It is no secret that the poor quality of Haiti’s infrastructure contributed to the death toll in the 2010 earthquake. Haiti’s earthquake, magnitude 7.0 with a death toll of approximately 200,000, is often compared to Chile’s 2010 earthquake, magnitude 8.8 with a death toll of 525. One primary reason that Chile’s was less devastating was the quality of its infrastructure and the safety of its buildings.
In a place like Haiti, even when building codes and standards are in place, they are not easily enforced. Most of the buildings in Port-au-Prince are constructed of cinderblocks, and during the earthquake, buildings with poorly-produced cinderblocks were more likely to crumble. Small entrepreneurs in the cinderblock-making sector often lack the skills and the incentive to produce quality, disaster-resistant cinderblocks.
But, block-by-block, Claude Debrosse is helping to change the face of the cinderblock-making sector in Haiti. A partnership between Build Change and Fonkoze Financial Services, supported by the Clinton Global Initiative, is enabling Claude to develop skills and access the financial services he needs to expand his business.
Build Change, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, has been working to help REZO, a network of 35 affiliated block manufacturing small businesses, ensure that they produce disaster-resistant cinderblocks. They provide them with simple tools, such as block-testing machines, to evaluate the strength of the cinderblocks, and once a month, they conduct random inspections at each business.
One of the key challenges Build Change identified for the cinderblock makers was a lack of access to financial services. Commercial financial institutions view small enterprises like Claude’s as too risky to be attractive borrowing clients. On the other hand, microfinance institutions’ loan offerings are often too small, too expensive, and require payment too quickly. So, Build Change and Fonkoze Financial Services—the largest microfinance institution in Haiti— partnered to develop a loan product that would be tailored to small businesses like Claude’s.
Since Claude became a Fonkoze Financial Services client and took out his first $10,000 loan, his business has grown. In just four months, he increased his block production by nearly 45%. His purchase of cement, the main component of cinderblocks, has increased fourfold. He has created jobs for more than 20 people—mostly young men who were previously unemployed. And he has ambitious plans: “I want to continue growing my business with Fonkoze Financial Services.”
Claude, himself, has a humble background. Born to a poor family in Petit-Goave in 1985, he was one of 11 children. He says, “In a family with 11 children, it was very hard on my parents; we understood early on that everyone needed to put in a lot of effort to succeed in life.” He attended public school, and his academic success enabled him to move to Port-au-Prince and attend Haiti’s National School for Arts and Trade. In 2008, he established his own enterprise, designing and creating cinderblock-producing machines. His work ethic and dedication was noticed by one of his clients, Our Little Brothers and Sisters of St. Therese, who took it upon themselves to send him to Italy for a three-month skill-building program.
Once he returned, he decided to expand his machine-making business to actually include the production of cinderblocks in a town outside of Port-au-Prince. However, he lacked the resources to do so; the demand was high, but he could not produce cinderblocks in large quantity. Now, thanks to his loan with Fonkoze, not only has Claude’s business expanded, but it is an asset in his community. He says, “I feel proud that I am responsible for preventing young people from being in the streets by hiring them. I understand that what I do is valuable for the community.”
Perhaps equally important, Claude’s expanded business provides cinderblocks that are safe and will resist future earthquakes and hurricanes in Haiti. He, with support from Build Change and Fonkoze Financial Services, is part of a business-led solution to Haiti’s post-earthquake reconstruction.