Christine Ntim

Haiti’s best and brightest building local tech hub

A group of talented executives are returning home with the goal of turning their beloved Haiti into a regional tech hub by 2030.

Key to their efforts is the Haiti Tech Summit, an annual event described as the “Davos of the Caribbean” that attracts entrepreneurs, investors, celebrities and creatives to discuss how technology and entrepreneurship can help solve humanity’s greatest challenges.

Founder Christine Souffrant Ntim said the conference grows each year, with 5,000 people now attending, including representatives of all levels of government and global executives such as Ben Horowitz and Jack Dorsey. The goal is to have a 60-40 ratio of international to local attendees.

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Ms. Ntim has devoted much of her career to fostering entrepreneurship in emerging areas of the globe. She has served as a mentor for the Clinton Global Initiative, where she advised female entrepreneurs, and Start-Up Chile, an incubator started by the Chilean government. Ms. Ntim is the chair of Vendedy, an initiative centralizing the world’s 200,000 street markets, a $10 trillion industry, in one place. In addition to the Haiti Tech Summit she organizes conferences focusing on Middle Eastern and African entrepreneurship, space technology and blockchain technology.

“We focus on the area’s challenges and how technology can solve them,” Ms. Ntim said.

Christine Ntim

While Haiti has had its share of natural disasters that have hurt its economy, the country also has an issue with branding, she explained. Media reports on protests don’t seek out the root causes of the demonstrations and seldom describe how peaceful they actually are.

“Anytime Haiti is going through challenges it is penalized harder,” Ms. Ntim said.

Contrast that with the recent riots in Paris which were larger and more dangerous yet saw the city and country sustain less damage than Haiti does, including cancelled flights and erased bookings on travel sites.

And that difference is hurting Haiti’s growing tech industry, Ms. Ntim said. Some investors and companies have been reluctant to participate in the economy as a result.

But thankfully many others still see the economic potential in the area. The roster of speakers scheduled for the recent 2019 summit included executives from Google, LinkedIn, YMCA and Mastercard along with local entrepreneurs and government officials from several countries.

Beyond the conference itself there are many initiatives designed to help Haitian entrepreneurs, as organizers seek to build the human capital needed to sustain a healthy, long-term industry. For example, tech accelerators and mentorship opportunities see executives from companies like Facebook visit the island to train developers and coders.

“We’re building that capacity,” Ms. Ntim said. “From a technical education standpoint we’re moving pretty quickly.”

One of the many entrepreneurs contributing to Haiti’s growing tech scene is Marc Alain Boucicault, the founder of Banj, a private technology incubator building partnerships with Facebook and Google. Banj is a key work and networking space in Port-au Prince connecting entrepreneurs with resources and fellow businesspeople to help creativity and provide exposure to opportunities including access to local and international business events.

Mr. Boucicault said it is his goal to build a community of developers with a business-focused mindset so they can expand into new sectors and grow Haiti’s economy.

He’s well-suited for the task. A Fulbright scholar while completing his master’s degree in Financial Economic Policy at American University, Mr. Boucicault has worked at the World Bank, International Finance Corporation and the Inter-American Development Bank. From 2010-2013 he served as president of Groupe ECHO Haiti, an organization with the goal of building a strong network of young Haitian leaders. Mr. Boucicault is also the chief external relations officer for HFund, an early stage venture capital fund which invests between $50,000-$100,000 in innovative Haitian companies.

During his academic career Mr. Boucicault studied economic ecosystem building and how governments and the private sector can foster entrepreneurship. They need more than money, though they also need more money, Mr. Boucicault explained.

Marc Alain Boucicault

“They don’t just need money, they need mentors and investment, plus the government needs to make it easy to start a business,” he said. “Universities, management resources, media, culture building, there is whole spectrum of things needing to work together.”

Key is to building leaders up from the earliest possible stages, Mr. Boucicault added. He is one of many people who have been active in the country for the past decade connecting youth at schools, community clubs and associations with business resources and top Haitian businesspeople living abroad.

His efforts now include Banj, which hosts dozens of events every month. Its second annual accelerator recently accepted six startups whose executives gain access to mentors from companies including Google and Facebook and training in cloud technology. Those companies work in areas including healthcare and music streaming.

Stable infrastructure would be an absolute gift for Haiti, Mr. Boucicault said. While parts of the world are preparing for 5G networks, parts of Haiti await the advent of 4G. Internet penetration, especially outside of the main cities, is wanting. Regular electricity in many areas is but a hopeful dream.

In addition to solidifying basic infrastructure, the Haitian government can develop an innovation fund which would allow entrepreneurs to test new solutions. That produces data which recruits investors and helps develop prototypes.

And that can hopefully spawn local solutions to Haiti’s most pressing problems, Mr. Boucicault said. Fintech companies can create digital options so Haitians don’t put themselves at risk by carrying cash. Others can create solutions which confirm the identities of the many people who are undocumented. Transportation, agriculture and healthcare woes could also be addressed.

Add these efforts together and Haiti’s business leaders will have plenty of progress to update their contacts on at 2020’s Haiti Tech Summit, Ms. Ntim concluded.

“We’re struggling every year to make this happen, but we know we believe in this,” she said.

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