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FEATURE-Haitian millionaire determined to build back better

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 24 Feb 2012 13:27 GMT
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PORT-AU-PRINCE (AlertNet) - For a millionaire, Mathias Pierre's origins were humble.

The son of an illiterate mother and carpenter father, Pierre grew up in poverty in Haiti. But after winning a rare scholarship to study engineering at university, he went on to become an award-winning entrepreneur, a best-selling writer, and the owner of a computer business worth $3.5 million in annual revenue.

Pierre’s success stands out in a country where around 70 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day - held down by a lack of education and jobs.

“We are afraid of dreaming. They say in Haiti only crazy people start dreaming," he told AlertNet. "But dreams are not enough, you need to have discipline and set short, medium and long-term goals."

Now the 45-year-old is using his entrepreneurship to benefit communities uprooted by the devastating 2010 quake.

His latest project is taking shape on the outskirts of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince – a Haitian-staffed factory producing much-needed affordable, earthquake-resistant housing for other Haitians.

More than two years have passed since the quake, yet around 500,000 people are still homeless and living in camps for the displaced in the Caribbean island nation.

"There is a huge opportunity in Haiti to help people get a safe and affordable home," Pierre said, looking dapper in a suit and tie.

"Everyone talks about the need for foreign investment and that’s all good," Pierre said over the din of builders busy putting the finishing touches to the spacious factory.

"But it’s the Haitian private sector, entrepreneurship and a culture of innovation and technology that will lead the way to rebuild Haiti and get this country out of poverty."

Not only does he own KayTek, (‘housing technology’ in Creole) -- the franchise company making the steel-frame houses -- but he raised funds to build the factory which went up in just eight months. It is expected to open its doors within weeks.

LOCAL TALENT

Costing $4,000 for a single-storey one bedroom unit complete with a traditional porch, rising to $10,000 for a two bedroom home, Pierre expects these homes will appeal to Haiti’s middle class and Haitian immigrants looking to buy a relatively cheap house for their relatives back home.

"Having a home in Haiti is proof of really getting out of poverty," he said.

KayTek is also looking to drum up business among aid agencies and non-governmental organisations looking to build schools, health clinics and basic homes for the Haitians still living in makeshift camps across the city.

Pierre said the destruction following the earthquake offered a chance to put into practice the often-quoted mantra ‘build back better’. For the no-nonsense businessman, it means training Haitians to build traditional Haitian-style houses that comply with international building standards and hurricane and quake-resistant codes.

Amid huge coils of steel and stacks of shiny steel beams, a group of young engineers and architects are being trained to use computer technology, which allows customers to handpick the design of a house, and the machines to produce the steel frames and assemble the flat-packed housing kits.

"As a company taking the chance to invest in this technology, we understand we need to develop the capacity of people. You need to bring in people to train others, to give people sustainable jobs so that they can lead Haiti’s reconstruction," Pierre said.

While the international aid community has been slow to make a decision on what kind of housing is best to address Haiti’s housing shortage – mulling everything from wooden temporary shelters to permanent cement homes – Pierre is convinced that steel-framed houses are the efficient way forward.

He pointed out the quake-resistant features which include walls reinforced with diagonal steel beams in the shape of a cross and houses bolted to their foundations with steel braces.

It makes for quite a contrast to the shoddy and hastily constructed houses and shops, built with poor quality gravel and cement, that are common in the densely populated capital of nearly three million, Pierre said.

"I see unsafe construction every day in Port-au-Prince – people building in the old ways with just cement and blocks," he said. "Steel is light, durable and reduces costs, but the market doesn’t know how to use steel to build. It’s a learning curve."

YOU CAN DO IT

It's not always been easy doing business in Haiti.

When riots erupted in Port-au-Prince over rising food prices in 2008, Pierre remembers angry youths throwing rocks at his computer store. It was a turning point.

"They couldn’t believe that I owned the business. They put it in their heads that only light skinned people can own a business and accomplish things," he said.

"It’s an inferiority complex."

The experience prompted Pierre to try to change that mindset among young Haitians, which he believes is an obstacle in climbing out of poverty.

He set up a youth business training centre and foundation, where for the last year and half he and other experts teach hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs business skills.

Pierre is now running a reality-style contest on Haitian television to pick the next wave of young Haitians who will be trained under his wings. He hopes they will do their bit in building back a better Haiti.

"I tell them I know what it’s like for your father to come home without any food," he said. "I tell them if I can do it, you can do it."

(Editing by Katie Nguyen)

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