Female Entrepreneurs Vend Goods to Afford Education in Haiti


Article Highlights


Young women are starting businesses as street vendors to afford an education for themselves and their children.

JÉRÉMIE, HAITI – Micheline Brice, 28, sits on a burlap rice sack among the vendors in the bustling Jérémie market in southwestern Haiti. There is no shade, and she perspires heavily under her long-sleeved blouse.

“Two years ago, my mother died,” says the vegetable and fruit vendor. “I was living with my grandmother, who put me through school until sixth grade.”

At age 12, she says her grandmother could no longer afford her schooling.

“With nothing to do, I had three children one right after the other,” says Brice, who is unmarried with two sons and a daughter.

But life only became harder with more mouths to feed. So Brice started her own business.

“When I felt that hunger was about to kill me, I started making charcoal and selling it,” she says.

She then expanded her business with trips to the capital, Port-au-Prince.

“When I saw this was working, I took some of the money I made to buy a ticket to take the boat to Port-au-Prince in order to buy more things that I could sell in Jérémie, like cabbage, carrots, onions and green peppers,” she says.

Brice soon set up a stand in the Jérémie market in Haiti’s Grand’Anse department, where she works every day to make enough money to feed her children. She can also pay for their education so they don’t have to drop out as she did.

Young women are turning to street vending to secure an income to educate themselves and their children. They face challenges as vendors and small-business owners, such as theft, harassment and lack of business training. The Grand’Anse Chamber of Commerce launched a study last month as part of a promise to increase support for street vendors.

Half of children are not enrolled in primary school in Haiti, and one-third of girls older than 6 never go to school, according to Haiti Partners, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to helping Haitians change the country through education. Approximately 30 percent of children in primary school will not make it to the third grade.

It costs about $130 annually to educate a child in Haiti, including uniforms, books, materials and transportation, according to Haiti Partners. But the average family here has 4.4 children, and the annual income per person was just $650 in 2010, according to UNICEF.

So enterprising young women are starting their own businesses to continue their educations or to give their children the education that they did not have.

Marie Roselor Aubourg, director of the Grand’Anse Chamber of Commerce, says that this is the nature of Haitian women.

“The women of the Grand’Anse have always made an effort to make a life for themselves,” she says in a clear, authoritative voice. “That dates back a long time, because the Haitian economy rests mostly on the shoulders of the Haitian women.”

Women are more willing than men to do any kind of work, she says. It doesn’t matter how menial if it means being able to feed their children, to send them to school or to pursue an education of their own.

“According to some research, there are more males in the Grand’Anse and the department of the South,” she says. “But because of the small street businesses, which are mostly run by women, it appears as if there are more women.”

Magdala Thellusmas, 24, started to work as a street vendor in order to pay for her schooling.

Thellusmas is the sixth of seven children. She was previously living with one of her older sisters, who worked as a street vendor to support her own five children. When her sister could no longer afford her school fees, Thellusmas had another idea.

“I bought oranges with 50 gourdes ($1) to resell them,” she says. “But I quickly realized that I could not continue in business with such a small amount of money.”

Thellusmas began cutting down trees on her family’s land to make charcoal when she was 15. She then decided to go to school in Port-au-Prince, where it was easier to sell her product.

“But during vacations, I always came back with clothes to sell in Jérémie, because there were a number of festivals during the vacation period,” she says.

Lovely Jean Pierre, 15, also works as a street vendor to help pay for her studies.

“When my mother could no longer pay the school fees for me, she gave me 50 gourdes ($1) to buy some small pouches of water for me to resell,” Lovely Jean says.

One of her aunts agreed to pay her school fees for her, but she still needed to afford her uniform, books and other materials.

“I am in seventh grade,” she says, “and I have been working as a street vendor for two years already.”

But the industry poses various challenges for women, such as safety.

“Street vendors are taking a lot of risk,” Aubourg says. “They are often assaulted and robbed of their money.”

Brice says it takes a lot of determination for her to continue her business.

“I encounter a lot of difficulties,” Brice says. “And I have thought about quitting because my money disappears or gangs will threaten me.”

Thellusmas recalls a trip she took to Port-au-Prince to buy goods to sell. Her load was heavy, so she stopped to rest and chat with several people she knew at the wharf. A seemingly friendly man came up to the group and participated in the conversation as well.

“When I left to check if I could get a place on the boat and came back, everything I bought was gone,” she says. “That man had told the other ladies that we were together and that I had sent him to get my stuff.”

Marie Colas, a 24-year-old street vendor who sells spaghetti, flour, sugar and corn, says that support is lacking for female vendors in the Grand’Anse.

“We do not really get any help or even some training on how to run our business,” she says angrily. “Nobody cares how things are going for us.”

Thellusmas says that the lack of formal training for street vendors makes them more vulnerable to abuse. She proposes training in business and basic bookkeeping for female vendors so that they can earn fair profits for their work.

Aubourg admits that since she became director of the department's chamber of commerce, nothing has been done to help the vendors.

“I was appointed to this office after the January 2010 earthquake,” she says. “Since then, I can tell you honestly, no statistics or reports have been produced.”

Based on the chamber’s responsibilities, she says it should have a better idea of how street vendors function, what goods they are selling and at what price they are selling their goods.

The chamber of commerce launched a study in late September 2012 in all 12 counties of the Grand’Anse regarding enterprises both small and large, including street vendors.

“Once we analyze the results, we will know better how we can be of assistance,” Aubourg says. “Finally, the chamber will do its job the way it is supposed to.”