Poor Haitian Businesswoman Masters High Finance

In Haiti, Yvrose operates a tiny wholesale business selling chicken necks and other odds and ends to her even poorer neighbors. It turns out that this one-woman microbusiness is far more financially sophisticated than it might appear. She borrows money from local lenders, understands interest rates, rotating capital and maintains long-term relationships with lots of different market players.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On a Friday morning, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Haiti's post-earthquake recovering has been handed another blow. Heavy rains are turning tent cities to mud in Port-au-Prince. Some Haitian officials say it's time to begin thinking long term to consider how the country can rebuild its economy and create a better future for its citizens.

NPR's Planet Money has spent time in Haiti looking into this question and has this report about a poor, but ambitious Haitian entrepreneur. Adam Davidson and Chana Joffe-Walt report.

ADAM DAVIDSON: This was supposed to be a profile of Jean Palerme Mathurin(ph), the economic advisor to Haiti's prime minister.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: That was before we met Yvrose.

DAVIDSON: Yvrose Jean Baptiste.

JOFFE-WALT: Right. So we're walking round Port-au-Prince with Jean Palerme, and there she was in a tent city standing with her entire business, her livelihood, in a huge plastic tub balanced on her head.

DAVIDSON: She's skinny and tall with big arm muscles. But she told Jean Palerme to explain that sometimes it's hard to lift that tub.

Ms. YVROSE JEAN BAPTISTE: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. JEAN PALERME MATHURIN (Economic Advisor to Haitian President): She says, well, sometimes it is too heavy. I recruit some people to help me to lift it on my head.

DAVIDSON: Can you show me what's inside?

Mr. MATHURIN: OK. She can. Necks.

DAVIDSON: It's a big box of chicken necks.

Mr. MATHURIN: It's a box of chicken - yeah. It's 15 kilos.

DAVIDSON: And you have a cutting board and a machete.

Mr. MATHURIN. Yeah. Yeah.

DAVIDSON: Fifteen kilos. That's about 33 pounds - a lot of chicken necks to carry on your head.

JOFFE-WALT: Yvrose is hoping to sell the whole box today, a few pennies per neck for a total profit of three or $4.

DAVIDSON: This is a huge step down for her. She's not used to selling direct to consumers.

JOFFE-WALT: She normally sells to shopkeepers, and she sells a lot more than just chicken necks.

Ms. JEAN BAPTISTE: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. MATHURIN: Corns, oatmeal, flour meal.

DAVIDSON: So she's a wholesaler, a very small-level wholesaler?

Mr. MATHURIN: Very small level. She went - she go to the Dominican Republic, she buy - so she can buy here and she retail to those people who have shops. And after that, every - (Foreign language spoken).

Ms. JEAN BAPTISTE: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. MATHURIN: Every 15 days, she get back to them to collect her money back.

DAVIDSON: So she extends credit? I mean, this is really sophisticated.

Mr. MATHURIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. She has to close to turns of the money per month.

JOFFE-WALT: OK, Adam, so we have to explain this, because Yvrose's business involves multiple steps. First, Yvrose borrows the equivalent of around $600 U.S. dollars from a microcredit bank.

DAVIDSON: Then she gets on a bus, goes to the border of the Dominican Republic, which is a richer country, so it has more stuff for sale.

JOFFE-WALT: And that is where she buys her products. Then she gets back on the bus, goes back to Port-au-Prince. And she doesn't sell her cornmeal, oatmeal, flour to shopkeepers. She loans it to them.

DAVIDSON: Then they sell it. And around two weeks later, she comes back and picks up her money, along with some interest.

JOFFE-WALT: Just in time for Yvrose to make another trip to the border.

DAVIDSON: Yvrose told us that she has a fifth-grade education. And I couldn't stop thinking that she has to understand all these complicated financial principles that people I interview on Wall Street get paid millions to master: interest rate arbitrage, loan maturities.

JOFFE-WALT: Currency exchange rates, complicated cash flow.

DAVIDSON: Do you have a notebook where you keep down, I lent him this, I have this? Because you have to balance so many figures?

Mr. MATHURIN: She said that she has a book where she has the list of all her clients.

DAVIDSON: Do you have it on you?

Mr. MATHURIN: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. JEAN BAPTISTE: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. MATHURIN: No. No. No. (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. JEAN BAPTISTE: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. MATHURIN: No. She said that she has a book. She hide this book somewhere, even though her house was collapsed, but she still have the book.

JOFFE-WALT: Yvrose made her last trip to the Dominican Republic on January 11th.

DAVIDSON: The day before the earthquake.

JOFFE-WALT: And in the hours before the earthquake, she spent the morning distributing everything she bought to her clients, those shopkeepers.

DAVIDSON: And remember, they don't pay her up front. It's a loan. The earthquake came just before 5:00 p.m., just after she'd lent everything out.

JOFFE-WALT: All 10 stores she does business with, destroyed. Several of her clients were killed. Many of the rest left the city. Nobody has money to pay her back.

DAVIDSON: She lost all of her capital. The one place that wasn't damaged in the quake was her bank. They're open for business, and they're expecting a payment.

Mr. MATHURIN: So now she is thinking what she is going to do by tomorrow. And by tomorrow, she doesn't know what she's going to say to the bank.

DAVIDSON: How much do you owe them tomorrow?

Mr. MATHURIN: Seven hundred - (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. JEAN BAPTISTE: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. MATHURIN: Tomorrow morning, she should pay $700 Haitian.

DAVIDSON: How many U.S. is that?

Mr. MATHURIN: It's close to 100.

JOFFE-WALT: Now, remember, this guy translating, he's the chief economic advisor to the prime minister. His name is Jean Palerme Mathurin.

DAVIDSON: So here he is, one of the most powerful people in Haiti talking to one of the poorest businesspeople in Haiti.

JOFFE-WALT: And Yvrose's story really inspired him, and got him thinking.

Mr. MATHURIN: It's simple, with less than $1,000 U.S., she had more than 10 (unintelligible). And she is having business every weeks, between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and she's paying school for her children, a house for them, croots(ph), foods and everything. It means that with a little push, how useful would we be?

JOFFE-WALT: Jean Palerme says any long-term economic plan needs to focus on helping people like Eve-Rose.

DAVIDSON: He's actually going to meet with her tomorrow, on Saturday, to find out if she was able to work anything out with her bank. He promised to let us know.

Adam Davidson.

JOFFE-WALT: And Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: To find out what happened to Eve-Rose and her loan, we'll have that answer on the Planet Money blog tomorrow. That's npr.org/money.

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