For many Americans, Haiti conjures images of an earthquake-ravaged landscape where impoverished people look to outside organizations for aid.
While that characterization is partially true, the Haitian government is working to counteract the idea that the poor country has little value for U.S. exporters and investors.
In fact, because of its lack of industry in many areas, the Caribbean nation is a growing importer of necessities, particularly poultry and other food products, government leaders said at a Haiti business caravan that made its first stop in Atlanta June 27.
With just 10 million people, Haiti imported more than $2.8 billion in goods and exported $565 million in 2010.
That will only grow as the country recovers from the earthquake that killed tens of thousands in January 2010 and displaced even more, officials said at a packed breakfast meeting at Paschal’s Restaurant on Northside Drive.
Two and a half years later, thousands still dwell in tents in the capital city, Port-au-Prince. Reconstruction has dragged on, and the country has struggled with public health challenges like a deadly cholera outbreak that began in late 2010.
But newly elected President Michel Joseph Martelly is working to attract foreign investment that will put people to work, one of the main keys to addressing some of the country’s most pressing challenges, said Gandy Thomas, Haiti’s consul general in Atlanta.
“Our new government believes that to change Haiti we must open our arms to welcome foreign businessmen from all parts of the globe,” Mr. Thomas said. “Our goal is to make Haiti as a gateway to the Caribbean as it used to be.”
In Atlanta, Haiti has some believers. Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell said a trade mission to the country in March was a “transformative” experience that made him realize this isn’t a one-way relationship.
“It is an opportunity for us here in Atlanta to be engaged with our friends and businesses in Haiti. It is not just an opportunity for them,” Mr. Mitchell said.
Through a new agency called the Centre de Facilitation des Investissements, or CFI, Haiti is trying to smooth the way for American firms.
The center helps investors connect with local partners and offers incentives based on job creation in target sectors like tourism, garments, agriculture and construction, said Karl Jean-Louis, director of CFI.
He pointed to a variety of ongoing projects as evidence that the country is on the upswing, including a $50 million investment in a cruise port in Labadie, a $20 million renovation of historic monuments in the north and multiple branded hotels under construction.
A major change has been the Haitian government’s support for public-private partnerships and the U.S. government’s shift to a policy known as “aid for trade,” focusing on targeted investments that create export-ready jobs, said Henri-Claude Poitevien, director of the Caracol Industrial Park in the northern part of the country.
The project could eventually represent a $300 million investment with a total of more than 25 million square feet of factory and office space. For now, only the first few buildings are standing, driven by an $80 million investment by Sae-A Trading Co. Ltd., a large Korean textile manufacturer.
Mr. Poitevien said the available buildings range from 10,000 square feet to 320,000 square feet and highlighted many industries where the park is receiving interest, including apparel, candle making, furniture, fruit dehydration and paint manufacturing.
Americans should realize that Haitians have substantial buying power and that the new administration is “shaking the leaves” to reduce corruption, opening the door for greater partnership, said Eddy Benoit Jr., president and CEO of the Atlanta-based Benoit Group, which sponsored the breakfast meeting.
With deep family roots in Haiti, Mr. Benoit has been eager to take the development and construction advisory firm into Haiti. Until now it hasn’t been a real possibility, but “it’s a new day,” he said.
“They’re our close neighbor, and America has always been a great support. We’ve always had some type of an investment in Haiti, and it only makes sense for us to kind of take that relationship to the next level,” Mr. Benoit told GlobalAtlanta.
While the audience of more than 100 people was happy to hear about the new opportunities, some were skeptical about the government’s ability to deal with corruption. Others had already begun the process of sourcing crops like rum or mangoes.
Entrepreneur Ane Reynolds and her daughter Stephanie Reynolds of Montgomery, Ala., have taken a long-term view of agricultural opportunities in Haiti.
They introduced vanilla plants to the northern part of the country more than a decade ago. Now they’re working with 640 farmers and have planted vines with 71,000 vanilla beans that will be ready for harvest in about two years. Selling this vital ingredient to ice cream shops and other customers will leave enough room to earn a healthy profit and help grow farmers’ livelihoods, they said.
“I don’t like Band-Aid approaches. I realize they’re necessary, but I would rather focus on long-term solutions,” Ane Reynolds told GlobalAtlanta.
Editor’s note: GlobalAtlanta is planning a trip to Haiti in August to report on the work of Atlanta-based companies and nonprofits there. If you have ideas about what we should cover, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.