Survivability to Sustainability: The Power of Entreprenuership

It never occurred to me as I left for Port Au Prince, Haiti last week that I would learn so much about entrepreneurship. Hard to believe? Well, here is the story.

Port Au Prince, Haiti is certainly not where you go if you want to get away from it all. It is a bustling over-crowded city comprised of people who, by our standards, are dismally poor. The average person in Haiti gets by on a $1 day or less. You may think that the cost of living is low enough that it all works. Wrong! Things we buy in the States are more expensive there because they are mostly imported and there is a fairly large import tax on incoming goods. There are stores that sell these goods but they are out of reach for most Haitians. Poverty is the norm and the wealthy elite is a very small portion of the total population; the upper class owns the vast majority of wealth and have governing systems to keep it that way. It has been this way since Haitians secured their freedom from slavery and the French over 200 years ago. Pre-earthquake and post-earthquake Haitians are just trying to survive. To do that, they have become entrepreneurs.

On the streets of Port Au Prince people are everywhere. It is a city of 1 million which has swelled to hold over 3 million since the quake. While there are fewer tent cities now, three years after the earthquake, housing is still a struggle for many and tarps, tents and hovels practically stacked on top of each other is the norm. Every day, people are five deep on the sidewalks and every corner, selling their wares. It might be bread they baked, sugar cane they harvested, clothes they found or goods they bought and are re-selling. Some set up shop under an umbrella, others carry their wares on their heads as they go through the streets. They work from sun up to way past sun down.

If they are lucky enough to have a job, much of the day is spent traveling to and from work. Traffic is a nightmare, roads are terrible and the rules of the road are unique to Haiti. The cook in the home where I stayed is devoted and dependable arising at 4am to walk to work so she can arrive by 6am. Tap-taps, a small highly decorated open-air bus, is the most common transport but it too costs money and sometimes even that is too much. These entrepreneurs are opportunists, identifying ways to create industry and working hard to feed their families. In a survivor economy, effort isn’t rewarded. They only eat if they get results from their work which provides a high degree of accountability.

In the rural areas, most people are completely independent, far from the city, and therefore self-reliant for food, money, and other necessities. Even the middle-class, of which there is so little, find it hard to make ends meet. I met an OB/GYN, Dr.”D”, who had done his medical residency at Duke. Returning to his family home (which was destroyed by the earthquake) and rebuilding it is not easy and requires ingenuity to make progress. Given the heavy presence of non-profits who have set up free health clinics, locals understandably by-pass the local physicians in favor of NGO care even if it is a bit further away.

This doctor delivered 400 babies a year pre-quake and has rebuilt his clinic to 50 deliveries this year. Most doctors have been forced to shutter their practices and to work outside of the country, driven out by the free health care that was necessary post-quake and now provided as an ongoing service by foreign non-profits–intended to help but destroying local economies. Dr. “D” is slowly rebuilding his home, and the homes of his family members, living first in a tent on top of his clinic and now in a room inside the clinic with his wife and four children. He raises chickens and turkeys to sell. He breeds dogs. He does surgery at the main “free” clinic in town and serves as the area Public Health Minister. He is one of the lucky ones as his family has inside bathrooms and electricity. While he lives in the clinic the chickens have free run of his unfinished home–a strange sight to say the least if you are not Haitian. Most Haitians have neither electricity or inside plumbing and yet manage to work and raise families, living off the land and the opportunities presented by their communities.

Resourcefulness and “doing much with less” is not a slogan but a way of life.

On my last day, we flew by helicopter to a remote village that is almost unreachable on the ground by anything other than donkey. This area of the country was so beautiful it took my breath away. Beside multiple waterfalls, in a luscious green valley, these people live and work. There are over 15,000 people in the area and yet there is no school. We came to see community entrepreneurship at work. The Protestants, Catholics, Voodoo priests and civic leaders were coming together to establish a school. This community effort, bringing together highly divergent parties, is a new but hopefully growing practice in Haiti, called Federations. it is described in the constitution of Haiti but rarely enacted.

So much more can be done by working together to achieve common goals.

A few teachers have already started to teach in the open air. Children and parents have held rock-carrying contests to see who can carry the most rock up to the plateau, along narrow, rocky and steep pathways, on their head, to the site for the school. I declare the kids the winners! They proudly showed us the newly dug latrine, so essential in their constant battle with disease. These local farmers and their leaders, live hand-to-mouth and yet they pulled together to donate the land to the community, develop a plan for the site, arrange for the teachers, assemble the building materials and work together to create a sustainable future for their families, recognizing the power of education. The children and adults were wearing tattered clothes, the youngest children in nothing but a t-shirt. Dusty and sweaty, as we all were, the lights in their eyes shown bright with pride over their vision for their future. They were making this happen themselves. They had no money but they had a plan and they were seeing it come to fruition before their eyes. And one successful project inspires the next. They are determined to succeed–together!

No doubt, based on the news we hear most often, we believe Haiti needs our aid. To be sure, the people need much and will take what is available to them. But mostly, they need encouragement, training and opportunity. They provide the sweat equity, the hope and the pride in creating a future that will sustain them, their families, and their fellow countrymen. They demonstrate to all of us the success criteria for entrepreneurs:

  1. Hard work: Haitians work tirelessly to accomplish their goals–for some that is survival, for others, sustainability. Regardless, they don’t whine or stop.
  2. Resourcefulness: Haitians are self-reliant. They realize that they must make things happen themselves as they can’t count on resources from government or sometimes fickle NGO’s. They barter, trade or make it themselves. They find a way to get over or around the obstacle.
  3. Knowledge: Haitians highly value education. They are willing to work even harder for that which they know is valuable (only about 50% of Haiti’s children are able to attend school). They seek knowledge and recognize its power. What we know opens up the options and directs the path more effectively than what we think.
  4. Teamwork: Haitians have a history of working independently; yet they are recognizing the power of working toward a common goal and uniting with those they have historically not worked with to achieve them. Their philosophical differences are certainly greater than the sales department’s disdain for bean counters or operations distrust of sales. If they can do it, so should our organizations.
  5. Accountability: Haitians recognize that if they don’t get it done it won’t happen. If they don’t sell enough wares at the market, grow corn in the field or raise chickens for eggs, they won’t eat. They are not about activity but result!!

Here in the States, entrepreneurs are driving innovation and creating economic health–for themselves, their families and their countrymen. However, we are gifted with so much more. We have little excuse to not obtain our goals and hold ourselves accountable. As in Haiti, it isn’t always easy but hard work, resourcefulness, knowledge, team work and accountability will get us there.

It is a helpful reminder for me as we enter into the holiday season of joy and gratitude to remember the challenges of our fellow man but also to recognize that, rather than pity them, we should learn from them.

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