A Haiti reboot? Country welcomes Google, Facebook, Silicon Valley to tech summit

Social entrepreneurs, influencers and startup innovators kicked off a two-day technology summit in Haiti on Tuesday, hoping to help transform the poverty-stricken nation into a hub of innovation.

The brainchild of Christine Souffrant Ntim, a Dubai-based Haitian-American entrepreneur, the Haiti Tech Summit is expected to bring in about 100 speakers representing Google, Facebook, Uber and Airbnb, and covering topics including launching a startup, the importance of smart cities and branding.

Addressing the 450-plus participants at the sold-out event Tuesday were former Haitian Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis, who spoke about the importance of technology in education, and Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, who welcomed attendees to the Royal Decameron Indigo Beach Resort & Spa on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ben Horowitz gave the opening talk, citing advice from Haitian Revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture: To change a country, you have to start by changing the culture.

“Culture is deep in our DNA,” Horowitz said. “Changing culture is how we change Haiti.”

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Ntim, who is the founder of a mobile network connecting global travelers to street vendors in developing countries, said the goal behind the summit is to “transform the narrative around Haiti’s brand as a nation.”

During the next 13 years, Ntim said, she wants to “catapult Haiti forward through innovation, tech and entrepreneurship.”

“We know Haiti can actually transform itself, be a new global case study for what happens when you actually get the right influences in the room to transform a nation,” she told the gathering.

That poses particular challenges in Haiti.

Despite Haitians’ embrace of the widely popular messaging app WhatsAPP, for example, a recent Hootsuite study of social media and digital trends around the world shows the country of 11 million people lagging behind many of its Caribbean counterparts. For example, Haiti’s internet penetration rate is only 15 percent compared to Cuba, which has a 32 percent internet penetration rate. Until recently, Cuba, which has a population size similar to Haiti, severely limited access to the internet for its population. In recent years, it has been adding public Wi-Fi hotspots around the island.

Over the years, efforts to introduce technology into Haiti’s pen-and-paper culture have failed. An effort to encourage mobile phone-based money transfers, which is popular in Kenya, failed to catch on. Haitian lawmakers have blocked efforts to adopt an electronic signature law despite robust lobbying by U.S. and other foreign officials seeking to boost Haiti’s ease-of-doing-business ranking.

But rather than see such skepticism and resistance as obstacles, Mildred Louis, a technology consultant who formerly worked for Haiti telecom giant Digicel and serves as communications director for the summit, sees opportunities.

“Sometimes what it takes is the disrupters in the market to force a movement,” Louis said. “In a market like Haiti, we need to force a movement. A lot of people didn’t think this summit was real, and today we have business leaders, members of the wealthy families asking, ‘how can we be involved?’

“There is a pool of potential here to build an incubation system, alliances, foster coding and a tech industry,” she said.

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