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Charles Clermont, trusted partner of Portland Private Equity, discusses SME investments in Haiti


Potential foreign investors urged to look beyond humanitarian assistance

Leading executives from telecommunications, air transportation, beverage, garment, water, and finance companies showcased groundbreaking projects aimed at generating jobs and improving basic services in Haiti.

At a roundtable discussion held on Thursday evening by the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), panelists offered an upbeat assessment of business opportunities in Haiti, encouraging potential foreign investors to look beyond charity and focus on projects that can have a more lasting economic and social impact.

Speakers also advised companies to be open to partnering with non-traditional counterparts, such as NGOs, who have on-the-ground experience and an intimate knowledge of Haiti. In his opening remarks, IDB President Luis Alberto Moreno noted that Haiti could achieve GDP growth rates above 6 percent in coming years if it puts the right policies in place to attract more local and foreign investment and makes progress with its reconstruction plans.

“But what Haiti needs the most is to climb out of poverty, and the way to do it is by generating more jobs,” Moreno said. Moreno underscored the growing number of companies and NGOs that are trying out new ways of doing business in Haiti by linking profits with social goals. “Innovative  business models run by socially conscious people can produce nothing short of miracles,” he added. 

Many of the companies represented on the event’s panels generously contributed aid after the 2010 earthquake but are now working on longer-term projects seeking to create employment and income oppertunites for the Hatian people.

ONEXONE, a Canadian foundation, gave millions of dollars in medical supplies to Haiti. Its founder, Joey Adler, is also the CEO of Diesel Canada, a world-famous fashion brand. Her company plans to break ground this year to build a plant in Haiti, where it will make high-value garments for export markets. 

Adler said the garment industry was known for “chasing cheap labor around the world” and not putting back in proportion to what it takes. Her project in Haiti aims to change that model by sharing profits with its new plant’s workers and the local community. 

Air Canada flew the first non-military relief flight to reach Haiti after the earthquake, carrying donations from groups such as ONEXONE. The airline’s COO, Duncan Dee, said they transported 500,000 lbs of donated goods to Haiti. 

Air Canada is now working on projects with longer-term economic and social impacts but looks forward to the day when it can fill its flights to Haiti with investors and tourists rather than relief workers, Dee added. 

The Coca-Cola Company donated money to relief organizations in Haiti as well as over 1 million liters of water during the emergency phase after the earthquake. But it also felt it had to do more to promote long-term economic development, said Olga Reyes, director of Public Affairs for the company’s Latin Center Business Unit. 

Coca-Cola joined forces with the IDB’s Multilateral Investment Fund, USAID and the NGO Technoserve to launch Haiti Hope, a project to improve the productivity of smallscale mango growers. The 5-year project seeks to help 25,000 farmers double the incomes they obtain from that crop. Lessons learned from this experience will be applied to other crops, such as coffee and cacao. 

Wireless communications company Voilà teamed up with Unibank, a leading local financial institution, to develop Haiti’s first mobile money service, known as T-CASH. The “e-wallet” allows owners of cellular telephones to receive and send money and pay for goods from affiliated stores. 

Tanya Baskin, executive director of the Voilà Foundation, recalled how the partners engaged with an NGO, Mercy Corps, to test the service during nine months before it received regulatory approval. She added that they are now looking into more ways to use the application, such as for making payments on microloans. 

Aguas de Barcelona (Agbar), an international water and environmental services company, is part of a consortium recently hired by Haiti’s national water agency, DINEPA, to provide technical and financial advice to help turn around Port-au-Prince’s ailing water utility. 

Agbar’s international director, Juan Antonio Guijarro, described the task as “highly risky” for his company, given the magnitude of the problems in Haiti’s water and sanitation sector. At the same time, he added, it represents a great opportunity for Agbar to demonstrate its expertise and share its knowledge. 

Charles Clermont, a veteran Haitian banker and private investor, said there is an enormous “submerged market” in his country, a segment between the large companies that operate in the formal economy and the subsistence businesses at the base of the economic pyramid. This largely overlooked market clamors for attention, he added, not for handouts but rather for investments. 

Jacques Rogozinski, general manager of the Inter-American Investment Corporation, said his institution and the IDB are working to address some the financing needs of Haitian small and medium-sized enterprises in that “missing middle.” 

With funding provided by the Spanish government, the IIC will run a “social investment fund” that will partner with Haitian financial institutions to make loans on more accessible terms to SMEs. In parallel, the IDB will contribute grants for business development services to help more small enterprises improve their financial management and administration in order to become more productive and creditworthy. 

The roundtable discussion was held ahead of the annual meeting of the IDB and IIC Boards of Governors, which will take place here March 24–28. 

© 2011 Inter-American Development Bank – All Rights Reserved. 

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About Portland Private Equity:

Based in Barbados, Portland Private Equity is a private equity fund management company currently focused on opportunities in the Caribbean region through its management of the AIC Caribbean Fund (ACF). Building on Portland’s track record of successful investments throughout the Caribbean region, ACF is a ~$230M fund focused on medium-sized businesses. Companies in Portland’s portfolio do business in over 20 countries throughout the Caribbean, Central America, and Latin America.