Arriving back in Haiti hits me hard. Instantly I’m awash with the familiar magical and chaotic energy that is almost palpable in this wonderful yet complicated country.
Over the past two years I’ve taken several trips to Haiti. The place fascinates me endlessly. It will break your heart at times, but the beauty, humanity, spirit and astonishing resilience of the Haitian people are a constant source of inspiration.
This spirt and resilience is particularly evident in the how Haitian women from poor areas are engaging with livelihood and grassroots entrepreneurship programmes. These are empowering them with skills to take part in, and open their own businesses.
For many women this is the first time they have received training of any kind and when presented with these opportunities they are relentless in the pursuit of improving their lives. For all the women I spoke to, the ability to educate their children is a great motivation to succeed.
The first participant I visit is Ketlie Seide, a beautician and hairdresser based up in the steep slopes of Turgeau, Port-au-Prince.
Ketlie is a softly spoken, determined young woman. We chat at her premises, a small, narrow concrete structure only a few meters in size.
Ketlie speaks of how she always wanted to be a beautician and to set up her own business. She had worked intermittently as an employee, gaining experience and slowly purchasing small essentials that would allow her to work for herself. Unfortunately, all these were lost in the earthquake and Keltie was back to square one. Finally in 2012, with help from her dad and her brother, she opened her business with very limited supplies and equipment.
However, with financial and business assistance from GOAL and Entrepreneurs du Monde she could finally purchase the necessary equipment to run a competitive business. She received a credit of 55,000 Gourdes ($1,000) with which she bought a fan, a basin, a hair dryer and a generator (essential as electricity is notoriously unreliable). She has also learned valuable business skills from these organisations, which have been of great value to help her run her beauty salon.
Next I take a journey to Gonaives, a rural town in north Haiti. First stop is the community centre, where local women participate in a livelihood programme provided by Haven that teaches sewing skills. It is a hive of creative activity.
Here, I meet with Menette and Annette, two remarkable women taking full advantage of the programme. They tell me participating in this programme has dramatically changed their lives, enabling them to work and provide food and schooling for their children. This particular programme has taught them sewing skills to a high level, allowing them to set up a co-op called ‘Les Femmes D’espoir Des Gonaives’ (The Women of Hope of Gonaives). They are partnered with ‘Entrepreneurial Women of Milot’, producing beautifully crafted goods such as aprons, pot holders, oven mitts and bags.
In true entrepreneurial spirit, the money they make here is put to good business use, investing in other endeavours to further increase their income. Menette buys and sells metal pots that are commonly used in Haiti for cooking and washing. Annette has purchased wedding paraphernalia, such as veils and gloves, renting them out to local brides.
Annette also sells garments she has made or fixed at the local market. The following day I take a trip to this market with her. She is a mobile seller, strategically moving around making sales. It is absolutely buzzing with the ruckus of buying and selling.
I shadow Annette for an hour or so documenting all the hustle and bustle. My presence here is most certainly a novelty, causing some interesting interactions with lively characters, always ending in laughter and invitations to take their portraits.
It was a privilege to spend time with these inspirational women and learn more about the reality of making a living in Haiti. This reality is really tough, however with the assistance of entrepreneurial support and livelihood programmes they are able to overcome some enormous odds, and create a sustainable and proud future for themselves.
Jennifer Barker travelled to Haiti with the support of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund for her project, Haitian Women Mean Business, which will be published by the Irish Independent.