Fanning the spark of entrepreneurship, Oxfam helps small businesses recover after Haiti earthquake

By Coco McCabe
Charitable Pierre practices patience as she works to rebuild her small restaurant and shop. Photo by Toby Adamson/Oxfam

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Behind the bottle-storage shed where Marie Carole St. Juste now lives, the land drops off, plunging into a ravine crowded with buildings much like her own--cobbled together from cinder blocks, sheets of corrugated metal, and plastic tarps.

This is Carrefour Feuilles, an area of Port-au-Prince hit hard by the earthquake that destroyed so much of the Haitian capital—and its commerce—almost one year ago. St. Juste’s house-- also her place of business--once stood here, too. Now it’s in the ravine, one of about 105,000 houses that collapsed across the city. But the land is still here—land that she owns, a testament to the hard work St. Juste invested in building her packaged-goods-and-drinks business into an enterprise profitable enough to allow her to buy this plot.

Now, on this chunk of hard-won security, sits her hope for the future: a trucking container provided by Oxfam and retrofitted to serve as a small shop so she can get started again.

 “It really put joy in my heart,” said St. Juste, 34, standing in the entry of her new shop, its walls painted with a fresh coat of pink—a color she loves. “If it wasn’t for that container I don’t know when I’d be back on my feet. I’m on my way. I know I’m going to be able to make it back.”

It’s that kind of confidence that is critical to Haiti’s recovery, and that Oxfam is helping to seed with a series of strategic small-business grants offered to people in Carrefour Feuilles.
The program, which includes micro-credit loans for some people as well as training in business management, is benefitting 44 business owners, five of whom are receiving containers like St. Juste’s.  One of the criteria for participation is that merchants offer products locals said they needed in their neighborhood, including food and hardware store goods.

At St. Juste’s shop, called a boutik in Kreole, a white cooler brims with juice drinks and soda. Sporadic electricity is the bane of small-business owners in this neighborhood, adding to the challenges many face in trying to recover their livelihoods and rebuild their clientele.

But St. Juste seems unfazed by that hardship—it’s nothing new.  She’s determined to keep plugging away with her sales, and finding ways to stock what her clients want. Right now, that’s energy drinks and colas.

“When I find the money, I’ll get them,” she says, that spark of confidence flashing again.

One shop, five jobs

Over on Rue Cadet Jeremie, at Ger’s Barbershop, fans whir as a steady stream of customers take a seat in one of the four chairs for a cut or a shave. Mirrors line three of the walls, and the fourth is open to the street where Gerson Almeda, the owner, sits watch over a friend’s curb-side kiosk.

A talkative, energetic man with a “Pray for Haiti” bracelet riding on his arm, Gerson says he used the grant Oxfam gave him to help pay rent to keep his shop open. It survived the quake nearly intact—only two mirrors broke--but business was slow in the months that followed.

It’s picking up a bit now, he says. And that’s important because Almeda’s shop is keeping five other people employed—essential in a country where an estimated 80 percent of people do not have formal work and more than 72 percent are living on less than $2 a day. An assessment Oxfam did in June showed a worrisome drop in incomes among households in the most vulnerable neighborhoods of the capital.

“It’s not a well-managed country,” says Almeda. “The government should be doing more. They’re very irresponsible.”

Across Port-au-Prince, people are hungry for work, and Oxfam is continuing to employ some of them for short-term projects that have long-term benefits for their communities. In Sicot Proolongee, a neighborhood through which a steep path of wide steps climbs almost to the sky, about 440 people are working to remove the rubble and make the way passable again. Together with the World Food Program, Oxfam has hired the laborers—men and women—for 200 gourdes a day, or about $5, the going minimum wage. Team leaders earn 400 gourdes a day and supervisors get 600 gourdes.

Two lines of workers, dressed in dark blue T-shirts stamped with the slogan “We’re working together for our community,” snake up the hill and out of sight along a 400-meter stretch. They’re the bag brigade, passing from hand to hand rubble from above, scooped three shovelfuls at a time into sacks. Dumped into a heap at the bottom, the rubble gets hauled off by a truck.

“It was covered,” says Francois Rolande, 23, one of the workers, glancing behind her at the progress made. “The rubble was really high.” Now, the steps, which she used to use all the time, are emerging. And the job is putting some money in her pocket so she can help her family. She has had no other work but this, a reality others up and down the line repeat.

Looking for markets

Relaunching a business after a catastrophe is never easy—even if you have the tools, the skill, and the will. And displacement compounds the challenge.

That’s where Joseph Dessources, 60, finds himself today: In a tent with his three children and wife in a resettlement camp called Corrail on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. A tailor who long supported his family with the uniforms and outfits he has sewn for others, Dessources had two employees and three sewing machines thumping away in the capital before the quake hit. All that he has left from that enterprise is one old sewing machine tucked into the corner of his tent.

Oxfam has provided Dessources with a new machine and some business training. But here on this windswept plain among rows and rows of tents, business is slow.

“A few people had uniforms commissioned, but they haven’t come to pick them because they don’t have money,” said Dessources. “There are no jobs in the camps and that’s why there is no money for people to pay.” Not that he is charging much. For a simple uniform of a shirt and shorts, he’ll ask 200 gourdes—or about $5.

“I can’t really charge the same price I was in Port-au-Prince because we’re all in a difficult situation here.” Dessources in particular: He’s disabled. A few days after the quake he lost much of the mobility in his right hand and foot due to hypertension.

“It’s not like the government will help us,” Dessources adds. “When will I really be able to make a living at this?”

Oxfam is keenly aware of the hurdles professionals like Dessources face, and is looking at next steps. One solution could be to provide tailors with extra cloth so they could find markets beyond the camp.

“That’s why we did a study on what the demands are outside the camp,” says Junior Fortune Julien, a livelihoods program assistant for Oxfam. In addition, Oxfam is exploring the idea of developing a communal work space at Corrail so that tailors here can form a union that would allow them to take on large contracts.

For Charitable Pierre, 45, the key to some of these challenges is patience, and almost constant hard work. She runs a small restaurant in Carrefour Feuilles, a business she had built up over the course of 30 years. She lost it all in the quake. But with Oxfam’s help—a grant to restock her shelves with food and a fuel-efficient stove that saves her money—Pierre’s business is coming back strong.

On this mid-afternoon, it’s humming. Tall pots of food bubble on the stove as a steady stream of customers stop by for plates heaped with rice and meat.

“You can’t be in a hurry,” says Pierre. “It’s about working hard. I didn’t have all this,” she adds, eyeing the full shelves and the two tiny tables in her makeshift restaurant—and summing up the hope for all of Haiti. “But look at it now. And maybe in the future I’ll have even more.”