New hope for Haiti from for-profit firms

Companies and programs geared to create jobs


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PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti -- At teeming intersections packed with airport traffic, armed U.N. peacekeepers double as traffic cops. In tent cities, Red Cross Humvees serve as food trucks, mobile medical centers or impromptu peacekeepers. The collapsed Haitian presidential palace remains a barren reminder of a capital city annihilated in an earthquake followed by a hurricane, even as International Red Cross and American Embassy headquarters take up entire city blocks and provide reminders of who exactly is laying the foundations for Haiti's recovery.

Life here is finally taking a gradual turn toward normalcy as shuttered schools reopen and a deadly cholera outbreak slowly fades. Yet for all of the hard-fought victories meant to restore the nation, many citizens feel separated from what's been done on their behalf without their input. But a movement to pass the baton to the Haitian people is gaining steam -- within a reconstruction effort spearheaded and executed by foreign nonprofit stakeholders.

For-profit ventures designed to tackle social ills and nonprofit programs geared toward business acceleration and job creation have become the new hope surrounding long-term recovery. In a nation with more than 40 percent unemployment, the shift is overdue but welcome for citizenry tired of standing on the sidelines of their own revitalization, said Ian Rosenberger, founder of East Liberty-based Haitian recycling organization, Thread.

"I spend a lot of time asking [Haitians] what they need and the people we come across most often say, 'I want my kids to have a better education and life than I did. I want to have a job and put food on the table.' Rarely do they ever ask for money," he said.

The international community has poured a lot of money into Haiti in recent years, and it was needed.

In November 2010, Hurricane Tomas smacked a crumbled and flattened Haitian landscape that was still reeling from a 7.0 earthquake in January of that year. The world community responded with unprecedented support.

Within a year, more than $1 billion had been dedicated toward relief efforts -- a figure that, by 2012, had swelled to an estimated $13.3 billion in dedicated funds meant to last through 2020, according to the U.N. Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti.

In the past two years, an estimated $9.49 billion of that has been dispersed through both international agencies such as the World Bank and through independent non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. More than $582 million went directly to the Haitian government and $37.1 million was dispersed to Haiti-based NGOs.

Donations well spent have garnered visible results. The American Red Cross alone put nearly $486 million toward clean water and sanitation, a revamped health network that featured the first cholera vaccinations, job training and cash-for-work programs.

Tent cities stuffed with more than 1 million displaced citizens at the disaster's onset have shut down en masse with 270,000 people remaining in 352 camps across the country as of September, according to the International Organization for Migration in Geneva, Switzerland.


In steps Thread

Mr. Rosenberger, a Penn State graduate and former "Survivor" contestant with a background that includes production gigs with MTV and BBC, could be seen as another foreign donor with plans to help. He founded Thread in 2010 by following the simple notion that Haitians could turn trash into treasure.

But his approach called for putting the work into the hands of the nation's own people.

Working off the idea that trash removal could improve sanitation, promote sustainability and turn a profit, Mr. Rosenberger teamed up with Haiti Recycling and with Boston-based nonprofit Executives Without Borders to create the partnership Ramase Lajan. It sets up recycling centers throughout the country to be owned and operated by Haitians.

Once a month, Thread purchases tons of plastic recycling material from the centers to spin into fabrics that are in turn sold to manufacturers hoping to create environmentally friendly products and tell the story of empowering impoverished Haitians.

The startup has miles to go before making a visible impact in a nation with few sanitation facilities and mounds of trash piling up on public streets.

In its short tenure, Mr. Rosenberger said Thread has turned millions of pounds of plastic into fabric, putting cash into the hands of 26 recycling center owners who employ 1,300 people.

Last year alone, Thread helped to create $100,000 in income for its Haitian employees, moved 200,000 pounds of plastic from the country and raised nearly $750,000 in seed funding. If the effort maintains the growth, Mr. Rosenberger said Thread will see its first profit by next year.

Nadine Philippe, a 42-year-old resident of Les Cayes, owns a recycling center. She said she made slightly more money working as a street vendor selling electronics than through the recycling program.

Still, she said the emotional boost from clearing her nation's streets and providing a job for a struggling citizen makes the career change more than worth the effort. There's little greater joy for her than seeing a formerly down and out employee's life turn around because of her business, even if it means they have advanced far enough to become her competition.

"I used to have a worker who was clueless about the program and recycling when he started. Now that person has ideas," she said. "Even though it's not good on my behalf, that person is now selling plastic just like me."

For nonprofits used to offering relief as distributors of basic necessities, teaching Haitian citizens to fish through the new economy has become a primary objective.

Colorado Springs-based Compassion International, which works with Haitian churches to provide education, food, medicine and other assistance to 75,000 children, has recently introduced a microfinance program for parents of children served within their schools.

The program invites existing small business owners to a week of business classes and provides loans up to $2,500 for individuals with the most viable and realistic plans for success. So far, the program has doled out approximately $800,000 in loans to more than 700 parents and has spawned businesses designed to train and empower the next generation, said managing program director Matthew Moore.

A prime example was the tale of a tailor who lost a wife, a child and his entire tailoring business to the 2010 earthquake. With the help of a $1,200 loan, the man was able to reopen his shop and pay off the loan in three months. With the help of a second loan, also paid off in three months, he added 10 sewing machines to the shop and opened a sewing school on the roof of the building where he is training 16 apprentices.

For all of the program's early success, Mr. Moore said it never would have gotten off the ground without the input of local church leaders providing feedback about the best way Haitians think a nonprofit can help them strive.

"One of the challenges in Haiti is that so many nonprofits are operating here. It's right next door to the United States, so a lot of people want to help but don't always know how to do it. We've overcome that by working with local churches and their denominational leaders to implement most of our projects and to discuss strategies," he said.


The will is there

Unlike cash-heavy nonprofits and foreign entrepreneurs, Haitian business owners hoping to impact change tend to face obstacles much less cultural than financial.

Hans Tippenhauer, a Port-au-Prince-based management consultant and executive vice president of construction company Bati Ayiti, created Fondation Espoir to support the creation of an "eco-city" to serve as a model for the entire country.

Originally, the plan was for a $6 billion effort that would develop nearly 5,000 acres of property into 30,000 solar- and wind-powered houses and hospitals, as well as groves of mango and moringa trees that would allow schools and universities to feed students and create fruit-based products for sale.

And while the Global Shapers Haiti Hub has already broken ground on the site by planting the trees, Mr. Tippenhauer said the remainder of the project has stalled largely because funding is hard to come by for Haiti-based social entrepreneurs.

"We thought things would happen differently for reconstruction, we thought there would be more funds for local developers, but that's not the way things have happened," he said.

Mr. Tippenhauer and his team are pursing alternative funding sources and exploring options to fund the project internally.

The notion of pressing on regardless of government aid is an option for Mr. Tippenhauer, who holds multiple degrees from the University of Puerto Rico and is an adviser to Haitian President Michel Martelly. But for Haitians without access to clean water, let alone top government officials, dependence on some form of direct aid will likely remain a necessity for years to come.

Still, the days when direct aid comes from the Haitian people rather than non-governmental organizations may come sooner than anyone expects.

"If you look at the nonprofit model, there's a place for what they do but it's important to use social enterprise to drive growth," said Mr. Rosenberger.

"There are a lot of people that think places like Haiti needs people's pity. But I think the poor have plenty to offer the rest of the planet. All we need is to be able to figure out what they have to offer and help them make it happen."

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Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652. First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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