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Haitian Entrepreneurs Build Micro-Economies in Tent City

March 29, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Nearly three months after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, small businesses are springing up within the tent communities housing displaced people. Adam Davidson of NPR'S "Planet Money" reports on the entrepreneurs who are kick-starting the local economy.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight: a different take on life in Haiti’s tent cities after the earthquake.

Our story is the first of two reports, part of a collaboration with “Frontline” and National Public Radio.

The correspondent is Adam Davidson of NPR’s “Planet Money.”

ADAM DAVIDSON: It didn’t take long.

ADAM DAVIDSON: Within days of the earthquake, these quickly whipped-together tent cities became much more like real cities, churches, community centers, and business, lots and lots of business.

I’m an economics reporter. And, reporting in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake, I wanted to understand how rich and complex the business life of these tent cities had become.

What’s your name?

So, I went to the biggest tent city in Haiti spread over what used to be an elite golf course. The businesses here started simple. Some entrepreneur would walk downtown or hop on a communal taxi and buy as much stuff as he or she could carry, brought it back to their tent and started selling.

At the beginning, it was the basics, food, water, clothes. Then business expanded beyond the essentials. A week after the earthquake, Yoleen Samard went to her old salon, which had collapsed entirely, and rescued whatever beauty products she could. She brought them back.

Her husband cleaned out a space in their tent, and now she’s in business.

These customers, both 18 years old, say they can convince their parents to pay for a pedicure about every two weeks.

Is there anyone you are looking good for in particular?

ADAM DAVIDSON: Living in a camp, is it important to stay beautiful?

WOMAN (through translator): Yes. If you were used to it before, you will always feel you have to be beautiful, even if you don’t have money.

ADAM DAVIDSON: Most of Yoleen’s customers only have whatever money they had on them the day of the quake. So, she cut all of her prices in half. But, still, almost nobody is getting the more expensive hair treatments. They stick to cheaper stuff. Pedicures are the most popular.

So, does that mean they are more eager for, like, a pedicure, because the ground is a little dirty?

WOMAN (through translator): They get their feet done more because it’s very dusty here.

ADAM DAVIDSON: So, that means would you have more business, huh?

WOMAN (through translator): No, I’m not the only one with a salon in the camp.

ADAM DAVIDSON: Here’s something surprising. There’s more competition now than before the earthquake. Think about it.

Before, sure, there were lots of beauty salons and food vendors, but other people made their living teaching school, working in a government ministry. Now the only way to make a living is selling things or services in the camp. So, people like Yoleen have to compete with new salon owners.

I certainly expected to see food on sale, but computers and stereo shops? Here’s the thing. Even before the earthquake, most people in Haiti lived without electricity. So, they know how to make do.

Just like before, a generator is all you need to start a business. After sunset, I noticed a whole lot of people gathering around Amalcar Gabriel’s tent. Gabriel bought his generator six days after the earthquake. He heard so many people complaining about their cell phones running out of juice and having no way to charge them.

The problem was, a lot of other entrepreneurs had the same idea. So, he had too much competition for the cell phone-charging business. So, he brought in a tiny TV, bought a bunch of Haitian comedies, and got into the movie business. And, like many businesspeople, he says his business strategy was more about helping folks than making money.

MAN (through translator): While we were on the grounds, we observed that the children need a distraction. We bought the generator so we could help the kids — not only help the kids, but to also make a little money.

He realized that, in the tent city, the one thing people have in abundance is time, especially kids. There’s no school. There’s nothing to do.

And how much is a movie?

MAN (through translator): We made it exactly 30 cents. But, at the same time, it’s not going that well.

ADAM DAVIDSON: Like Yoleen, the salon owner, he realized there is just less money in the camp. So, Gabriel came up with a brilliant solution. He uses the movies like fast-food restaurants use fun slides. He turns the kids into his best salesmen.

MAN (through translator): Sometimes, a person comes to charge their phone for 30 cents. Because he has recharged his phone, we give him access, him and his children. We let him watch.

ADAM DAVIDSON: This camp shows how resilient Haitian people are, 10 weeks after the earthquake, and they have set up rich, complex communities, ones that can support not only basic needs, but entertainment, beauty, happiness.

It also shows how well the Haitians understand their fate. Even the most optimistic estimates tell us that many Haitians will still be living in tents for years to come.

JEFFREY BROWN: In his next story, Adam looks at how some Haitians turn buses into works of art.

And, for more on Haiti, tomorrow night’s edition of “Frontline” explores the scale of the earthquake and the relief efforts that followed.