Seattle Times business reporter
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In Haiti’s largest industrial park, next to a T-shirt factory, lies what some local entrepreneurs hope might spark a technological revolution in the poverty-stricken nation: a factory for tablet computers.
Sûrtab, as the company is called, assembles Android tablets from imported components. The 7-inch tablets are sold around the Caribbean and are used by nonprofits in Haiti as well. Last year Venezuela, one of Haiti’s biggest benefactors, promised to buy 10,000 of the tablets, according to local media reports.
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They come in three models, from a 3G-enabled, high-definition model that retails in Haiti for about $310 to a basic, low-res Wi-Fi model selling for about $100.
The company was founded in 2013 by Maarten Boute, who is also CEO of the biggest local cellphone company, Digicel, and by Richard Coles, a prominent Haitian businessman. In a country with a long and depressing history as a center of low-skilled labor creating low-value products, their plan was pretty radical.
“It shows, with a sexy project, that you can do different things in Haiti,” said Boute.
Instead of hiring based on formal education — which would rule out a big part of the population in Haiti — Sûrtab instead had applicants take psychological and dexterity tests reflecting the precise, disciplined work they would do. Boute says 95 percent of the staff are women.
The company, which employs 62, has sold about 20,000 tablets since its inception in 2013. Besides $450,000 in private capital, the company got $200,000 in backing from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), one of 23 grants awarded by the agency as part of a business plan competition.
During a recent visit, employees in factory smocks and hats worked at long, well-illuminated tables in a sterile room. Salaries, which depend on the quantity and quality of production, can be more than three times the minimum $5 daily pay that many local textile workers get.
Challenges remain, of course. “The logistics are still complicated,” with imported components getting stuck in customs longer than expected, said Diderot Musset, Sûrtab’s manager.
Then there’s the unending race to catch up when the likes of Apple and Samsung keep pushing the envelope. “Technology is not running — it’s flying,” said Musset, who formerly worked at Haiti’s biggest brewer.
But Sûrtab can find a niche among lower-priced tablets, especially in Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean — developing countries where people are eager for technology but unable to pay the premium prices of the U.S. and Korean tech giants, he said.
Sûrtab also is working on giving the tablets a uniquely Haitian flair by hiring artisans in the city of Gonaïves to make tablet covers, beautifully crafted from leather or wood.
That idea had its own challenges, as the craftsmen were used to “an artisanal type of craft,” Musset said. But now the process is flowing smoothly — and every Sûrtab tablet comes with a free cover. “They are producing them as quickly as we need them,” Boute says.