In the minds of the average North American or European consumer, the Caribbean represents tourism: sandy white beaches, mojitos and music. But for Nearshore leaders, the Caribbean is also a place of significant growth and opportunity.
Tourism, although important, hasn’t been the whole economic picture for a while. From Jamaica’s growth as call center -– and more recently software outsourcing –- markets, and Saint Lucia’s artificial intelligence bet, to Trinidad & Tobago’s education initiatives, and even Guyana’s expansion in energy, as well as tech development, the Caribbean has changed.
But talking about growth in the Caribbean focuses almost exclusively on the islands that make up the English-speaking Caribbean.
Spanish-speaking islands like Cuba and the Dominican Republic, have not yet seen the significant differentiation of other islands, though the Dominican Republic’s BPO market is well established. It is fair to say that the role of cities in the Greater Caribbean, including coast cities in Mexico and Colombia, is growing in Nearshore outsourcing. Cartagena and Barranquilla are some examples that Nearshore Americas has recently covered.
But what happens with the Francophone Caribbean? From Haiti to the “French West Indies”: why don’t we hear about them more often? Should decision makers pay more attention to them?
The French Territories
Emmanuel Joseph is an entrepreneur operating from the island of Martinique. He’s the leader of Lakou Digital, an emerging digital innovation hub with the ambition to connect Caribbean companies and investors. While in conversation with Nearshore Americas, Joseph’s passion about the Francophone Caribbean’s potential was clear.
“When it comes to industries like BPO, we could easily replicate what other countries have done,” he said.
However, Joseph also expressed concerns about the lack of attention the French Territories of Martinique and Guadalupe get from leading industry players.
“Recently we saw Teleperformance announce a significant expansion of its investment in El Salvador. I was intrigued about what would make a company choose El Salvador over Martinique. Beyond all the differences, I think there is a general lack of understanding in the marketplace about what we can offer,” Joseph added.
According to Teleperformance’s own data, the company has more than 6,500 employees in El Salvador and has been operating there since 2004. El Salvador has not only attracted Teleperformance, but leading companies such as Applaudo Studios and The Office Gurus have operations in the Central American nation as well.
Joseph suggests that the efforts that El Salvador has made in order to attract more investment into outsourcing markets should be replicated by the French Territories.
“We already have good infrastructure, the right time zone and location but we should be able to put incentives in place to be more attractive. In many cases we discourage investments from precisely the kind of companies we should be trying to bring here,” Joseph said.
The success of important BPO/KPO destinations derives from the ability to create the right talent and promote the kind of entrepreneurship that facilitate the export of services or demanded business products. What are local authorities doing to stimulate tech entrepreneurism and digital exports?
“In islands such as Martinique and Guadalupe, we don’t have a strong mindset of entrepreneurship. In the past, most people used to work for government administrations but now younger generations are coming back to the islands and they want to start companies. This has created a question for the government in now to support this entrepreneurship in meaningful ways,” said Yoann Saint-Louis, a consultant with the Guadalupe/Martinique-based firm Eye Consulting, which specializes in digital strategies.
Even though Saint-Louis believes that people in these islands could start a business with a “laptop and $100”, he also recognizes that bureaucracy can be challenging sometimes. However, several government agencies and organizations have programs to support entrepreneurship.
Initiatives such as La French Tech, a program launched in France but that also supports startups in its territories overseas, accompanies emerging companies and tries to provide the support they need.
Recently, local authorities in Martinique launched Zetwal, an initiative oriented toward helping entrepreneurs identify all the plans they can benefit at local, national and European levels in order to start or develop their business.
For Joseph, even when there are multiple government agencies supporting entrepreneurship, there is no coordination and the resources are not sufficient.
“Most founders have to work thing out for themselves without support. We have different institutions at various levels: the national government, regional government, and town administration, but at the end of the day there is a lack of knowledge on this topic. It’s an issue of the mentality. We need people with the right mindset that believe that we can create employment from these businesses and produce significant gains for our communities,” added Joseph.
The Particular Case of Haiti
According to Saint-Louis, in spite of the small population of the “French West Indies”, the islands have strong labor pools.
“We have a lot of good profiles here, because a lot people go to France, Belgium or Canada to study in top schools and then spend time in big companies in these countries. And, unlike other Caribbean islands, many of those students are willing to come back here. That’s an advantage,” said Saint-Louis.
“It’s an issue of the mentality. We need people with the right mindset that believe that we can create employment from these businesses and produce significant gains for our communities.” — Emmanuel Joseph
Haiti is not in the same situation. The country continues to face an insecurity crisis and sustained political instability. However, there are some signs to be cautiously optimistic about entrepreneurship and business possibilities in the country. Even Saint-Louis ran a small call center in Haiti with five employees to support the operations of one of its previous businesses.
For the Co-Director of Fondation CASELI Philippe Saint-Cyr, the conditions of Haiti are unique and demand greater effort in order to see returns. Fondation CASELI is a Haiti-based foundation that manages startup incubators for Haitian entrepreneurs. The organization has programs with financing from the Inter-American Development Bank and implemented by offices of the Haitian government.
“First, we’re trying to help them understand what the local needs and demands are, so they can properly position their ideas after mastering the business fundamentals,” said Saint-Cyr.
But entrepreneurship and digital services still face various obstacles in Haiti. “It’s hard for Haitian businesses to conduct operations abroad because foreigners have a negative view of the purchasing power and capabilities of local companies. That affects any potential of doing business abroad,” added Saint-Cyr.
Beyond some programs, like those ran by the Fondation CASELI, Haiti is still facing a complicated situation. Internet penetration is very low and expensive, which compromises the prospects of digital exports and entrepreneurship, and electricity is not reliable in many parts of the country.
“Digitalization in Haiti will continue to be difficult until these issues are solved,” Saint-Cyr concluded.