Berkeley-Haas part-time MBA students Cherian Abraham, Matt Heling, Abhishek Singh, Saket Srivastava, Sumedha Swamy and Mahesh Vencata are in Haiti working with Sustainable Recycling Solutions (SRS).
SRS Haiti, a for-profit plastic recycling company based in Port-Au-Prince, asked us to make 3-5 year strategic recommendations on increasing market share and profitability and in the process also help SRS improve the lives of local Haitians and clean the streets of Haiti.
The company was started by 2 Americans – Andrew MacCalla and Brett Williams – in 2012 after the 2010 earthquakes and tornadoes devastated the country. However the co-founders soon realized the challenges of running a business in Haiti and were hit hard by the “Green Fence” enforced by China and had to close in 2013 for 6 months. With additional funding from the Clinton Foundation, they restarted operations in late 2013. SRS Haiti was still losing money and needed guidance from us to help them with strategies that would make them sustainably profitable.
We spent five Saturdays in the Innovation Lab at Haas working on ICO reports, affinity diagrams, and hypothesis trees and defining the scope of the project. In addition we spent countless hours on calls analyzing and discussing the information passed on by the client.
We reached Haiti and were welcomed not just by Sarah Leddy, SRS COO, and Socrates, SRS Director, but also by the extreme hot weather and poverty in Haiti. Driving to the guesthouse, the damage caused by the 2010 earthquake was still evident.
The next day we went to the facility and things began to make a lot more sense. We built up a good rapport with the client and started interviewing a number of people including potential partners, employees and plastic collectors.
IBD Team at the SRS facility
Talking to the plastic collectors and employees at SRS gave us a sense of the real difference SRS was making in the lives of Haitians. It would be a pity if SRS couldn’t continue to contribute to the Haitian economy. The more we saw the more it seemed like a distinct possibility.
IBD Team talking with SRS employees
One of our most exciting visits was to the largest dump site which was controlled by the mafia carrying guns. Tapping into this supply source could possibly take care of all plastic supply issues for SRS. This project did not have any constraints and we had the freedom to explore all aspects of the business. The real question was whether we would be able to offer recommendations to turn this company around and make it profitable.
The first week breezed through with multiple visits during the day and crunching numbers in the evenings. The six of us were staying in a modest guest house with 2 bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. After a few kitchen mishaps and near accidents we settled into a smooth routine. Abhishek was the designated cook and we appreciate all the pasta he cooked for us, but we are done with Italian food for a very long time.
“piece de resistance”
For a weekend getaway, we had two options – Jacmel – a quaint small town with cobbled streets and beaches in the south of Haiti or the coastal city of Cap Haitian in the North of Haiti which also boasted of some beautiful beaches. Even though both these cities were less than 100 miles from Port-Au-Prince, driving could take anywhere from 5 to 8 hours. We decided to take a 20 minute flight to Cap Haitian instead.
The plane was a small 18 seater which would sway in the lightest of winds and cannot be recommended for the faint of heart.
Leaving on a Jetplane
We checked into a fancy hotel on Saturday and went to see the historic citadel. It was quite a walk from the parking spot but the grandness and historic significance of the citadel made it all well worth the effort.
The next day we started early for Cormier De Plaag – a beach hotel. A few of us took a dip in the clear water, and in the process also got bitten by a sea urchin. We then played some beach volleyball and feasted on some amazing grilled lobster.
Cormier Plaag- What happens at the beach stays at the beach
This was followed by watching the World Cup finals with some die hard German and Argentine fans at a bar by the beach. Pity Messi didn’t oblige us with a goal that day.
The next morning we traveled back to Port-Au-Prince to continue with our IBD project. There was a huge amount of work pending and our final presentation was scheduled for Thursday morning. We had a number of issues to work through before making our final presentation, including SRS’s organizational challenges, and I am glad we did a fine job handling these challenges.
In all the stressful moments, the one thing that guaranteed hilarity were our interactions with the cleaning lady who could only speak Creole. Our knowledge of Creole was restricted to Merci and Oui so Sumedha Swamy, a Microsoft fan, would use the Bing translator for our conversations and Bing ensured that we were constantly entertained.
Another faithful ally throughout the stay was the local Haitian beer – Prestige and Barbancourt 5 star rum. Probably the best beer and rum I have had in a long time. Highly recommended.
Wednesday was a crucial day and for most of the day it seemed we wouldn’t be able to complete our work in time for our Thursday morning presentation. But we doubled up our efforts and by late evening the presentation was coming together well and all our hard work seemed to be bearing fruit.
We crunched the numbers and now knew exactly how much the company was losing on every pound of plastic sold; our recommendations included recommendations around increasing the supply of plastics, improving operational efficiency and also around increasing demand by producing higher value plastics which would fetch higher returns.
We believe we made solid strategic recommendations and our analysis will certainly help SRS make adjustments that will be critical to their business’ success. Though some of the findings that we presented were unnerving, the SRS management team appreciated our analysis.
With the presentation out of the way, we went out to the historic Oluffson hotel that evening for a fun evening of drinks and dinner with the client.
Hotel Oluffson – Ready to partyyyyy
The client had a few follow-up questions which we addressed on Friday and then shortly after we flew back to the USA. The two weeks have been an amazing experience and Haiti should definitely be on your list of places to see. Just bring lots of Deet (mosquito repellent) and drink bottled water and you will have a wonderful time mingling with the people of Haiti and learning about its history and culture.