A Small Tablet Company Brings High-Tech Hopes To Haiti

Apr 15, 2014
Originally published on April 15, 2014 10:25 am

Haiti has struggled to rebuild since a devastating earthquake more than four years ago. Most of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and there are few open jobs for the millions of unemployed.

But there's a bright spot: The Western Hemisphere's poorest country is getting into the high-tech race thanks to Surtab, a Port-au-Prince-based company that makes Android tablets.

"Last month we [produced] 2,500. This month, as soon as we get components, we're now going to have a run rate of about 3,000-3,500," says Maarten Boute, Surtab's CEO. "So we're gradually ramping up."

Before the tablet business, the Belgian-born and Kenyan-raised Boute headed up Haiti's largest mobile company, Digicel. He says the combination of a booming population and the country's decent 3G network make Haiti a prime market.

"It wouldn't make sense in the smaller Caribbean islands, where your local market is not that big and where your diaspora is not that big either. One of our key next growth factors is that we'll start exporting from Haiti, fulfilled ... directly in Haiti ... to the diaspora," Boute says. "A lot of demand has come from there because people want to show that, 'Hey, Haiti can do this.' "

Boute says Surtab, founded last year, won't make a dent in the global tablet industry. He's honing in on the developing world. One of his first orders was for 600 tablets for a Kenyan law school. About 90 percent of Surtab's sales have been in Haiti thus far.

Smartphones do exist in Haiti, but you're much more likely to see a stripped-down mobile unit on the street. Tablets exist here, too, though they're prohibitively expensive.

Surtab offers three models: a low-level Wi-Fi version that retails for about $85. A step above is a 3G model that Boute likens to an iPad Mini in both look and function. It retails for about $150, and it's been the best seller. At the top of the chain is a 3G model with an HD screen, which sells for about $285.

The initial investment in the company was bolstered by a $200,000 grant from the U.S. government. And the Haitian government gave the company a five-year reprieve from duty taxes.

Despite the sweeteners, Boute says operating in Haiti still has its setbacks. There are slowdowns at the port, for example — a problem because the company imports its components from Asia.

"There can be times [things] get stuck for three or four days because a system goes down or a person isn't there to sign a document," Boute says.

Haiti once had a thriving assembly sector, says economist Kesner Pharel. In fact, Haitians sewed official MLB baseballs for Rawlings, but the company pulled out because of political instability. Pharel says Surtab won't create a tech boom, but still, he's excited about diversifying exports beyond garments.

Haiti's annual exports total about $800 million, while imports top $3 billion, he says.

Pharel says Haiti needs more jobs like the ones at Surtab to grow a middle class. With weekly competitive bonuses, the company pays between $10 and $15 a day, two to three times the minimum wage.

At Surtab's assembly facility at a warehouse near the Port-au-Prince airport, there are no assembly lines; each person is responsible for the assembly from start to finish. Workers wear white nylon jumpsuits over their clothes to prevent dust from getting into the air.

Senecharles Mardy is using what looks like a Dremel tool to heat and remove a cracked screen. She hadn't even heard of tablets before she heard about the company. Now she owns one of the devices, purchased with an employee discount. In a way, she's become an ad hoc sales associate, answering all the questions of curious friends.

"They ask me about the tablet — what it is and where I got it. I tell them where I'm working, and they say they'd like to have one, too," Mardy says.

Online orders are now being fulfilled in Haiti. Boute says his long-term goal is a 50/50 split between exports and local sales.

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Haiti is the poorest nation in the Americas. Most of the population survives on less than $2 a day. And the massive earthquake that devastated Haiti four years ago has left three-quarters of the adults there unemployed.

All of which makes it seem like an unlikely place to find high-tech manufacturing. But that's exactly what reporter Peter Granitz discovered in the capital Port au Prince.

(SOUNDBITE OF GENERATORS)

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: Sonapi is a major industrial park near the Port au Prince airport. Dozens of metal-roofed buildings sit on some of the nicest paved roads in the city, and there's an order to the traffic unknown in the rest of town.

(SOUNDBITE OF GENERATORS)

GRANITZ: Inside these buildings are garment factories - people sewing T-shirts for foreign companies. The din of generators hangs over the entire park. But walk into Building 47, and the noise vanishes. This is the Surtab assembly facility - air-conditioned, humidity controlled, and quiet. A bright-white wall and chic logo greet you as you walk in, a bit of Silicon Valley in Port au Prince.

MAARTEN BOUTE: Last month, we did 2,500. This month, we're going to, as soon as we get components, we're now going to run it at about 3,000 - 3,5000. So we're gradually ramping up.

GRANITZ: Belgian-born and Kenyan-raised, Maarten Boute is Surtab's CEO. Before the tablet business, he headed up the country's largest mobile company, Digicel. He says the combination of a booming population and the country's decent 3G network make Haiti a prime market.

BOUTE: It wouldn't make sense in the smaller Caribbean islands, where your local market is not that big and your diaspora is not that big, either. One of our key next - sort of - growth factors is that we'll be exporting from Haiti. Fulfillment will be done from Haiti, directly from Haiti on individual sales to the diaspora, because a lot of demand has come from there, because people want to show that listen, Haiti can do this.

GRANITZ: Boute says Surtab won't make a dent in the global tablet market. He's honing in on the developing world. One of his first orders was for 600 tablets for a Kenyan law school. Now, about 90 percent of sales have been in Haiti thus far.

Smartphones do exist in Haiti, but you're much more likely to see a stripped-down mobile unit on the street. And tablets exist here, too, though, they're prohibitively expensive. Surtab's products run on Android, so you can buy apps from Google Play. The three units run the gamut.

There's a low-level Wi-Fi model that retails for about 85 bucks. A step above is a 3G version that Boute likens to an iPad Mini - in both look and function - that retails for about 150 bucks, and it's been the best-seller. At the top of the chain is its 3G model with an HD screen.

The initial investment in the company was bolstered by a $200,000 grant from the U.S. government. The Haitian government gave the company a five-year reprieve from duty taxes.

Despite the sweeteners, Boute says operating in Haiti still has its setbacks, like slowdowns at the port. The company imports its components from Asia.

BOUTE: There can be times things get stuck for three, four days. So the system goes down, or a person isn't there to sign a document.

GRANITZ: Haiti once had a thriving assembly sector, says economist Kesner Pharel. In fact, Haitians sewed official MLB baseballs for Rawlings, but the company pulled out because of political instability. Pharel warns Surtab will not create a tech boom, but he's excited about diversifying exports beyond garments.

KESNER PHAREL: We have something like $8 million of exports, the whole thing. And we're importing for more than $3 billion.

GRANITZ: Pharel says Haiti needs more jobs like the ones at Surtab to create a middle class. With weekly competitive bonuses, the company pays between $10 and $15 a day. That's two to three times the minimum wage.

Back in the cool, quiet assembly room, women are at various stages in the process. There are no assembly lines; each person is responsible for the assembly from start to finish. They wear white nylon jumpsuits over their clothes to prevent dust from getting into the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASSEMBLY LINE ACTIVITY)

GRANITZ: Senecharles Mardy is using what looks like a Dremel tool to heat and remove a cracked screen. She hadn't even heard of a tablet before she heard about the company. And now she owns one, purchased with an employee discount. In a way, she's become an ad hoc sales associate, answering all the questions of curious friends.

SENECHARLES MARDY: (Through translator) They ask me about the tablet, what it is and where I got it. I tell them where I'm working, and they say they'd like to have one, too.

GRANITZ: Online orders are now being fulfilled in Haiti. CEO Boute says his long-term goal is a 50-50 split between exports and local sales.

For NPR News, I'm Peter Granitz in Port au Prince. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.