Kiran Mathur Mohammed
On some of the more stressful days (and there are many) starting a new company in TT, I’ve definitely been tempted to wonder why I’m doing this here, and not elsewhere.
After all, if you had invested $100 in the US economy in 2010, you’d have ended up with $118 in 2019. If you invested in TT, you’d end up with $91. That means you would have lost $27 out of your $100 by choosing to invest in this country instead of moving either your or your assets to the United States.
Before you protest an unfair comparison, consider this: in 2019, 99 other economies grew faster than the United States'.
Once you start calculating the opportunity cost of alternative investments, and juicy stock markets (don’t mention Gamestop, please), regret and resignation begin to seep in.
For any outsider looking in, the TT economy is a dubious investment. Local investments are largely very difficult to sell anywhere outside the country. Most of our best educated people have long since migrated (with some numbers pointing to the diaspora and their children numbering almost as many people as still live here).
Oil and gas are certain to decline, and there has been no single opportunity that has emerged to replace them.
Almost the only reason most people have kept their assets in TT has been because they’ve been unable to access foreign exchange to get it out. Almost the only reason most people haven’t left for better opportunities is that they can’t get visas to do so.
If you have some capital and mobility, or even some foreign currency, why should you still stay and invest in TT?
As a millennial who finished my master’s degree seven years ago and returned to TT, and as an entrepreneur with responsibility for my employees, investors and customers, the challenges of staying and investing here remain immense. Even if you hold them at bay with a wall of blind optimism, it can be tough to have dispiriting days.
Yet I’m still here. So are many other people far more brilliant than me – journalists, filmmakers, entrepreneurs, civil servants, doctors, you name it: there are pockets of people with their heads down, soldiering on.
But beyond the sun and sand, beyond the (pre-covid19) parties and closeness to family, the old familiar sense of home, there must be a rational basis for why many of us chose to stay, and a rational case for why anyone from abroad should invest here.
The first reason is that there are so many exciting problems here.
While this may not seem like an obvious reason to rush to book a ticket back to TT, this can actually be a huge advantage. All a budding entrepreneur needs to do is pull out their notebook and start writing down a list of all the problems they hear about. That is the first step to coming up with an idea that is genuinely new to market.
The proliferation of problems also means that if you come up with something that is genuinely new and solves a problem, you’re likely to find an open field, with relatively new products.
The second reason is that we are a wonderfully low-trust environment that guarantees that starting something new is much harder than most anywhere.
TT ranks last in the entire world in the World Values Survey of interpersonal trust, behind war torn countries like Syria, Iraq or the Congo. One entrepreneur describes it as “playing a game on 'hard' mode.” Another compares it to footballers training at altitude.
That makes it a natural breeding ground for resilience, and a Petri dish for new technologies. Last year, I remember speaking with Dr Kwame Johnson, clinical lead product manager at health-tech company Alivecor and former senior product manager at Google Health. Half-joking, he exclaimed that there must be a way to monetise our immense scepticism by marketing TT as a testing ground for international companies: “If people use it here, they’ll use it anywhere!”
The third reason is how tight-knit our networks are, crucial for the most vulnerable times of a venture. Perhaps because our level of general trust in the public is so low, we rely heavily on stronger connections. Although I have missed the wider net of connections I’ve made internationally, one advantage I have found is that most people I’ve spoken to within my close circle, whether family, friends and colleagues, have been immensely willing to be helpful and interested.
Of course, these people can often drive you crazy, but this is an advantage that can take a long time to replicate elsewhere.
The truth is: the same things that make this place so maddening are the ones that make it worthwhile to keep believing in.
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist, and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh