While consumers in much of the US are enjoying the convenience of digital payments, digital contracts, and digital…well, everything…many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are still 100% operating with paper-based processes.
Take a cash-based society like Guyana, where businessmen carry wads of notes and workers cash checks – you don’t get very far carrying a credit card. Restaurants and shops rarely accept electronic payments, and those that do tend to require ID – you can forget a swift, contactless ‘tap’!
This preference for paper extends to bureaucracy too, with many records still held on hard copy and the heavy thump of an ink stamp concluding most transactions, so starting an online, digital, or cell phone-based business in such an environment isn’t easy.
An Emerging Digital Environment
Last year, three taxi-booking apps sprang up in Guyana’s capital, Georgetown, but, despite the initial fanfare, they have made little lasting impact. Although the services locate your nearest driver, permit e-booking, and calculate the cost of your journey, transactions are not made electronically – something which is critical to the success of Uber, Lyft, and the like.
Changing habits is another challenge. The CEO of one of the apps later told Stabroek News why his company was pulling out of the game: “The existing taxi culture in Guyana is one that has existed for years and is not easily broken or changed.” Not only was it hard convincing the public to switch their regular service for an unknown car but also drivers were reluctant to get involved.
The Little Data Book on Information and Technology 2017 recorded that 67.2 out of 100 people in Guyana had cell phone subscriptions in 2015, with just 38.2% of the whole population (around 770,000 people) using the internet. However by 2016, GTT records put mobile penetration at 73% – and the figures continue to rise.
Online access has also widened, thanks in part to an ongoing initiative by the National Data Management Authority of the Ministry of Public Telecommunications, which involves installing ICT hubs in towns, villages, and schools across Guyana – including remote hinterland communities. Not to mention private efforts, such as GTT’s ongoing roll out of its sub-sea cable, fiber-optic service Blaze, which is reaching previously un-served areas such as La Parfait-Harmonie, La Grange, and Nismes.
Growing Consumer Demand
This opening up is starting to inspire new ways of thinking and working in what has always been a very entrepreneurial society. It is making it easier for international companies, too, to set up shop in Guyana, a country that is abundant in natural resources and raw talent – and anxious to boost its business sector, employment opportunities, and infrastructure.
Improved access to the internet and new technologies is also deepening overseas cultural influences, particularly from the United States and Canada – which in turn has led many in Guyana to seek a more North American lifestyle, hence the rise in hot-water installation, coffee shops, new devices, and smart homes.
These consumer cravings have already led to the creation of e-commerce businesses that cater to new local demands in a familiar format – such as BAC Couriers a “online shopping and shipping” concept where customers can order items in store, pay for them in cash, and return when their purchases are ready for collection – ideal for those without their own bank card or the time to negotiate the public postal service.
Another new sector that is emerging out of improvements in technology and connectivity is communication outsourcing. As the only country in South America with English as its official language, Guyana is getting increasing attention as an affordable location for call centers. Global companies that have planted roots in Guyana include Qualfon and Teleperformance, to name just two.
How to Change Mindsets
Starting an online business in Guyana requires patience and investment. When GTT introduced its new mobile money transaction service, Mobile Money Guyana (MMG), it had to pull out all the stops to get customers on board.
Even though the country has other bill payment services, such as MoneyGram and Western Union, this was something new altogether. For example, payments are made instantly – compared to a 24-48 hour lag for other agents. Yet despite the advantages offered, it has been and continues to be an uphill battle to alter cultural norms.
Growing awareness of other online payment portals such as Paypal and Amazon, however, has helped boost MMG subscriptions. Also crucial to growth has been the expansion beyond traditional utility payments and GTT airtime credit. Today the company facilitates payments for all hire-purchase companies, all national taxes, local rates and taxes, private school tuition and university fees – including student loan repayments.
It is also adding new merchants to its platform, enabling payments for garbage collection, taxi services, online shopping with all of the major freight forwarders, and even fuel at gas stations, as well as forming strategic partnerships with micro-finance bodies such as IPED and a select group of insurance companies to reach more inaccessible parts of the country.
Much of the recent success can additionally be attributed to community activities and fairs in traditionally cash-focused, middle to low income areas, where the aim is to demonstrate the service in a simple and direct way.
Building a new future
It is hard to imagine what Guyana’s physical and cultural landscape will look like in ten years from now, but, as the country opens up to outside influences, the internet is giving the Guyanese a chance to create their own platforms and online businesses.
While the emphasis may initially be on importing ideas and products from overseas, what will truly catch on and succeed are those that fit into or appreciate Guyana’s existing culture and values. The taxi apps didn’t take off because Guyana’s network of taxis is already extensive and cheap. Mobile Money Guyana, meanwhile, has become a success because it filled a gap.
The key, in the end, is knowing what will work and having the persistence to see it through.