A faith-based partnership between global entrepreneurs and indigenous leaders offers a promising model for Haiti’s long-term economic development.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI – At the cabinet and casket manufacturer Maxima, S.A., nearly 60 employees work with hand tools and face masks, glad to be earning an income following the magnitude-7.0 earthquake that devastated the capital city of Haiti on January 12.
After years of experience meeting local demands for furniture, caskets, and cabinetry, Stefan Vervloet and his business partners, husband and wife Kees and Evelien de Gier, are venturing toward a change in production — to standardized housing units for the resettlement process of 1.2 million homeless who currently reside in over 600 refugee camps around the city.
Housing units will be subsidized 50 percent for the “poorest of the poor,” says Evelien, in partnership with a non-government organization based in the Netherlands.
Each unit is a two-room house, made of corrugated metal roofing and prefabricated wood panels. Complete with a strong coating to repel rain and endure sunlight, hurricane season, and termites in the tropical climate, the unit also meets international standards for a family of five, offering 18 square meters in floor space.
While rainy season rapidly approaches, foreign and local NGOs throughout Haiti are scrambling to contract suppliers of shelters and homes. One proposed a $3 million contract to Maxima with a budget three times higher than the company’s turnover last year. Evelien used her prudent judgment on their capacity, and turned the offer down.
As one of very few local manufacturers in this sector, Evelien believes their small business can meet a niche market in the rebuilding of Haiti. Local employment opportunities will also endure, she notes, if investments are made in local businesses.
She surveyed the 59 of 60 employees who returned to work less than a week after the earthquake. One worker lost his spouse. Thirty-three workers lost relatives. Three workers lost seven family members or more. Thirty-eight of their houses are considered lost, while only four are sleeping safely indoors. “The results of the survey were a very sobering picture,” says Evelien, who nevertheless feels called to the cause of job creation.
“Employment is of critical importance,” she says, noting that it’s a key part of the mental recovery process. “I’ve read a lot about trauma, I’ve lived through quite some trauma. I’ve found that in silly things–doing the dishes, sweeping your floor, cleaning up — there’s healing in that. People are seeking a sense of control. And, there’s no better sense of control and independence you can find than working for your own income.”
The setting of post-trauma Haiti isn’t the first time people have waited to see what the “soup kitchen” offers for dinner, she adds. “This country has been railroaded in a way for so long. People simply have their hands stretched out to receive aid they depend on.” The unemployment rate in Haiti has hovered over 70-percent since the 1990s.
“Everyone needs to get back to work,” she says. “I strongly believe that. That’s just how the world functions — you need to go to work. And if we can have our little part in that by providing work, we gladly do so.”
As owners of a business in the network of Partners Worldwide, Vervloet and Kees spent time communicating with volunteer consultants from PorterCorp, a company based in Holland, Mich., with expertise in designing, engineering, and manufacturing outdoor facilities. Vervloet is confident that their housing units in Haiti will last for years to come.
Editor’s Note: Maxima S.A. is a member business of the Partners Worldwide business affiliate in Port-au-Prince, Haitian Partners for Christian Development (HPCD). Evelien de Gier currently serves as president of the HPCD board. To learn more about faith-based business partnerships within Haiti, check out on the God’s Politics blog of Sojourners.