Bill Clinton Launches Business Loan Program in Haiti

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton launched a new business loan program in Haiti on Tuesday aimed at helping bolster an economy that was devastated by the January 2010 earthquake.

Clinton said the first loan in the $20 million program is being made to Caribbean Craft, which produces colorful goods such as carnival masks, sculptures and paintings for export and lost its workshop in the earthquake.

The company is receiving a loan of $415,000, with interest to be paid back to the program to help make additional loans in the future, Clinton told reporters as he toured Caribbean Craft’s workshop near the airport in Port-au-Prince. He said the money will help the operation hire 200 more workers. He didn’t say how many employees it has now.

Clinton, who has been active in Haiti reconstruction through his foundation and as co-chairman of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, said he had been “surprised and disturbed” to learn of the difficult loan terms available for even Haitian businesses with solid credit.

“One of the biggest problems in growing the Haitian economy is that there is really no facility that grants small business loans on reasonable terms,” he said.

Recently, Clinton invited Caribbean Craft owner Magalie Dresse to a buyers’ conference in New York, where representatives from Macy’s, Pottery Barn and other companies signed contracts with the Haitian business.

She said the $415,000 loan, which carries an interest rate of 6.5 percent, will “allow us to respond to the demand that we’re getting now.”

“The space that we have is so small, we can’t welcome enough people to continue orders,” Dresse said. “On the Haitian market, the lowest we’d be getting was between 12 and 15 percent. Plus we had to add to it the fees that come with it.”

Clinton also addressed a collective of metal sculptors in the adjacent Croix-des-Bouquets, a Haitian city long famous for its artistic community.

“Over the long run, what Haiti needs most is for the ability of every Haitian to make a good living doing what he or she can do best,” Clinton told an audience of about 50 metal artisans Tuesday morning.

Ohio-based steel drum manufacturer Greif Inc., a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, is shipping 40 tons of steel parts so the Haitian artisans can melt it down and hammer it into elaborate designs and patterns to sell as wall decorations. About half has already made it to Haiti.

The Croix-des-Bouquets artists said they struggled since the quake to find materials to create their crafts.

“After the earthquake, I didn’t have work because markets closed, and the material in the market was too expensive to buy,” said 38-year-old metal artisan Jean Pierre Richard Desrosiers. “Now with this material, we can make a profit for the entire community.”

But supplying the materials needed to create the products is only the first step in a process that must also include expanding the artists’ access to markets to sell their work, said Deputy Jean Tholbert Alexis, who represents Croix-des-Bouquets in Haiti’s parliament.

“Eight thousand people live directly or indirectly from the income of this metal work. If this road were better, it would make the market more accessible,” said Alexis, referring to the rutted dirt road connecting the metal market to the city’s main artery.

Clinton told reporters that Haiti’s poor infrastructure remains a big challenge to post-earthquake investment, one that must be speedily addressed by donors working with President Michel Martelly, who has struggled to get a government in place some three months after taking office.

“I’m concerned. I think we need a government in a hurry,” Clinton said.