I had these Questions for the IDB about the Tech Space in Trinidad and Tobago

Country Representative for Trinidad and Tobago, Carina Cockburn

How would you describe the tech space in Trinidad and Tobago?

Trinidad and Tobago is in position 46 out of 65 in the Annual Report of the Broadband Development Index (IDBA) ranking that includes Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. When we focus on the Latin America and the Caribbean region, it is in position 10 out of 26.  Furthermore, the penetration rate of fixed broadband services is 24.33%, whereas the penetration rate of mobile services is 48.92%, far from the average of the OECD countries which is 34.8% for fixed broadband and 127.3% for mobile.  You can find a report from Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) here. As a result, businesses, entrepreneurs and government actors operating in the tech space are aiming for improvements and looking forward to the opportunities offered for expansion, greater efficiency and improved service delivery. 

In what relates to the use of digital technologies by the government to operate more efficiently and provide better services to its citizens, Trinidad and Tobago has advanced on its agenda but there is still room for improvement as illustrated by the United Nations eGovernment Development Index that places Trinidad and Tobago at position 78 out of 193 countries in the 2020 edition.

There is an awareness and understanding of the development potential of the application of technology, however there is still a disconnect between what the private sector is ready, willing, and capable of delivering and what the enabling environment can provide, as the current state regulations, norms and procedures are not keeping pace with these developments. Trinidad and Tobago still facing a digital infrastructure connectivity gap of US$86 million compared to the OECD countries, 73% of which occurs in rural areas where the economic and financial model of private operations is not profitable.

Trinidad and Tobago has  also made remarkable progress in cybersecurity policy, as documented by our latest regional report. It is a pioneer in approving one of the first national cybersecurity strategies in the region in 2012, and establishing the TT-CSIRT, or the Trinidad and Tobago Cyber Security Incident Response Team, in 2015. In this dynamic field, constant modernization is a must. Demand exceeds supply and there are always opportunities to strengthen the institutional capacity on cybersecurity and develop human talent in a field where the availability of professionals in both the public and private sectors is limited.

Despite the challenges, we see significant effort towards innovation and creativity in the tech environment as well as to enhance the enabling environment.

In what ways do you think Trinidad and Tobago can use technology to drive country development?

Development has many facets, and, as seen above, improving the country’s digital infrastructure can have measurable impact on several important indicators. However, also key to development is a perception of general safety and wellbeing, transparency, and accountability of public expenditure. There are many open source or inexpensive tools that can contribute to achieving these goals which, as we know, form a critical pillar of development.

Also, according to our index Trinidad and Tobago scores 3.8 points out of 7 in digital skills. As a result, skills training, the regulatory environment and enhanced services (effectiveness) can lead to saving money and time (efficiency). This would enable business with relatively low capital use tech platforms to scale quickly and reach new markets. So, let’s focus on the multiplier effect that improved tech infrastructure can have on economic growth for Trinidad and Tobago.

What work in the technology space does IDB do in Trinidad and Tobago?

The new IDB Country Strategy with Trinidad & Tobago 2021-2025 focuses on three areas: (i) improving the business environment to enable digital transformation; (ii) expanding the use of digital tools to improve educational outcomes and digital skills; and (iii) enhancing the delivery of services. In alignment with the strategy, we have been working with the Ministry of Digital Transformation on two levels. First, we have been working with the Ministry as a thought partner in the development of its own institutional corporate and policy development capacity through the provision of technical consultants and opportunities for other country experiences in the region. Second, we actively engage with the Ministry to implement projects that showcase how government can serve as an enabling platform for stakeholders in the private sector and civil society to collaborate in creating a digital nation through projects such as Connected Arima which will pilot the first smart borough in Trinidad and Tobago and the implementation of digital solutions in the areas of health and social development. 

Delivering on the full potential for digital public services requires innovative thinking on how the broader civil service will facilitate and regulate the digital economy and society. The IDB is also working with the Ministry of Public Administration to undertake its public sector modernization agenda, focusing on a comprehensive approach to building digital skills and competencies, enhancing integrated digital solutions for managing public servants and supporting the change process across government institutions for more streamlined service design and provision.

Our IDB Lab window supports several initiatives that seek to promote the utilization of technology.  These include providing financing:

  • to promote Research & Development among MSMEs in collaboration with the Ministry of Planning and Development, European Union and CARIRI under the Shaping the future of Innovation project;
  • to support the development of a digital lending model to MSMEs, who typically would be denied access to financing from traditional financial institutions that provide collateral based lending to invest in the commercial growth and internationalization of the Animation Gaming and Music Technology sector via a partnership with the University of Trinidad and Tobago. Resources have been allocated to upskill and retool practitioners based on current industry demands and to bolster collaboration amongst stakeholders to secure international contracts in the various sectors support numerous tech-based solutions in the health sector as a response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Specifically, the roll out of the private health tech service provided by Medl, a local start up, which developed an application to support greater medicinal compliance by persons suffering with Non-Communicable Diseases via an efficient and cost-effective mechanism.

How do you view the Digital Transformation taking place in Trinidad and Tobago?

This is a very exciting time for Trinidad and Tobago. The country has clearly identified Digital Transformation as a priority with the establishment of a new Ministry last year, one of the first in the Latin America and the Caribbean region to do so. On the private sector side, we are seeing concerted efforts to develop digital solutions to problems that are faced in the country such as platforms like Medl, Planting Seeds, Wipay and others.  Ambitious projects that involve multiple public and private stakeholders have also been initiated such as the Connected Arima initiative that will be the first smart borough in Trinidad and Tobago.

What are your views on the Digital Divide in Trinidad and Tobago?

There is a Digital Divide in Trinidad and Tobago. There is a specific need to increase the deployment of digital infrastructure with the ultimate goal of guaranteeing the continuity of public services (schools, hospitals, police stations, eGovernment services). We also need to improve mechanisms for the inclusion and equality between urban and rural areas, when exploring the digital divide issue.

What advice would you give to tech startups?

The IDB continues to encourage innovation and technology-driven solutions, and we believe the private sector can play a leading role in this, especially tech start-ups. Through the work of IDB Lab, we continue to look for creative solutions to many of the human problems that can be solved with new technologies. We also encourage the private sector to continue to digitize and automate as many processes as possible leaving more time for collaboration, innovation, and communication as we continue to build a technology-driven society.

How can Trinidad and Tobago utilise tech to earn foreign exchange?

The technology sector could be a driver to increase foreign investments in the country through venture capital and the creation of technology firms. In fact, in Latin America and the Caribbean, during 2021 venture investment passed the US$4 billion mark for a second consecutive year, according to The Association for Private Capital Investment in Latin America (LAVCA). In fact, during 2021, six new tech unicorns (startups valued over US$1 billion) added up to some other 40 that already existed in the region. The great story is Fintech, which represented 40% of the total amount invested. Given this context, under the right tech and business environment, Trinidad and Tobago could attract some of these resources and foster the development of a tech hub for the Caribbean.

We need to invest in institutional capacity, improve regulatory frameworks, telecommunications infrastructure, skills and knowledge, to increase both supply and demand for digital services. Higher levels of specialization in tech services could grow sectors earning foreign exchange through the exports of services. This should be a result of a mix of public policies to incentivize entrepreneurs, including the opportunity of using tools such as innovation hubs for the Fintech industry, for example, and finding the opportunities on the side of the private sector.

There are Fintech platforms, for instance, already operating in Trinidad and Tobago that serve the demand for remittances and cross-border payments. These solutions are examples also, at the level of the financial consumers, to deal with foreign exchange.

How do you view the role of tech bloggers in Trinidad and Tobago?

Tech bloggers are digital natives. It is in their DNA to push transformation efforts to the limit and inform the public who may be hesitant or don’t have enough information to make informed decisions as the economy goes through the digital transformation process. Tech bloggers are invaluable to the technology ecosystem in Trinidad and Tobago. They have the power to influence the future and shape the reactions of the population to adopt digital technology.

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