Port-au-Prince, HAITI—Port-au-Prince's skyline consists of a solitary building: a shimmering glass and aluminum frame structure that, at 11 stories, towers over the torn-up city. The owner's name, Digicel, is displayed prominently at the top in red letters that glow even during the often blacked-out nights. Along with its main competitor, Voila, Digicel makes its presence known in Haiti, and not only through the handsets of the almost 4 million wireless customers here. The red Digicel and lime-green Voila logos are more visible than the Haitian flag, the vandalized presidential campaign posters, and the faded emblems on white NGO vehicles.
On the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated much of the country, journalists are issuing scathing assessments of government and international actors that failed to get the country back on its feet. Residents are mourning their losses and cursing the government, which, they say, failed them. And given that a mere 5 percent of the rubble has been cleared, clean water and other services are still missing, a rampant cholera outbreak continues to spread, massive fraud plagued recent presidential elections, and 1 million Haitians still live in tent camps -- it would seem that they have a point.
But no one complains about the phone companies. In fact, Digicel and Voila are widely hailed as the most competent actors amid the reconstruction's larger disarray. At year's end, Haitian newspaper Le Matin's "Great Figures of 2010" lauded both companies' CEOs for supporting the economy and lives of earthquake victims. "I say bravo to Digicel because they do serious work," says Jenary Cyprien, an unemployed musician living with his wife and daughter in the Champs de Mars tent camp.
How have two cell-phone companies maintained such wild popularity, when the government, NGOs, and the nternational community are so reviled? Their interests are in building up a consumer base that has the cash in their pockets and infrastructure on their streets to use their services. And that means a more functional Haiti -- especially if it comes with a shiny red Digicel label.
When the Irish company Digicel arrived in Haiti just half a decade ago, it noticed that the very things that chased so many investors away -- the lack of infrastructure and basic services -- were a massive opportunity for growth. Haitians were increasingly spread out, moving into the city and overseas. They wanted to stay in touch and transfer money to family back home, and for a largely illiterate and remote population, mail wasn't the answer. Yet the inefficient state-owned land-line company, Teleco, served just over 1 percent of the population, and the mobile providers reached less than 5 percent. Costs were high because infrastructure like roads and electricity simply wasn't there.