Surtab, the story about a company manufacturing tablets in Haïti

Surtab’s Made-in-Haiti touchscreen tablets may help blaze a trail back to electronics manufacturing in the country

Marise Fils-Aimé sits at a work table in a brightly-lit, air-conditioned room with hardly a speck of dust to be found. She’s wearing white-coveralls over her clothes, a hairnet, and light-blue booties that cover her Crocs. In front of her lay a pair of wire clippers, a roll of tape, a small electric soldering iron, a glue gun, and a blue tub that contains the plastic parts and electronic components required to assemble a 7-inch touchscreen tablet, which no company has produced in Haiti before.

“I’ve never used a tablet,” Fils-Aimé says. “I think all Haitians would like to have one.”

ONE TABLET PER HAITIAN

In a country with a manufacturing sector known for producing cheap t-shirts, tablet-maker Surtab is a small effort at producing a big-value product. “We really want to re-establish Haiti as a destination for appliances and electronics manufacturing,” says Maarten Boute, Surtab’s 38-year-old Belgian CEO. “We put the bar very high doing tablets.”

For three years, Boute ran the Haiti division of cell phone giant Digicel, the largest company in the country. Boute sees huge potential to sell affordable tablets to a growing local consumer class as well as people in other developing countries. In Haiti, the education sector, government, and thousands of NGOs working in the country are also attractive potential customers.

Surtab filled its first order in August—600 Wi-Fi-only tablets for a Kenyan law university whose students will carry around one device instead of reams of legal documents. The company makes two versions of its 7-inch tablets, both of which run the Android operating system. Almost all of the components come from China. The wholesale price of the lower-end Wi-Fi model will be about $70*. The other version, which Boute estimates will wholesale for $129, has 3G capability, dual SIM cards, and runs on a much faster dual-core processor. The company is currently working on an order for a Haitian university and has garnered interest from the Prime Minister’s office, other local schools and companies, and a handful of foreign organizations.

Boute sees tablets as the perfect device for markets like Haiti, where PCs are too expensive for the masses and programs like One Laptop Per Child never lived up to expectations. “Many of the developing world countries have increased their data coverage almost nationwide,” he says, “and it’s the same case in Haiti. It gives an opportunity for connectivity to get out there, to get improved devices.

HAITIAN MANUFACTURING AS MORE THAN LOW WAGES

Producing Android tablets flies in the face of the low-value, low-cost theory of manufacturing associated with Haiti, which says that one of its biggest advantages is very cheap unskilled labor. If you’re a company trying to compete in the uber-competitive global textile industry, low-wage labor is a big draw.

 

“We’re not [just] trying to look for a cheaper place with cheaper labor,” says Surtab CEO Boute, “we’re trying to find a location with a different way of assembling the product, with more respect for the workers.” The company’s 3,000-square-foot facility, with A/C throughout, is a retrofitted section of a larger factory operated by the Coles Group, a Surtab investor and long-time Haitian garment manufacturer. “Currently in Haiti, the minimum wage is roughly $100 a month,” Boute says. “We will be paying slightly more t

Han double that minimum wage, but it’s still below the labor costs that are in China.”

“I think there’s a lot of opportunities that will come from this project,” he adds, “at least in terms of how people see us as a country.

“People always think that conditions are not good, we can’t do this, or we can only do that. I think that this project will show that, actually, we can do anything.”

More information about Surtab tablets:  http://surtab.com/

Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUvrQiGjP9I