For the past several months, Robi has been working with an social enterprise in Haiti called DloHaiti to establish one of their innovative, solar-powered water treatment kiosks in the Bwa Nef neighborhood of Cite Soleil. And, like his experience working with Miyamoto Relief on the rehabilitation of the Lycee de Cite Soleil, he found that people’s reactions to businesses with a conscience investing in their communities was much more positive than how they typically saw NGO or government projects.
From the very beginning, community members liked the idea of DloHaiti investing in their community instead of coming to do charity in the community – this gave them more dignity. People equally appreciated the fact that the business model was designed to support local businesses (by offering them the opportunity to sell the treated water at the same price as the kiosk) instead of taking away by providing free things. And most of all, they saw that this had the opportunity to create jobs for young people in the community that would last longer than the length of a standard NGO or government project.
And this actually worried Robi a bit at first: there are so many talented young people in Cite Soleil that are unemployed, and job selection is usually done on the basis of patronage or favoritism, that competition over jobs can create real conflict. But he worked with DloHaiti and their team on designing a process that was serious and transparent – even though it took more time and energy to communicate. But the dividend on this investment in time and process paid off: people were happily surprised about how transparent the process was, and no conflict emerged. Here are some quotes from some of the people who ended up getting hired (translated from the Creole):
“When I heard about the recruitment for the DloHaiti position, I didn’t believe it was real because I thought they were just putting on a show. Because I know in Cite Soleil, [hiring] is never done like this, because there is always a question of ‘godmother’ and ‘godfather’ [patronage]. But I decided to take a chance, and I saw it was different. I learned a lot in the recruitment process. I found a lot of other young people who had competencies and dedication to learn and work” – Leger Wenso
“It was a neighbor of mine who told me that people are collecting CVs [for a job], and I didn’t believe her because I haven’t known any decisions in Cite Soleil to be made off of a CV. But because she told me this, I decided to follow her advice and bring my CV. When I arrived and saw how the process was working, I was surprised, because I had never seen something transparent like that in Cite Soleil.” – Jean Nickenson Antoine
And these are not just sentiments expressed by the “winners” – Robi had heard similar sentiments by many people in Bwa Nef, including those who did not end up getting hired. They said that a part of them was just happy knowing that there had been a genuine chance, that someone who deserved it was going to get the job.
The other young people who were hired all spoke about how empowering this moment was: here was an opportunity for them to make a living, using their minds and their talents, that actually made a difference in the community. They spoke about the respect they now had in their neighborhoods and their homes:
“I am hoping that there are more opportunities like this, for young people to find things to do, because they aren’t doing anything. They just sit around and have the time to get into arguments. I used to sit around in the area because I had nothing to do, and all of this time, I could have had many projects that I could have been doing.. Now I have a little job, I can realize all of my projects. I can help my family” – Rene Ronald
“This opportunity has made other people at home see my different, because there is a stigma about young people, that they sit around all day and don’t do anything. When people don’t see me during the day, they give me more respect when they do see me. They see me in a whole other way, especially when I am in the white t-shirt marked DloHaiti and Ovive. I feel like I’ve finally found respect in my neighborhood.” Esther Jackenson
“And I am happy to be a part of this team, because I know that there are a lot of people in Cite Soleil, especially Bwa Nef, who have never drink treated water and this is the cause of a lot of problems. Children are always sick.” – Falone Joachin
Robi was also concerned at the beginning that the community would not be willing to buy the product – that they would expect that this is something that would be given to them for free. While one could argue that clean drinking water is a public good and should be free, in most of Haiti this is simply not a reality, and the only sustainable way to provide clean water is to create a market for it. So Robi was happily surprised when, a week before the opening of the kiosk, people were coming up to me and asking, “when will the kiosk start to sell us water?” They were not asking, “when will the kiosk start to give us water?” This showed that clean drinking water was a valuable service and product that people were willing to invest their resources in.
The kiosk opened on Robi’s birthday, April 1st, and he went a day later to local households and talked to people about the water. The appreciated the fact that they could see where the water was treated, and how they had been learning that clear water isn’t clean water. The biggest challenge most of them had was not being able to afford to buy as much of the DloHaiti water as they wanted to – but they didn’t see that as the fault of the business model, but rather the lack of economic opportunity in the area. Truly clean water was valuable, and they fully understood that.
This whole experience has reinforced to Robi that social enterprise is an essential part of social change. There is a role for humanitarian and development NGOs, and of course an even bigger role for the government to play. But especially in places like Cite Soleil – where people feel overwhelmed by NGOs, exploited by certain businesses, and ignored by the government – social enterprise can be an effective way of bridging the gap. In a place where so many fail, DloHaiti has managed to succeed building trust and jobs, in addition to a solar-powered water filtration kiosk.