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Katleen Félix on Making Haitians Self-Sufficient with Zafèn

Ever heard the expression that it is better to teach a man (or woman!) how to fish, then to feed him (or her)? The whole concept behind the organization Zafèn was created with that maxim in mind. Zafèn, through its micro-lending structure, gives entrepreneurs the means to become self-sufficient and stay that way. Zafèn founding member Katleen Félix—the Diaspora Liaison Officer for Fonkoze (Zafèn’s parent organization)—explained the organization’s goals, its accomplishments so far, and future plans.

How would you explain Zafèn to a lay person? In a nutshell, I would say that Zafèn is a program run by Fonkoze for small growing businesses (SGBs), small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and social businesses lead by locals and or diaspora. On Zafèn’s website, you will find Haitian entrepreneurs who are creating jobs, giving back to the community, or bringing social change. It is a bit like, but the businesses are rarely micro-businesses. We have also built an ecosystem of business development providers to secure support for the businesses so they can succeed, and so the businesses can be replicated.

How did you become involved with Zafèn? What about your previous background and work became helpful in directing Zafèn? I have ten years of experience as a senior financial officer and over twenty years of involvement with Haitian organizations. I left my Wall Street job 6 years ago to work with Fonkoze and to continue my work with the Haitian Diaspora. I have ten years of experience as a senior financial officer and over twenty years of involvement with Haitian organizations. I actually started volunteering with the Hometown Association when I was a teenager, preparing my 1st income statement at 17 years old, and a marketing & communication plan when I was 18 years old! That was long before I got any formal training at a business school. My dad, who was a professor of Accounting at the HEC Montreal, was very involved in the community in Montreal and he brought me to meetings, at first asking me to take minutes and, later, giving me bigger responsibilities. I think he had so much to do that he wanted to apply the Haitian proverb “Chwal fè pitit pou do’l ka poze” – which means “The horse has offspring so that it can rest its back.” Bringing your teenagers to HHTA meetings is a great way to get the Haitian Young professionals and the youth to take leadership in community project and get involve. I am very grateful for the practical training my Dad gave me at the time; it provided me with me an edge when I started business school, and it also helped with my internships, and with my career in general.

What are you most proud of, in terms of what the organization has been able to accomplish? So far, we’ve raised more than $1 million for SMEs and SGBs in Haiti, created more than 760 jobs, and helped fund everything from clean water filters, to halting the spread of cholera, to a new hen house in northeast Haiti that has created income for 100 women. We have about 10% of the businesses that have some kind of diaspora leadership or support. We even got a mention at the recent Global Diaspora Forum in Washington, D.C. This was a proud moment for me because our work is being recognized globally for its innovative approach.

Lessening and eliminating dependence is one of the primary goals of Zafèn.  We are trying to eliminate dependence on grants and remittances. If a business is given a loan, it needs to succeed and grow in order to pay back its debt. We have built an ecosystem of business development providers that are giving support to businesses, helping them access the market, strengthening their accounting or management skills, or simply helping with their business plans. The answer is not to simply give money to businesses or social projects; dependency is created when one is treated like a charity. For me, people need to be held accountable, and they need to give back to their community.

Do you find that working in collaboration with other organizations is fruitful in terms of achieving the organization’s goals? Working with other organizations is the only way we can reach sustainability and ensure the growth of Zafèn. As I’ve said before, just providing a loan is not enough; we need to invest in capacity building so businesses can grow. Teaming up with Haitian diaspora and local professionals, organizations, and NGOs will help ensure that the businesses get the kind of support that Fonkoze and Zafèn alone cannot provide. Funding for business development support is very difficult to find; there are many organizations who have business development as part of their mission, but they’re missing the access to financing that Zafèn offers.

What are some of the agricultural, retail and educational initiatives that Zafèn is currently undertaking in Haiti? We don’t have a specific program yet for agriculture in Zafèn, but we do provide loans for farmers, and about 40% of our portfolio is invested in that sector. It is a very fragile sector and loan repayments need to adapt to the harvest cycle. We are working on a new approach for the fall. We don’t have sectors that we are pushing more than others in Haiti. If the business model makes sense, if it has returns for the community, if it creates jobs and is replicable, then we will consider it.

In terms of current projects, what is at the forefront for the Zafèn organization? The sustainability of the program is our number one priority for the coming year. Zafèn has just signed a partnership with Kellogg that will allow us to test new loan products that we have developed over the past two years. We will also explore ways of tailoring financial services for businesses involved in their value chain, and more. Crowdfunding platforms like Zafèn need to attract a high volume of visitors in order to fund projects. To get this volume of web traffic, we need to invest heavily in marketing, or partner with other platforms that already have a high volume of visitors. We are exploring that option now.

Do you have a message for those out there who might want to contribute to the great work that you and the Zafèn and Fonkoze staff are doing? The 900 employees, 70,000 borrowers, and 250,000 savers are part of the economic revolution in Haiti, and each contributor is also a part of it! Their contributions are going a long way, and I can attest firsthand to the positive impact of every dollar they have invested in the different programs. We have seen a lot of job creation and business improvement with Zafèn, and we will continue to report on the positive impact of microfinance and SME/SGB lending through Fonkoze and Zafèn. Thank you for joining us in this journey and sharing with your network!


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