Mark D’Sa was a top apparel executive pulling in six figures and flying business class to meet clients when the request got to his inbox.
The U.S. government wanted to talk. Ten months had passed since Haiti’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. One million Haitians were still homeless, and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wanted to embark on a different path.
Through the construction of a new $300 million industrial park in northeastern Haiti, Clinton was pushing a new concept she called “Aid for trade.” But for the venture to be successful, the State Department needed someone who knew the apparel industry and how to help countries take advantage of U.S. trade preferences.
“The inquiry from the State Department was very interesting,” recalls D’Sa, then a senior director at GAP in charge of Latin America.
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With a four-decade career in the apparel industry, D’Sa was known as a go-to guy for growing foreign investments. He had lobbied for the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), and two years after its signing in 2004, D’Sa led GAP’s entry into drug-scarred Colombia. Years later, he increased GAP’s Haiti imports nearly fivefold to $33 million, making him a revered figured in the country’s apparel sector.
Now, here was the State Department, led by Clinton’s counselor, Cheryl Mills, asking him to apply his private sector skills to help create jobs in Haiti.
“It was a stretch assignment,” said D’Sa, who had done business in 43 countries but still needed to think about the offer to promote the Caracol Industrial Park, the U.S.’s biggest and most controversial post-quake investment program.
But it also was “an opportunity to influence change and make a difference in people’s lives,” he said.
Four-and-a-half years after answering the email, D’Sa is still flying back and forth — this time in coach as a State Department contract employee — between Miami and Haiti with occasional jaunts to Washington, D.C., for meetings with Haiti Special Coordinator Thomas Adams and his staff.
“I tell people that Mark is my most valuable employee,” said Adams, whose office oversees U.S. engagement. “He has brought more direct investment to Haiti than any single person.”
In an unusual arrangement, GAP had loaned D’Sa to the U.S. government for 90 days, covering his salary and expenses while he helped lure mixed-use, light manufacturing to Caracol. At the end of the temporary assignment, he decided to make it a permanent job.
D’Sa’s knowledge continues to win him fans in Haiti, where he markets Caracol and other industrial parks.
“He knows the industry like the back of his hands and his attention to details, determination and perseverance is what has made Caracol grow and not die,” said Georges Sassine, the former head of the Association of Industries of Haiti (ADIH) and a leading supporter of the Caracol project as an engine to help revitalize Haiti’s declining assembly sector.
Last month while visiting Korea with Haitian businessmen seeking to lure more apparel jobs, D’Sa played an instrumental role in negotiations leading to that nation’s third largest textile conglomerate, HANSAE, coming to Haiti, said Lionel Delatour, an ADIH consultant.
“Mark’s encyclopedic knowledge of the textile and garment industry has made him a brilliant, low-key and effective advocate,” said Delatour, who considers D’Sa one of the leading architects in helping to revive Haiti’s once vibrant but struggling garment sector.
A liaison between the U.S. and Haitian governments, D’Sa works closely with Haiti’s National Society of Industrial Parks (SONAPI), which oversees Caracol and the other industrial parks. Last year, he began mentoring and training three young Haitians on how to analyze new investment proposals to eventually replace him.
“I keep saying Mark isn’t going to do this for the rest of his life,” Adams said. “He’s definitely helping Haiti move forward in the light industry sector.”
Over the years, dozens of companies have inquired — and some have even visited. But only five commercial tenants — two apparel companies, a paint producer, a perfume bottler and a sisal product manufacturer — have come aboard inside the park situated between Haiti’s second largest city, Cap-Haïtien and the border town of Ouanaminthe.
The park’s biggest investor and anchor tenant, South Korean firm Sae-A Trading, was personally lobbied by Clinton.
“Several investors show up expecting unrealistic incentives, grants and benefits,” D’Sa said. “Some apparel companies walked away from Caracol because they found the bar on transparency and compliance at Caracol to be set higher than expected. We’ve created a center of excellence, but it comes with a cost. Some apparel companies prefer to operate in privately managed locations where perhaps government oversight is not the same.”
Touring the complex’s 600 acres grounds during one of his many visits, D’Sa says there have been achievements.
“Each time I look at my paycheck, I ask myself why I’m still doing it. It certainly isn’t for the money,” said D’Sa, 63, who estimates he’s made more than 30 trips to Haiti since 2010. “There are many difficulties and complexities in Haiti, but the idea of aid for trade, creating a catalyst in one of the most disadvantaged regions to generate sustainable jobs and improve standards of living, looked like a very worthy cause.”
Last month, Caracol delivered the fourth sewing factory to Sae-A. The firm has two more in the pipeline. Another 120,000-square-foot building is expected to be delivered next month to the park’s newest tenant, the Haitian-owned Coles Group. The Port-au-Prince-based garment assembly firm produces Hanes brand T-shirts and plans to hire 1,300 workers.
Overall, there are 6,200 people currently employed in the park, which has produced $100 million in exports since its October 2012 opening. And while the jobs are only 10 percent of what was promised by supporters, D’Sa said he still believes Caracol is capable of making its target.
“The change is visible,” he said of Caracol, adding that it “has made a huge difference in the northeastern region of Haiti.”
“But if it were any other country I could have probably done more in the same period of time,” he said. “The complexities and complications that are part of working in Haiti have inevitably manifested themselves, and so we have not been able to deliver as much at this stage as we would have hoped. However, we are still working on meeting our goals.”
While critics remain skeptical about Caracol, D’Sa said it continues to benefit all of Haiti. For example, some companies like TOMS were initially interested in the park but later decided it wasn’t the right fit and instead set up shop in other industrial parks and free zones in the capital.
“Caracol is proof that aid for trade works,” D’Sa said. “It created 6,000 jobs in just over two years, and it generated $100 million in incremental exports for Haiti in the same period. It will add another 2,500 jobs by the end of this year. These are sustainable jobs in a safe, regulated, environmentally friendly location.”