The Haiti IXP

In addition to the consulting work that we did, the team had several cultural and professional opportunities, which made for an exciting and inspiring trip. Student leader, Kathleen Hebert (OI), kept a blog at //, from which the following is summarized.

The Environment
We arrive in Port-au-Prince and are immediately overwhelmed by our surroundings. It is hot – probably over 80F. Shortly after leaving the airport – literally within minutes – we are faced with our first view of an IDP (internally displaced people) camp. Children splash water on each other from a dirty river replica breitling, women braid each others’ hair and men walk the streets selling everything from car parts to jeans. The tents in the camp are labeled with various NGO logos and country flags, including USAID and China. UN trucks patrol the streets. At various building entrances, guards are stationed with imposing weapons and stern faces. We travel through a crowded market street where vendors are selling produce and fresh meat (literally, there are pieces of chicken sitting on tables on the side of the road). The devastation is immense. Toppled buildings line the streets, their walls covered in posters for the various political candidates who ran in the recent Presidential election.

We are protected by a security team, with each group of 4 students assigned a driver and bodyguard. Our guard, ‘Smith’, helped pass the time telling us that he was in the security company offices when the earthquake hit nearly a year ago. His family was safe but it took him time to locate them and confirm that fact. ‘Smith’ is imposing – the badge and gun help – but instantly, he seems to really care about our well being. Throughout the trip, we would learn tremendously about our surroundings from this team.

Lodging and Dining
Our hotel is beautiful, truly. The contrast to what we see when we drive through the streets is phenomenal, and so very unfortunate. The other guests seem to be a mix of international aid workers, journalists, and celebrities. The bar is packed with people having drinks and working away at the laptops – our group fits in just fine! Days after we left Port-au-Prince to come back to Boston, we learned that exiled ex-President Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier had returned to Haiti and was staying in the same hotel.

Dinners out in the city prove to be quite an experience. First, we must drive in the darkness. That statement alone probably doesn’t make sense: of course it is dark at night replica watches uk! But what is really remarkable about Port-au-Prince is that there are virtually no street lights. The only thing that lights up the road is the headlights from our car or fires built by locals in the streets. It is truly very strange and made us all quickly understand why we had a 10pm curfew! Second, we eat at “approved” restaurants, which usually meant we were surrounded by other journalists and NGO workers. With the cholera epidemic, it is understandable that we must take these precautions, but it does still feel odd. Despite these challenges, we host several dinners out where we invite local business and NGO leaders to meet with us. Over the course of our two weeks, we meet with people from Project Concern International, the World Bank, Habitat for Humanity, Executives Without Borders, Save the Children, and

Project Work
Students work in teams of four throughout the trip (and in the months prior) on four short-term consulting projects with partners, World Vision and Technoserve. The projects vary in focus, end-goals, and day-to-day work requirements. However, each team seems to find ways to learn more about Haiti, deliver impact, and share their nuanced insights with the rest of the group.

(Anthony Lallier, Kate Kamm, Courtney Davis & Brian Polsinello): The retail team works to develop a better understanding of the current state of the retail sector and investment opportunities for the Haitian Diaspora and foreign investors. Ultimately the team delivers World Vision a strategy recommendation based on interviews with leading Haitian business people, field visits, secondary research, and interviews with international retailers.

Choose Haiti/Caribbean Craft (Daphne Leger, Ben Schumacher, Albert Chu & Krizia Li): The Choose Haiti team works with a WorldVision partner, CHOOSE HAITI and a local start-up, Caribbean Craft. Choose HAITI is a US-based organization that creates jobs by building demand for Haitian-made products abroad, such as textiles and crafts. Caribbean Craft is a Haitian company which employs Haitian artisans living in IDP camps. The team works with the owners of Caribbean Craft to improve their business strategy and develops a marketing strategy for CHOOSE HAITI. The team also films and compiles a marketing video featuring interviews with the Caribbean Craft artisans.

IT training and mobile banking (Justin Lambert, Justus Meyer, Julie Filion & Anya Klots): The training and mobile banking team works with Transversal to develop a plan for the expansion of the company’s IT training centers and their participation in the roll-out of mobile banking in Haiti. The team also gets to work directly with the largest mobile carrier in the country, Digicel, delivering recommendations on the mobile banking agent training model.

Supporting entrepreneurship (Erik Malmstrom, Ashley Halpin, Iann Poole & Kamala Salmon): The Technoserve team works with recent HBS graduate Yves Andre Sejour (MBA ’09), who launched and managed Technoserve’s first business plan competition in the country. Of 400 applicants, ten entrepreneurs were chosen to receive $10,000 to fund their business plans. The HBS student team assists four of these entrepreneurs through multi-day sessions to further develop their business plans and identify the best ways to invest their prize money.

Our Schedule
In addition to project work the team learns more about Haiti through various events and outings.

On January 6, we are lucky to get an appointment with U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten and his economic team at the U.S. Embassy. The Embassy is imposing but impressive. There are still tents on the grounds outside the building where overflow staff are living because there are not enough long-term hotel/guest house spaces in the city. We learn that 16,000 American citizens were evacuated through the Embassy grounds after the earthquake (the biggest evacuation of its kind since WWII).

In the afternoon, we jointly (with World Vision Haiti) host a conference titled: “Haiti 2.0: Driving Haiti’s Economic Engine in the 21st Century”. We invite nearly 50 of Haiti’s top business, government and NGO leaders to join us in discussing four economic development topics including: foreign investment and banking, export/import, tourism and sustainable employment. Many guests talk of the importance of education and the fact that the country does not place a great deal of respect in entrepreneurship (rather, parents want their children to be doctors or lawyers). We are surprised and honored, at the end of the conference, when Mme. Michèle Pierre-Louis, former Prime Minister of Haiti, gives the closing address. She talks of Haiti being a “country of paradox”, the need for social mobility, agricultural investments, Diaspora investments, citizenship, and regional / city planning.

One of our most interesting afternoons is spent with the Harvard Club of Haiti. The Club, primarily composed of HBS & HKS grads, welcomes us warmly to the country and takes the time to share their perspectives on the history of Haiti’s issues. We are blessed with the opportunity to hear and interact with this collection of impressive individuals.

During our time in Port-au-Prince, we also visit several important landmarks including the Champs de Mars, the site of one of the largest and more volatile IDP camps in Port-au-Prince; the presidential palace, which is still in ruin; and the Hotel Montana, made famous by the many international tourists and NGO workers that were trapped or killed there after the earthquake. All of these places serve as stirring scars of the earthquake’s devastation and reminders that much remains to be done. They are all tough sites to see.

Time Outside of Port-au-Prince
We spend the last few days of our trip about 2 hours from Port-au-Prince at a place called Indigo on the Caribbean Ocean. Our hotel is an old Club Med resort, closed several years earlier due to political and economic uncertainty. While there, we relish the opportunity to relax, play soccer with our security team, and play Telegruv in the evenings (Kamala Salmon, OB, invented the game while on the NOLA IXP last year). We also have the unique opportunity to visit La Gonave, a very remote island off the coast of Haiti. We make the trek to the island by boat and have a very special day hosted by World Vision, which includes observing a food distribution program, visiting a food warehouse, meeting with locals at their homes and with kids at a school, and ending with a lunch and cultural show in the center of the island in the town of Ti-Palmiste.

Trip Reflections
It is hard to capture the energy of the trip in words and pictures but we all can say that the Haiti IXP was truly a unique opportunity for all of us. An opportunity to visit a country gradually recovering from a devastating disaster, an opportunity to learn about the country’s struggles, hopes and future, and an opportunity to see the importance of entrepreneurship in such a setting. Yet by far the most lasting impression it left was the power of HBS students to really make a difference in the world not just by contributing our skills but in opening our minds to new experiences, new perspectives, and each other.