Two of Montserrat’s top experts in communication and technology took up the challenge to present on “The Promise of Information and Communication Technology (ICT): Improving the Business Environment” at the anniversary lecture series for the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB).
Organised by the local office of the ECCB, which serves the eight member states of the Eastern Caribbean Currency Union, the two-hour event was well attended and produced an energetic debate with attendees and those watching online. In attendance were Director General of the Foreign Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) Vijay Rangarajan, Governor Sarah Tucker, Minister of Agriculture Crenston Buffonge and acting Minister of Health Veronica Dorsette-Hector along with a cross-section of civil servants and community leaders.
This was the 5th installment of the lecture series, which was moderated by CEO of Goldenmedia and Editor of Discover Montserrat Nerissa Golden.
In his opening remarks, via video, ECCB Governor Timonthy N.J. Antoine asked the audience to consider how we would have survived the pandemic were it not for the power and promise of ICT. He added that the current global business environment requires the region to be connected and to use the digital tools available to thrive.
“It means every Montserrat must have access to ICT and broadband connectivity,” the governor stated. Montserratians must “become producers not just consumers in the economy…Technology must work for us not against us.”
More Tech Hasn’t Helped Us Do Business Better
Dr. Samuel Joseph, one of the founders of Lavabits, Montserrat’s first software development firm and the current Minister of Communication, Works, Labour & Energy opened the lecture by stating that Montserrat has the technology and all the tools needed to transform its economy, however this has not been achieved.
He said that one of the problems the OECS and the wider region has is the continued practice of following other countries assuming what works for them will work for us.
“We took other people’s systems, like the Westminster system and imposed it on ourself. We are falling behind as a region because we haven’t used ICT to solve the problems we have,” the minister who holds a PhD in Physics told the audience. Technology helped us while we were going through COVID and we ‘Zoomed every funeral” however it has not fundamentally changed how we do business, he added.
“DCash has been launched and its free. Our homegrown Serra is available. If I asked the people in here do they use it, the answer is no they have not. It’s not a cost issue but we still don’t use it. Who are we changing the business environment for? In a culture where we go to the bank and post office to lime, are we making solutions for the context we want or are we trying to solve actual business problems we have?”
Dr. Joseph said the main friction point is not from consumer to consumer but from the business and consumer to government. He said in order to fix the business environment, governments must fix how they interact with the citizens. “The world is changing faster than the government can keep up. Governments must sit down with developers to find solutions we need.”
He continued to say that there is an opportunity to create APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) that will remove the pain points of doing business throughout the ECCU. He further stated that we need collaborative approaches such as like at MIT Lab where governments, academia and the private sector work to develop solutions. He challenged that The University of the West Indies and UTech in Jamaica should do more than produce scholars but develop solutions which can serve our societies and enable businesses to work better.
Montserrat is Connected but are We Thriving?
Denzil West, Director of the Government of Montserrat’s Department of Information Technology and eGovernment Services (DITES), confessed to using online artificial intelligence application Chat GPT to pen his opening paragraph. He said the early promise of ICT was that it would create the ‘paperless office’.
“We were told that with the introduction of computers, everything would be digitized, and we would no longer need so much paper, and we would cut down on costs and greatly eliminate the need for printing. We did see computers on every desk, but along with that came a proliferation of printers that allowed for easy and convenient printing. So much so that and by some estimates the amount of paper used in offices doubled between the 1980’s and 2000’s. The trend is reportedly going in the other direction these days as the younger generations are increasingly more comfortable reading from screens, and partly due to the COVID-19 lockdowns, where we were forced to adapt our reading habits. Estimates are that current usage could be more than halved during the next decade. The point being, that while technology did enable a different mode of operation, business processes were not altered much and the culture of reading from paper did not change at a rapid pace either,” West noted.
“The availability of technology alone is not enough to bring about improvements in the business environment. In order to leverage the power of ICTs, business managers have to make a conscious effort to dispense with old habits and streamline business processes from the ground up with the new technologies in mind. There is little point in digitizing bad or outdated procedures,” he added.
The DITES director shared how Montserrat transformed its government and national infrastructure over the years since the volcanic eruptions began.
“After the Route Survey in February 2019 and the Submarine Cable Laying in June 2020, Montserrat was reconnected to the international submarine cable network via a Branching Unit in the middle of the ocean. This means that we have transitioned from the vulnerable and limited microwave connections to Antigua, and now have exponential high-speed internet capacity available in Montserrat. All schools, health clinics and community centres are connected to the internet for free, with minimum bandwidth of 100Mbs. This game changing upgrade of international internet capacity is a major infrastructure pillar for promoting private sector investment,” shared West.
The increased bandwidth capacity has enabled the Government of Montserrat to deliver several online applications to include ASYCUDA for Customs shipment clearance, Online Visa Application, Land Information System, Online Drivers Licenses Application, Online Property Tax Payment System, and various applications via Cloud Services. For the most part, these and other applications are equipped to accept payments online.
The director also shared that “Project LightSpeed”; a broadband fibre connection scheme that was designed to turbo charge the roll out of Fibre to the premises across all inhabited areas of the island. “The Government of Montserrat can now boast that as a result of Project Lightspeed, Montserrat is on the verge of declaring that all internet connections are high speed and fibre only. The stage has been set for the Yellow Economy. We can honestly declare that internet access is NOT a constraint to doing business in Montserrat,” he declared.
West, like Dr. Joseph referenced ECCB’s digital dollar DCash and the digital wallet Serra. He also noted the Bank of Montserrat’s mobile bank app and card services to allow for international payments.
“I must confess that although I have installed the DCash and Serra digital wallets on my phone, I have not loaded either one of them with cash and therefore never used them. There is work for the ECCB, Serra and BOML to do if we are to realise a cashless business environment. The lesson here is that good software applications do not automatically mean that your target audience will be immediately sold on your product,” the expert added.
West asked the audience to consider that:
• The availability of technology on its own does not bring about change
• Change has to be purposeful and intentional
• Change works best if driven by a business imperative or a consumer imperative
• Identify and fill a need, avoid creating a solution without a problem
• Nice to have is not always sustainable, and struggles for buy-in
• Look for markets beyond Montserrat
• Create content rather than simply consume content
He noted that the missing link is Reliable Low Cost Electricity, which along with affordable high-speed internet could offer new business opportunities.
“The foundations are there for Montserrat to realise its dream of being Green, Connected and Thriving. No more consultancies required. Read the existing documents, find your niche and get to work. Let us not only use technology to enhance our inhouse business processes, but also look at how we can employ information and communication technology to generate wealth in our economy,” West concluded.
Following the presentations, there was a robust discussion by attendees on the challenges of doing business in Montserrat.
Watch the full lecture below.