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Billionaire builds smarter Haiti

Six years after Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien set about building a cellphone company in the western hemisphere’s poorest country, his company is now the largest private investor in Haiti with about half the population as customers. Photo: Reuters

Six years after Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien set about building a cellphone company in the western hemisphere’s poorest country, his company is now the largest private investor in Haiti with about half the population as customers. Photo: Reuters

When Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien set about building a cellphone company in the western hemisphere’s poorest country, there was no shortage of sceptics.

You have to harness the people and show them how to do it

Six years later O’Brien’s company Digicel is the largest private investor in Haiti and has 4.8 million users, about half the population. It is a rare beacon of entrepreneurship in a country still struggling to rebuild after the 2010 earthquake.

O’Brien’s ambitious plans for Digicel are part of his bullish vision for Haiti which stands in sharp contrast to the usually gloomy forecasts for a nation crippled by perpetual political turmoil and natural disasters.

Promotion of homegrown entrepreneurship is rare in Haiti, where the Government and banks have done little to stimulate investment and a small business elite has traditionally profited from import monopolies that stifle local production.

On a typical whirlwind visit shortly before Christmas, O’Brien, 54, flew into Haiti from New York on his corporate jet for a monthly Digicel board meeting. He then hosted a gala celebrating Digicel’s Entrepreneur of the Year, a televised event he imported from Ireland to inspire small business.

The Digicel Group is a privately-held company founded by O’Brien in 2001 and headquartered in Jamaica, with 13 million customers in 31 emerging markets, mostly in the Caribbean and Pacific regions.

Digicel is now looking to enter Myanmar, a country of around 60 million people that has one of the lowest mobile penetration rates in the world, with only three per cent of the population owning a phone in 2011, according to the World Bank.

O’Brien, who is non-resident in Ireland for tax purposes, is not without his critics back home in Ireland where he launched his first mobile phone company and also is the main shareholder in the country’s largest media company.

His company’s arrival in Haiti in 2006 was a rare example of foreign investment in a country more used to dependence on foreign aid handouts. Digicel’s shiny headquarters was inaugurated a year before the 2010 quake and was one of the few big buildings to withstand it virtually intact.

O’Brien’s investments in Haiti go far beyond telephony.

Last month, he broke ground on Haiti’s first Marriott hotel and Digicel’s charity foundation is spending millions to build 150 schools across the country for 90,000 students.

His approach has won acclaim from the likes of former US President Bill Clinton, who heads the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) and is also the UN special envoy to Haiti.

O’Brien coordinates CGI’s Haiti Action Network, whose members have committed more than $350 million to education, infra-structure and business-development projects.

“The CGI programme in Haiti is considered one of the best. It’s really because of Denis’s strong leadership,” said Anne Hastings, director of Fonkoze, a micro-credit finance institution in Haiti. “He sets goals and people have to achieve them. That’s unusual in Haiti.”

His first non-profit investment in Haiti was the capital’s historic Iron Market, the heart of downtown commercial activity, which O’Brien spent millions to rebuild after the earthquake.

“All the problems in Haiti are fixable, you just need the right project skills,” he said. “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.”

To prove his point, Digicel has moved its call centre for the French-speaking Caribbean from affluent Martinique to Haiti.

On his first visit to Haiti, O’Brien was struck by the streets crowded with vendors. “You have all these entrepreneurs all over this city. They are natural-born sellers,” he said.

O’Brien’s next goal: launching a smartphone revolution in Haiti and offering mobile banking to the poor. Digicel is investing in extra bandwidth this year to handle a 4G network upgrade, raising its total investment in Haiti to more than $600 million. “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,” he said.

Digicel relies on Asian firms such as Samsung to continue lowering prices thanks to cheap Taiwanese semi-conductors. “We can buy a smartphone for $70 today. In 2013 it will be $30,” he said, predicting prices would hit $10 within a couple of years.

O’Brien, whose mother was a human rights activist in Ireland and who is a father of four, has spent $25 million on development projects through the foundation.

“Our foundation is every bit as important as our technical department,” O’Brien said. “Most multi-billion dollar companies rob the country blind. We like to make a good profit but sleep well at night.”

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