Twenty-four Hours in Port au Prince, Haiti

Dispelling some myths about Haiti as a services destination after seeing it first-hand.

Haiti Call Centers
Norma Powell, CFI Haiti CEO and Pierre Liautaud of GB Group discuss a major port/FTZ project north of Port au Prince.

Like many people in the Nearshore services marketplace, I have long considered Haiti to be a market that will one day “get there” and become a viable contender for BPO business. But that day always seemed to be in the distant future.

Much like Cuba, Haiti may be near, but it is far from a regular focal point for new BPO investment interest. When CFI Haiti – the nation’s investment promotions group – invited me to visit Port au Prince recently, I gladly accepted, and in a short span of time I was able to toss aside a bunch of inaccurate notions about the country and replace them with a list of unexpected assets and points for further inquiry.

Below is a time-lapse summary of what I saw, who I talked to, and what observations and thoughts were generated along the way:

May 5th 3:46pm EST: Arrive on a Copa flight from Panama into Port au Prince.  Passed through three checkpoints, first stop was to collect a US$10 entry fee, second was the immigration folks and third was customs. All were done expeditiously: From de-planning to stepping into the CFI transport van, not more than 20 minutes elapsed. Traffic moved leaving the airport, although congestion was commensurate with what you would expect for an emerging-markets city of 700,000.

 

4:55pm EST: Checked-in to the brand new Marriott Hotel, approximately 10 miles from the airport. The $45 million, 175 room hotel opened in February – where former President Bill Clinton was on hand along with Digicel’s founder and CEO Dennis O’Brien, who credited Clinton for pushing him to invest in the hotel three years ago when things were looking pretty grim in Port au Prince. Digicel, the dominant mobile carrier in Haiti and across much of the Caribbean, also operates a 1,000-person plus operations center just adjacent to the Marriott (Haiti has added 2,500 new hotel rooms in the last three years, totaling nearly 4,500 for the whole country). The hotel is equipped to handle small conferences and exhibitions, by the way, and also houses a nice restaurant opening to a large, sun-baked patio.

7pm EST: I met up with two local entrepreneurs – Ricardo Merores and Edouard Baussan –  who own and operate a small BPO firm called “Davos International.” Both men studied in North America, and Ricardo gained significant professional experience working at a BPO center in Toronto. We ventured over to a new rooftop lounge at the Karibe Hotel, just outside of Petion-Ville which is a prime hub for shopping and nightlife. Ricardo and his partner were open about the fact that “selling Haiti” remains a serious challenge.

The lack of a strong track record for BPO operations, a perception of instability in government, and assumptions that a French-speaking country has little to offer an industry demanding English-speakers are among the biggest obstacles. While enjoying a few bottles of Prestige – the national beer – we had a more serious discussion about what Haiti really offers and how wide the gap is between reality and perception (a familiar topic for virtually anyone doing business in Nearshore). So far, Davos has been supporting domestic back-office work, mainly in government and insurance.

 

9:30pm EST: Back at the Marriott, and having interacted in the last few hours with maybe 20 or more Haitians – all speaking great English – I began to already question my assumptions about Haiti being a ‘French-first’ market.  Started looking at data on the levels of deportees returning to Haiti from the United States, and based on summary review, learned there has been a steady increase in recent years.

May 6th 8AM EST: On our way with team CFI Haiti to our first stop – a former warehouse, textile mill that has largely been converted for use in services and BPO. Claude Apaid, CEO of Triangular S.A., and owner of the complex welcomed us in – and explained the reason he has begun investing in BPO: “We expect Haiti to be increasingly well positioned to support global services.” His argument that Haiti was “becoming more competitive” prompted a quick bit of research on the World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness Index rankings.

Haiti, again being the poorest of countries in the Americas, does struggle in virtually every competitiveness category – however the surprising finding came when reviewing the country’s “labor market efficiency,” which placed Haiti at the exact same level as Colombia, Guatemala and Panama and above the Phillipines, Mexico, Brazil and India.

The figures seemed to reflect Haiti’s relatively strong support for fair labor practices (Claude, by the way, made clear that unions are a non-factor in the BPO industry in Haiti). Claude also stressed the strength of Haiti’s ICT infrastructure – slowly but steadily loosening the monopoly grip by the former government incumbent which is required now to lease capacity and, as a result, broadband prices appear to be dropping (our quick assessment: Telecom costs are probably somewhere in the medium to high category as compared to other markets in the region. Another point for further inquiry).

9am EST: Claude, who both operates his own BPO and also rents space to local BPO operators, rounded up a group of agents. We met nine – all with outstanding English skills, and virtually all of them had lived in the United States – one for over 40 years.  The individuals not only spoke well, but they presented well – confident without being boastful. There was a palpable sense that they felt fortunate to have a full-time, professional  job and remarked that many more friends and associates who had previously lived in the United States are among those looking for work in Haiti. The going rate for BPO agents? We gathered the range is somewhere between $300 and $400 per month, but with further analysis a sharper figure is sure to emerge.

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10am EST: A whirlwind tour of available office space was initiated, and our guide was Darragh Dolan, a Digicel executive and native of Ireland who has lived in Haiti for over six years. We toured two multi-story office buildings – both of which are owned by Digicel and acquired through acquisition (staff in both offices were integrated into Digicel’s main ops center about four miles away). Both buildings are clearly suitable for BPO operations – equipped with HVAC, telecom and electricity links and relatively easy access to public transport. The buildings (one measuring 1494 sq. meters and the other 1217 sq. meters) have the capacity to support – as many as 250 to 300 agents, depending on configurations.

Noon EST: Informative luncheon back at the Marriott with top executives from Digicel, CFI Haiti and also the head of a startup BPO talent recruitment firm.

2pm EST: Shuttled over to CFI’s main office to hear a really interesting presentation from Pierre Liautaud, the executive VP of Infrastructure at GB Group, which is engineering a very ambitious – 400+ hectares – ‘integrated economic (free trade) zone’, which in essence is a combination port, business park, and residential center all about 30 minutes north of Port au Prince, on the seaside. The office space is effectively a shell, within which BPO operators can customize their operations. The ‘Port Lafito’ project is intended to create more than 25,000 new jobs in Haiti by the year 2020.

 

3pm EST: Summary discussions with team CFI around labor, tax incentives, rule of law, economic and political stability and overall message CFI is trying to get to the larger outsourcing community. Nailing down an exact number of adult-age, ready to work English speakers in Haiti was a bit challenging – but the conservative figure we came away with was: 20,000 Haitians.

4pm EST: Venture back to the airport – easy passage through security and after one final check from a random police officer (he quickly backed away after explaining what I was there for), I boarded my flight back to Panama.

Summary: You can only get so far during a quick 24-hour visit, but without question I came away with the sense that Haiti is building a pretty powerful argument to find its niche in the Nearshore BPO services market. With costs comparable to another strong new upstart – Guyana – and proximity that beats many other destinations, Haiti has the opportunity to build a compelling case. Political instability is certainly an issue – the upcoming elections seemed to have paralyzed the country to some degree with a large number of candidates seeking the presidency.

Nonetheless, all Nearshore markets have their liabilities and Haiti – if it plays its cards right – can capitalize on its increasingly cosmopolitan, multi-lingual asset base to become one of the surprise Nearshore players in the next several years.

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