By Jessica Leeder, Project Jacmel
The narrow consumer market here for dried flower arrangements, greeting cards, wrapping paper and electrified fish bowls that double as children’s bedside lamps disappeared on the afternoon of January 12.
That wasn’t an initial concern, however, for Molver Desire, the owner of Nini’s Fleurs and Baby Gifts, a quaint, one-storey shop on the outer fringe of Jacmel’s heritage district. After the 7.3-magnitude earthquake, the shop with its half-caved roof and grit-coated inventory was in no shape for receiving customers.
Neither was Ms. Desire. The earthquake had shaken her, sending her to her knees, where “we were praying for God, asking God to pardon our sins.”
Then she begged a motor-taxi to shuttle her across town to her home, where she was relieved to find her family alive, including her diabetic husband, whose health has been bad since his leg was amputated. After that, her 18-year-old home care worker went into labour, delivering a baby girl, Brianna, at a packed city hospital some time around midnight.
It was only after that frenzy – all that celebration of survival and life – that it registered for Ms. Molver that her store was destroyed.
With it went her means of supporting her family, she explained one recent morning when she was dressed like she was going to work – hair coiffed, nails polished, lipstick in place – even though she had no plans to leave her porch.
“I don’t go to work any more. Sometimes we spend the day without eating because we don’t have the means,” she said, adding: “It’s been a month that I’ve been sitting doing nothing. Really, I don’t know yet what I am going to do. The business was my only resource.”
For her and dozens of other small-time entrepreneurs in Jacmel – and hundreds of thousands more across the country – the earthquake transformed lean but slightly profitable businesses into impossible liabilities for which they have no insurance. In fact, three quarters of the $2-billion in private sector losses created by the earthquake were sustained by small and medium-sized businesses, according to the Action Plan for National Recovery and Development of Haiti presented at the New York donors’ conference last week.
Before the disaster, many of those businesses were already operating on tight margins – economic growth in the country has been stagnant; access to credit at manageable rates in Haiti is practically non-existent.
Amil Roland Zenny, Jacmel’s outspoken Chamber of Commerce president and the owner of multiple businesses in the city, said entrepreneurs trying to grow their business face rates on bank loans of 45 to 60 per cent.
“They say you’re a small enterprise, you’re high risk. It’s just a crime against humanity,” he said. “Who is promoting investment? Nobody gives a [darn]. And now the private sector is in crisis.”
In Jacmel, things have been this way for years. Like the centralized government, private-sector activity in Haiti has been concentrated in Port-au-Prince. Jacmel itself has no large industry; the entrepreneurial landscape in the city is dominated by a few successful heavyweight families who control most of the essential-service businesses (money transfer outlets, mail couriers, construction materials, ice, water, motorbike sales, rental cars and gas); beneath them in the hierarchy is an eclectic combination of cottage industries, crafts people and small-timers like Ms. Desire who sell gifts, clothing, auto parts, cheap long-distance calls and grilled chicken or fish from roadside stands.
Mr. Zenny, ever the entrepreneur, realized a while back the imbalance must be corrected if Jacmel is ever going to be viable again.
“Before the earthquake, we knew things were bad,” he explained. In 2009, he headed a committee that put together a report entitled Jacmel: A Strategic Economic Plan. It’s a passionate, 44-page manifesto that, with 27 key priorities, reads more like a blueprint for the creation of an economy from scratch than an overhaul of current infrastructure.
Nonetheless, it is a robust account of what Jacmel needs to kick-start the engines of commerce, including a full capacity power grid and fresh water supply, proper roads and sewage treatment, proactive zoning, public-health infrastructure, an inclusive education system and suitable housing.
Mr. Zenny said he gave copies of the plan to every important figure in government, including Haitian President René Préval and, during her visit to Jacmel in early March, Michaëlle Jean, Canada’s Governor-General. The lack of traction so far makes him wonder if he should be holding public forums to present the plan and ask for signatures, as if it’s a petition.
The silence keeps him awake some nights, wondering what he should be doing for Jacmel’s business owners.
“I don’t know what I’m going to tell them,” he said. “They owe money. They need to redo their businesses.”
Ms. Desire, who needs to pay her suppliers even though she sustained thousands in ruined inventory, isn’t expecting anyone to tell her anything.
“As far as I’m concerned, no one is thinking for people in Jacmel. I don’t think the government is going to do anything for us at all,” she said. “I don’t see where the help is coming from.”
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