Role models

How to stand tall in the face of an earthquake

After the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, she decided to coordinate the building of a new school in Jacmel. She organized a public collection of funds in Poland and engaged Caritas Poland in starting this project. Construction of the school began in 2012. Unfortunately, it is still not finished. The primary contractor of the building decided to run for Haiti's presidency in the middle of the process. Currently, the building is in the raw condition. The interior is not finished.

Zofia Pinchinat-Witucka, the founder of the Poland-Haiti Foundation and coordinator of the school project in Jacmel, believes it will be ready to use within one year. In a conversation with Joanna Socha, she shares her ups and downs when building the school and what she has learned on the way. 

JS: I don’t know the reality in Haiti. How long does it take to build a school there?

zofia p-w
Zofia Pinchinat-Witucka

Z P-W: It depends on so many factors: money, political situation, economic fluctuations. We have had many challenges, for example, one of our main contractors, Mathias Pierre from GaMa Enterprises S.A. decided to run for the presidency of Haiti in 2015. He was the one who built the whole structure of the school. He suddenly quit his job as a construction engineer and threw himself into a political career. Today I smile sadly when I talk about it. But it cost us a lot in time and money. Another challenge: from the very beginning, we wanted the local people to work with us. It was our philosophy to keep this money in place and share our know-how. We wanted to implement standards and norms, such as the one that employees should not come to the construction site in flip-flops and without a helmet. For all these reasons we have a delay now.

So what’s next? 

We found a new contractor to do the work, but we limp a little. The raw building is there. Fortunately, much of the work is already done, although the most expensive, like interior finishing, is yet to come.

I want to emphasize that the architecture of our school is very modern and goes beyond the standards of classical construction in Haiti. At first, I was concerned about it. I imagined that a “normal” school would be built. I remember when Maciej Siuda, the chief architect and today a very renowned creator of many avant-garde projects, told me that architecture is a sign of progress, and we should not limit it to classic buildings devoid of originality. This is a good lesson for me. When I think about Haiti and Poland today, I believe that the right attitude is important, and our role should be bringing completely new ideas to the table.

When do you think the school will be finished? 

 I believe within a year.

In our informal conversation, you mentioned that the key to the success of many projects often comes down to money. Is this the case with the school in Jacmel? 

Actually, yes. We still have some funds left from the first collection that we organized in 2011. Recently we have collected new funds thanks to a catholic organization in Haiti and also thanks to Polish artists who held an auction last year and provided their works. Now we need to control the budget even more.

It was a significant project at the Poland-Haiti Foundation. Do you run other activities as part of the foundation’s mission?

This project is the largest one and consumes most of my energy. However, we also run other initiatives. For example, for many years, we have been supporting the living and education of a boy named Noah. He was found in the ruins of a building collapsed during the earthquake. It turned out that Noah did not hear or speak. For years, we have made sure that the orphanage which looks after him has sufficient resources for his education and board.

What have been some of the biggest challenges for you so far when coordinating the school project?  

The challenge is to persevere, not to give up. All other things, such as budget problems, the situation at the construction site, are also difficult. But staying motivated and not giving up despite continuous struggles is the biggest difficulty. It would be so much easier for me to just focus on something that is simpler and brings faster results. But I cannot. I feel like it would be a betrayal.

I was one of the main people involved in raising money. I feel entirely responsible for this action. If this action were to fail, I would consider it a failure in life. There is no way back now.

Why did you decide to build this school? 

It’s a good question. I guess I would do that for my own kids. I have three children.

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The visualization of the school in Jacmel

Apart from the Poland-Haiti foundation, you are developing a natural cosmetics company – Creamy – which you started in 2015. Why did you decide to start this business?

The creation of my brand of cosmetics Creamy is closely related to my personal history. My parents were agronomists who taught me how much we can draw from the richness of nature. I have never been a great consumer of ready-made cosmetics. At home, ordinary raw materials such as honey, cucumbers, oils, and even egg yolks were used to prepare simple skin treatments.

I believe that a simple composition of the right ingredients gives better effects. The simplicity of the recipe is the same as with food. Good tomatoes from a good source are simply great. As I got older, I often traveled to Haiti and got the moringa oil there. It is healthy and possesses many qualities that make the skin deeply moisturized, softened and nourished. This is one of the most stable oils in the world. It has real power to prevent aging. That is why the moringa tree is called “the longevity tree.” In Haiti, it is used as a medical product. That’s why I started using this oil myself. Moringa oil is the basis for many cosmetics manufactured by Creamy.

What were some of the major challenges you faced when starting this business and what helped you overcome them? 

The first challenge was the budget. I had some savings, but building a cosmetics brand from scratch costs a lot of money. Fortunately, I had the support of my husband, Maciej. He firmly believes in Creamy and gives me courage in moments of doubt.

I think having a supportive partner who is on board with your brave ideas is very important. I am aware that we are investing all our savings into this company and we are constantly taking risks, but we both are optimists. It makes our lives full of adventures. I also treat it as a great experience. I learn a lot thanks to it.

What advice would you give to people who would like to follow their bold ideas? 

First, it is worth asking yourself if you are this type of energetic person who likes to take risks and work a lot. If not, maybe entrepreneurship is not for you. But if you have this passion, dreams and resources – give it a try. Even if it doesn’t work, you will learn so much from this experience.

Are there any mistakes you regret? 

Yes. Sometimes I think I spent too much time on details that had no sense afterward. I think some parts of the processes could be done in a faster and cheaper way. Today I am trying to take a more holistic approach and not to sacrifice too much energy on little things that don’t matter from a broader perspective. It is also worth talking to specialists and using their knowledge.

Interview by Joanna Socha

Edited by Phyllis Budka

Production support by Magdalena Bryś

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