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BrandHaiti symposium uses entrepreneurship to confront negative perceptions of Haiti

Published: Monday, February 13, 2012

Updated: Monday, February 13, 2012 07:02

BrandHaiti

Scott Tingley / Tufts Daily

Panelists at Saturday’s BrandHaiti “Investing in Haiti: Challenges, Strategies, Opportunities” symposium discussed entrepreneurship, investing and economic development in Haiti.

Tufts' chapter of BrandHaiti, a student−led nonprofit organization seeking to transform the negative cultural images and perceptions of Haiti, on Saturday hosted its second annual Business Symposium, "Investing in Haiti: Challenges, Strategies, Opportunities." The event featured several prominent entrepreneurs and panels discussing entrepreneurship, investment and economic development in Haiti.

Since its inception in 2010, BrandHaiti has worked under the auspices of the Institute for Global Leadership (IGL) at Tufts to highlight the economic agency of Haiti — especially in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake — and to challenge negative international perceptions of the country.

"Our focus is on debunking negative stereotypes about Haiti," BrandHaiti CFO Joshua Reed−Diawuoh, a junior, said. "We're doing that by showing success stories, about the competency and agency of the Haitian people, so the symposium is a testament to that."

The symposium, which consisted of four panels promoting entrepreneurship, the investment industries, infrastructure and economic development in Haiti and the role of the Haitian diaspora in promoting growth, respectively, drew a sizeable crowd. Attendees included many members of Boston's Haitian community.

Genevieve Lemke, who owns the Wahoo Bay Beach Club and Resort an hour away from the capital city of Port−au−Prince, traveled to Tufts to speak on the state of the tourism industry in Haiti and the power of a negative international image in skewing cross−cultural understandings.

"I want the image of Haiti to change," Lemke said. "I am tired of when I travel and people ask where I am from and I say ‘Haiti' they say ‘really?' Like everywhere else we have our problems, but there's so much positivity we want people to come discover this positivity that nobody is talking about."

Panelists also offered their perceptions of the potential trajectories of the Haitian economy by stating what they felt were the most forward−thinking and progressive industries.

Jennifer Fievre, an investment officer at the International Finance Corporation (IFC) branch of the World Bank, said that the housing and construction sectors, along with agri−business, show promise of growth. She noted the decentralization strategies underway in Haiti strive to move people outside of the capital city of Port−au−Prince into the more rural provinces, where opportunities for entrepreneurship abound.

"Some of the problems that exist are in the infrastructure," Fievre said.

Fievre also cited recent World Bank economic statistics that rank Haiti as one of the worst countries in terms of ease of doing business, placing it 174th out of 183.

"The main challenge that can be addressed is the weakened business environment in Haiti. What can be done is addressing these facts and making it easier to open a business in Haiti," Fievre told the Daily in an interview.

Dominick Mercier heard about the symposium from a family member who works at Tufts and decided to attend the event. Mercier, who was born in Haiti and raised in Everett, Mass., in the 1990s, appreciated the panel's honest debate about the challenges facing Haiti and Haitian entrepreneurs and the candid discussion of globalization.

She was dismayed, however, by the negative rhetoric displayed by some of the audience members.

"The optimism is great, and helpful, but some members of the audience seemed bent to cast Haitians in a negative light," Mercier told the Daily.

Reed−Diawuoh has been assisting BrandHaiti with planning for the symposium since he returned from studying abroad in Ghana during the fall semester.

"The planning process was already underway when I came back from Ghana, but once I got here, we were reaching out to speakers, organizing the logistics on campus and promoting our message," he said.

The organization has also created a product line and a spring break program initiative which bring students to Haiti in order to help stimulate the local economy and to foster economic and personal engagement with the country.

BrandHaiti CEO and co−founder Marie−Gabrielle Isidore graduated from Tufts last May and continues to work closely with the organization.

Throughout the symposium, the panelists noted the importance of removing the perception of governmental corruption and increasing transparency as keys to promoting entrepreneurship in Haiti and revamping the education system. They expressed optimism regarding the economic and governmental future of Haiti after the 2011 elections.

"The country needs political security, and that we can build trust," Lemke said. "It's a new government, and I think they want to try. I see a lot of positive things happening, and I'm willing to do my part to help Haiti move forward."

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