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CTO head: We need more local ICT products

Published: 
Sunday, August 31, 2014
Flashback: F1RST’s directors and co-founders: Eesa Mohammed, from left, Kyle Maloney and Nicholas Maloney.

More ICT (information and communication technology) entrepreneurs are needed in the Caribbean, according to Professor Tim Unwin, secretary general of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO). 

Unwin spoke with the Sunday BG while he was in T&T for the “ICTs 4 Skills Development and Entrepreneurship among Young People” symposium which was held between August 19 and August 20. The symposium was hosted by the Telecommunications Authority (TATT) in partnership with the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO), as well as, the Omar Dengo Foundation from Costa Rica.

Unwin, professor emeritus at Royal Holloway University of London, said everyone—both young and old—needs to be learning how to use ICTs to achieve their goals in business and everyday life, especially given the accelerated use of technology in modern times. But developing the skills and desire necessary to fuel entrepreneurship in the sector or becoming an entrepreneur, in general, starts from the time one is born to adulthood in Unwin’s assessment. 

An expert in skills development and entrepreneurship, particularly in the ICT sector, the British professor said: “I think everything that one does when one is a child is so influential.” And, even though some people have the natural aptitude, Unwin said they can still get better with training. 

Entrepreneurship’s not for everyone
Unwin is of the view that entrepreneurship is not for everyone. “I caution against the view that entrepreneurship is going to change the world and there are going to be tens of thousands of people with entrepreneurial skills who are going to build the economy. I don’t think that is actually ever going to happen. There are people who are going to do that but there are people who want to do other things. It depends a little bit on how you define entrepreneurship.”

In defining what an entrepreneur is, Unwin said he looked at three things. An entrepreneur is someone who comes up with new ideas to develop a business. He said they also had to have a certain set of skills that make them open to developing an opportunity for other people. Creativity, he said, is the third element, since entrepreneurship is about doing something that has not been done before. 

“People say if someone opens their own shop they are an entrepreneur, I’m not sure about that. 

“To me, an entrepreneur is someone who actually has a vision to do something bigger than that. If someone says that a person setting up a small business to sell sim cards is an entrepreneur, okay, I accept that some people see that, but I don’t. At the heart of entrepreneurship, for me, is someone who will develop their own business and employ other people and move forward to generate growth in the economy,” said Unwin.

ICT in small state economies
Small state economies, like T&T and others in the region, pose an interesting challenge for ICT entrepreneurs. 
Unwin said even though many Commonwealth members were small island states, one of the great things about technology is that it can be developed anywhere in the world and have a world market. 
“From small states like Montserrat and Tobago to larger ones like Jamaica, if there are creative people there is the potential to serve a world market,” Unwin said. However, he also said that developing product specifically designed for the local context.
“It’s tough and it’s tough to make money. You’ve got the T&T market, you’ve got the Caribbean, you’ve got North America, you’ve got the Commonwealth, it’s all very nested but there will always be a demand for local content. Yes, the local market is small but if you’re not doing things for your local culture, your local economy, your local society, why don’t you go live elsewhere,” said Unwin.

A true entrepreneur
Nicolas Maloney, one of the directors and co-founders of F1rst Media Ltd—a local company that provides ICT solutions—agreed that focus should be placed on the local market. Maloney said: “Our focus is Trinidad, Barbados and Jamaica but the perks are global. It works the same in any country. I travel to New York, to France, to Turkey and I use the app while I’m there. I go into places in those countries and add them and so forth.”

The app Maloney referred is one which “is basically a way for businesses to access consumers in a way that they haven’t been able to do in the past.” He explained to the Sunday BG that if, for example, someone was looking for a place to purchase food at night or on a day like Sunday, where some places may be closed or at a venue where there may be no card payment system, Maloney said the F1rst Media app can be used to search for food and locate such places.

The app also allows a user to see all places that are nearby, see which restaurants are the most popular, see if friends visited there before, see their recommendations, take a look at what is on the menu and then to make a decision. 

Describing another scenario where local tech solutions are needed, he said: “How would you know where you can get the latest Beats by Dre headphones locally, at a good price? You’re not too sure, you would have to go from store to store. You would quicker go to Amazon and buy internationally.”

Acknowledging that the Caribbean market is small, Maloney said T&T and other countries in the region have room for ICT solutions like those his company offers as the regional sector is not very competitive and businesses within the region are ready for them. He told the Sunday BG that businesses in T&T have been “tremendously” accepting of the concept and they have recognised the growing use of digital devices by consumers and the need for digital communication.

“The problem is, most of the local businesses aren’t online,” said Maloney. Even though local businesses may be behind their international counterparts from developed countries, “they know how to use technology so the opportunity is there,” Maloney said. Some of the local business the ICT entrepreneur said his company is working with include: Digicel, Courts, Lucky Dollar, Optometrist Today, Hyatt and Massy Automotive.

Reaching to the point where the entrepreneur and his business partners could approach companies of this stature took a lot of hard work. “With anything that is worth achieving it was pretty difficult, but that comes with the territory of just trying to do anything big or revolutionary. First you need to find a concept that you can start without needing a huge capital investment. The innovation comes in the actual business model. 

“But it’s tough, it’s not easy at all,” he said.

Funding a start-up
The founders of the company and their families funded the initial start-up cost of F1rst Media’s parent company Novustech Ltd—a company that deals with energy efficiency in the Caribbean. This, in turn, provided the capital to start F1rst. Professor Unwin sees this as the true entrepreneurial approach. “If I take the logic of what I see an entrepreneur to be, entrepreneurs would fund their startups themselves,” he said. He also added there are a number of global initiatives “to try and crack that nut.” 

One of the initiatives Unwin pointed to is the innovation hub. He said that many innovation hubs focus on giving people technological skills but he thinks it is really important for them to do more. “It’s giving them business skills, financial skills, etc,” he said.
That is not his only issue with innovation hubs. 

He said: “In some countries there are business start-up funds that governments and private sector make available. Some of the big global corporations are funding innovation hubs and entrepreneurial initiatives. I have some problems with that because what tends to happen is you get a big global corporation putting funding in and they then identify the bright people that work in those innovation hubs and take them into their companies which very often clamps down on their entrepreneurial spirit. Ideally, going back to my definition, these people should be trained to go out and build their own businesses.” 

And there is vast potential in the Caribbean to do just that, according to Maloney. “The thing about the ICT sector is that, when you hear about things like Facebook and Twitter, those things started with one or two people, there’s very low initial costs but the long-term potential is immense. It’s all based on human capital and intellect, so there isn’t much difference between a software developer here and a developer in the US.

“If the Caribbean can maximise the intellectual strength of its people, we can definitely go into the ICT sector and leverage it to do great things,” Maloney said