On the barren, dusty hills outside Kamo, a small village north of Haiti’s capital, a few dozen farmers crowd under the shade of a candelabra tree, listening in awe to plans for building a mango collection centre.
One young farmer, Paul Joseph Meriser, is convinced it will revolutionise his work by reducing waste and transport costs. “This will change our lives completely,” he says.
The US-backed project is one small step towards reviving Haitian agriculture, an essential pillar of the earthquake-ravaged country’s economy.
With the cost of the disaster estimated at 120 per cent of Haitian gross domestic product, the international community has pledged almost $10bn (€8bn, £6.5bn) to help rebuild the country.
The Interim Committee for the Reconstruction of Haiti, co-chaired by Jean-Max Bellerive, the prime minister, and Bill Clinton, the former US president, will decide how to spend the money.
“Agro-industry is one of the biggest pillars for growth,” Mr Bellerive told the Financial Times.
But the ICRH has a tough task. Not only must it dispel fears that it will essentially become a parallel government – Mr Bellerive admits this is a “risk” – but it must rebuild Haiti from top to bottom, and “build back better”.
Job creation is a high priority. Of Haiti’s 9m people, only 120,000 work in the tiny formal economy.
Reginald Boulos, president of Haiti’s chamber of commerce, hopes 1m jobs can be created during the next 10 years, half of them in agriculture. “That would generate growth of 10 per cent a year for the next decade, and put Haiti on the road to becoming a developing country – because right now we are not even that.”
For now, however, paid work is hard to come by. Those lucky enough to join cash-for-work programmes run by aid agencies clear huge piles of rubble in the capital, Port-au-Prince, or dig canals to prevent flash floods. Tented settlements of people rendered homeless by the earthquake still dot the capital.
Here, enterprising Haitians have turned tents into cinemas or beauty salons. Others make money by charging mobile phones using portable generators.
But little of this is sustainable. Hence the emphasis on sectors such as agriculture, which could also help Haiti wean itself off costly imports, which account for 80 per cent of food consumption.
Niche products, such as mangos, could also be exported. If farmers are given the right tools, taught proper techniques and guaranteed markets, exports could grow fivefold, experts say.
“At the moment, for every mango that is exported, another goes to waste,” says Bernard Craan, one of Haiti’s biggest mango exporters.
Construction is another source of employment, not just rebuilding the 250,000 homes destroyed in the earthquake but also new infrastructure.
Business leaders argue that one of the quickest ways to create jobs is to expand the textile sector, which exports about $400m of goods a year, 70 per cent of Haiti’s annual total. This is thanks to recent US congressional approval of a bill that gives Haiti preferential access to US markets.
“It’s something we’re all very keen on and has a chance of providing significant employment,” says Alexandre Abrantes, special envoy to Haiti for the World Bank, which manages the fund into which donor money will be channelled.
Even so, Mr Bellerive admits US tax exemptions are “no panacea”. “We want to use [this] as a motor towards real growth, but it is not the [long-term] solution,” he says.
“The amount of businesses interested in Haiti since the earthquake is unbelievable – it’s a bit chaotic, but investors are coming in and putting real money on the table,” says Gregory Mevs, who runs the business interests of one of Haiti’s richest families, covering infrastructure, real estate, energy, telecoms and port services.
Perhaps inevitably, nationalist fears are rising that Haiti is “for sale” to foreign companies. But Georges Sassine, another local businessman, says: “Sell it! Yes! They can’t put it in their pockets and take it away with them – that’s why we’re so poor, as we have refused to sell.”
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