December 21, 2014
Impoverished Haiti manufacturing own Android tablet
Better known for producing third-world poverty and political mayhem - as well as a world-class rum - the Western Hemisphere's least developed country has made a surprising entry into the high-tech world with its own Android tablet.
Sandwiched between textile factories in a Port-au-Prince industrial park next to a slum, a Haitian-founded company has begun manufacturing the low-cost tablet called Sûrtab, a made-up name using the French adjective "sûr," meaning "sure," to suggest reliability.
Unlike the factories next door where low-paid textile workers churn out cheap undergarments for the US market, Sûrtab workers are equipped with soldering irons, not sewing machines.
Dressed in sterile white work clothes, and a hair net, Sergine Brice is proud of her job. "I never imagined I could, one day, make a tablet by myself," she said.
Unemployed for a year after losing her position in a phone company, Brice, 22, was not sure she had the skills when she took the job after Sûrtab opened last year.
"When I arrived and realized the job deals with electronic components, I was wondering if I would be able to do it. But when I finished my first tablet ... I felt an immense pleasure," she said.
Her family and friends were skeptical. "None of them believed me," she said. "Tablets made in Haiti? What are you talking about?" they told her.
"Haitians have in our minds the idea that nothing can be done in this country. I proved that yes, we Haitians have the capacity to do many things," she said. "It's not just Americans or Chinese. We've got what they've got, so we can do it too."
With $200,000 in start-up funds from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and using imported Asian components, the factory produces three models all with 7-inch (18-cm) screens that run on Google Inc's Android operation system. They range from a simple wifi tablet with 512 megabytes of RAM for about $100, to a 3G model with 2-gigabytes of memory for $285.
The small factory with 40 employees is a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s when Haiti had a thriving assembly industry, including computer boards, as well as baseballs for US professional teams.
Political turmoil, and a US economic embargo in the 1990s following a military coup, put them out of business.
"A product such as Sûrtab shows that Haitians are not just destined for low-wage, low-skilled jobs," said John Groarke, country director for USAID. "It's the sort of high-skilled job that the country needs to work its way out of poverty."
Brice, who works an eight-hour shift, would not disclose her salary. Sûrtab employees receive a bonus for each tablet that successfully passes the quality control and the company says it pays two to three times the Haitian minimum wage of $5 a day.