His first non-profit investment in Haiti was the capital’s historic Iron Market, the heart of downtown commercial activity, which Mr. O’Brien spent millions to rebuild after the earthquake.
“All the problems in Haiti are fixable, you just need the right project skills,” he said. “You have to harness the people and show them how to do it. There’s so much talent here, people who are creative and inventive.”
To prove his point, Digicel has moved its call centre for the French-speaking Caribbean from affluent Martinique to Haiti.
On his first visit to Haiti, Mr. O’Brien was struck by the streets crowded with vendors. “You have all these entrepreneurs all over this city. They are natural-born sellers,” he said.
By celebrating enterprise on the TV show, a highly produced affair with crane-mounted cameras, lighting, and dry ice and confetti for the winner, Mr. O’Brien hopes to inspire a new business culture of import substitution. This year’s finalists included a coffee milling business, a solar energy company, a fish exporter, and local artisans and fashion designers.
“Hopefully somebody is sitting at home or under a tree and says ‘I got an idea,’” he said. “Instead of importing rice, grow rice. Instead of importing chickens, breed chickens. Instead of importing eggs, lay eggs.”
Mr. O’Brien’s next goal: launching a smartphone revolution in Haiti and offering mobile banking to the poor. Digicel is investing in extra bandwidth this year to handle a 4G network upgrade, raising its total investment in Haiti to more than $600-million. “What we’re trying to have is a First World telecommunications network in a developing economy, and most of the time that doesn’t happen,” he said.
Digicel relies on Asian firms such as Samsung to continue lowering prices thanks to cheap Taiwanese semi-conductors. “We can buy a smartphone for $70 today. In 2013 it will be $30,” he said, predicting prices would hit $10 within a couple of years.
Since gobbling up its main competitor, Comcel, last year, Digicel admits it has had service issues but says they are being addressed. Some suggest it may have too cozy a relationship with the government, creating a virtual state within a state, rivalling the influence of the United Nations or the World Bank.
Indeed, Digicel is Haiti’s largest taxpayer and its main building houses the offices of the mayor of Port-au-Prince as well as the Red Cross. “Digicel’s building is where I come to give blood,” says Cyril Pressoir, a local businessman whose father owns a travel company. “Should it be like this? Shouldn’t we be able to stand on our own feet? Sure, but he (Mr. O’Brien) gets things done.”
Mr. O’Brien, whose mother was a human rights activist in Ireland and who is a father of four, has spent $25-million on development projects through the foundation.
“Our foundation is every bit as important as our technical department,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Most multibillion-dollar companies rob the country blind. We like to make a good profit but sleep well at night.”
His work is dotted all over Haiti. “Denis is always the first to respond if we need help,” said Gena Heraty, an Irish woman who has worked in Haiti for almost 20 years and heads a special needs program for poor children run by the charity Friends of the Orphans.
When Ms. Heraty told him about a girl who suffered brain damage when a wall fell on her during the earthquake, Mr. O’Brien built a house for the girl and her mother and bought a “tap-tap” – a traditional Haitian pickup truck taxi – to help out the father.
The morning after the business gala, Mr. O’Brien drove out to the rural community of Saut d’Eau for the inauguration of one of the new schools built by his foundation.
The school’s nine classrooms, computer lab, auditorium, cafeteria, library and basketball court cost $326,000.
The Digicel Foundation has built 87 schools so far, at an average cost of around $180,000. It does not pay operating costs so is careful to pick communities that are committed to running the school.
Teachers at the Saut d’Eau school earn $60-65 a month and school fees are $10 a year. The school was founded by Paul Calisme, a 59-year-old Haitian ex-pat who runs it with savings from his job at a Connecticut car wash. “I left my town 23 years ago but I had a dream,” he said, noting that about 25 per cent of local children do not attend school.
At a simple ceremony, children in plaid uniforms sang a welcome song ending with a shout of “Long live Haiti. Long live Digicel.”