With its tin roof and tiny façade hemmed in with razor wire, the shambling structure sitting on the edge of Cité Soleil – Port-au-Prince's most notorious slum – is not what you'd imagine a toy factory to look like. The one-room shack doubles as the home of Reggie Jean-François, a muscle-bound Haitian man in his mid-30s who has first-hand experience of a U.S. federal prison, the U.S. deportation system and the rehabilitative power of Jesus Christ.
Jean-François's most financially empowering lesson to date has come from toys. The entrepreneurial playbook on transforming Cité Soleil's sea of garbage into expensive playthings is being drafted by the Canadians at the helm of Brandaid Project, a for-profit initiative combining microfinance and deals with mass retailers that is connecting the world's poorest producers with global markets.
"Poverty is an underworked problem in the world. We're promoting the idea of doing business with extremely poor people," says Cameron Brohman, an international development veteran who co-founded Brandaid in 2009 with his friend Tony Pigott, CEO of ad firm JWT Canada. The model has had some early success. Instead of foraging for discarded tins to shape into toy versions of tap-taps, Haiti's trademark taxi-like vehicles, Jean-François now parcels out that task to a six-person assembly line. Thanks to Brandaid's marketing and distribution efforts, the products sell for about $100 (U.S.) at a local hotel as well as at Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville shops in the United States.
Each of the workers in Jean-François's Cité Soleil shack has a new sense of purpose and, for the first time, a steady paycheque. The same is true of the 3,000 Haitians who benefited from a high-profile deal Brandaid brokered with Macy's department stores to sell Haitian-made home-decor handicrafts. In the media, Brandaid was often wrongly described as a non-profit – job creation ventures in developing countries are usually led by aid groups. Brandaid, however, is out to make money.
"We have so loaded the language with perceptions of bias that poverty and business can't be said in the same sentence," says Brohman. "Business was invented to get rid of poverty." The question is whether Brandaid will be successful. Privately funded by the likes of philanthropist Richard Ivey and Brett Wilson, formerly of Dragon's Den, Brandaid has yet to turn a profit.
The earthquake in Haiti temporarily derailed Brandaid's expansion plans; instead, its charitable arm, Brandaid Foundation, applied for grants to fund the reconstruction of artists' workshops. Now, Brohman and Pigott are banking on the brand recognition they gained in the process to help make 2011 a banner year. The company will relaunch as a "distinctly Canadian brand" and hopes to open up new markets for its master artisans' high-end goods.
"The big idea here," Brohman explains, "is that reducing global poverty is a business opportunity."