Category Archives: haiti

Haitian Viagra

I last visited this challenged country three years ago, about five months after the devastating earthquake. I’m back for another round and I am finding some real post-earthquake progress; but challenges continue and a fair bit of dysfunction remain. This time I am working in Haiti’s north, in Cap Haitien, the country’s second city. By any poor country comparison Haiti is poor. Also by any poor country comparison, Cap Haitien is an absolute jewel. It is vibrant, reasonably well supplied with hotels, restaurants, and nightlife, and is remarkably secure. I safely and enjoyably walk the downtown after dark. The colorful and balcony lined streets are reminiscent of New Orleans (another poor city.)

My client is Makouti, a local business that supports entrepreneurial efforts by small holder farmers, bee keepers and producers of chicken, goat, and rabbit meat. Makouti has asked me to visit a range of their farmers and producers, design business training for them, and guide the writing of a business plan for the producers.

Last week my first visit was to a successful beekeeper and honey producer. He let me sample a new product he is offering – – described as Haitian Viagra. I downed a bottle. Ladies, please do not read the next sentence. (Guys, I think you can make this at home; it is mostly a blend of honey, peanuts, and ginger.) Ignoring the likely overly touted Viagra-like effects, the product tastes delicious and is quite healthy. I cannot report the same health benefits from the rest of the Haitian diet. One legacy of French colonialism is a fondness for white bread and french fries. Fried plantains and white rice round out the mix. In a poor country with numerous health challenges, I suspect such a diet is not a life enhancer.

Yesterday I conducted my first training session for the farmers and producers. One topic I covered was marketing. I asked one of the farmers how he communicated to his customers. He replied, “I don’t need to, they know who I am and they come to my house.” I believe he is following the famous adage credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” There are at least two shortcomings in this message: you must communicate that your mousetrap is indeed better and you must tell your customer how to find your door. The good news here is that there is plenty of room for improvement in this farmer’s marketing program.

Due to the simple fact that I come from the United States, I am seen (likely erroneously) as a business expert. I met a local guy at my hotel who wants my advice regarding his pizza parlor in town. Now I don’t know much about the retail pizza business, but I suspect I’ve got the basics nailed: take a heap of refined white flour, throw on a glop of mozzarella, and then ladle on canned tomato sauce: voilà, pizza. I think I’ll recommend that he watch Mystic Pizza.

Frequent readers of this space may recall that from time to time I like to get a haircut from a local barber. I generally wear my hair on the bushier side. I now have learned that if you do not know the Haitian Creole words for long, short, and hair, you are pretty much at the artistic whim of the kwafè (barber.) Haitian men sport one of two hair styles: shaved head and short buzz cut. I lucked out and got the latter. In fact, the last time my hair was this short was July 1, 1967 – – the day I was inducted into the army. Over the next several months I will save barber fees while my hair grows out. As well, I have access to Haitian Viagra until my hair is presentable again.

A New Employer in Town

Farmers outside Les Anglais, this rural town of 5,000, are self employed. But in town, very few people have jobs and almost all are very poor. There are a few “ma & pa” stores that employ the owner and perhaps a family member part time. Such a store might be 10 feet by 10 feet in size and would sell daily necessities: soap, batteries, candles, bouillon cubes, etc. The largest (and perhaps only) employer in town runs the combined hotel, restaurant, internet café, flour mill, popsicle maker. He employs 10 people. Our new clean energy store will soon be a relatively large employer: 3 people and growing.

Unemployment is unmeasured, but it must be around 70%; consequently, there is a lot of sitting around on the sidewalk, especially in a shady spot during the heat of the day. I suspect most people exist on aid (e.g. Catholic Relief Services) and on remittances sent from Haitians working abroad. Despite the crushing poverty there are virtually no beggars in this rural area. But there are a few opportunists. I have been hit up to fund a motorcycle purchase, as well as a law school degree. I passed on both contribution opportunities.

We launched the Clean Energy Store on Wednesday. We started the day with a booth at the weekly market. Thousands of townspeople as well as countryside dwellers showed up Wednesday morning to buy their weekly food supplies, used clothing, plastic shoes, woven palm frond donkey saddle bags, and so on. Our booth drew a crowd to watch demonstrations of our efficient cook stoves and to consume the food produced. (Produced tastefully and efficiently, I should add.) We had a DJ who selected a music genre that appealed to young teenagers – – not exactly the target market for cook stoves and solar home systems – – but at least we drew a crowd.

That evening we brought in a group from Port au Prince called Sinema anba Zetwal (Cinema under the Stars.) They set up a large screen in the town square to show a variety of short environmentally themed films…and a few cartoons for the kids. Between films we interviewed local townspeople abut their energy use, we gave out information about our products, and then we raffled off a few of them.

This being a poor country, we didn’t’ sell the raffle tickets, but gave out the tickets in exchange for the entrant’s cell phone number. With residents’ cell numbers we can build a data base of prospective clients to text store updates to in the future.

Thursday morning we opened the doors of the store. The first customers who showed up held the winning raffle tickets from the night before. We did have a few paying customers as well…so now the Magazen Eneji Pwop is off and running. Keep your eyes on this remote tip of Haiti as charcoal use plummets and solar lighting begins to brighten the homes.

And now to wrap up, a few random observations:

The little kids call us rare visiting Americans, “blanc,” which means white. So as I walk down the street the young ones will shout out “blanc, blanc,” always in a friendly, good natured way.

Being a guy, I don’t travel with a mirror. The room where I stayed had no mirror, nor did the bathroom, nor the living room.  I later found that there was a mirror elsewhere in our host’s home; but at one point, I actually went eight straight days without seeing my reflection.  This doesn’t count using my cell phone screen to see a hazy view of a small, very regionalized part of my face.  Going without a mirror for over one week is quite liberating in a strange sort of way.  I was a baby the last time I went so long without seeing my reflection.  You should try it sometime.  It will help you to avoid one of the seven deadly sins, that of vanity.

One day I was laid low by a brief bout of food poisoning. Our hosts were very concerned about my health. They also spent some time discussing the likely cause. Ultimately, local folk wisdom settled on the culprit: I had gone on a bike ride that was followed by drinking hot chocolate. So much for believable folk wisdom.

The Haitians are devoutly religious, mostly Catholic. At each of the meetings we held with the local board of our store, the Haitians would begin and end with a prayer. But the most beautiful part of this was they also included an acapella hymn with each prayer. Really sweet music, from a really sweet people.

So now, with good feelings about my experience here, I will depart tomorrow. Thus ends my reporting from Haiti. This blog will go into suspended animation until I find my next special international opportunity.

Seeking a Miracle

On Saturday my EarthSpark colleague, Allison, and I took a break from work to bike deep into the countryside.  The ride along the Caribbean coast on a dirt road in southwestern Haiti at the tip of the backwards C was absolutely beautiful.  We passed small one and two room homes, thatched roofs, whitewashed walls, that held families of 4 – 10 people (lots of kids here.)  We stopped to cool off in the Caribbean twice and also paused in the shade to purchase a very juicy and refreshing watermelon and to quench our thirst with coconut water from a freshly opened coconut.

We biked westward for 2.5 hours until my left pedal fell off and my rear tire went flat.  Separately, I plan to write a book about the perils of 3rd world bike rentals. Keep your eye on Amazon books.

Haiti is a mountainous country and the green hills are covered in fast growing grass…but are mostly devoid of trees.  No real stands of trees along our entire 2.5 hour ride.  This is a result of unlimited cutting to produce charcoal  and very limited replanting to replace the stripped trees.  We passed eight charcoal manufacturers:  Mounds of dirt covering tee-pee shaped wood piles.  The wood had been lit, then before fully burning, covered with dirt so that the wood would continue to burn in the absence of oxygen, thereby converting the unburned wood to charcoal.  Which brings me to the reason I am in rural Haiti.

I am assisting in the launch of a clean energy store.  Beginning July 7, the residents of Les Anglais and the surrounding countryside will be able to purchase home solar lighting and various cook stoves that are more efficient than traditional stoves. Stoves currently in use are basically free standing metal grates that hold charcoal with a cooking pot set directly on the charcoal.  I suspect that a 50 year old Weber grill is substantially more efficient.  One of our products is called, in Creole, Recho Mirak, or the Miracle Stove.  This stove, if not quite a miracle, is nevertheless a great benefit.  It uses 25% less charcoal than traditional stoves.  In a very poor country, reducing charcoal expenditure by 25% is a big deal.  And slowing deforestation by 25% is a big deal, too.  We even have the Eco Stove which uses 50% less charcoal…but costs substantially more than traditional charcoal stoves.

So, 2.5 hours out of town with a dysfunctional bicycle required us to flag down a passing tap tap: the ubiquitous rural Haitian bus.  Our tap tap was a pick up truck with two parallel wooden benches running along the sides of the pick up bed.  There was room for 8 seated passengers, but with the inclusion of our bikes and a very large bag of charcoal and another of coconuts headed to market, three of the passengers had to ride on the top of the cab.

We ultimately made it back to town to continue preparation for our July 7 store launch.  Stay tuned.

Life at the Tip of the “C”

Haiti occupies the western half of the island of Hispaniola between Cuba and Puerto Rico.  (The Dominican Republic occupies the eastern half.)  Haiti is shaped like a backwards letter “C”, pointing westward.

Our six hour drive to Les Anglais took us to the far southwestern tip of the backwards C…through the massive damage in Port au Prince, through the earthquake’s epicenter several miles west of PAP.  There the paved road showed signs of earthquake stress: odd rills and ridges in the asphalt as if Mother Nature had held the roadway at either end and had shaken and twisted it.

But the most precarious part of the drive was when the pavement ran out, about 1.5 hours short of Les Anglais.  The dirt road clung to a bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea to our left.  Water which sporadically rushes down seasonal rivers and gullies had washed out stretches of the dirt road.  This required us to creep along a two lane, reduced-to-one-lane road along an irregular precipice on our left plunging to the sea below.  Just glad that Rene, our driver was up to the challenge.

As it was we forded half a dozen rivers before reaching Les Anglais.  The final river was the largest and most challenging: maybe 50 yards wide, hub cap deep at the ford but deeper elsewhere, and flowing briskly.  Enterprising local river guides were waiting for us near the river.  By then it was too dark to discern the hub cap deep passage from the deeper car swallowing passages.  One of the river guides waded to the far side in front of our vehicle leading us across a known safe passage.

Our lodging for the next two weeks is at the home of Madame Alexander, the elderly mother of one of EarthSpark’s vendors.  Her home may be the nicest in this town of 5,000 people.  It is a relatively new concrete three bedroom construction.  My EarthSpark colleague, Allison, and I each have our own rooms, Madame Alexander, the other.  The house is spotlessly clean – – a small army of helpers sweeps, cleans, washes (and cooks) for her daily.

However her house does lack what most every house in Les Anglais lacks: running water and electricity.  I am already accustomed to bucket showers and bedtime preparation by flashlight.  Fortunately EarthSpark is in the clean energy business so my ES solar flashlight never needs replacement batteries.

Sleeping is damn hot though.  The temperature seldom dips much below 80 degrees, the humidity likewise rarely falls below 80%.  My bed is below the level of the high bedroom windows so a refreshing breeze never reaches me.  The mosquito netting around my bed protects me from potential malarial pests, but also traps body heat.  After a cool bucket shower, I slide slowly into bed and lie perfectly still to avoid generating additional body heat.  But that’s just life at the tip of the C.

Finally, the food:  lots of white bread, white rice, and processed cheese – – not my favorite cuisine – – but also fresh tropical fruits and fresh fish, so it all sort of balances out.

Beyond the Rubble

On Friday I started a new business volunteer gig, this time in Haiti…but not in the earthquake zone.  I am not participating in a rebuilding effort.  Instead, I am working for EarthSpark International, a US-based NGO that is bringing clean energy to rural Haiti.  I will spend 17 days in Les Anglais in the far southwest of the country, about six hours over rough, but mostly paved road, from Port au Prince (PAP).

We will launch the Magazen Eneji Pwop (for those of you who don’t read Creole, that is the Clean Energy Store)…a retail store that will sell solar lighting, efficient cook stoves, and alternatives to charcoal fuel.

Haiti is relatively easy to get to, just 3.5 hours Boston to Miami, turn left and travel another 1.5 hours. There is only one time zone change and travel is mostly north to south, so no jet lag to deal with.

Flying into PAP I saw, as expected, numerous collapsed buildings, many tent camps, as well as scores of buildings missing roofs, but with replacement blue plastic tarps to keep out the elements.  The airport is still standing, but – – for safety reasons, I presume – – we disembarked through a newly built temporary arrival hall.  I discovered that a windowless metal building in the tropics, full sunshine, 90 degree heat, gets pretty toasty inside – – especially crowded with people and with only a few weakly spinning fans.  Once through the immigration line and covered in sweat, I went outside to meet my EarthSpark colleagues: executive director Allison (like me, an American) and driver Rene from Haiti.

Since it was too late to begin the six hour drive to Les Anglais, we drove instead to our overnight rooming house through PAP’s ramshackle streets.  The streets display a collection of rubble, much from the earthquake, some from just third world daily life.  Traffic is not particularly heavy.  There are few car owners in this, the poorest country in the western hemisphere.  We passed many, many collapsed, pancaked homes and buildings.  I now understand how the country suffered 200,000 people killed in the January earthquake.

Since few of the remaining buildings are safe to enter, most retail commerce takes place on the sidewalks.  Grilled chicken, coconuts, toilet paper, chewing gum, cigarettes, and so on can all be purchased from a sidewalk vendor.  Throughout the city, are countless tent camps, sheltering I am told up to 1.2 million still homeless Haitians.

A typical tent camp consists of a town square filled with a mix of canvas tents interspersed with plastic lean-to shelters.  Around the border of the tent camp are outhouses and showers set up by relief organizations.  My first impression is that in this incredibly poor country, full reconstruction is years away.

So, a sobering first view of my first afternoon in Haiti.  I will report more once I reach Les Anglais…and its rural povery, well beyond the rubble.