Growth, Innovation Opportunities in Post-COVID-19 Caribbean

Guyanese Kid working on computer

In a recent webinar on post-COVID-19 economic recovery in the Caribbean, cross-sector experts identified compelling yet implementable strategies for regional economic growth and development that promise potentially lucrative engagement opportunities for local and diaspora-based Caribbean nationals alike.

Live-streamed from New York, the webinar took place late June as the months-long coronavirus pandemic continued to disrupt key industries and supply chains globally.

With 17 percent of the Caribbean region’s GDP relying on tourism – the highest of any region worldwide – according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the collective economies of the Caribbean are vulnerable to shocks such as natural disasters and global health crises, like the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond that, says Caribbean economist Marla Dukharan, the region receives significant remittances from abroad – around US$15.8 billion each year – which makes it susceptible to economic shocks caused by events around the world.

While these facts are deeply concerning, the region’s outlook is not all doom and gloom. “Caribbean resilience in this era will be about turning vulnerabilities into investable opportunities,” attests Justin Ram, Ph.D., former director of economics at the Caribbean Development Bank, and founder of GSec, an investment startup.

Organized and hosted by the Guyana Economic Development Trust (GEDT), a U.S.-based virtual incubator and accelerator that commercializes standout scientific and technological ideas from the Caribbean through its Innovation Prize program, the event sought to engage a broad audience of Caribbean nationals and members of the U.S.-based and wider diaspora around opportunities for growth and innovation in the Caribbean “beyond the beach.” Titled “Caribbean Resilience: Post-Pandemic Economic Recovery,” it was attended by individuals from several Caribbean nations.

Ram, one of the webinar’s three panelists, pointed to the private sector for opportunities to alter the picture framed by dire forecasts. Addressing webinar attendees and fellow panelists, he posited that governments need to take a more active role as facilitators of growth by creating regulatory environments and legal frameworks that attract diverse investments, investing in resilient infrastructure, and putting a greater focus on implementation.

He repeatedly expressed the need to “democratize” investments. “The traditional financial structure must change,” he said. “We need finance that is inexpensive upfront, but has an opportunity to share in the long-term rewards of resilience building.”

To this point, Ram suggested giving everyday citizens and members of the diaspora an opportunity to own equity stakes in the economy. He argued that this is a sound method to encourage investments, leverage growth and actively engage with the diasporic community financially.

Opportunities abound for investment in the Caribbean, panelists agreed. In 2020, for example, the GEDT Innovation Prize winner was Tandika Harry, a Guyanese scientist behind research for an all-natural coating that extends the post-harvest life of fruits and vegetables for export markets. Commercializing this idea will have a profoundly positive effect on reducing food waste in the region.

Beyond such breakthrough ideas, other types of businesses need support, said panelist Lizra Fabien, chairperson of the Network of Caribbean Chambers of Commerce (CARICHAM). “Our MSME [micro, small and medium-size enterprises] sector comprises about 80 percent of the business sector in the region,” Fabien stated.

CARICHAM, provides the platform in which these small to medium enterprises can receive training, financial literacy support, and capacity building. Fabien affirmed, in no uncertain terms, that integrating such small businesses from the informal sector into the mainstream would be an immediate area to generate economic growth.

Ingrid Riley, rounded out the discussion. A digital media strategist and founder of Rebel Grrl Media, she put forward the thesis that, “every single Caribbean nation has something that it does best, and does better than any other nation in the world.” She termed this the region’s “unfair advantage.”

For Jamaica, Riley noted, that advantage lies in the country’s cultural influence. She cited Barbados’s drive to become the blockchain capital of the region and Guyana’s oil-rich resources as the advantages of those countries, respectively. “Honing in and fully realizing the potential of these advantages, while pairing them with existing technologies, is another way of fully realizing the region’s potential,” she asserted. (Above, a robotics competition in Guyana for primary and secondary school students.)

Rosalind Kilkenny McLymont, an international business journalist, acclaimed author, and executive editor of The Network Journal in New York, moderated the discussion. McLymont expertly moved the conversation along, maneuvering through questions and engaging the panelists to consider the nooks and crannies of the topics at hand.

Asked by McLymont to identify a sector in the region that has been resilient at least for the past decade, both Fabien and Riley cited “media and entertainment.” At a time when most businesses are struggling, Caribbean creators managed to pivot real-life opportunities into virtual experiences, such as online concerts, Riley noted.

Riley insisted that the media and entertainment space, despite its traditional resilience, still provides massive opportunities for innovation.

“The world is craving Caribbean content,” she emphasized, adding that the main drivers and creators of such content are the Caribbean millennials and young creative entrepreneurs. “We should be listening to them.”

Governments and policymakers should not be the only ones to start listening. To preserve innovation and build resilience beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, all stakeholders must be leveraged, including the millions of members of the diaspora living abroad.

The strategies presented during this webinar must not start and stop with panel discussions. What COVID-19 provides, says Ram, is “a rare opportunity to fine-tune how we implement projects.”

Oslene Carrington is the chief executive officer of the Guyana Economic Development Trust