Photo credit: Garry Pierre-Pierre

By Garry Pierre-Pierre

Electricity in Haiti remains elusive to the average household. Those who do have power in their homes don’t count much on the government. Electricity comes from individuals installing generators, inverters and solar panels. For the most part, the state’s monopoly, Electricity of Haiti, better known by its French acronym EDH, provides four hours a day per neighborhood on a rolling basis. On a bad week, there isn’t any at all.

But President Jovenel Moise has made electrification of the country his top priority. Recently, he jetted to Taiwan with a 30-person entourage to reassure officials there that Haiti intended to maintain diplomatic ties with the restive nation that China considers its province.

Along the way, Moise secured a loan of $150 million to repair the electrical grid in the country. Taiwanese experts, who met with the president in Port-au-Prince last week,  are set to unveil a plan of action, which includes the technical and financial details, about installing the network to the president in two months. Presumably the work on the power grid will begin immediately because Moise wants 600 kilometers of cables installed in record time.

It is commendable that Moise is moving down this road.  He has chosen to stake his legacy on one major achievement. That is a far cry from the scattershot way in which other presidents have approached their job.

Governing Haiti is no small task because the challenges are numerous and the resources to solve them are scarce. What Haiti needs is a laser focus on developing its crumbling or non-existent infrastructure. No development initiative can succeed without roads, electricity, and running water.

And Moise has chosen electricity as his clarion call. That is as good as any of the others. Doing business in Haiti is expensive, largely because of the high cost of energy. The products from foodstuffs to arts and crafts remain uncompetitive at home and abroad.

Factories, such as they are, are not humming along as they should and output is minimal. Hotels spend a large amount of resources on ensuring that their guests have electricity. And so it is for every enterprise in Haiti. And so how can we say that this country is open for business?

And so Haiti pretends that it is up to date on the latest tech trends and there are several efforts afoot to create incubators and even making Cap Haitien a smart city in a few years. I bring this to say that none of these ambitions can come to fruition if people can’t rely on the state’s power grid to provide adequate electricity to enterprise.

Most supercomputers gobble up a huge amount of energy to function and Haiti will find out quickly that you cannot race into the 21st century without the trappings of the 20th.

I’ve never understood why government officials have struggled to electrify the country. Several years ago, the Brazilian government proposed repairing the grid at Peligre dam, the country’s largest source of energy. But the late President Rene Preval nixed the idea. He never gave a solid reason why and the plan was quietly shelved.

Officials from Florida Power and Light also proposed parking a barge that could provide electricity to Haiti but that project was pushed away because it would require a way for home dwellers to pay their bills.

This is a problem that is not going away. Haiti’s large cities are teeming. People literally live on top of each other and most of them get electricity illegally, when they get it at all. Many people tinker with the meter to slow it down and give false reading, ultimately paying considerably less than they consume.

So any plan to repair and build power grids across the mountainous nation should include a robust plan on monetizing EDH. In the U.S., power companies like Con Edison and others have invested in smart meters where they don’t send a person to read meters anymore. They do it remotely through a computer.

Haiti should go even further and find ways not only to capture an accurate reading, but to use technology to eliminate graft and ensure that people pay their bills. To that end, the government should embark on a public education to ensure that people understand that having electricity 24/7 has a price. They need to understand EDH cannot function without revenue and their failure to pay may end up driving EDH into bankruptcy.

In the early 1990s South Africa faced a similar situation after Apartheid. Most black South Africans didn’t pay their bills as a protest against the racist government and had to be convinced to pay up. Haiti should inquire about how South Africa was able to tackle such thorny issue.

While Haiti is grossly overcrowded, it is not alone in the world and again should figure out how countries like India and Pakistan and even Brazil deal with this situation. President Moise has to understand that providing power is only part of the problem. If he doesn’t take a macro approach in dealing with this problem. He would simply provide a short term relief to the country and the problem will rear its ugly head several years later and people would blame succeeding administrations for the problem.

Meanwhile,  the country remains in the dark while every nation in the Caribbean and Latin America has adequate power for home and industrial consumption except Haiti. I sure do hope that Moise is able to fulfill his promise.

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