By Jason Kohn, Contributing Columnist
There’s plenty to love about Jamaica: the weather, the food, the music, the gorgeous beaches and mountains. But there’s one area where, according to one study at least, Jamaica is lagging behind: information technology.
This shouldn’t necessarily surprise. While some Latin American countries, especially Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, are seeing significant economic and IT growth, investment in the Caribbean is growing much more slowly.
But if you think there’s nothing interesting happening in the Jamaican and Caribbean tech scene, you’d be wrong. As the Kingston BETA tech conference held last month in the Jamaica’s capital demonstrates, there’s a burgeoning tech startup community in the region, and many people dedicated to helping that community grow and thrive.
I spoke to someone intimately involved in that process last week, Ingrid Riley, founder of the nonprofit ConnectiMass, which hosts the Kingston BETA and Caribbean BETA events.
“We’re an entrepreneurship foundation,” she says. “We started in 2007 with the goal of helping young people and women across the Caribbean to become successful tech entrepreneurs. We do that primarily by connecting them, educating them, and inspiring them.”
ConnectiMass is a major force in the region for collecting and publishing technology data and reports, and working with governments throughout Latin America to help accelerate technology investment and entrepreneurship. ConnectiMass also publishes an award-winning blog on the Caribbean tech scene, SiliconCaribe.com.
But Riley’s real passion is working at the ground level with budding entrepreneurs to help them develop their ideas into viable businesses.
“We’re a foundation that was started by entrepreneurs for aspiring and existing entrepreneurs,” she says. “We host startup boot camps and other events geared toward educating people about things like how to pitch your idea, how to make your idea actually viable. Our role is to do whatever we can to help them to be successful. That may mean they’re now able to say, ‘Hey, my goodness, my idea is viable so I’m going to bootstrap it,’ or ‘I’m going to form a team and go after angel or venture funding.’ Whatever route they choose, it’s about getting them ready. We try to inspire them and educate them so they can actually build, launch, and prosper.”
Building a Tech Community
A major part of ConnectiMass’ efforts are annual tech meet-ups, where aspiring entrepreneurs can meet with others in the tech community, participate in pitch contests, and get face-to-face coaching and guidance to help them succeed.
“We’ve held our Kingston BETA tech community meet-up since 2007,” says Riley. “We’ve had around 50 events, around 3,500 people attending, and a little more than 100 entrepreneurs have pitched their ideas at these events. We’re also in year two of the Caribbean Beta annual tech entrepreneurship conference.”
In Riley’s experience, the conferences are already having a significant effect.
“In the first three years of Kingston BETA, there were no pitches,” she recalls. “People didn’t know what it was, and there was this culture of people not wanting to share their ideas or worrying that they would be stolen. So it took a while. We did a lot of hands-on, face-to-face, small group meetings. We met with people one-on-one, and worked to get them to a comfortable place of simply speaking in the public and sharing their idea. The last three years have been amazing. This year we had an average of eight to 10 pitches every event, which was never the case early on. And we’re seeing that happen across the Caribbean. We’ve helped Barbados set up their own mini-meet-ups. We’ve helped Trinidad with their Trinidad & Tobago Startup Weekend. We’ve helped Cayman. When we say we’re Caribbean, we mean we’re Caribbean.”
This most recent Kingston BETA saw several exciting startups presenting at the event, including:
- Farmscore, a web application that aims to provide a credit score service to banks for local farmers
- Student Resident Web, an online business to advertise and manage housing at Jamaican universities
- BlastJA, a local deal site for Jamaican businesses and consumers
Past Kingston BETA successes include Gordon Swaby, founder of the online e-learning platform EduFocal, and the founders of JamaicansMusic.com, a global digital marketing platform for reggae music.
Riley believes that the future is bright for the tech scene in Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean. That’s due to all the smart and talented people in the region, but also due to the unique technology and business problems they’re trying to solve.
“We expect to see a lot of growth in startups that focus on empowering small businesses, and things like helping agriculture and government become more efficient,” says Riley. “Mobile applications and content are also going to be huge. Jamaica is number one in talk time and penetration and adoption across the region, and among the top three in social media presence. In addition to that, music without question, because we have one of the most influential music forms in the world, reggae music.”
And Jamaican entrepreneurs are about to get some help. The Jamaican government just announced it will invest US$20 million to further develop the country’s ICT sector. Two major telecom service providers also just announced a major joint commitment to expand wholesale broadband capacity to Caribbean companies.
Can’t wait to see the innovative things Jamaican entrepreneurs do with these investments? Keep your eye on the news from the region, and on the SiliconCaribe blog.
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