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A woman who saw a textbook business opportunity in overturning the image of toilet paper as an unaffordable imported luxury, and in the process helped to promote hygiene and reduce germ-related illness, has been named the Digicel Entrepreneur of the Year for 2016.

With 80 percent of Haiti’s population subsisting on less than a dollar a day, research had consistently shown that for the poorest 40 percent toilet paper simply didn’t feature on the list of life’s essentials – until, that is, Myrtha Vilbon, decided she had the skills to disrupt such conventional thinking.

In a flawless example of classic import substitution, Vilbon raised $2.4 million to fund Glory Industries, Haiti’s first indigenous toilet paper and napkin manufacturer, which employs more than 80 staff, 70 percent of whom are women.

“What Myrtha Vilbon has done is in the finest traditions of entrepreneurship in that it combines business vision with a real sense of how an enterprise can benefit and transform a community, said the chairman of the awards’ judges, Denis O’Brien, founder of lead sponsors, Digicel.

At a ceremony attended by 600 guests from government, NGOs, and the commercial world, Mr O’Brien described Ms Vilbon as “an inspirational example of the leading role that the private sector has to play in the growth and development of the Haitian economy.”

He told the 2016 winner: “When I see what you have achieved by taking a great idea, planning how to apply it, and executing that plan with such skill, I am very proud to say that Digicel promotes entrepreneurship that leads to real jobs and economic stability. Your mission is that important.”

Myrtha Vilbon was born into a family of entrepreneurs. When she began to help out in her father’s candy factory at the age of just seven, it was clear to everyone – including to young Myrtha herself – that she had inherited their drive, ambition and love of success.

Once in business, she specialized in building food distribution networks for several well-known overseas brands, gathering enormous international experience, as well as invaluable first-hand knowledge of what those corporates needed and found when they entered the Haitian market.

This summer, Vilbon was one of only four Haitian entrepreneurs to take part in the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Palo Alto, California, attended by President Barrack Obama – which looked at the challenges facing indigenous companies in countries with “difficult business settings”.

As well as becoming Entrepreneur of the Year, Vilbon was the winner of the award for best emerging entrepreneur, chosen for succeeding in a market dominated by imports, and for imaginatively producing an affordable product sold by street vendors alongside more expensive alternatives.

“Myrtha Vilbon is exactly the type of entrepreneur we were thinking of – with that potent mix of strategic thinking and disruptive innovation – when we chose the theme of this year’s competition: Be Fit for Growth”, said the Chairman Digicel Haiti, Maarten Boute.

“From her time as a child in her father’s business, she paid attention to how things worked. She knows how and when to place emphasis where it’s needed in a business – on aspects like financial fitness and corporate social responsibility, as we see with the success of Glory Industries today.

“She is a wonderful role model for entrepreneurship, for young people looking for reasons why they should become involved in business – and a welcome addition to our growing list of more than 450 Entrepreneur of the Year alumni.”

The Digicel awards, now in their seventh year, with a strikingly representative spread of finalists from across the country, were presented in the usual five categories – agri and environment, construction, industry, services and emerging – with an additional award this year for social impact.

That special social award went to Chavannes Jean Baptiste of the Papay Peasants’ Movement (MPP), an agronomist who, in a lifetime dedicated to the development of agriculture in Haiti, has mobilized more than 4,500 farming groups and enabled the training of 500,000 people who now work in the industry.

In the Agriculture & Environment section, the award went to Sharline Dubuisson of Ferme Soleil, whose innovative approach to securing financial backing for agricultural projects has created 445 fulltime and part-time jobs and provided a route to empowerment for women in agriculture.

In construction, the prize was won by Blondo Odivin of Vako Construction, known presciently by his friends, long before he entered business, as “the engineer”, because of his love of tinkering. He now has 150 staff and a successful business involved in many of Haiti’s major construction projects.

Claiming the prize in the industry section was Jocelyn Noel, whose Province Food Group makes cassava for the export market, including the US, manufacturing to tough international standards in accordance with a license from the US Department of Agriculture and the FDA.

The award for services went to Max Henry Larson of Transversal, which provides high-end IT network services for corporate customers, training and certification, and delivers broadband to rural towns in central, west, north and south-east Haiti, with the potential to transform local economies. He is currently developing mobile apps for projects as far afield as Nigeria, Nepal, and Timor.

Joining Digicel this year, the sponsors of the seventh Entrepreneur of the Year awards were Camusat, Huawei, Ericsson, Talkpool and ZTE, as well as SOFIHDES, whose executive education seminar was a new local addition to the 2016 programme.

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