PORT-AU-PRINCE – When an earthquake hit this Caribbean nation of roughly nine million people in January, it destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure including ports and airports.
Consequently, businesses were either knocked out of commission or suffered severe blows. One of the country’s largest companies, Comme Il Faut, the tobacco giant, managed to restore its operations a few weeks later, despite damages to its machines and workers who lost lives or had families who died after the quake.
“Our main concern was the safety of our employees,” said Jean Dany Pierre-Francois, director of public relations at Comme Il Faut.
When the rubbles cleared, Comme Il Faut had lost Lawrence Keryby, its manager and about 30 percent of the 400-person workforce had lost their houses and family members who had died.
So the well manicured facility of a dozen or so two-story squat white buildings that comprise Comme Il Faut, became a temporary shelter for employees and their relatives.
Company officials brought tents, food, water and toys for the children and workers were also given access to transport homeless relatives to the countryside, away from the debris filled capital city.
“The company was outstanding said a security guard who gave his name as Roland Jean. “I’ve been here for 20 years and frankly I didn’t think that they would care for my family the way they did.”
Once workers were deemed safe, Pierre-Francois said the company embarked on a physical assessment of the plant, which is located in Tabarre, near the Toussaint Louverture International Airport, an area least affected by the quake.
Most of the buildings suffered “cosmetic damages” that were repaired in a couple of weeks. But Comme Il Faut could not resume operations immediately because some of the steel rods on conveyor belts were severely bent and had to be ordered overseas.
Not wanting to lose its near monopoly in the cigarette industry in Haiti, company officials rushed in technicians from the parent company, based in Kentucky, to get the machines up and running.
A month after the quake, Pierre-Francois said that production had been resumed to 90 percent and expect to reach its full capacity before the summer.
“We didn’t want our customers to be out of their product,” Pierre-Francois said. “It would put us more vulnerable to imports.”
While production challenges have been overcome, Comme Il Faut still faces the daunting task of distributing and warehousing its products as many of its independent distribution centers lost their warehouses, according to government officials.
The earthquake has also slowed down orders from companies for Comme Il Faut’s “hand cut” products, according to officials. Luckily, officials said that a few weeks before the quake hit, they had received a large shipment of raw tobacco from Argentina and China, their main suppliers.
The situation has also reignited a discussion among company executives, some of whom have been advocating restoring local tobacco production and those who feel that importing is the best option.
Comme Il Faut does buy some tobacco from local farmers, many of whom they’ve trained on best practice methods to ensure that the quality is consistent.
“We used to grow our own tobacco leaf,” Pierre Francois said. We lost a lot of money because are farms were looted and we had to get out of that business.”
Clearly having to import the raw materials or outsource production locally has cut into the company’s bottom line. Company officials are hoping to resume their production in Haiti once the security situation improves.
Soldiers from the US Army Corps of Engineers have been working almost around the clock to repair structural damages from the city’s port so that commerce can be resumed. The international airport was recently reopened to commercial traffic after being closed for two months. Only aid and military flights were allowed land as the airport’s main terminal and tower suffered severe structural damages.
The quake has shed new light on an industry that has not had to face the same public scourge that big tobacco has seen in Europe and North America where anti-smoking groups have mobilized the public against the dangers of their product.
To get a sense of Comme Il Faut’s impact on the Haitian economy, the company is the second largest sources of revenue for Haiti. According to government officials, Haiti’s original budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year starting in October stood at US $1.97 billion half come from domestic revenue like Comme Il Faut
“The big companies are still open and in the days after the quake we went looking for them,” Haitian Deputy Finance Minister Sylvain Lafalaise told Reuters during an interview.
The company has an equally important presence for the city of Tabarre. It is the biggest single tax payer and corporate sponsor.
“They do provide a lot to us,” said Francisco Jovin, the city manager. “Not only through the obvious, taxes, they provide our youth with a soccer tournament and sponsor all kinds of cultural events in Tabarre.”
The tobacco company is most well known for its reputation of producing customized private label brands for its partners worldwide.
Thanks to a recent $10M investment in advanced bulk processing machinery, the company now supplies its international clientele with stock and custom blend processed tobacco, or “cut rag” and it now also has the capacity to produce more than 20,000 kilos of tobacco per day, officials said.
According to several people interviewed for this article, the second most popular brand in Haiti is Marlboro, which is imported from the United States. Some of the products, like Marlboro Light, were difficult to find as transportation infrastructures are still not fully repaired. Comme Il Faut, which has two main brands, Comme Il Faut and Comme Il Faut, is likely to retain the lion share of the market in Haiti.
Company officials plan to launch Point cigarettes, aim at lower market segment, a group that they say is not currently being targeted. Point will cost about 20 cents less than Comme Il Faut’s other brands, which fetched about $1 a pack on the retail market.
According to the World Health Organization about 40 percent of the adult age population smoke, according to the World Health Organization.
Annual adult per capita consumption of cigarettes appears to have risen over the last 2 decades, with some evidence of a decline in recent years. However, it is reported that consumption is under-reported due to a substantial illegal trade in cigarettes. For instance, in 1990, prevalence of current tobacco users was 9.5% among 12-45 year olds; 10.7% in males and 8.6% in females. By contrast, in 2001, 20.7% youths (13-15 years old) were current tobacco users.
Comme Il Faut executives have launched massive public initiatives and the company is a major supporters of football and music industry. While Haitian laws don’t require the company to put health warning on its label, it has done so voluntarily.
“We are not forcing anyone to smoke,” said Pierre-Francois, a non-smoker. “What we’re saying is that if you’re a smoker, why don’t you try our product.”