Haiti's motor taxis compete for business
In Cap Haitien, Haiti, motorcycle taxis transport passengers to their destinations in half the time for a fee. (Photo by Cleve Mesidor)

More and more it is being said that Haiti is open for business. The reality is that Haiti has been open for business for a long time now.

Commerce has long been active and booming in the country of 10 million. The entrepreneurial spirit of the Haitian people cannot be denied. Vendors make and sell their products, calculating overhead and profit margins on a daily basis.

Competition is high on the streets of just about every town, so “return on investment” is critical. These shrewd businessmen and women are minding their bottom line to ensure they are profitable.

Some might say the marketplace of street vendors in Haiti possess similarities to the floor of the stock market in the United States, where hoards of brokers buy and sell at a pace that is confusing and overwhelming for the average person. Of course, stock market clients are not traditional consumers – they are investors. And they are the primary target to help rebuild the nation’s economy.

Economic development is the name of the game, and growing Haiti’s private sector is the strategy to help transition the country from its dependence on foreign aid to one fueled internally by business growth. Individuals, venture capitalists, and companies looking to invest are Haiti’s “most wanted.”

Defining economic development for the small nation and breaking down the blueprint to spur a sustainable private sector appears to still be a work in progress, but many local development projects and growth initiatives have been identified for investors who are not risk averse.

The renewed focus on tourism can help grow the service sector. Manufacturing once thrived in Haiti, so there will be a significant focus on Haiti’s textile and artisan industries. Opportunities in aquaculture will allow the country to expand into fish farming. And there is no reason that the country’s ports cannot once again be centers for trade and export that once existed a long time ago.

But economic growth will depend on sound transportation infrastructure, so funding public works projects will create jobs for a population that appears willing to work with its hands. Agriculture is already a low-hanging fruit in the country’s economic ecosystem, so mangoes, coffee, and sugar should once again be great exports and, in some cases, potential sources for renewable energy. Telecommunications capacity is already being expanded to include banking services through mobile phones. Haiti’s banking system was greatly impacted in the 2010 earthquake.

Flashback: theGrio’s coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake

With so many options, where does an investor begin? Creating public-private partnerships is a good way to minimize risk. It is no secret that investments in Haiti can offer high rewards, but also high risk.

Even putting aside concerns about literacy, health outcomes, security, and political stability, mapping Haiti’s assets and strengths pose great challenges. Answers to questions relating to workforce training, geographic targeting, bonding and financing, urban planning must be addressed.

Still, optimism about growth prospects appears strong.

There is a $40 million pilot development program planned for Jacmel, and Delmas’ innovative mayor has a great vision for growth that has significant support. The industrial park being built in the North has the potential to create an economic center – a mix-use commercial and residential corridor. So there is fertile ground for those with deep, and not so deep, pockets looking for a long term investment opportunity.

Haitian entrepreneurs in the country are also seizing on investment prospects. Many are selling their land for profit to make way for the construction of hospitals, schools, etc. Others recognize the need for lodging and are setting their focus on hotel franchises. Comfort Inn, Best Western, and Marriott are among the hotels to be built in Haiti over the next few years.

As prospective investors begin to do market research and analysis, they will learn that Haiti’s greatest asset is its people. To quote Andrew Carnegie, “the only irreplaceable capital an organization possesses is the knowledge and ability of its people.”

There is no question that these strategic, business-savvy folk are capable of forming start-ups, small businesses, and partnerships to spur economic growth.

One example is the emergence of the motor-taxi business, which has become a revenue generator for young Haitians throughout the country. Cyclists, most of who appear to be under age 30, drive individuals to destinations near and far for a fee, while navigating through heavy traffic gridlock to get people to their destination in half the time. They are giving Haiti’s ‘tap-taps’ heavy competition. But while it is a smart business model, safety concerns pose great risk to passengers.

Imagine the potential if Haiti’s people had the tools, training, and the resources to develop sound business plans to create a viable marketplace. An educated, skilled workforce would attract global investors and position the country to compete.

This conversation about positioning Haiti to be a destination for business and investment is not new but it is time to go beyond concepts to developing a comprehensive, strategic plan for implementation on a nationals scale.

Attracting serious investors can certainly help develop a strong private sector, which should ultimately be followed by an emerging middle class. Optimistic, yes. Impossible, no.

Cleve Mesidor is a Haitian-American who recently returned from Haiti, where she visited Port Au Prince, Petionville, Cap-Haitien, and her hometown of Lazile. She is a communications professional focused on economic growth strategies, based in Washington, D.C.