As the world’s attention returns to Haiti to mark a solemn anniversary, Zafèn lender Désirée H. Young of Louisiana knows first-hand that the nature of the disaster is irrelevant to the recovery. “I work with small business owners in New Orleans and have learned since Hurricane Katrina that although donations are needed and governmental intervention is important, until people affected by hardship can put their own efforts behind their recovery, change never really begins.”
An online microfinance initiative, Zafèn empowers Haitians by offering interest-free loans and donations for business expansion and social initiatives designed to spur sustainable economic development. In its first nine months of operation, Zafèn raised more than $276,000 for 460 projects at 97 businesses and organizations across Haiti. It also provided tuition for 1,700 schoolchildren.
“Especially now, post-earthquake, more than ever before, the Haitian economy needs support for a new pattern of enterprise, one that takes into account the social impact of businesses,” said Jean-Claude Fleurantin, president of the Hands Together Cooperative. This initiative received a $1,400 loan through Zafèn to buy jewelry supplies. The cooperative teaches residents of the Petionville displaced persons camp to earn an income by making cultural handicrafts from recycled paper for tourists. The skills they learn will support their transition to financial security when they are able to leave the camp.
Because small business loans are not generally available to Haitians, business owners are often baffled when they hear that strangers will fund interest-free loans through Zafèn. “They ask ‘is this real?’” said Zafèn project director Régine Alexandre, based in Port-au-Prince. “The people and communities are so touched to see that others from outside Haiti believe in them and their projects. Zafèn has really given hope to Haitian entrepreneurs.”
“At a time when many small-business owners felt they had lost everything, Zafèn recognized the value these micro- and small enterprises had for their devastated communities,” said DePaul University Management Professor Laura Hartman, an expert on global poverty alleviation. “While on the surface it might have appeared that a business had been wiped out, we could see how important a particular enterprise was to the operations of this village. They didn’t have capital or inventory, but they had resources: knowledge, expertise, human resources and will. Zafèn brings stories of Haitian projects to the rest of the world so the world can learn about the Haitian people, what they care about and why we should care about them and their future.”
These stories have moved more than 1,100 people to contribute an average of $216, including 30 contributions of more than $1,000. Of the $276,000 raised by Zafèn, about $134,000 went to loans that when repaid over 12 months will allow the lender to reinvest in another Haitian project, putting those same dollars to work for a new entrepreneur engaged in sustainable economic transformation. The remaining contributions came in the form of donations.
“Zafèn has demonstrated that it has the capacity to mobilize investments for micro-, small- and medium enterprises (MSME) in Haiti,” said Anne Hastings, director of Fonkoze, “As we scale up in 2011, I am convinced that Zafèn’s impact will continue to grow and that there will be no doubt Zafèn investments are leading to the creation of new jobs in an increasingly robust MSME sector in Haiti.” To date, Zafèn funding has created more than 600 documented new jobs.
Beyond job creation, Zafèn donations have funded scholarships that offer more than an education.
“As we began to provide scholarships for children at Frederic Ozanam School in the Marin community of Port-au-Prince, we realized that many were ‘restaveks,’ children born into impoverished families,” C.M., who chairs the International Vincentian Family Board. “Since their families do not have sufficient economic means to raise them, they place them in the hands of ‘better off’ families who will be able to clothe and feed them. Tragically, many of these children become like slaves in their new family. Seeing this situation, we are now trying to devise means, in addition to the scholarships, for helping these students become self-sufficient in the future.”
Another successful educational project that received funding via Zafèn is FATEM, a community organization based in Mirebalais, which attracted donations for more than 600 scholarships. The schools offer a daily snack and, where a kitchen is available, a warm lunch. For many children, it is the only meal they will have all day.
Haitian Hometown Associations exist around the world and consist of Haitians living abroad who target investments in business and social ventures to their native communities where friends and relatives often remain. Zafèn was created in large part to introduce the Diaspora and others devoted to Haiti to reputable businesses from different regions and a variety of industries in Haiti that if given adequate resources could expand employment, make a positive environmental impact or contribute in other ways to Haiti’s development. The Haitian Diaspora has answered the call.
“Many associations have encouraged their Haitian counterparts to submit a project to Zafèn to get the extra assistance they needed,” said Katleen Felix, chair of the Haitian Hometown Associations Resource Group. “We received feedback that some groups were looking to replicate projects they saw on Zafèn in their communities, so it will be interesting to see how new businesses or projects emerge in some regions because of the information available on the website.”
New avenues of international trade appear to be an indirect impact of Zafèn’s efforts. “Many people from the Diaspora discovered artists, purse designers and coffee producers who are trustworthy and with whom they would like do business,” Felix said.
One example is the Friends of Cortelyou merchants and neighbors in Brooklyn, N.Y., who used Zafèn to create a revolving loan fund for businesses in Haiti. “They choose to fund businesses that they can eventually support beyond the loans,” according to Felix. They plan to import coffee, art, crafts and other goods to sell in their Brooklyn shops and are poised to provide pro-bono technical assistance if necessary.
“To see that type of mobilization is very inspiring,” Felix said. “They experienced the transformational effect of good businesses in their community, and now they are ready to give back. This will be an interesting community to follow in 2011.”
Zafèn, which means “It’s our business” in Haitian Creole, was developed to stimulate collaboration between Haiti-based business owners, the Haitian Diaspora and others interested in supporting the Haitian economy. It is unique in its criteria because businesses must demonstrate an anticipated impact on the broader community from the loan or donation by hiring more employees, operating more efficiently, becoming more environmentally friendly or other measures. Vincentianorganizations who find inspiration in the legacies of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac; DePaul UniversityFonkozeHaitian Hometown Associations Resource Group, which enables the Haitian Diaspora to foster economic and social growth to alleviate poverty in their native communities.