Wayne L. Firestone

Industry Emerging from the Rubble in Haiti: How building skills locally through community networks can create sustainable businesses

A spontaneous crowd gathers around the back of a colorful “TapTap” truck blaring local music in the busiest street market of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A few women sit in the back of the truck, not selling food as you might expect, but rather demonstrating one way to cook food. Specifically, the women are presenting various features of a fuel-efficient stove (FES) to passers-by.

And it’s hard to ignore them. As the women demonstrate cooking procedures to a signature musical introduction – delivered ice cream truck-style – the crowd grows larger and the buzz about the benefits of the stoves gets louder.

The benefits of an FES are plenty. Most Haitians cook food on a daily basis using charcoal on an open grate, which is costly, unhealthy and environmentally damaging. An FES, on the other hand, can increase disposable incomes for some of the poorest households by nearly 20 percent because they require less fuel than typical cooking methods. An FES also limits exposure to toxic fumes and indoor air pollution while reducing environmental degradation.

Throughout the street markets in Port-au-Prince, a growing corps of entrepreneurs – mostly women – is helping this FES market take root. Away from the glare of post-earthquake doomsday forecasts and growing assessments that nothing can work in the country, this is what doing business in the epicenter of Haiti’s local commercial marketplace looks like today.

Where Entrepreneurship Meets Social Entrepreneurship

The scene in this Port-au-Prince market shows how empowered local businesses – even in the poorest and most difficult-to-navigate environments – can create sustainable enterprises that employ and train local workers. I caught this glimpse on a recent visit to Haiti as we set out to plan the next phase of a partnership between my organization, the International Lifeline Fund, and a local Haitian business called D&E Green Enterprises.

The business-centered approach to increasing FES adoption falls squarely in neither of our wheelhouses. Lifeline is a U.S.-based NGO with experience supporting humanitarian interventions in five African countries and Haiti, while D&E is a Haitian social enterprise run by a Haitian businessman with a master’s of international affairs degree from Columbia University and a stint on Wall Street.

Riding on the belief that the meeting point between entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship can be a powerful one, the D&E and Lifeline partnership seeks to establish a nationwide market for fuel-efficient stoves, selling more than 50,000 stoves a year using “bottom-up” marketing and training techniques closely tied to local production and manufacturing activities. While fuel-efficient stoves may not be considered trendy or tech-savvy by Western standards, the local entrepreneurs in Haiti understand their potential market value. Port-au-Prince residents spend roughly 33 percent of their daily incomes on the fuel for daily meal production, signaling enormous promise for cooking devices that deliver economy, quality and safety alongside a satisfying, locally sourced meal.

Following the arrival and departure of many well-intentioned post-earthquake humanitarian interventions, it was difficult to know what kind of local markets might emerge in Haiti, and even more difficult to imagine that the environment would be attractive to entrepreneurial activity.

(TapTap trucks blaring local music, like the one above, are used to create buzz and attract new business.)

But beyond the literal marketplace, too, we have seen industry emerging from the rubble of the earthquake. Surrounded by auto shops, a technical college and a chicken coup in a gritty section of Port-au-Prince, our local production plant previously silenced by the earthquake is now guided by a business plan to double the number of factory workers from 20 to 50 and grow a local sales force from 85 to more than 200 in the next few years.

Building off our experience in Haiti and around the world, we encourage others to keep four key success factors in mind as they try to tackle these local business challenges:

1. Identifying Value-adding Partners on the Ground Matters

In 2012, Lifeline founder Dan Wolf and D&E’s CEO Duquesne Fednard met to align their respective visions and make a plan to integrate their operations, resulting in an equity investment of more than $500,000 in the joint enterprise. From his office balcony on a noisy and busy street in the heart of downtown Port-au-Prince, Duquesne explained, “Everyone in Haiti is a seller, but nobody is taught how to sell.” After guiding several other successful family businesses in Haiti in the past, Duquesne recognized an opportunity to build a national sales force based on the ability of his team to speak directly with potential buyers and demonstrate the immediate benefits of switching to an FES. Duquesne and his team carefully select new neighborhoods throughout Port-au-Prince in which to establish new vendors or TapTap trucks to introduce FES products, create buzz and attract new business in areas that have never had access to this technology.

While our goals are different – Lifeline seeks to strengthen local awareness of clean cooking and build local capacity while D&E seeks to establish a sustainable and profitable business – the partnership has shed light on a new business model that has been quite successful in Haiti.

2. Building Skills and Community Networks Locally Creates Sustainability

The factory we visited in Port-au-Prince is headed by a former development contractor with years of experience in Haiti and a keen understanding of the value of staff training. He recruits workers from local impoverished neighborhoods who are unemployed but motivated to work, and from the nearby technical college, which provides a steady flow of interns. These workers receive more than just training on the use and maintenance of the factory machinery. Armed with business, marketing and accounting skills, the workers become empowered to manage their own finances and operate successfully in a competitive business environment.

3. Developing a Market Requires Local Intelligence and Adaptation

Throughout the years, both Lifeline and D&E have learned that to create the necessary buzz to establish interest and demand for stoves in Port-au-Prince, vendors need to harness the power of consistent and repeated messaging, in the same place over a short period of time. The introduction of the TapTap truck, with its signature tune and routine, has successfully increased demand and sales for FES in the communities it circulates one week at a time.

4. Empowering Women in Business Enterprises Requires a Nuanced Understanding of Gender Dynamics

Trying to break down the barriers of gender norms in Haiti presents many challenges, but also creates fresh opportunities to empower women in newly established value chains. Originally, the team tried to get women alongside men involved in the production of cookstoves, but they soon realized that women in Haiti considered any form of metalwork to be a man’s role, and did not want to participate. Instead, the team put women in managerial roles, where they could gain practical business training and skills. Interestingly, the country’s underlying gender dynamics helped empower women to be at the forefront of the stove market in Haiti. “By building women as leaders in the community using clean cookstoves as a vehicle, we were able to create change without imposing our will,” said Lifeline Senior Program Manager Christine Roy.

It’s not easy for an NGO to do these things – it requires a certain appetite for risk. But by combining development thinking with the resources and energy of local entrepreneurs, NGOs can create an environment that encourages communities to take responsibility and strengthen their capacities, which will lead to communities creating their own sustainable future.

The path to sustainable development in the poorest countries needs to look more and more like a series of well-crafted business deals utilizing business metrics. Going forward, Lifeline will continue to invest and joint venture with the most promising local entrepreneurs from whom we can learn and who are willing to take risks with us in a market developer role. We encourage others to explore similar entrepreneurial partnerships and ventures.

Wayne L. Firestone is the CEO of International Lifeline Fund and a Kogod Entrepreneur Fellow at American University Business School.

Education, Health Care
clean cooking, product design, skill development