The Caribbean island nation of Haiti is often overlooked for its capabilities in the technology and outsourcing sphere, mainly due to a gross misconception that the island had no internet and that nobody spoke English. Nearshore Americas spoke to Maarten Boute, Chairman at Digicel Haiti, to dig deep into his colorful career and to get a clearer picture of what the island can offer the industry.
Belgium-born Maarten was brought up in his native country until the age of 11 before moving to Kenya, where he studied at a British school for seven years. Afterwards, he returned to Belgium and tried to study medicine to follow in the footsteps of his doctor father, but soon realized it was not the right path for him. This is when he first got introduced to call center work taking a job with Teleperformance alongside his studies. After two years, he dropped out of medicine and went to study boat building in Lowestoft, England, before heading to France to try it as a career. It was around this time that Teleperformance reconnected with Maarten, suggesting a role with Debitel, one of the company’s new telecoms clients in Brussels.
This is when Maarten’s career in telecommunications really began to take flight. “My first job with that company was managing a team to integrate another acquisition, a small services provider called Talkline,” he said. “From beginning at a call center answering customers’ questions, I became a call center team leader, before joining a technical team, then a commercial department and on up into management.”
Debitel eventually sold its Belgium operations to Mobistar Belgium, which was part of the Orange Group. It was Orange that convinced Maarten to stay on to take charge of the billing area of the company. He stayed with Orange for a few years until joining a colleague’s start-up called Effortel, where he helped to launch brands in countries like Poland, Italy, Belgium, France, Taiwan and Oman.
After a few years with Effortel as group CEO, Maarten secured 25 million euros in additional funding to get to the level he wanted. “During the financial crisis, a Russian investor pulled out weeks before the crash at the end of 2008,” he explained. “We managed to get 5 million euros to allow the company to break even. At that same time, I got a call from a headhunter in Sao Paulo looking for someone in Haiti. I’d always focused on going back to Africa but this sounded like a good compromise so I accepted immediately. I began in January 2009 with Digicel as COO, and by November 2009 I was promoted to CEO.”
Maarten was CEO in Digicel during Haiti’s January 2010 earthquake, which devastated the island. “It happened a little before 5pm on a Tuesday afternoon,” Maarten explained. “I was up on the 9th floor of the building and it felt like a big wave came sweeping through. We were lucky that our building was well-built because everything else around us was destroyed, including a petrol station where gas tanks were blowing up. None of our staff were seriously wounded or killed in the building, but we lost nine employees in total, eight of whom were already outside the building and another who rushed out of the building only to be crushed by a falling wall.” According to Maarten, the whole ordeal was an intense experience. Afterwards there was a lot of solidarity between all the people and many companies on the island.
Once the dust had settled, an immediate investment plan in excess of $200 million was approved by the Digicel board. This allowed the company to expand its rural network and its internet services, besides rebuilding the network in Port-au-Prince At that point, Digicel grew at a record pace until 2013.
Talent and Infrastructure in Haiti
According to Maarten, one of the strange benefits of Haiti is that there is a limited amount of training available for call center jobs. “While this may sound odd, it means that we can train people from scratch, teaching them all the right tricks” he said. “In Haiti, there is great eagerness to do a job properly, so people are open to training, to constructive criticism, to quality control, and will work hard to keep their jobs.” Port-au-Prince also has the benefit of proximity, meaning Digicel can recruit from the neighborhoods around the building. There are also three major universities in the city, resulting in a worthy talent pool for nearby companies.
Digicel has invested a lot into fiber networks to improve connectivity to Haiti and the Caribbean. Haiti now has two subsea cables coming in, there is a comprehensive backbone connecting all the major cities, and a fiber connection can be made anywhere in the country. Haitians also often spend time studying abroad, which means there are many English, French and Spanish speakers, with Haitian, French, US or Canadian accents.
For all its benefits, Haiti is lacking in the field of middle and upper management, but the potential to develop into those roles comes from the large pool of people in the call centers. “Digicel has an internal development scheme where we identify these people and ensure they get the training they need to move up,” stated Maarten. “We have also been able to bring talent from the Diaspora back to Haiti.”
Socially Focused Tech Startups
Alongside his responsibilities with Digicel, Maarten is also founder of two tech startups with a strong social orientation in Haiti: Surtab and Re-Volt. Surtab designs, develops, and sells computer hardware and consumer electronics, most notably, mobile classrooms targeted at improving Haiti’s education system, while Re-Volt is an “off-grid utility company providing affordable, reliable electricity to the people of Haiti”. Maarten cites the acquisition of funding as the biggest challenge in growing these two companies. “With Surtab, we were fast in finding staff for the factory, engineering, design and management, but as we expanded we hit a ceiling in terms of cash flow,” he explained. “That challenge exists across the Caribbean. If you are a larger business, the bigger development banks can jump in but they demand a minimum revenue of $10 million at least. There are very few players targeting the $500,000-10 million bracket and local credit is usually very onerous.”
For Surtab in particular, the companies invoke a sense of pride in the people of Haiti. “It is something Haitians are proud of as these are the only electronics manufactured in Haiti,” Maarten explained. “It gave the island a moral boost as it showed people they could enter the space of building electronics or developing apps. I, too, am proud of both businesses as they have a strong social component; they are trying to do good things for Haiti. Surtab helps to create a new image for Haiti and focuses on education while Revolt brings energy to poor homes at a very affordable price. It is very important for me to be involved with activities that have a positive impact on society.”
Looking ahead to his future, Maarten intends to focus Re-Volt’s efforts on other Latin American countries, such as Guatemala, where officials have expressed an interest in Re-Volt. “Nicaragua has a real electricity problem as well, as do many other remote parts of South America. There is potential for expansion into mainly rural and indigenous areas where access to electricity is scarce,” he said. “While these people may have limited economic means, a model with a small upfront payment and small monthly payments could really make it accessible to all.”