Today I am in Gran Bwa, Haiti teaching a class in basic business skills to a roomful of middle aged farmers. It is the eighth anniversary of the 2010 earthquake that killed 313,000 Haitians and displaced another 1.8 million. At 4:53 PM, we commemorate the tragedy with a moment of silence. As if on cue, a young child within earshot begins crying midway through the silence and stops abruptly at its passing.
Myself and two colleagues are teaching a 4-day basic skills course for entrepreneurs. We are members of a small NGO loosely associated with the Roman Catholic Church. Since 2001, we have provided healthcare, education, water, and microlending resources to a remote, undeveloped region east of Port-au-Prince that borders the Dominican Republic, known as Grand Bois, or “Gran Bwa”, in the Creole. It is mountainous, remote and beautiful, with 4,000 foot ridges tumbling precipitously into dark, verdant valleys. Large swaths of the region are accessible only by foot or burro. It is an enchanting, bucolic, and largely undeveloped corner of the Caribbean.
Since 2012, we have taught this course three times and have made 21 loans of between $300 and $3,500 to those graduates who have taken the skills taught in our classes to develop a business plan that articulates a strategic vision, identifies a market need, proposes a commercial solution, and constructs a credible operating and cash flow forecast and capital budget. These loans have been used to purchase, among other things, a mechanical bread kneader, agricultural supplies, and livestock.
Due to the inaccessibility of the region we have focused on investment in agriculture. While manufacturing or assembly may generate more value-add down the supply chain, the cost of transporting goods to Port-au-Prince more than offsets the benefit of producing for a non-local market. More importantly, our students want to remain farmers.
Beverly Bell, in her book “Fault Lines”, tells of conversations she had with Haitians who were at the time of the earthquake residents of Port-au-Prince and were relocated by the national government to the Central Plateau, a rural and lightly developed region in the center of the country. Striking to her was the significant percentage of those she interviewed who would have preferred to remain in the countryside if it were economically feasible. This may be due to their perception of chaos and lack of opportunity existing in the capital post-earthquake, but based on my experience working in Haiti the last eight years, I suspect it is more a testament to the spirit of the Haitian spirit and its longing for connectedness to the land.
For these reasons, we have focused our lending activity on investment that has the potential to increase agrarian efficiencies and keep families on their ancestral lands. To date, 19 of our 21 loans have been repaid in full. One is in workout, the other in default. (Our funding more than one bakery in the region was a mistake for what in retrospect were obvious reasons.) Our 5% default rate (not including the one loan in workout) is testament to the importance of combining skills acquisition with access to capital. The 21 entrepreneurs we empowered with training and funding returned to their families and farms to start businesses, create jobs and better the lives of those they touch.
President Trump’s recent unfortunate comments regarding Haitian undesirables and those that come from “shithole countries” is in sharp contrast to my experience of the rural Haitian – our stakeholders – that if given the choice of supporting a family working the land or emigrating to NYC to drive a taxi will inevitably choose remaining a farmer in their homeland. They are a proud and patriotic people who simply seek the same opportunities we take for granted in the United States.