Caribbean Tech Entrepreneurs Say Collaboration is Key to Future Growth

What do an Olympic athlete, a mathematician and a university dropout all have in common with each other and the unlimited potential of digital business in the Caribbean?  They are all impressive and inspiring Caribbean founders of successful technology start-ups – living proof of what regional entrepreneurs and innovators can achieve.

Just their presence on the stage of the Caribbean Investment Forum earlier this month was an inspiration to the many aspiring and talented innovators from the region, who are trying to burst free of the constraints of the regional landscape, and rocket their digital businesses upwards. 

Caribbean Export hopes that their advice, the story of their journey and even their frank views of the state of play in the region will resonate with aspiring entrepreneurs and policymakers alike, as we seek to harness the vast power of ICT to transform businesses, lives and socio-economic development in the region.

The technology entrepreneurs led the Fireside Chat on ICT & Digital Business: Transforming the Region One Gigabyte at a Time, on Day 2 of the Forum (November 10th 2022) at the Hyatt Regency Trinidad.

They were:

  • Moderator Kirk-Anthony Hamilton, Co-founder & Director of Tech Beach Retreat in Jamaica
  • Nicholas Rees, Co-Founder & Chairman of KANOO in the Bahamas, which has been authorised by the Bahamas Central Bank to build out and implement Sand Dollar, the world’s first Central Bank-issued digital currency.
  • Gordon Swaby, Co-Founder & CEO – EduFocal, an award-winning, learning technology platform
  • Larren Peart, Founder & CEO – Blue Dot Insights – a fast-growing data analytics firm that began in Jamaica, expanded to Trinidad and owns a company in the US.
  • Pascale Elie, Founder – Cell Pay, a digital wallet and e-payments network operating in Haiti. Her passion and focus is promoting financial inclusion.

As Moderator and technology player in his own right, Kirk-Anthony Hamilton, put it to the audience: “Today, everyone on stage has businesses in multi jurisdictions.  We believe technology enables us to reach out more broadly and more quickly and this group, every person on this stage, is aggressively about driving transformation in the region…These are power players. Everyone has raised capital for their businesses and have robust platforms that are very new to the region that are starting to perform well.”  

The technology CEOs all agreed that the way forward for the region to benefit from the incoming tidal wave of opportunity for digital business was through partnership, collaboration, bringing ideas together, creating synergies and sharing information. A rising tide raises all boats, they stressed.

It is also part of the positive culture shift Hamilton sees taking place.   “We grew up in an era where the conversation wasn’t open and transparent,” you didn’t talk to everybody about what you were doing, and you feared that the bank would steal your concept rather than fund it.

Rees, the two-time Olympics swimming athlete who holds both an MBA and an Accounting degree, noted that when you go island hopping you see that each island has both advantages and disadvantages, you see the commonalities and the challenges.  His conviction is: “We can connect the Caribbean through technology and collectively we can solve all our own problems.  I really believe that…I see Kanoo as charting that course.”

What’s lacking in the market to more rapidly achieve his vision? “There is still that challenge about access to capital…the Caribbean still does not have an established venture capital firm focused on technology. There are different people trying things to fill the gap.  That’s definitely something we need to see,” Rees said.

He is one of the persons trying to fill the gap. Kanoo has partnered with DraperStartup House out of Draper University to see how the Silicon Valley investment mindset can find, fund and facilitate the innovative ideas in the region. “We have launched the Kanoo Innovation Hub based in Bahamas.  It is open to everyone in the Caribbean to come learn, participate and get your ideas funded,” Rees said. You have the opportunity to be funded up to US$3 million for your idea, and it will also enable you with access to coders, access to international networks and access to relationships, he added.

How was he able to enter the tech space and succeed?  Rees said: “I was lucky in terms of my placement in life, the opportunities that I had, persons I would have met…I’m a two-time Olympian …so in terms of the training, the dedication, the sacrifice for long-term goals – a lot of those values align with success in the business world, the same principles are involved.”

His advice to other technology aspirants: “I would say focus on learning first.  Find your purpose, understanding your work and your value.  Luck is where preparation meets opportunity, so you have to be patient and walk that dream and follow your intuition and be positive above all things.”

EducFocal’s Gordon Swaby is the youngest entrepreneur so far (at age 32) to list on the Jamaica Stock Exchange. The 10-year old company is an education technology company that is redefining learning today for business tomorrow.  The social learning website uses gamification to present its test material to students.

Ironically, Swaby dropped out of the University of Technology and started EducFocal, which has been powering schools and companies with its award-winning learning platform and e-courses.

He told the audience at CIF: “We don’t have a lack of innovators (in the Caribbean) but we have an innovation problem. I believe that young innovators are not being given wind beneath their wings to fly and to create solutions for problems that we have in common in the Caribbean.”

Nevertheless, he urged young people to look beyond traditional paths, which were no longer so rewarding, to achieve their bright future, saying: “A lot of people, within the context of wanting to educate themselves, stay with the tried and true path of becoming a doctor or lawyer when there are opportunities to become something else.”  You go to medical school for 10 years and after you graduate you find you are earning less than what you expect to earn.  You migrate to another country thinking that you have hit the jackpot and find that you are working harder than you worked in the Caribbean and you’re still not earning what you expected to earn, he pointed out.

Swaby wants to show young people that there is a different path via technology and how it can spur development in the Caribbean.  But the ease of doing business has to be improved to encourage young entrepreneurs to live and work in the Caribbean, he added.  He related that after purchasing a company in the US earlier this year, part of the process required that he had to register a subsidiary, which he did from his bedroom in Jamaica in two days while he noted that Larren had to come back to Trinidad to register his business.

What is still considered innovation in the Caribbean is not innovation anymore elsewhere, Swaby said. “Registering a company online shouldn’t be considered innovative.  I can’t sit here on this stage (in Trinidad) and transfer money easily to Jamaica… I feel like we are having the same conversations for too long…a lot of things should be a no-brainer because they are a no-brainer in other parts of the world.”

Blue Dot Insights is a data company focused on data analytics, modelling, market research and consumer insights.  CEO Larren Peart said he started the company eight years ago when no-one was talking about data but, now, data is recognised as an enabler of growth and companies are making decisions with data. 

“We’re not short on talent in the Caribbean…What we’re doing now is leveraging the talent we have and exporting our services,” Peart said. “Our data services in Jamaica are cheaper than what a North American company would provide.  From a nearshore outsourcing standpoint, that’s a significant advantage to North American companies,” he noted. Unfortunately, he added, “although there is some take up of what we do, now, (in the Caribbean) the North American companies understand the value of it even more.”

“We don’t have a healthy fear of disruption,” Peart said.  That is why we can sit back and not innovate.   “In the early days of Covid there was all this talk initially about digital transformation and the new normal…That didn’t happen at all in the Caribbean…We’ve gone back to how we were pre-Covid,” he said.   There are still lines outside brick and mortar businesses that should frankly not be there, he added.

In the same vein, Peart said that although the most profitable companies in the world are technology companies, if a bank or investor in the Caribbean had to choose between funding a $20 million real estate development or a $20 million technology company, they are going to put their money in real estate. “That kind of thinking has to change,” he urged.

Peart encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to be part of a community and interact with each other. “Community is important.  Having access to other entrepreneurs. When you interact with other entrepreneurs you have that shared experience. You learn so much from each other… and it creates a good energy.  It is motivational,” he said.

Pascale Elie is the Chairwoman for HaitiPay S.A., whose focus is to develop and implement technological solutions to increase access to financial services for the Haitian communities living in country, in the Diaspora, and in urban and rural areas.  She is also Founder and President of CellPay Corporation, an electronic payment solution focusing on connecting Diasporas with their families in underdeveloped economies by sending funds directly to eWallets and can be used within a payment ecosystem.

Believing that technology is the key to economic development and understanding that the larger the market, the more interested are investors, Elie said: “We are looking for viable partnerships in the Caribbean and even Latin America, at some point, to have a larger opportunity so the potential investor will look at us as a very interesting market.” 

She urged the other panelists and all those frustrated with the slow pace of improving the ease of doing business in the Caribbean not to give up.  “It is important to keep the conversation going and open when talking to regulators.  Don’t leave the whole design to the regulators.”   The Haitian Alliance for Financial Inclusion was established, she said, “just to ensure we have a seat at the table when talking about financial inclusion in Haiti.”

All the technology entrepreneurs have overcome challenges and obstacles to achieve success.  So even as they seek to make the path smoother for the next generation, they noted that entrepreneurs who end up being the most prepared are “the ones who fight their way into a room like this…or drive for miles to find access to internet.”   Rees added: “Government should provide infrastructure and enable fair play but the market should drive change.  If we see something that needs to happen, we should go do it.”

The inaugural Caribbean Investment Forum took place at the Hyatt Regency in Trinidad and Tobago from November 8-11, 2022.  The high-level, business-focused event connected key regional decision-makers, innovators, and entrepreneurs with the world’s most influential investors to explore the investment opportunities available throughout the region. It also served as a launching pad for thought leaders keen on accruing the benefits of first-mover advantages in this developing space. 

Under the theme Building A SMARTer, GREENer Caribbean, stakeholders focused, in particular, on investment opportunities in technology and innovation, agriculture technology, renewable energy, and transport and logistics.   Projects in these areas will improve the lives of over 30 million Caribbean people in the 23 member countries of CAIPA (Caribbean Association of Investment Promotion Agencies) across the Region. 

The regional forum, was organized by the Caribbean Export Development Agency in collaboration with the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, CARICOM, the Caribbean Development Bank, the Caribbean Association of Investment Promotion Agencies and with the support of the European Union. 

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Food Security is Not a Dream

If the Caribbean region was cut off from the rest of the world, would its citizens starve? If global events disrupted supply chains, could the countries of the Caribbean continue to feed its some 30 million citizens?  Could it afford to?

What about the food we do produce, how stable and secure is that supply?  Could a climatic event suddenly or slowly, over time, wipe out or negatively impact production so prices skyrocket, people suffer or even riot?

It is these very real concerns that caused CARICOM Heads of Government to commit the region to reducing its food import bill by 25% by 2025.   It is why Caribbean Export made Agro-Technology a focal topic at its inaugural Caribbean Investment Forum last week with the theme of the Roundtable discussion being: “Achieving 25 in 5: Reducing the Food Import Bill Through AgTech Investment.”

CARICOM Secretariat Secretary-General, Dr Carla Barnett, laid out the seriousness of the situation clearly during the Opening Ceremony.  She said: “Generally, structural characteristics of our economies have meant that we import more than 60% of the food we eat, with some countries importing more than 80% of the food they eat. Over the period 2018-2020, the CARICOM food import bill was US$13.76 billion or approximately 5% of GDP.”

What is more, she added: “The challenge of sustainable agriculture is growing in severity given the exposure of our agriculture sector to climate change-related risk such as heat extremes, salination of ground water, flooding, drought and hurricanes.”

Also emphasising the point at the opening ceremony, Caribbean Export Executive Director Deodat Maharaj said: “We have singled out agriculture in particular given our keen awareness of food insecurity challenges in the region” and recognising that “business and additional investments are critical to achieve this (25 in 5) vision.  He added: “This is especially so given the fact that apart from countries like Belize, Guyana, Dominican Republic and Suriname, we simply do not have land space to produce on the scale required to make us food secure. The answer is that we must look to technology.”

The highly dynamic and interactive Roundtable comprised:

  • Moderator Joseph Cox, Assistant Secretary General, Caricom Secretariat
  • Mezuo Nwuneli, Managing Partner, Sahel Consulting
  • Ralph Birkhoff, CEO & Founder, Alquimi Renewables LLC
  • Vassell Stewart, President, Caribbean Agri-Business Association
  • Mohindra Persaud, Chief Executive Officer, Nand Persaud & Co
  • Richard Sellers, Owner, Circular Fuels

Conference delegates, who included farmers, small agro-business entrepreneurs, potential investors and policy makers contributed to the intense discussion around technology in agriculture. There was clear agreement about the need for farmers and agro-processors to use technology more widely, noting that it was helpful along the entire value chain, including with the big problem of praedial larceny, accelerating production yields and quality, and reducing risks.

There was lively discussion on how to achieve more technology-intensive farming and acknowledgement that young farmers were quite open to using technology but often stymied by cost.  

Overarching the discussion was a degree of confidence and optimism that there were solutions to all the problems currently suppressing greater agricultural production and a belief that, once there was a will, the food import bill could be slashed.

Mohindra Persaud, for example, had some pragmatic advice.  He said: “Farmers on the whole do not like to adapt to new ideas…and are slow to adapt.  My advice is to get technical people to tutor them and be patient so progress can be steady. Otherwise, five years would just move production in a very small way.”  He also advised that five minutes of training at frequent intervals would be more effective than giving them a booklet or one day of training.

Highlighting the impact the application of technologies could have, and was already having, on agricultural production in the region, Birkhoff noted that it has already been proven that a hydroponics system does not require arable land, uses significantly less water and “could increase yields by 1,000%”.

One greenhouse farmer in the audience, frustrated in his attempts to grow strawberries, learnt there was an engineering solution and who he could approach for assistance.  This highlighted the need for fora where farmers and agro-businesses could share experiences and problem solve to find solutions to their specific issues.

The value of anchor farms connected to a group of smaller, satellite farms was also forwarded as a proven solution, with one presenter explaining the anchor farm could provide the smaller farms with technology, training and better quality inputs such as seed stock and then provide a ready market for the output of those small farms.  The overall result was an increased and more consistent supply of a better quality product, he said.

The panel of experts highlighted some of the resources available in and to the region, including service providers, funding, technical expertise to solve production and marketing issues, and consulting advice to match talent or funding with a particular project or business based on size, type of project and type of assistance needed.

Assistant Secretary General Cox put it succinctly.  “Anyone who feels food security is a dream must wake up from their dream!”

The inaugural Caribbean Investment Forum took place at the Hyatt Regency in Trinidad and Tobago from November 8-11, 2022.  The high-level, business-focused event connected key regional decision-makers, innovators, and entrepreneurs with the world’s most influential investors to explore the investment opportunities available throughout the region. It also served as a launching pad for thought leaders keen on accruing the benefits of first-mover advantages in this developing space. 

Under the theme Building A SMARTer, GREENer Caribbean, stakeholders focused, in particular, on investment opportunities in technology and innovation, agriculture technology, renewable energy, and transport and logistics.   Projects in these areas will improve the lives of over 30 million Caribbean people in the 23 member countries of CAIPA (Caribbean Association of Investment Promotion Agencies) across the Region. 

The regional forum, set to become a flagship event on Caribbean Export’s calendar, was organized by the Caribbean Export Development Agency in collaboration with the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, CARICOM, the Caribbean Development Bank, the Caribbean Association of Investment Promotion Agencies and with the support of the European Union. 

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Caribbean Port Integration Will Dynamise Business Development, Galvanise Economic Growth, and Lower the Cost of Imports Across the Region

Your preferred cough and allergy medicines have disappeared from the pharmacy shelf and every time you ask for an out-of-stock item at the supermarket, hardware or appliance store – they can’t say when the item will arrive in the country or at what price.  The reason given? Supply chain disruptions as a consequence of the pandemic and Russia-Ukraine war.  A catch-all excuse and easy target to blame.

Caribbean importers, businesses and industry are under huge pressure to maintain their operations in the face of uncertain arrivals of goods, high and ever-increasing shipping costs and the ongoing problems of delays and inefficiencies at their countries’ ports.

These businesses and citizens throughout the region might have been shocked at some of the revelations and views that emerged during the passionate discussion around the transport & logistics at the recently held Caribbean Investment Forum in Trinidad and Tobago.  

Organized by the Caribbean Export Development Agency (Caribbean Export) in collaboration with the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, CARICOM, the Caribbean Development Bank, and the Caribbean Association of Investment Promotion Agencies with the support of the European Union under the theme, Resolving the Challenge of Caribbean Logistics Through Investment, the panel discussion drew the interest of the large audience attending the event.  Both they and the presenters were urgent, insightful and outspoken about the port and shipment issues that they felt could be resolved with political and public will.  They bluntly opined that these unresolved and festering issues:

  • have stunted the development of economies throughout the region;
  • are threatening the survival and growth of individual businesses and industries;
  • have, for decades, suppressed the Caribbean region from realising its bright and prosperous potential;
  • have directly and negatively impacted the quality of life of Caribbean citizens and Caribbean societies;
  • are the direct cause of many shipping lines leaving the region, with no new entrants replacing them; and
  • could cause the Caribbean to miss out on huge new opportunities for transformative growth and development through the proposed US Nearshore Act now in Congress as well as from the economic boom in Guyana.

The long-standing issues included:

  • 14 islands with 14 different tariffs instead of a seamless space through which cargo could travel;
  • lack of standardisation with each country having its own Maritime, Customs and Port policies;
  • shipping lines leaving the Caribbean frustrated with the lack of co-ordination and collaboration that drove up costs, reduced profits and created an unpredictable business environment;
  • inefficient ports with unpredictable wait times;
  • decisions and policies made using emotions rather than facts and data; and
  • no region-wide support for a single hub to leverage economies of scale as exemplified by Miami.

The dynamic roundtable of presenters was moderated by JAMPRO President Diane Edwards, and comprised:

  • Elva Williams-Richards, Senior VP Finance – The Port Authority of Jamaica
  • Darwin Telemaque, CEO – Antigua & Barbuda Port Authority
  • Shaun Rampersad, CEO – RAMPS Logistics Ltd
  • Raphael D’angelis, Co-Founder & Chairman – Upturn Funds

According to D’angelis, Upturn is seeking to integrate the Caribbean via cargo with its primary focus being to integrate Guyana into the rest of the region.  The incentive, he said, was the US$100 million that Guyana would be spending on infrastructure over a number of years.

D’angelis disclosed that negotiations were already taking place to introduce a flat rate tariff system across the region for agribusiness transported via airlines. “We were amazed at how quickly this project is coming into fruition and pretty soon, for certain selected countries, we will be able to offer a flat rate and future export contracts,” he said. He hopes this will create a template that the seaports could then use.

He reminded the audience that the US was looking to the region to provide an alternative to China as a supplier and, if the US Nearshore Act was passed, it presented a golden opportunity to integrate the region.  He gave the example of wood being extracted in Guyana, processed in Trinidad and exported to the US market.

Emphasising that the US looked at the Caribbean as one community, he said Upturn’s priority is “portability across region.”  In this regard, Telemaque noted that in the US, under the Interstate Commerce Law, no State could restrict movement of trade from another State “so no business person anywhere in the US has to wonder if he can get his product to another State.”

D’angelis also disclosed that Upturn’s research found that: “If I integrate the Caribbean islands in one logistics system I can immediately expect a 15 per cent growth across the region… Today we are losing 15 per cent economic growth simply by not being integrated.”  That growth, he added, would pay the cost of integration many times over.

He believes there is a high likelihood that the Nearshore Act will be passed. “The question the region has to ask itself is, if the Nearshore Act is passed tomorrow, are you ready?” 

Upturn’s framework sees Jamaica, Guyana and T&T as the main hubs with the secondary markets supplying into the chain. 

Can the Caribbean find the will to make it happen? Telemaque believes that Miami port’s efficiency has made the Caribbean lazy because the ship shows up, you get fed, and you figure you don’t have to do anything else.  “So the entire system is very relaxed because the ship showed up so …we feel we don’t need a Guyana or Trinidad because Miami is so efficient,” he said.

Pointing to the supply chain issues that have impacted trade in the Caribbean due to the pandemic and war, he urged that “as a people we have to come out of that level of comfort and understand …we have to build our own logistics system.”  

He was bluntly honest that the attitude among the countries of the region was: “If you’re going to be a hub, I want to be a hub too…and if you build this facility, I will build it too.  And all of a sudden, you  have all these things built and no-one is using them efficiently…and Miami keeps doing it efficiently.”

The impassioned speaker stressed: “The first thing we need is honest discussion that we are interested in improving the lives of our people by changing our own individualistic mindset” and that could mean sacrificing our own island’s interest for the region’s, understanding that by doing so, everyone will be better off.

If the decision on who should be a hub is data driven rather than emotional, the answer is obvious, he said, because Jamaica has the only port in the Caribbean with global access and Trinidad has the best connected port in the Caribbean. 

To an outbreak of spontaneous applause he urged: “Let’s use the global entry into Kingston.  Let’s dovetail the global entry with the best connected port in the Caribbean, that’s Port of Spain, and let’s feed the markets.  It’s a simple strategy that is clouded by our individual interest.  It’s time to fix that.”

We need to find a way to come together and work on these common problems and find solutions,  Williams-Richards said. She also stressed the importance of putting port management “in the hands of people who have the best capability to manage it.”  This is not giving away assets, she emphasised.  Jamaica put structures in place to ensure the operator delivered and the port has generated more revenue for the government than if it had tried to operate the port itself, she noted.

D’angelis also urged the Caribbean to think outside of tourism because it was not bringing the benefits it used to.  He advised that each country should “identify a national champion” that it could export.  Each country has that.  Antigua’s national champion, for example, could be black pineapple which is sweeter than anywhere else, he said.

For Ramps’ Rampersad, the imperative is crystal clear.  He said: “For those of us who live in the Caribbean, what we have to be concerned about more than anything else is quality of life …and that quality of life will always be proportional to the strength and quality of the businesses that operate here in the Caribbean, especially the new businesses and start-ups, and a major component of those businesses being successful is logistics.” Rampersad pointed out that: “A lot of the time, our best and  brightest companies can’t scale up because of the logistics component. The supply chain component is extremely difficult.” 

Rampersad warned that the region would lose the next generation if we did not solve the problems. “If we are really going to build a Caribbean where the next generation feels they could stay right here and live as good a quality of life versus having to fly up north, then logistics is an important component of that because logistics helps to build better businesses and we need better businesses in the Caribbean in order to have a better life.” The Caricom Heads initiative to reduce the region’s food import bill by 25% by 2025 has given him a new feeling of optimism because he sees it as a rallying banner; something unifying that everyone could get behind and support. “When you listen to President Ali and Prime Minister Mottley and how strongly they are going behind this 25 by 25…it makes you think maybe there is real political will this time to get this thing done,” Rampersad said.