By Katleen Felix
How can we improve the performance of our investments in Haiti? That’s the question that was confounding the Diaspora when the concept behind Zafèn was born. For decades, family and friends have supported relatives, businesses and social projects “back home” in the beautiful Caribbean towns we left for many different reasons, yet still love and always will.
Remittances between $100 and $300 per month are a constant, and the Diaspora wanted to do more. The pivotal moment came April 18,2009. More than one hundred Haitians living on the island and Diaspora now residing in Boston, New York and Miami were participating in a video conference with the Inter-American Development Bank and other partners that addressed financial literacy and investment in Haiti. Great ideas were flying across the airwaves.
Pierre Labaze, a Haitian New Yorker, was one of the strongest advocates for creating a Kiva-like financing platform exclusively for what we now call small growing businesses or small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Haiti. A year later, it was launched, and this month, we are so proud to celebrate Zafèn’s third anniversary!
It has truly taken a village to make it happen. After that pivotal meeting, Barbara Magnoni of EA Consultants who co-authored a report on Person-to-Person lending, and I began looking for grants. The Haitian Hometown Associations Resource Group backed the idea. Anne Hastings, CEO of Fonkoze Financial Services, introduced the International Vincentian Family to the mix. The stars aligned, and together, we established an online funding source to stimulate collaboration between Haiti-based business owners, the Haitian Diaspora and caring people everywhere interested in developing the Haitian economy.
For the past three years, Zafèn has been presenting businesses and social projects to the public that have been screened for their potential viability and likelihood of contributing to Haitian economic empowerment. Due diligence is conducted by business analysts who work for Fonkoze, an alternative bank for the poor with offices across Haiti. The analysts submit the proposals to a committee for evaluation. Approved projects are posted at zafen.org to attract funding.
Congratulations to Zafèn for three glorious years of empowering Haitians!
Katleen Felix is general manager of KANPE, a non-profit that seeks to end to the cycle of poverty by encouraging financial independence, and chair of the Haitian Hometown Associations Resource Group.
Zafèn is proud to help Save the Children raise funds for projects in the block manufacturing industry because projects that train block manufacturers significantly improve construction practices, resulting in more resistant infrastructure in a country prone to natural disasters.
Over 90 percent of buildings in urban centers in Haiti use concrete blocks, making concrete the largest component used in construction. The tragedy of January 12, 2010, caused major destruction and left hundreds of thousands of homeless survivors. This disaster also highlighted the many gaps facing the construction industry, among which are the lack of oversight of the sector, the inability of the state to monitor and enforce safety standards in construction and laxity in the selection and manufacture of materials used.
Concerned with this problem, organizations like Save the Children and Build Change have organized training seminars for owners and employees of block factories. These seminars stress the importance of following certain rules in the manufacturing process of concrete blocks. Some of these manufacturers, in addition to theoretical training on the strength of materials, have received a vibrated block-making machine that will vastly improve the quality and the production. The vibration of the blocks by the machine allows the components to be compacted and solidified, making the blocks stronger.
While these initiatives have been undeniably useful, there is a strong need to support the sector through additional measures to help maintain and improve quality. Other needs expressed by the block makers themselves include the capacity to maintain stock and the ability to own a sand mill for grinding on location, especially for those whose production or capacity is greater than 2,000 blocks per day.
Why is it important to support this industry?
As a result of the earthquake, Haiti more than ever needs a strong and expanded construction industry to produce bricks, reinforced concrete and other vital materials to rebuild.
Building companies are not common in Haiti, so Haitians usually buy blocks to build their own houses. However, the majority of the people lack the technical knowledge that would allow them to identify high-quality blocks. In addition, as Haitians shop for the blocks, they generally pay more attention to low prices and immediate availability rather than quality. As a result, they often pick poor quality blocks to build (or rebuild) their houses, and they become even more vulnerable to the natural disasters that frequently strike Haiti.
At the same time, block manufacturers strive to meet the increasing demand with their limited resources and capacity. Some of them, in an attempt to overcome capacity and equipment constraints, try to speed up the process by skipping a few important steps. Others may be tempted to let the concrete dry out under strong and direct sunlight, making it weaker and more likely to crack under pressure.
Needless to say, many of the initiatives undertaken by overwhelmed producers—although driven by good intentions—greatly alter the quality of concrete blocks made available to consumers.
Both demand and supply characteristics increase the likelihood of poor quality concrete blocks ending up in new shelters and buildings at a time when Haitian infrastructure needs to be more resistant to natural disasters. Supporting improvements to the construction industry greatly helps the Haitian people; in this post-earthquake era in particular, it allows them to build the solid foundation for a fresh start.
You can finance block projects sponsored by Zafèn, Save the Children and Build Change and make a difference in the following ways:
To learn more about the projects, feel free to visit https://www.zafen.org/ or follow the direct links:
The beads and other supplies used by the artisans of Delice Ateliers are hard to find in Haiti. They used to have to travel to the Dominican Republic and sometimes even NYC to find the supplies they needed to fulfill customer orders. Then they received a loan from Zafen to purchase supplies for their crafts in bulk.
Since they’ve received the loan, their business has been thriving and they’ve been able to travel to several folk art fairs to sell their work. Their staff is growing and they’ve been making repayments on schedule.
Another Zafen success story!
Help us create more success stories by making a loan today.