Joel Celestin used to paint calligraphy advertisements for soft drinks on the walls of Haiti’s capital. Then he got a motorcycle.
In Port-au-Prince, a motorcycle is an instant micro-business. With a small-engine model—125cc or 150cc—moto taxi drivers like Celestin can immediately start carrying clients and pocketing money, weaving through gridlock that suffocates full-size vehicles. In rural areas, motorcycles ferry people and produce between towns over often-impassable roads.
Criminals too have adopted the speedy and maneuverable bikes, “leading to a recent spate of bank withdrawal thefts”. And while disorderly driving remains the norm and poor training leads to accidents, for many people, motos do the trick.
“The fact is that everyone needs a moto today, whether you’re in Port-au-Prince or the most far-reaching corners of the country,” says Bertrand Dieuseul, chief accountant at motorcycle vendor Complexe Peterson in downtown Port-au-Prince.
Neither the tax agency nor the traffic office knows exactly how many motorcycles exist, but the vast majority are Chinese-made.
“When we decided to get into this business,” says dieuseul, “we studied the Haitian market and got in touch with many Chinese and Japanese companies. We realized that Japanese brands like Honda and Yamaha were too expensive for our customers.” So the company decided to focus on brands from China and took a trip there to meet with suppliers, eventually striking a deal.
The Chinese makes started arriving to the provincial towns of Jacmel and Léogâne in the 1990’s, then later to Port-au-Prince and beyond. Importer Fred edmond says Chinese companies “came with their version, which is something cheaper, more affordable for the Haitian market”.
Edmond’s main contact is a Chinese sales rep who goes by Paul. They correspond only by email. Edmond had to put down a 30 percent deposit to secure his first container order in 2012, and he asked a Haitian friend in China to check out the supplier.
Dieuseul says that Complexe Peterson pays about USD 3,000 to transport a single shipping container of up to 200 unassembled motorcycles from China to Haiti, a trip he says takes up to two months. Prices start at USD 850 for a 125cc model, and the company sold more than 1,300 motorcycles last year—more than 25 per week.
In a country with a per capita annual income of USD 700, most consumers are willing to sacrifice quality for price. And because of the established market for Chinese bikes, spare parts and repair services are abundant.
Among the handful of Chinese words that every Haitian knows are Haojin, Dayun, and Sukida—three of the Chinese companies that combine to export thousands of motorcycles to the Caribbean island country every year. and in Haiti, the word “Chinese” suggests exactly what it does for most Americans: low-quality but affordable. For moto drivers like Celestin, that’s more than enough.