An item reported on Sunday by the news agency Reuters caught my eye on Monday morning. Dated 16 March 2014, it featured the following heady headline: “Impoverished Haiti Manufacturing Its Own Android Tablet!”
The attention grabber appeared over a photograph of three ladies in white over-alls and pale-blue hairnets, one holding up what the photo caption described as an “Android-based tablet.”
Nah, I mused, not possible. Like a CSI detective at a crime scene, I carefully studied every word, every line, perchance to prove wrong the thought that had taken control of my mind and wouldn’t let go. Something about the puff piece reminded me of . . . well, let me not muddy your vision, dear reader. Better I should reproduce here the tell-tale writing style that had given me cause for pause:
“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 . . .”
Then there was this, as if observed from the peculiar perspective a travel writer’s eye: “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 Surtab, a made-up name using the French adjective ‘sur’ meaning ‘sure,’ to suggest reliability. Unlike the factories next door where low-paid textile workers are equipped with soldering irons, not sewing machines.”
Haitian-founded? A made-up name? An industrial park next to a slum?
Let us revisit the quoted first paragraph, reminiscent of an Ian Fleming novel that blends together third-world poverty, political mayhem, world-class rum and “Haiti’s entry into the high-tech world with its own Android tablet.”
I don’t know about you, dear reader, but something about the exotic cocktail reminded me of a certain Saint Lucian-born white guy with reddish blond hair, whose press releases and posed photographs with happily smiling poor residents and publicity-addicted politicians once featured regularly in the world’s laziest media.
His irresistible sales pitch had even Claudius Francis waxing dithyrambic on TV: “Saint Lucia, did you hear that? The only manufacturer of laptops in the region? Say that again, puhleese!”
His Straight-Up guest had responded like a blushing bride at the sight of her first sex toy: “We are the only manufacturer of laptops in the region . . . we export four thousand cell phones, two thousand laptops and one thousand tablets every week!”
He somehow managed this weekly miracle, he said, with just ten female workers, “grateful single mothers all” Ah, now you remember.
But let us return to the earlier cited article from Haiti, to where it references one of the pictured women at what appears to be a work table: “Dressed in sterile white work clothes and a hairnet, 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 job in a phone company, Brice 22, was not sure she had the skills when she took the job after Surtab 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. I proved that yes, we Haitians have the capacity to do many things. It’s not just Americans or Chinese. We’ve got what they’ve got, so we can do it too.’ ”
The line had the same ring to it that had inspired the admittedly easily aroused Straight-Up host to carry on like a Lotto winner!
As for Surtab itself, this is what the Reuters reporter Amelie Baron wrote: “With just $200,000 in start-up funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and using imported Asian components, the factory produces three models of 7-inch screens that run on Google Inc’s Android operating 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 . . . With only a limited selection of expensive imported tablets available in Haiti, Surtab is the cheapest device on the market.
“All the factory floor employees are women. It was not a choice we made but it happens that women have better results. I think women may be more open to learn something completely different from what they were doing before,” Musset said with a smile. (Not to mention the USAID funding arrangements demanded women-only employment, just as in the case of the earlier cited IDB-financed miracle worker who had taken every opportunity to underscore the fact that his employees were not just regular women in need of a job—they were also single mothers!)
Described in the report as Surtab’s manager, Diderot Musset bragged that “depending on the model, it takes an employee between 35 minutes and an hour to make a tablet. The company produces between 4,000 to 5,000 tablets a month, but plans to double that in April.”
Sound familiar? Certainly deserving of some kind of prestigious award!
Still according to Musset: “The company is running into inevitable skepticism about the quality of a Haitian-made product. Some people only believe in it when they come here and see the girls working.”
In Benson’s case there was similar initial public suspicion. But seeing is believing, especially seeing through the eyes of dopey politicians incapable of discerning the difference between a real plant and a set up!
Musset made several other claims about Surtab’s viability, all with a ring reminiscent of George Benson, the entrepreneur that had blown away not only our famously discerning president of the Saint Lucia Senate and famously investigative local show host, but also the prime minister himself and his echoing Cabinet choir, all of whom were recorded singing Benson’s praises following an arranged seeing-is-believing visit to his now shut and padlocked showroom-factory in the Sureline Building.
Not until this newspaper took a closer look at Benson did the truth finally come to light (See STAR, January 22, 2014). It turned out he was neither the manufacturer he initially pretended to be, nor the parts assembler he later claimed he was.
His staff of no more than ten “single mothers” were never full-time workers. He called on them to perform on special occasions, such as the prime minister’s recorded Cuba-style tour that included his impressionable entourage.
Benson’s local distributors of cheaply acquired refurbished cell phones, among them The Cell, had three times the expected number of buyer complaints and returns.
The tablets that Claudius Francis and the prime minister were led to believe were manufactured in Saint Lucia by a handful of women had been imported as samples from China, and stamped “made in Saint Lucia.”
As for the training afforded the women, the nice SMILE folks would later discover their graduation certificates were all duds.
Benson adopted at least three local schools without comment by the education ministry, promised their principals (in the presence of unquestioning media personnel) periodic supplies of laptops and tablets, then forgot about them once the photographers had taken their pictures, always with Benson as the most conspicuous figure, for more than one reason.
Despite our detailed and validated exposé, never challenged, the Chamber of Commerce refused to issue a condemnatory statement, if only for the protection of other local suckers.
It seemed not to bother them one iota that Benson, on the strength of his “prestigious Prime Minister’s Award for Innovation,” was raking in million-dollar grants from the World Bank, the CDB and elsewhere.
The Chamber remained unimpressed that the Customs department had found good cause to be suspicious of Benson’s local operations. They dismissed as typical, without any investigation, the complaints of Benson’s disappointed and disgruntled “single mothers.” Corroborative reports by concerned NSDC operatives had no impact on the inward-looking Chamber leadership.
The Chamber was silent even when Benson, on the basis of his prized award and publicized unprecedented success in Saint Lucia, was invited to do for the elections-minded Dominica government what he had done for our government and SMILE.
NSDC officials were both angry and embarrassed when the STAR reported how Benson, wildly exaggerating his work with Saint Lucia’s single mothers, was afforded a meeting with Dominican Cabinet ministers whom he described in correspondence with business associates in Florida as “boys with toys.”
On the other hand, the Chamber that had stamped George Benson the real McCoy then set him loose to prey on the unwary, remained mute.
Shortly after our stories were published Benson handed back his keys to his landlord, as well as three post-dated checks for unpaid rent and a promise to stay in touch.
I’ve been informed Benson’s rent remains unpaid. The Cellestial sign has disappeared, as has “the only manufacturer of laptops and tablets in the entire region”—unreported by the press.
Also unreported: On March 6, this year, the government addressed the following to Brian Louisy of the Saint Lucia Chamber of Commerce: “As you are aware, the Division of Public Sector Modernization in the Ministry of the Public Service, Information and Broadcasting had commenced discussions with Mr. George Benson of Regional Communication Ltd/Cellusian Ltd. towards the possibility of arriving at an arrangement for the pilot testing devices within the education system in Saint Lucia.
“The Ministry of the Public Service, Information and Broadcasting wishes to apprise you that all discussions with Mr. George Benson . . . on said arrangement has [sic] ceased forthwith, pending the outcome of an ongoing investigation by the Customs and Excise Department, Government of Saint Lucia, into the operations of the Group of Companies: Regional Communication Ltd/Cellestial/Cellusian Ltd and any subsequent action which may be taken by the relevant authorities of the Government of Saint Lucia.”
Better late than never?
There’s more: On February 20, “integrity specialists” from the Inter-American Development Bank, a World Bank affiliate, visited Saint Lucia for the specific purpose of investigating George Benson’s local operations.
They had taken their cue from a series of articles published in the STAR, disturbing public comments by NSDC officials about their relationship with Benson—and from Benson’s own several self-serving press announcements still accessible on YouTube, among them his one-of-a-kind Straight-Up interview.
The visitors from Washington had sought to interview me. Alas, I was at the time off-island. Nevertheless, I’ve been reliably informed they learned enough during their stay about Cellestial and related local operations— from government ministry personnel, former Benson employees, the Customs department and out-of-pocket distributors of his retooled cell phones to conclude the IDB, too, had been taken for a ride.
By reliable account, the World Bank, like the Saint Lucia government, now sees Benson in a new, most unflattering light. Not only has the bank refused him further funding, it has also demanded a refund—or else.
The IDB representatives are expected to revisit Saint Lucia “any day now,” said a source that remains “highly disappointed in George Benson.”
As for his Dominica adventure, more on that later. In the meantime, it is conjectural whether it’s all mere coincidence, the similarities between Benson’s modus operandi in Saint Lucia and what manager Diderot Musset told Reuters about his Haitian factory.
Might there be more in common with the operations of Musset and Benson than meets the eye? Pity the Reuters reporter did not identify the Haitian company’s CEO, neither by name nor by photograph!
It remains to be seen whether the Chamber will follow the government’s lead and issue an appropriate statement—albeit late—about the 2013 recipient of “the prestigious Prime Minister’s Award for Innovation.”
While they’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt to issue an apology to poor overworked Philip J. Pierre, who, in his unending role as Kenny Anthony, presented the “most prestigious award” to perhaps the least deserving of recipients!