We need to act boldly and roll out the red carpet for tech if our share of the global digital economy is to approach anywhere near what we achieved with oil and gas. The alternative is relegation to the economic hinterland – irrelevance and decline.
I recently caught up with an American friend who launched a successful fintech start-up in TT. He was brimming with energy having just returned from the week-long bitcoin conference in El Salvador. Yet that energy was tinged with frustration given the stark difference between his experience in El Salvador and TT, the place that he chose to set up his company.
Flashing his gold-edged invitation to a dinner with President Nayib Bukele, which apparently ended up being more of a rave with the political elite and the tech world there, he related how, as a simple tech entrepreneur with a crypto-bent, he and all the conference goers were met on arrival and waved through immigration.
They were then whisked by a convoy of black SUVs to a conference where the country’s political, business and bureaucratic elite, led by their president, wearing a baseball cap backwards and trading Reddit jokes with the delighted crowd of investors and entrepreneurs, made it clear that every obstacle would be cleared to the development of a cutting-edge tech industry in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Flash forward to his return to TT. After the (now customary) two-hour wait to clear immigration and customs, he was ordered by immigration officials to pay a $300 fee (for an inexplicable reason as he has a valid work permit). Upon being given an astonished look that he didn’t have that amount of local currency cash on him (bearing in mind he just returned from the first country in the world that has made bitcoin legal tender), he was practically treated like a criminal and held up for another hour.
The point is not to dig into the niceties of TT immigration, but to point out that we are simply unwelcoming to anyone, far less the world’s top talent. But highly mobile, highly educated people in tech are hugely in demand and don’t have to put up with either our inefficiency or insularity. My friend has already booked his one-way flight to Miami – the mayor of which, incidentally announced he will take his salary in cryptocurrency. The new mayor of New York is going one further and is promising to pay civil servants in crypto.
Next door in Barbados, Mia Mottley is the world’s darling for championing climate change and colonial injustices. Barbados is now the world’s first country with an embassy in the metaverse – the effort to build a virtual world, recently made centre-stage by Facebook's (now meta) entry to the space.
Less imaginative officials may grumble that all this is as much of a publicity stunt as making a pop star a “national hero”, as Barbados did with Rihanna. But it is working. Barbados and El Salvador, small economies that would otherwise be totally obscure to the international tech scene, are now actively competing with Silicon Valley and London to attract talent. And in tech, where talent goes, capital reliably follows.
But techies are smart people. They have made note that this isn’t just good press, it is actually being backed up in these countries by a regulatory framework that actively understands the need to compete with other jurisdictions to produce the greatest innovations. I wonder how many of our regulators have investment or innovation promotion as part of their mission?
We’ve taken some baby steps. I never thought I’d see a TT finance minister and energy minister speak at a UN Big Data conference, which ours did a couple weeks ago. Normally they fob off some junior official or minister for that type of thing. The Finance Minister has actively declared that “data is the new oil” while our Prime Minister has publicly urged digital transformation.
But that’s no longer enough. Every single public official in the world now says those same words. As a small economy, we need to do something big to stand out and capture the attention of the world’s tech elite, and make sure our entire regulatory and state machinery is behind it. That is the only way we will be talked about in major international media forums or go viral on Twitter.
There’d be no better way to do so than to create the world’s first government led decentralized autonomous organisation, a set of blockchain based rules that govern how an organisation works, with real public input and funding behind it: TriniDAO. Crypto is the future of society, and we can lead the way.
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is an economist and co-founder of medl, an IDB Lab, Microsoft and PAHO backed social impact health tech company, winner of the 2021 TT Chamber Champion of Business award. Share comments and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.