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Irish cellphone tycoon banks on helping create a smarter Haiti

Denis O’Brien sees Haiti as an entrepreneurial diamond in the rough, which he aims to polish by investing in local businesses and developing infrastructure

By David Adams  /  Reuters, PORT-AU-PRINCE

When Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien set about building a cellphone company in Haiti — the western hemisphere’s poorest country — there was no shortage of skeptics.

Six years later, O’Brien’s company, Digicel, is the largest private investor in Haiti and has 4.8 million users, about half of the population. It is a rare beacon of entrepreneurship in a country still struggling to rebuild after the 2010 earthquake.

O’Brien’s ambitious plans for Digicel are part of his bullish vision for Haiti, which stands in sharp contrast to the usually gloomy forecasts for a nation crippled by perpetual political turmoil and natural disasters.

Promotion of homegrown entrepreneurship is rare in Haiti, where the government and banks have done little to stimulate investment and a small business elite has profited from import monopolies that stifle local production.

On a typically whirlwind visit shortly before Christmas, O’Brien, 54, flew into Haiti from New York on his corporate jet for a monthly Digicel board meeting. He then hosted a gala celebrating Digicel’s ‘Entrepreneur of the Year,’ a televised event he imported from Ireland to inspire small businesses.

Close to 2m tall with white hair and ruddy cheeks, O’Brien is easy to spot among the crowd of mostly local business people and dignitaries, including Haitian President Michel Martelly.

“Haiti needs more people like you,” Martelly said. “If it wasn’t for Denis, we’d all be sitting here alone.”

The Digicel Group is a privately-held company founded by O’Brien in 2001 and headquartered in Jamaica, with 13 million customers in 31 emerging markets, mostly in the Caribbean and Pacific regions.

O’Brien holds 94 percent of Digicel’s shares and made Forbes magazine’s billionaires list last year at No. 205 with a net worth of US$5 billion. He models himself on Sudanese-born British billionaire Mo Ibrahim, the founder of Africa-wide cellphone network Celtel, and India-based Sunil Mittal, the founder of Bharti Airtel.

Ibrahim sold Celtel in 2005 for US$3.4 billion and now runs the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to encourage better governance in Africa, while Mittal also runs his own foundation.

“They proved the concept that you can have people with very little disposable income in real terms, but who want a phone and they’ll pay you for it and you can afford to build up quite a large network,” O’Brien told reporters.

Digicel is now looking to enter Myanmar, a country of about 60 million people that has one of the lowest mobile penetration rates in the world. Only 3 percent of Myanmar’s population owned a phone in 2011, World Bank data show.

Digicel says it had revenue of about US$2.5 billion in the year ending on March last year, with Haiti leading the way by generating US$439 million.

Digicel’s 2006 launch in Haiti was a rare example of foreign investment in a country more used to depending on foreign aid.

Two existing cellphone companies which offered spotty, more expensive services were quickly overtaken as Digicel invested in a national infrastructure and offered handsets for as little as US$7 with low rates for its mostly pre-paid customer base.

“Denis revolutionized the communications sector. Before, cellphones were a luxury and now they are a must,” Haitian Minister of Tourism Stephanie Villedrouin said.

O’Brien’s investments in Haiti go far beyond telephony.

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