When people think of Haiti nowadays, most think of one event that happened just over four years ago. Many do not realize the rich and painful history of this Caribbean nation. Over two hundred years after becoming the first black nation in the world to gain independence from colonialists, Haiti is turning a new page.
I traveled to Haiti during this past J-term which marked the third time I’d been to Haiti since the devastating earthquake on January 12, 2010. The first time was two weeks after the earthquake when I flew to Haiti on a one-way ticket to volunteer as a relief worker. There are no words that can fully describe the devastation that my eyes witnessed at that time. The following year, in July 2012 I returned for a mission trip with members of my home church Clermont French Speaking Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY. During that mission trip I created and led a business seminar teaching dozens of rural youths how to put together a business plan. This experience was instrumental in my decision to obtain an MBA and apply to Harvard.
I decided it was time for me to make a return visit and learn about the business landscape in Haiti. I was introduced to Clifford Nau, an analyst within Haiti’s Ministry of Economy and Finance who made the possibility of having a group of MBA’s complete a project in conjunction with the ministry a reality.
The Ministry scheduled multiple meetings with high-level executives in the finance and banking sectors. This included meetings with the Public Private Partnership, Center for Facilitation of Investments, the public pension fund, Industrial Development Fund and two of the major banks in Haiti: Banque Popular Hatienne and Unibank.
I spoke extensively with Madame Laleu, the Director of Economy and Analysis at the Ministry, and met with the Minister of Economy and Finance, Wilson Laleau (in the feature picture to the left) toward the end of the week and had a conversation with him regarding my interest in investing in Haiti. The ministry has dozens of highly educated young leaders, many with masters in economic policy in Europe and the US who are dedicated, under Minister Laleu’s leadership to implement programs that foster the economic growth of Haiti.
These talented leaders travel to conferences throughout the world absorbing best practices from other countries as well as promoting the opportunities and programs being developed in Haiti. The Ministry of Finance is in the beginning stages of instituting an internship program for advanced degree students including MBAs. There is a lot of work to be done in Haiti, and anyone with an interest in policy and finance in developing countries would find the opportunity to be fascinating.
Much has changed in the two and half years since I last went to Haiti. The country’s current mantra is “Haiti is open for business” and I was able to witness this motto in action. Construction and infrastructure projects are well underway, including new road construction and installation of solar-paneled street lights.
There has also been a new focus on enhancing Haiti’s attractiveness as a manufacturing haven. The goal has been focused on positioning Haiti as the preferred alternative to low-cost Chinese labor. To this end, Haiti has increased the number of Industrial parks under construction. That wasn’t the only visible progress that I could since since my last visit. The tent cities that were so visible in previous visits were no longer there, and there was visibly less earthquake debris.
Throughout the week, I traveled around Port Au Prince and Petionville and was able to experience another side of Haiti. Petionville, a city that is a mere 20-30 minute drive from Port Au Prince, is the business and expatriate capital of Haiti. Many hotels have popped up over the past few years and the nightlife is vibrant. During my weeklong stay I ate at a variety of restaurants, attended live reggae and Kompa (Haitian music) performances and hung out at a couple of lounges and clubs.
I ended the week by attending the Haiti Renewal Alliance Business Conference, which brought together hundreds of leaders from public and private sector, investors, and entrepreneurs for a two day conference. I was most excited by the “Shark Tank” style investor pitches made by a variety of interesting local Haitian businesses. I also met an investor from Houston who was looking to invest in Haiti for the first time.
Haiti is indeed “open for business.” The international community was exposed to this when the earthquake placed the country on the international stage. Hopefully it doesn’t take another natural disaster for the world to be reminded.