Caribbean tech entrepreneurs say collaboration is key to future growth

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By Kay Baldeosingh-Arjune

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 CEO’s 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 The 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 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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