In my experience revolutionary ideas don’t usually come out of video conferences, but this time was different. In April 2009, a group of us Haitian-American diaspora leaders organized a video conference sponsored by MIF/IDB to discuss financial literacy. We discussed a number of different ideas when the conversation turned to the difficulty of investing in our country of heritage, and suddenly things started to click. Investing in Haiti had become a burden on the Haitian diaspora community. Many of us from the Haitian diaspora wanted to help our homeland, but we were losing our money because of lack of knowledge about the Haitian investment context and inability to follow up.
As I jotted down the action items, I couldn’t help thinking, “How on earth are we going to deliver a website and new program?” With hard work and good partners, we founded Zafèn in April 2010 and it has been growing ever since. Zafén is a crowd-funding website that helps small Haitian businesses to grow. It offers social projects and Haitian hometown associations a place to find funding for their viable business plans. Four organizations came together to get Zafén off the ground, including my own, the Haitian Hometown Associations Resource Group, along with the International Vincentian Family, DePaul University in Chicago, and a bank that serves vulnerable populations in Haiti, Fonkoze. We also received support from a multilateral investment fund and USAID.
Most of the businesses that Zarén serves are not “microbusinesses” per se, rather they are still small enough to fall into the category of small growing businesses, community projects, or, occasionally, small and medium enterprises. We have been able to offer these businesses financing, but they need more than that to succeed; they also need business support services, which provide essential training and education for new businesses and are an important element in the success of any small growing business. We are now in the process of building a network of business support services to ensure the success and growth of the businesses. We surpassed the $1 million threshold of funds raised for loans and donations last spring as we commemorated its second year of empowering entrepreneurs and supporting social projects in Haiti. I am proud to say that our loans helped create 760 new jobs at 110 businesses across the country. In addition to offering our clients loans, Zafèn has become a global marketplace. Some Zafèn clients have used our platform to find new distribution channels for their products through the diaspora, while others have used the platform to identify new market opportunities for their hometowns. We have even heard from some diaspora members who are trying to replicate businesses they learned about on Zafèn in their hometowns. Crowd funding platforms like Zafèn need to attract a high volume of visitors in order to fund projects. To get this volume of web traffic, we are investing heavily in marketing and partnering with other platforms that already have a high volume of visitors.
But more than all of the loans that we have made and the technical assistance that we have offered, Zafèn has changed the way that the diaspora‘s engages in Haiti’s economic development. Many of our business analysts have come from the Haitian diaspora, most of whom are professionals with experience and diplomas from abroad who want to give back to the motherland. Diaspora members also volunteer their time to review business profiles to be submitted to the website by being part of the selection committee.
One of my favorite Zafèn success stories comes from a hometown association in Miami called the Friends of Petit Goave. This organization has supported an elementary school in its members’ hometown in Haiti for many years. Its leaders recently decided to explore a sustainable school model. A Haitian-Canadian business analyst in Zafén’s generously volunteered his time to help the organization with its accounting and business plan. Reflecting on the project, he said “the parents and teachers are very motivated and engaged, and we are building a great model out of this community.” Joining forces with the parent-teacher association, Friends of Petit Goave decided to build a bakery that would help support the school. The hometown association was able to raise half of the capital through their donor networks, and they received a loan from Zafèn to purchase an oven. The bakery has been a success and they have already started repaying their loan. Since many Haitian hometown associations are supporting schools in rural Haiti, this financially sustainable school model could be the first of many on Zafèn. We are already hearing of projects with community gardens and aqua-farms that raise tilapia.
We have come a long way already, and we’re just getting started.
About the Author: Katleen Felix is a founding member of Zafèn and chairs the Haitian Hometown Associations Resource Group. She is also Fonkoze’s project director and diaspora liaison, where she is responsible of research and development for new remittance products or initiatives, financial literacy programs for new immigrants, project reporting and donor relations. She has ten years of experience as a senior financial officer and over twenty years of involvement with Haitian organizations.
The contents of this blog are the sole responsibility of the author and its ideas and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of International diaspora Engagement Alliance (IdEA), the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Migration Policy Institute, or any of their partners.