This blog post, written by Alex Walker, was originally posted on EGI Haiti’s blog site.
Over the summer, fellow ND MBA alum Meghan Trossen and I had the opportunity to work with EGI Haiti. Our time centered on training a group of local entrepreneurs four days a week and providing one-on-one consultations as they prepared their business plans. Most importantly, thanks to Executive Director Isabelle Clerie, we received a crash course on the context of Haiti and its current business environment. Through the experiences of business owners, the entrepreneurs, expats along the way, and of course weekend travels throughout the country (untapped beaches, mountains, waterfalls, and historic towns) we became acquainted with the country and began to better understand the core to EGI’s mission.
I flew into the Port-au-Prince airport knowing very little about the local business environment. I knew that the World Bank ranks Haiti’s “ease of doing business” 180 out of 189 measured economies. Most everyone remembers the tragic earthquake in 2010, which set the country back and triggered a large influx of international aid, which still flows in today. I had read that large amounts of money had been donated and spent in the aftermath, and that several journalists had questioned where it all went. Hearing firsthand accounts from several perspectives within the country, as well as seeing for ourselves highlighted a similar theme: a lack of local input on large projects led to excessive waste, and at worst even adverse effects to the local economic development.
The business environment in Haiti requires a special type of entrepreneur. There are plenty of obstacles to dwell on that likely became variables in the metric that determines the World Bank’s assessment: political uncertainty, unreliable infrastructure, and opportunistic behavior in general that has simply led a lack of convenience and trust. What EGI does so well, beyond teaching basic business skills, is create an atmosphere where entrepreneurs can share ideas and thrive.
On the first day of class, I asked each of the entrepreneurs to share a bit about themselves as well as their business ideas. After several hesitant responses going around the room, I received a skeptical “um…no”—out of fear that someone would steal the idea! By the end of training, the cohort freely shared ideas, financials, and even the harshest constructive criticisms to improve each other’s business models. Classes are intentionally small to create this safe network for sharing advice. Each entrepreneur gets outside advice on everything from their business plan to how to navigate the tough business environment. Advisors come from all directions: the current cohort, previous members, visiting ND MBA’s like myself and Meghan, and most importantly owners of some of the most prominent Haitian businesses.
In addition to my time with the current entrepreneurs, I had the opportunity to work with Energy Central, a solar energy installer in Haiti who happens to be a part of the EGI network. As you can imagine, if solar energy provides a competitive energy alternative anywhere, it does so in sunny, electricity-challenged Haiti. Even further, distributed generation (having an energy source on site) has already been the norm for any business requiring more than 6 hours of uninterrupted power a day.
Many businesses default to installing diesel generation, which provides a dependable, though costly (yearly diesel costs add up), solution to this problem. In many cases, this means an opportunity for solar energy to provide a cost effective and cleaner alternative to offset some of those diesel costs. Despite the feasibility, upfront installation costs deter many potential clients who would otherwise enjoy thousands of dollars in savings over a three to ten year horizon. I had the opportunity to construct a business plan for financing a solar energy installation, based on case-by-case modeling the value created for the customer, financier, and installer over time. Recently, this pitch even led to a successful discussion with a local bank.
Between working with young and established entrepreneurs, my time in Haiti served as one of the greatest professional experiences of my life. I am deeply thankful for the opportunity to spend time with such great minds in a tough, though very promising, environment and can’t wait to go back!
EGI Haiti takes ideas & informal businesses and turns them into formal operations that can receive investment. They find the most promising Haitian entrepreneurs, train them and connect them to top investors and businesspeople who serve as mentors. Together with the entrepreneurs and mentors, EGI creates formal small businesses and finds 1st level funding.