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 Mr. 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.
Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. Martelly said. “If it wasn’t for Denis, we’d all be sitting here alone.”
PHONES FOR THE POOR
The Digicel Group is a privately-held company founded by Mr. O’Brien in 2001 and headquartered in Jamaica, with 13 million customers in 31 emerging markets, mostly in the Caribbean and Pacific regions.
Mr. O’Brien holds 94 per cent of Digicel shares and made Forbes’ billionaires list last year (No. 205) with a net worth of $5-billion (U.S.). He models himself on Sudanese-born British billionaire Mo Ibrahim, founder of Celtel, an Africa-wide cellphone network, and India-based Sunil Mittal, founder of Bharti Airtel.
Mr. Ibrahim sold Celtel in 2005 for $3.4-billion and now runs the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to encourage better governance in Africa, while Mr. Mittal also runs his own foundation.
“They proved the concept that you can have people with very little disposable income in real terms, but who want a phone and they’ll pay you for it, and you can afford to build up quite a large network,” Mr. O’Brien told Reuters.
Digicel is now looking to enter Myanmar, a country of around 60 million people that has one of the lowest mobile penetration rates in the world, with only 3 per cent of the population owning a phone in 2011, according to the World Bank.
Digicel says it had revenue of about $2.5-billion in the year to March 2012, with Haiti leading the way, generating $439-million.
Mr. O’Brien, who is nonresident in Ireland for tax purposes, is not without his critics back home in Ireland where he launched his first mobile phone company and also is the main shareholder in the country’s largest media company.
His purchase of an Irish mobile phone licence in the 1990s led to a lengthy public inquiry that found “beyond doubt” that a government minister had imparted substantive information to Mr. O’Brien in securing the licence.
Mr. O’Brien has said the 14-year-old inquiry was fundamentally flawed because it was based on the opinions and theories of one judge and his legal team. He later sold the company, Esat Telecom, before launching Digicel.
The company’s arrival in Haiti in 2006 was a rare example of foreign investment in a country more used to dependence on foreign aid handouts. Digicel’s shiny headquarters was inaugurated a year before the 2010 quake and was one of the few big buildings to withstand it virtually intact.
Two existing cellphone companies which offered spotty, more expensive services were quickly overtaken as Digicel invested in a national infrastructure and offered handsets for as little as $7 with low rates for its mostly pre-paid customer base.
“Denis revolutionized the communications sector. Before cellphones were a luxury and now they are a must,” said Haiti’s tourism minister, Stephanie Villedrouin.
Mr. O’Brien’s investments in Haiti go far beyond telephony.
Last month, he broke ground on Haiti’s first Marriott hotel and Digicel’s charity foundation is spending millions to build 150 schools across the country for 90,000 students.
His approach has won acclaim from the likes of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who heads the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) and is also the United Nations special envoy to Haiti.
Mr. O’Brien coordinates CGI’s Haiti Action Network, whose members have committed more than $350-million to education, infrastructure and business-development projects.
“The CGI program in Haiti is considered one of the best. It’s really because of Denis’s strong leadership,” said Anne Hastings, director of Fonkoze, a micro-credit finance institution in Haiti. “He sets goals and people have to achieve them. That’s unusual in Haiti.”