From Candy Princess to Toilet Paper Queen: How Haitian Entrepreneurs Like Myrtha Vilbon Are Improving Their Country and Why Investors Should Pay Attention
Determined to transform toilet paper from a luxury, imported good to a low-cost, accessible product, Myrtha Vilbon founded Haiti’s only tissue converting company. Vilbon recently participated in diaspora engagement roadshows hosted by USAID INVEST, which encouraged members of the Haitian diaspora to invest in the country’s private sector.
By Emily Langhorne, INVEST Communications Specialist
Myrtha Vilbon is no stranger to running a business in a fragile country. Born in Haiti, she grew up as the daughter of one of the country’s best-know candy manufacturers. As the owner of Menthes Alta, Vilbon’s father had a life-long career as a successful entrepreneur despite living in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.
Haiti ranks 179 out of 189 countries on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, yet Vilbon, like her father, has spent her entire career working in the country’s private sector. After getting her start in the family candy company, Vilbon entered the world of distribution, working for 17 years as agent for Dutch Dairy. There, she took over the distribution of a product line with a negative local reputation and transformed it into one of Haiti’s most popular brands.
Unfortunately, when a multinational bought Dutch Dairy, the new leadership decided that Haiti’s market no longer required a local agent. Vilbon was let go in a breach of contract for which she was never compensated.
However, what others would view as a setback, Vilbon saw as an opportunity.
In June 2015, she founded Glory Industries, a tissue converting company located in Port-au-Prince. By tailoring the company’s products to meet the needs of low-income consumers, Vilbon has transformed toilet paper from a luxury, imported good to a locally-made, accessible one.
In Haiti, 40 percent of the population lacks access to toilet paper. Approximately 90 percent of tissue paper products are imported, largely from the Dominican Republic, which increases their cost. Most Haitians live on less than US $2.00 a day, and imported toilet paper costs about 40 cents a roll.
Glory Industries is the only tissue converter on the island. It specializes in the production and sale of TouTou Ni, a low-cost, 30-gram roll of toilet paper that retails for eight cents — less than the cost of a banana. TouTou Ni already accounts for 60 percent of the company’s production, and demand for the product continues to grow.
Vilbon’s goal is to expand production to include other important sanitary products, such as feminine hygiene products and diapers. Unfortunately, Glory Industries is currently operating under capacity because of limited cash flow. Vilbon’s main challenge as an entrepreneur and CEO is access to growth capital: the political challenges in Haiti reduce the likelihood of foreign investment in small and medium-sized enterprises like Glory Industries.
In the fall of 2019, Vilbon participated in a series of diaspora engagement sessions hosted by USAID INVEST, an initiative that mobilizes private capital for development. Haiti INVEST held five sessions throughout the U.S. and Canada, which were designed to encourage the Haitian diaspora to invest in the country’s private sector.
The events showcased entrepreneurs like Vilbon, giving them a platform to speak about Haiti’s investment opportunities and challenges. The sessions also gave them the opportunity to connect with potential investors and transaction advisors within the diaspora community. Haiti INVEST informed potential investors about the risk mitigation tools that development agencies can provide, such as catalytic capital and technical assistance.
After the Miami event, I sat down with Vilbon to hear her thoughts on the future of Haiti’s private sector.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Emily Langhorne: You’ve been in business for a long time, but Glory Industries is your first experience working in toilet paper production. Before, you worked mostly in dairy products and candy. Why the switch to toilet paper?
Myrtha Vilbon: Toilet paper is a product that I always had at heart. From the time I was a child, toilet paper scarcity was something that caught my attention. As a child in school, there was no toilet paper. You had to bring it from home or use your notebooks. To me, it wasn’t right that everyone didn’t have access to toilet paper.
Langhorne: Given that you had so much experience in distribution, why did you decide to start a production company rather than distribute another company’s paper products?
Vilbon: After my trouble as a distributor for another company, I lost faith in distributing another’s products. I realized I had a lot of experience in the Haitian market. I wanted to stay in distribution but with my own brand. By going into production, I could create many local jobs, which was one of the things that attracted me to it.
I decided to look at what it takes to make toilet paper. I studied on the internet. I learned everything I could from YouTube. I researched Chinese companies. I contacted machine companies. I learned the trade from a distance. Then I went to China, where I spent two months training and visiting companies, before going to the Dominican Republic where I trained with another company. Once I knew every aspect of production, I was ready to produce my own brand.
Langhorne: In what ways has Glory Industries been innovative in the Haitian toilet paper market?
Vilbon: This market is a virgin market in that 98 percent of toilet paper comes from outside the country. Right now, Glory is only able to satisfy two percent of the market because of our production limitations.
Glory was the first to produce a small, 30-gram roll, the TouTou Ni, that’s very affordable. These rolls don’t have wrappings, and merchants sell them one or two at a time, which makes them much cheaper than other products on the market. Every import on the market is a 150-gram roll because when exporting to Haiti, foreign companies must make big rolls to be profitable. Those rolls cost about 50 cents. Most people in Haiti can’t afford that. The imports do not fit the needs of the people and won’t change to accommodate them.
With TouTou Ni, we have created our own market. The product is cheap enough that people can add paper into their budgets. TouTou Ni is consistently our most popular product. Ninety percent of consumers for this roll are new toilet paper users. We are seeing a progression, though. A lot of former nonusers are starting to use toilet paper more regularly, and some are moving from our 30-gram roll to our 60-gram roll, which is still smaller and cheaper than the imported products.
By competing with the imports, we are creating jobs locally. We can hire more people, both directly at the company and indirectly through our distributors. Without investment, we won’t be able to continue to compete, and these jobs will probably disappear. Without employment, it’s hard for people to do better in life.
Langhorne: What effect do you think private sector growth has on a country and its citizens?
Vilbon: A vibrant private sector is very important for the country and its economy. Without a private sector and private production, how can you build an economy? The government cannot take on every production initiative on its own.
Sadly, at this point, the Haitian government has not shown any interest in the economic development of our country. I am presently living through a very bitter experience with them. I had a meeting with the president’s cabinet director where I told him what Glory Industries is doing, shared our milestones, and discussed the economic problems that we are confronting. I expressed my concern about people losing jobs if we must close. A lot of promises were made, but it was all a dead end. I didn’t have any positive follow up.
Countries need the private sector to the create jobs and economic growth that help people out of poverty, and the state should support and prioritize the private sector. That is not the case in Haiti right now. Right now, the private sector is totally neglected by the state.
I began seeking investment in Glory Industries with a passion about what we are trying to do, and I still have that passion, but I am realizing that we are on our own. If we don’t get support from USAID and similar institutions, we are doomed to failure. USAID is helping us connect to institutions and investors outside the country, which is good, because right now the government has abandoned us.
Langhorne: What impact do you think the Haiti INVEST program is having for small and medium-sized enterprises in Haiti?
Vilbon: I think what Haiti INVEST is doing is great, trying to connect small businesses with the diaspora and other potential investors. Usually, the diaspora of my culture invests in the project of a friend or family member, and often that doesn’t work out because they aren’t judging the project based on its merits or whether the person in charge has the right experience or know-how. I think that Haiti INVEST will have long-term results because it will help convince diaspora members to invest elsewhere.
Unfortunately, Haiti has an emergency economic situation right now, so, in my opinion, frontier, social, and humanitarian investors are the kind to target to achieve immediate results. For the companies who need help right now, these are the people who will help. With all the unrest, investors who aren’t ready to handle risk won’t be interested in investing in Haiti in the timeline needed by those companies. However, for long-term results and causing economic growth, I think Haiti INVEST’s diaspora program is great.
Langhorne: Other entrepreneurs, investors, and development workers active in Haiti have told me that there’s something about the country that “enthralls” people. As a Haitian, what do you think of that sentiment?
Vilbon: I think they are so right. My family decided to send me to the U.S. for high school, and I loved it. I love changes, and it was a very different experience. It gave me the opportunity to learn a new language and a new culture, both of which are serving me now. I went to college in the U.S. and then spent a year in Madrid, but I still had no other desire but to ultimately go back to Haiti. Even right now, despite all that is going on in the country, I will choose to stay in Haiti. It just grows on you. The culture is so different than any other place. I don’t see myself being out of Haiti.
Langhorne: If you could tell potential investors anything about investing in Haiti, what would you want to say to them?
Vilbon: Haiti is a virgin island, in terms of production. It’s a virgin country. They could choose to invest in many other things, but 80 percent of all consumed goods are imported, and that leaves a huge opportunity for investment in local production. The demand is there; the market already exists.
We need mass production to offset the imports, and companies can benefit from investment and economies of scale. For example, my fixed costs are the same if I produce one ton or if I produce four tons, but the return on one ton only lets me break even. On four tons, I would get a 20 percent return, so I could cut prices and produce more. Once I can produce at a lower cost, I could undercut the imports from other countries, and exporters would no longer find toilet paper as attractive a product because we would be competing with lower costs. If the quality of a product is even, consumers want the lowest price possible. Local production benefits the consumers, and it benefits the country, but local production needs their investment to scale.
Langhorne: You have previously expressed that in Haiti you encountered extra difficultly securing funding for your business because you are a woman. Could you elaborate on that experience?
Vilbon: Securing funding in Haiti is difficult for everyone, and it is more difficult for women, especially women in industry. Because I had so much experience in distribution, I could have probably gotten a loan more easily if I was to continue my distribution process. The Haitian banks are more likely to fund this fast transaction, where you buy and sell quickly, make a profit quickly, and pay back your loan quickly. Production is slower and more intricate, and the banks consider it riskier. I didn’t have any experience in toilet paper making and that didn’t make it easy for me to get financing.
In Haiti, women don’t usually embark on very big projects: they run a little store or boutique, so they usually need micro-financing and request small amounts, around $10,000 to $20,000. Attempting to start a large industry, asking for a big amount, it requires a great investment that it’s just not customary for women to seek. I was turned down by many banks.
Langhorne: How were you able to secure financing given these stereotypes about the role women are expected to play in business world?
Vilbon: I was determined to fund my plan for Glory Industries, so I applied for a $200,000 LEAD grant from USAID. By winning that grant, I won more trust from the banks. They started to open up to my project because they knew that USAID would have a strict due diligence process. They felt that if my plans were qualified to win the competition, then they must be strong plans. The banks then had enough trust to extend some small loans, but I still received only 25 percent of what I requested. The grant award was contingent to matching capital, so I took my chance and started with much less than what I needed to make the operation profitable. That’s why I am now still seeking the capital amount that the company needs to be fully competitive.
Langhorne: What effect has your education had on your success as a woman working in a business environment that’s not traditionally “women-friendly”?
Vilbon: Education makes a big different for women. My education helped me a lot in understanding the higher possibilities and opportunities for my life, and it allowed me to take advantage of them, too. It made me qualified to participate in USAID’s LEAD competition. Women with education have access to more doors and look for opportunities. A big problem in Haiti is that most women are not highly educated, which is why they stay in small operations.
Economic freedom is linked to education. Economic empowerment for women is important because it makes them more independent, and it integrates them better into the society. It makes a huge difference in their quality of life because women who aren’t economically independent are subject to abuse.
Langhorne: Do you attempt to use your position at Glory Industries to empower other Haitian women?
Yes, definitely. Before the unrest, Glory employed 100 people, 80 percent of whom were women. Now we have about 49 employees, but 80 percent are still women. We support women merchants. We extend credit to some, which allows them to bring more income directly into their homes.
We also support young students, both men and women. They sell our products, and then they can pay their school fees. They sell them around their school hours, at the bus stations, on public transportation, on the streets, in open markets. Most of them make two to three times the minimum wage doing so.
Langhorne: What type of relationship do you think a business should have with its local community?
Vilbon: I feel strongly that a company has a responsibility to its community. Glory provides free handwashing on the streets. We’ve worked with the Red Cross and the Pan American Development Foundation to do hygiene trainings. Many people don’t understand the importance of handwashing. They don’t know that handwashing is important for health. They don’t know they should use soap. We also have professionals speak to people about the importance of using toilet paper instead of stones, rags, or leaves.
The demonstrations and trainings teach people about hygiene, and they’re a form of marketing and advertising for us. Unfortunately, with the unrest, our cash flow has been depleted, and we’ve had to stop a lot of this type of work. We are going through a rough time right now, but we plan to continue to do this again when we can.
Langhorne: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the American expression, “like a kid in a candy store,” but it’s often used to imply that someone is very happy or excited about their surroundings. Since you practically grew up in a candy store, I was curious what you thought about this expression?
Vilbon: I think this saying must be right because I am a very happy person. I’m very positive. Even with the unrest in the country right now, I think something positive must come out of it. We can’t give up. Entrepreneurs are perseverant and positive people: it’s why they call it the entrepreneurial spirit.