By Garry Pierre-Pierre
In 1994, Edwidge Armand, who was working in the financial sector in New York, began exploring the possibility of starting a business in Haiti. Armand had inherited some land in Grande Saline, a salt rich area in the Artibonite Valley, from his grandparents. Six years later Armand launched Tropical Salt, a venture with huge potential but has been a victim of Haiti’s turbulent political and natural hurricane that regularly sweeps through the troubled Caribbean nation, that Armand and so many of us love despite its flaws.
Tropical salt had an auspicious beginning. Tropical Salt opened its first warehouse in Route Frere with 35 employees and outgrew the place in six months. It moved to the industrial park Sonapi and increased its staff to 65 in Port-au-Prince and 10 more in Grande Saline L’artibonite. Its first customers were French Meadow, a bakery out of Minnesota, and Celtic Sea Salt from Asheville, North Carolina. The company was producing and shipping one container of salt every month and was poised for more growth.
When President Jean Bertrand Aristide was whisked out of the country in the middle of the night, things fell apart for Armand as well. He was working on a deal to provide Campbell Soup 12 containers of salt. His warehouse was vandalized and some of the salt in the containers were thrown to the ground and all of the equipment was stolen. They closed for five months.
A year later, a series of storms and hurricanes ravaged Haiti and all of his salt ponds were submerged. The business had to be closed for another six months. To add salt to injury, Armand was ambushed by gunmen while driving along the National Highway 1. The bandits pumped three bullets into his vehicle. One of the bullets went through his chest coming perilously close to his heart and grazed his left arm. The business shuttered its doors for another eight months. The earthquake in 2010 dealt another blow. It destroyed his home, car and company. Fortunately, no worker died because the business closed at 3 p.m. on that fateful January 12th day of infamy.
Now Armand is back and determined to open his business yet again. You see, the salt that is produced out of Grand Saline’s mines is considered a premium on the world market.
“There are not too many countries producing all natural sea salt like the one that we have in this country. Sea salt is supposed to be grey, ours is pure white with no bleaching like Morton and many people are using Dead Sea Salt which is another category,” Armand told me the other day in Port-au-Prince.
Armand is talking to a few financial institutions about getting a loan to restart Tropical Salt but he is not overly optimistic. Too many of the people he’s talking to he said are more concerned about getting rich schemes because of what Haiti represents to them. In another word, serious investors don’t want to come to Haiti.
“So I decided to go the same route by using my own funds to restart again,” Armand told me. “After all these years I finally have one big account in Haiti with a company called BP Food possibility of 400,000 lbs., while I am working on a huge volume for the states.”
This is just phase one for the company to generate funds for phase two, Armand told me.
“My goal and my dream is to build a solar evaporated plant in Grande Saline where we will be able to employ a total of 1,500 people. In 2001 we were approved for a loan from the World Bank but the conditions were for me to come with one third of the amount.”
What Armand is looking for is a total investment of $300,000 with a 30 percent Returned On Investment guaranteed. Armand is supremely confident that Tropical Salt can produce 10 million pounds of salt to an eagerly awaiting market.
While the Martelly administration is touting Haiti’s readiness for business, Tropical Salt is a perfect example of an enterprise that can create jobs and restore dignity to a nation that is adrift. It is also something that the folks at the Clinton Initiative should also take a look at and help find them investors. This is a much more sound investment than building hotels for tourists. This is also the type of venture being urged by The United States Agency for International Development and yet none of the institutions have been willing to back Armand.
Armand and I grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. As children we played basketball and soccer, but we rarely thought of Haiti. It was where we were born. Like most youngsters we wanted to fit in in our new environment. We were part of a very closed knit Haitian community that germinated in the early 1970’s. He went on to attend St. Peters College in nearby Jersey City and I decamped to Florida A&M University.
But while we spent our formative years away from Haiti, there was always a magnetic pull tugging us back to our sun-drenched country. In the last 20 years both of us have found our way back home; I, as a journalist and Armand as an entrepreneur.
In my years of reporting on Haiti, I’ve been lots of scammers and charlatans trying to exploit Haiti. There are few people with the Armand’s competence willing to put their money behind their dreams. Tropical Salt should be a success story for Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora.