Creating natural beauty and botanical products wasn’t always Marie-Roberte Laurent’s first career choice. For 20 years, she worked as a computer programmer in New York. She describes herself as “the type of person that gets tired of doing one thing easily.” That self-described quality was one of the reasons she one day decided to move back to Haiti with her family. There, she began to look into natural beauty products since she had always used them when she lived in America. However, to her dismay, she could not find any of good quality. This led her to start attending different training sessions, making teas and fragrance oils but she wanted to do more. After participating in several other workshops, she found herself drawn to making soaps.
In 2000, Laurent founded Belzeb, Inc., a Haitian company that produces soap and other botanical products for the international and Caribbean hotel market. Belzeb, which is Creole for “beautiful herbs,” was the first natural cosmetics brand made in Haiti. Through Belzeb, Laurent has helped create sustainable trading relationships with women’s groups in Haiti through craft and business training. She believes “business has the power to make the right kind of difference in the world, and the best way to convince others is to lead by example.”
With Aid to Artisans (ATA), Laurent conducted product development and soap-making training workshops with production follow-ups for 15 women in Mirebalais in the central plateau of Haiti, beginning in April of 2013. Over the course of six months, the women successfully produced and sold the soaps they made in the workshops through linkage to local markets and Caribbean hotel buyers.
As the project comes to an end, ATA sat down with Laurent to discuss her experiences with the women in Haiti during the soap-making workshops.
How did you get involved in the soap-making workshop with Aid to Artisans?
Monika Steinberger, the ATA Director of Program Management and Development, had initiated a project for an agribusiness in the central region of Haiti, funded by the Centre for Enterprise Development (CED), and was looking for a consultant to do a workshop on soap-making. Because I’ve been in the soap and botanical product business for 13 years, I was recommended to Monika. She contacted me and asked if I was interested. I was more than willing to join because I’ve been doing this all over the Caribbean but I never had the chance to do it in my own country. So I was very thrilled to be part of it.
Tell us about your experience with the women in Haiti.
Among all the workshops and trainings I’ve worked on, this one was the most joyful seminar I’ve ever done. I don’t know if it’s because it was in my own country but I felt happy and was totally involved. Not only was I teaching them but they were also teaching me. One of the things I appreciated the most was when the soaps came out extraordinary. It was a beautiful experience.
How did the women respond to your workshop?
They were so willing and eager to learn. They were especially pleased at the fact that someone was teaching them in their language instead of having a foreigner translate for them, which is usually what happens. There was a connection between me and the women, putting them at ease. The way they were so pleased with the knowledge they gained from the workshop was a joyful experience. I’m very happy that Aid to Artisans gave me the opportunity to do this with the women in Mirebalais.
What were some rewarding moments you had during your time there?
After we made one of the batches of soap, one of the women sold her soap to her friend. After she talked about the workshop, her friend bought a bar of soap on the spot. A week later, that person came in and asked for six more bars of soap because she was so pleased with the quality. That touched me a lot. Another moment was when one of the women made it an effort to never miss the workshop even though she had been a victim of a violent assault the night before. When she came in on the first day, she could barely walk but it was important for her to be part of the workshop. She just sat there but she did as much as she could to be involved by watching and learning. She came in every day and completed the entire workshop. To me, her tremendous interest, commitment, willingness, and her “don’t let anything stop you from doing what you want to accomplish” attitude really touched me.
What was your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge was that we couldn’t find one of the raw materials essential for soap making. Coconut oil is difficult to get but it’s a very important ingredient. You can use olive oil but they don’t have that in Haiti. You’d think there would be a lot of coconuts since Haiti is a tropical island. But in Mirebalais, which is in the central region of the country, coconuts are hard to find and expensive, plus we had to press the oil by hand. The women are already working on potential long-term solutions, possibly by planting their own coconut trees.
Tell us about Fleurette Dubuisson and Estele Clervil, the women who wanted to attend the ATA Market Readiness Program at NY Now in August.
Fleurette is a dynamic activist in Mirebalais. She’s part of many women’s associations, has trained a lot of groups, helping them better themselves, especially in education and early childhood development. She’s someone I really admire. She knows how to make things happen. I could say that even though I did the training and everything, without Fleurette, it wouldn’t have been possible. Estele, on the other hand, is more quiet, reserved and calm but she knows what she wants. She’s a business-minded person. She has been making crafts and bracelets for probably seven years and sells them in different stores in Haiti by herself. Even though she didn’t have any formal training, her business is doing well.
Although Fleurette and Estele weren’t able to attend the Market Readiness Program this August, they still have a chance to attend the next one in February. Why do you think is this important for them to participate in?
In the early 2000s, I participated in a training similar to this. I gained a tremendous amount of knowledge that I still use to this day as a craftsperson and a businesswoman. I still have a book that I received back then, which I use now as a reference book. I think Fleurette and Estele are capable of gaining a lot from the Market Readiness Program. It will give them the opportunity to learn skills and product diversification directly in the market so that they can take their business to the next level.
What do we expect to see from you and the women in the future?
As a result of the workshop, the women and I turned our relationship into a business partnership. After we finished the training and made enough soaps, I sold them to my customers in the Caribbean and the US. I decided that they should continue making soaps for my company. Now, they’ll be building their own business and making their own soaps. In turn, I’ll buy and sell them under my company, Belzeb. It’s a great way for them to sell to a broader market.
As mentioned in the first story about our Haiti project, the women were interviewed by a local radio and TV station. We’ll be posting footage from that in the near future. Please look out for that!
For more information about our Haiti project, please contact our Director of Program Management and Development, Monika Steinberger: email@example.com