Ireland and Haiti have never been closely associated, physically or in any other sense, but Denis O’Brien helped bring the two countries together in 2006 with an ambitious plan to establish a cell phone company in what has long been known as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.
The Irish billionaire was successful, as he had no shortage of funds, but the plan had no shortage of critics either. Entrepreneurship is somewhat of a fever dream in Haiti, which is still struggling to recover from the devastation it faced in the 2010 earthquake.
O’Brien’s Haitian cell phone startup, Digicel (News - Alert), is only six years old today, but the company has seen huge success since its inception, and has grown to become the largest private investor in Haiti.
Digicel currently counts half the country’s population as its customers, totaling at around 4.8 million users. The hope O’Brien holds for Haiti’s future is not a widely accepted stance, but with his keen business instincts and plentiful resources, O’Brien is certainly putting up a fight to change public opinion on the country and its prospects.
As Haiti’s President Michel Martelly puts it, “If it wasn’t for Denis, we’d all be sitting here alone.”
In the last six years, O’Brien has faced many challenges in his efforts to establish Digicel in Haiti, and to grow the business and help reinvest in the struggling population.
The Haitian government and the country’s leading banks have resisted in stimulating investments, and for some time a small business elite has been the only group to profit from imported monopolies. These practices have stifled local production, and led Haiti to be a weak and dependent country with little hope for change.
But O’Brien doesn’t seem to understand why others don’t share his hopeful outlook on Haiti. In his mind, the plan for Digicel’s operation in Haiti was simple logic; “You can have people with very little disposable income in real terms, but who want a phone and they’ll pay you for it, and you can afford to build up quite a large network.”
Haiti owes a lot to O’Brien for his nearly standalone vote of confidence in their country and its technologic and communicative future, says Haiti’s tourism minister Stephanie Villedrouin.
“Denis revolutionized the communications sector. Before cellphones were a luxury and now they are a must,” she said.
Indeed, it may seem strange for one man to account for so many of the positive turns Haiti has seen in recent years, but O’Brien has certainly focused most, if not all of his attention on the unfortunate country, and the results of his attention are clear.
Besides telephony, O’Brien has invested heavily in education across the country, spending millions via Digicel’s charity foundation to build 150 schools to teach 90,000 students.
Tourism, as Villedrouin pointed out, is also a fledgling industry in Haiti that has benefited with the help of O’Brien. Just last month, Digicel broke ground on the country’s first ever Mariott hotel.
“He sets goals and people have to achieve them,” said Anne Hastings, director of Haitian micro-credit finance institution Fonkoze. “That’s unusual in Haiti.”
Another unusual aspect of O’Brien’s contributions in Haiti is his unwavering faith that the people of Haiti can and will learn to be self-sufficient and independent someday. O’Brien is not interested in handouts, but in establishing lasting businesses and industries to get Haiti on its feet and making progress from the inside out.
“All the problems in Haiti are fixable; you just need the right project skills. You have to harness the people and show them how to do it. There’s so much talent here, people who are creative and inventive,” said O’Brien. “Instead of importing rice, grow rice. Instead of importing chickens, breed chickens. Instead of importing eggs, lay eggs.”
O’Brien clearly feels a familiarity between the hardworking family-oriented Irish, and the people of Haiti – his own mother was a human rights activist in Ireland, and O’Brien himself has four children and raises millions of dollars every year for humanitarian purposes.
Even O’Brien’s business dealings are humanitarian at heart.
“Most multibillion-dollar companies rob the country blind,” O’Brien noted. “We like to make a good profit but sleep well at night.”
Next on the agenda for Haiti is initiating a smartphone revolution, which O’Brien plans to use to offer mobile banking to the country’s poor. Digicel’s direct investment in this aim is more than $600 million, and the project would require every cent, if not more.
“What we’re trying to have is a First World telecommunications network in a developing economy, and most of the time that doesn’t happen,” said O’Brien, not sounding too much like his hopeful self.
Still, the idea is realistically a long shot, but long shots are exactly what Digicel seems to do best.
If the last decade is any indication, O’Brien will succeed in this venture too. Local Haitian businessman Cyril Pressoir puts it simply, “He gets things done.”
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Edited by Braden Becker