First Person

Haiti’s entrepreneurs keep life going

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Oxfam America’s Coco McCabe is one of several Boston-based colleagues in Haiti to help with the relief effort. Here’s her latest update, dated January 27; this blog is part one of a two-part series.

A quake survivor at the Petionville Club. Photo: Liz Lucas / Oxfam America
A quake survivor at the Petionville Club. Photo: Liz Lucas / Oxfam America

Haircuts and pedicures. Red patent leather slip-ons and chunks of ice. Goat. Chicken. Salted herring. Spaghetti, batteries, pills. All of it can be had in the bustling market that has sprung up inside the camp at the Petionville Club, where tens of thousands of Haitians have taken shelter since the earthquake.

The market is proof that resourcefulness and entrepreneurial drive, sharpened by years of high unemployment and an infrastructure that barely exists, are alive and well in this capital city—despite the devastation at every turn.

“Haitians, as long as they can find a place and have a little money to start a business, they’ll go forward with their lives,” says Edith Saintilus, a mother of four children, who began selling cold drinks from an ice-filled cooler and snacks from her sheet-draped shelter just four days ago.

Many of those who have set up shop along both sides of the road that runs through this teeming camp have lost everything—homes, small businesses, and worst of all, family members. But there is a tenacity and determination here that, with the right support, could be the foundation for a thriving economy as Haiti begins to rebuild itself.

 But what’s needed, said many, is money—money to rebuild homes, make communities stable, and invest in small enterprises so they can grow.

On this sweltering Wednesday morning, Jean Richard Pierre has, in some ways, an enviable job: He’s an ice seller. Sitting behind a massive block that he rises at 4 a.m. to fetch from a distant manufacturer, he chops off chunks for customers—10 gourdes (25 cents) worth at a time. That’s about the size of half a cereal box.

It’s work Pierre has done all his life—even now as his house lies in rubble.

“When you have kids and a wife, if you can’t find a job, you have to create a way to make a living,” he says. In his case, it’s a meager one. On a good day, he might clear 250 gourdes (about $6) of profit. But with that, Pierre is supporting a family of eight, including two sisters and a brother. He’s the only income-earner among them.

He says he can imagine expanding his business and finding a way to sell more ice. But there’s a hitch.

“I need money to do so,” he says.

Getting a loan in these grim days after the earthquake might be impossible, says Edith Saintilus.

“There is no more business now,” she says. “Nobody will take a chance to give you a loan.”

And the banking system is in a shambles, with no loans to give.

Continue to part 2. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+