Irish cellphone entrepreneur banks on a smarter Haiti

Wed Jan 16, 2013 10:04am EST
 
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By David Adams

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - When Irish billionaire Denis O'Brien set about building a cellphone company in the western hemisphere's poorest country, there was no shortage of skeptics.

Six years later O'Brien's company Digicel is the largest private investor in Haiti and has 4.8 million users, about half the population. It is a rare beacon of entrepreneurship in a country still struggling to rebuild after the 2010 earthquake.

O'Brien's ambitious plans for Digicel are part of his bullish vision for Haiti which stands in sharp contrast to the usually gloomy forecasts for a nation crippled by perpetual political turmoil and natural disasters.

Promotion of homegrown entrepreneurship is rare in Haiti, where the government and banks have done little to stimulate investment and a small business elite has traditionally profited from import monopolies that stifle local production.

On a typical whirlwind visit shortly before Christmas, O'Brien, 54, flew into Haiti from New York on his corporate jet for a monthly Digicel board meeting. He then hosted a gala celebrating Digicel's 'Entrepreneur of the Year', a televised event he imported from Ireland to inspire small business.

Six feet tall with white hair and ruddy cheeks, O'Brien is easy to spot among the crowd of mostly local business people and dignitaries, including President Michel Martelly.

"Haiti needs more people like you," Martelly said. "If it wasn't for Denis, we'd all be sitting here alone."

PHONES FOR THE POOR   Continued...

 
Digicel Chairman Denis O'Brien attends an interview with Reuters at the company's headquarters in Port-au-Prince, in this picture taken December 18, 2012. REUTERS/Swoan Parker