PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- For Claude Alexandre investing in Haiti requires three things: belief in nation, faith and staying power.
“You cannot come here and think in 30 days you will have a deal done,” Alexandre said. “You have to have patience to understand there is a process.”
Alexandre's words of advice were delivered Friday to Haitians from the diaspora attending a two-day business investment expo and conference in Haiti.
After years of staging the annual Haiti Renewal Alliance conference in Washington, D.C., organizers this year brought the event to Port-au-Prince. About 150 Haitians flew in from across the United States to network and explore investments opportunities in Haiti as the country continues to recover from its devastating Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake.
Attracting diaspora investments has always been one of the biggest challenges facing Haiti — both before and after the quake.
“They are underutilized, under-appreciated and poorly-managed,” said Alix Baptiste, a conference attendee and formerly the government minister responsible for dealing with the 4 million Haitians who live abroad.
“Haiti's development cannot be done without the diaspora; 80 percent of our professionals are overseas and they transfer plus or minus $2 billion directly into the economy. That is more than the true Haitian budget,” Baptiste said. “If you are trying to bring them closer to the Motherland, the task is easy: approach them on the basis they are Haitian and engage them as partners in developing their regions.”
But as with other potential investors, Haitians living abroad have struggled with Haiti's business environment. The country continues to rank at the bottom, 177 out of 184, in the World Bank's annual ease-of-doing-business ranking.
Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, in an interview with the Miami Herald, acknowledged the challenges. “We have to do better in the investment laws,” he said, noting there are two laws before parliament that might help companies see Haiti as a more attractive place to invest.
Panel discussions focused on the role of women entrepreneurs, real estate development and agriculture investments. An exhibit featuring 25 Haitian companies also provided a sense of some of the investments already taking place in Haiti.
“This is a network opportunity the country can benefit from,” said Firmin Backer, HRA president and an intellectual property expert.
Backer said organizers were asked to hold the conference in Haiti by Senate President Simon Desras who wanted Haitians in the diaspora to see for themselves that opportunities do exist.
In welcoming attendees Friday morning, U.S. Ambassador Pamela White said Haiti was doing better, but acknowledged there was still much to be done.
Today, there is still not a minister solely responsible for Haitians living abroad, and concerns about corruption, justice and land ownership remain.
But investors like Alexandre said success is possible. Alexandre, who lives in California, said this is his 23rd trip to Haiti since 2012 when he first decided to get involved in a real estate development project.
The $40-million private-public partnership with a local Haitian bank involves constructing condos, townhouses and single-family homes in a gated community in Port-au-Prince.
“To come here, you have to find a good local partner, follow the process and you will succeed,” he said.