitian countryside are all that stand between St Jean du Sud and the appearance of a tropical paradise. Dig a little deeper and it becomes apparent how far from paradise life is for the villagers who scratch a living from the depleted waters in rickety boats and dug-out canoes.

Last year another group of programme members took on the challenge of trying to help. The efforts of Stephen Grant of the eponymous midlands engineering firm, Jim Breen of Pulse Learning and James Kilbane of Grafton Recruitment – along with their colleagues – results in the launch this week of the first of two new fishing boats, complete with life jackets and VHF radios.

“It was a door that opened,” explains Vanie, a reserved middle-aged woman who is St Jean’s school teacher cum community leader.

“We came through for them,” says Kilbane. The next step is to help the villagers preserve and sell the fish that they hope to catch. Helping in that challenge will be some of this year’s finalists including Lord Kilclooney and Conor Foley of spread-betting company Worldspreads.

And the reason? Simply because they want to help, according to Varnie.