Saturday, December 17, 2016

Haitian Businesses Update

This week I had the opportunity to revisit the solar powered cell phone charging businesses we helped to start back in the Summer of 2015.  For the back story, see my older post.

If you recall, or even if you don't, we launched a network of five family businesses in small villages around the area of Ferrier, in north east Haiti.  See the map below.  Of the four I was able to visit, all were in good working order but have had different levels of financial success. Read on to find out why!

[this is what it looked like out the window of my plane]

Business #1: Merande
The first business we visited was the closest to Ferrier: Merande.  It's at the home of a man called Lele, like a ukelele without the uke.  He is a gregarious man about my age. Talking to him tends to put me in a good mood because he's so welcoming and charming.When he saw me he said "mwen kontan we ou!" which literally means "I content see you".  I told him I was happy to see him too and he just laughed!  I guess he thinks it's funny that I try to speak Kreyol.

Lele had painted a sign outside his door advertising his business.  He references Psalm 23 in French which I believe says "The Lord is my burger" or something like that.  I don't speak French.

[marketing by Lele, store operated by Lele's son, cell phone charging for 5 Gourde or about a dime]

[The solar panel we put up on top of a frame was in good shape 
and was helping to provide support for a clothes line, #multitasking]

Despite the good working order of the equipment and the compelling signage advertising the business, he isn't making much money. Since our installation 18 months ago, the national electric grid has been extended to parts of Merande. Some homes have been officially connected to the grid, and many others have made unofficial (illegal) connections to it!  It's hard to sell something everyone is getting for free!  

Business #2: Latasse
Next, we drove on to Latasse. The roads were very muddy so we had to park and walk the last 20 minutes or so.  Once we arrived we found a similar situation.  Pierre was happy to see me, the equipment was working well, but business had slowed.  The grid hadn't been extended out that far, however, so what was the source of the competition?  

[Pierre and his storefront]

[pole-mounted solar panel, and two smaller solar panels from another Mission Waco program, see red circles]

Pierre had raised the solar panel on a pole to get it up out of the shade. That seemed to be working well although it makes rain the only source of cleaning.  But a more significant problem were the smaller solar panels such as those shown on the right.  Through another project with Mission Waco, a large number of these panels had been made available in Ferrier.  Apparently, some of them have found their way to Latasse and are now providing a new form of competition for the cell phone charging businesses.  They are not as powerful, but they are capable of charging one phone at a time. This is a second type of competition that didn't exist when we installed these systems!

Business #3: Filibert
Moving on to Filibert, we found the same thing.  Happy people, functioning equipment, and new competition.  Although they were making good income from the business (about $1/day) they said it was down some.  They said something about the Digicel tower further down the road, but I didn't understand.


[A new fence and a watermelon plant now keep company with the solar panel. The watermelon is another type of solar powered device.  It converts light to food.]

[I'm not sure if the kids that lived there were happy because I was taking their picture or because they thought it was time to eat watermelon.]

Driving a bit further down the road, however, we came to a new cellular antenna tower.  Digicel is a major cellular telephone company in the Caribbean and Central America and their new tower had its own large array of solar panels since there isn't any other source of electricity out there.  To keep people from stealing the solar panels they surrounded them with a concrete wall topped with razor wire and hired a security guard. We spoke with a woman nearby who told us the security guard was running his own cell phone charging business with the electricity from the tower!  Unbelievable. She also had a power cord stretched through the razor wire to power her house. Not immediately understanding why there was a power cord, I asked my translator, Guy, to inquire about it. He understood she was stealing power and didn't want to cause trouble by asking about it. He wisely put me off until such time that he could explain it to me discretely.  Maybe he was afraid the woman would beat me up if she thought I was from Digicel corporate headquarters or something.

[Laundry drying on the bushes near the base of the Digicel antenna tower]

[Digicel's large and expensive array of solar panels - and the source of both
 the neighbor's electricity and the security guard's side business!]

[Guy is keeping me from getting into trouble with this lady who only responded to the pseudonym "Heisenberg"]

Business #4: Meillac
Moving on to Meillac and our most successful business, we came to Sonja's house.  From the beginning of this project she seemed to be the most aggressive businessperson, the most sure she could make a profit, and the most remote.  These attributes are working well for her.

As we pulled up to her house, another woman was just leaving with her newly charged cell phone. Sonja invited us in and told us that she was making $2 or $3 a day with her business - easily double what we had hoped and budgeted!  

As she was 18 months ago, she still avoided eye contact and seemed to be uncomfortable talking to me (I have that gift with women) but she answered our questions.  In the pictures you can see that she is charging some of the batteries directly. That is, she has taken the battery out of the phone, presumably because she didn't have the correct adapters for the various types of phones, and has modified chargers by cutting off the phone connector and attaching the wires directly to the battery terminals. Ingenuity!

 [phones and phone batteries being charged, some by direct connection of wires without plugs!]

[Sonja's house with a roof-mounted solar panel]


[uncomfortable but important video interview with entrepreneur Sonja of Meillac, Haiti!]

Business #5: La Garene
We didn't have time to make the circuitous trip to La Garene. It takes 30 minutes to walk there from Ferrier (on footpaths) but nearer to an hour to drive there (on rough roads).  Because of its proximity to Latasse, my guess is that they would be in a similar condition.

So where are we?
What did we learn from this visit?  We learned that our engineering was pretty good: the electronics, panels, batteries, etc., have held up well.  We also learned that the owners still seem to like them and use them.  We also saw examples of how much ingenuity can be found among people in severe poverty. 

But most importantly, we learned why some of the businesses aren't making as much money as we expected. There are three new types of competition that did not exist when we installed the systems in May 2015:
1) extensions of the national grid which brought electricity to more homes through both legal and illegal connections - we can't really complain about this since any type of electrification diminishes poverty in a multitude of ways
2) small solar panels flooding the region from another, different poverty abatement project are also taking away business in some areas - while this is good for the region as a whole, it's not so good for our businesses
3) unsanctioned businesses operated by the security guard of another power source (Digicel).

And where do we go from here?
So what we need to do is identify new revenue streams (that's fancy business speak for ways to make money) that our businesses can harness in ways the competition cannot. If the small solar panels can't produce as much power, what services could we provide that use more power than that competition can provide? How about a "cinema" that shows movies on a television?  How about a barber shop that uses electric trimmers? How about a refrigerator that makes ice or cools soft drinks? Help us think of other businesses - leave it in the comments!