Technology goes green | The St. Lucia STAR

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How talented entrepreneurs are finding climate-smart solutions to Caribbean problems

An artist from Jamaica who is developing construction material from recyclables. Farmers from Saint Lucia pioneering a ‘climate smart’ greenhouse. A designer from Trinidad turning coconut husks into eyewear. These entrepreneurs are part of the growing ‘GreenTech’ movement in the Caribbean, as talent and technology come together to tackle the region’s most pressing problems.

WHAT IS GREENTECH?

Technology is rapidly evolving, providing policymakers and entrepreneurs with creative tools to meet longstanding challenges. This so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ blends concepts such as the Internet of Things, big data, cloud computing and AI with traditional industries and services.

Green technology is simply technology that is being used to address environmental concerns. Its application in the region is extremely diverse. From solar energy to biofuel, there is almost limitless potential for GreenTech to contribute to the Caribbean’s economic, social and environmental stability. Dwindling agricultural capacity, inefficient and expensive energy consumption, unsustainable waste management practices, threats to biodiversity—GreenTech has a key role to play in many issues.

“GreenTech covers a pretty broad sphere,” says Cashyaka McDonald, Marketing Officer at the Caribbean Climate Innovation Centre (CCIC), creators of the region’s first GreenTech incubator. “It is a niche but it encompasses a lot. Everyone is becoming more conscious of the impact their actions have on the environment [so] GreenTech is growing. It is very exciting. The time is now.”

GreenTech investment in developing markets is set to hit US$6.4tr by 2025, and an estimated US$1.6tr of that funding will go to small businesses, according to the CCIC. McDonald believes that the region can capitalise on this enthusiasm for climate-sound solutions, saying: “The Caribbean will get its fair share. We are some of the most creative people in the world. We are always innovating and creating. A lot of donors and investors are looking to be a part of the Caribbean.”

BARRIERS TO GROWTH

But there is no GreenTech industry without GreenTech entrepreneurs. While the Caribbean is rife with raw talent and innovation, the business environment is unforgiving and many start-ups fail before they can even open their doors.

Having a good idea is one thing, but generating a business plan around that idea is often easier said than done. Many entrepreneurs fail to do their due diligence, according to McDonald who works with fledgling firms through the CCIC’s bootcamp and accelerator programmes. The CCIC encourages would-be businesses to identify the need in the market, understand their customers and have a comprehensive plan for generating revenue and then, if appropriate, scaling up. They bring in mentors and experts to advise entrepreneurs who are at the start of their journey.

Aside from the usual difficulties in getting a small business on its feet, those in the GreenTech space have to deal with their own set of challenges. McDonald says the prevalence of ‘green fatigue’ can dampen interest among consumers. “Many start-ups fail because consumers are hearing all about this amazing green technology day in and day out, and they become sceptical. They go with what they are used to, and what’s cheaper.”

And it’s not just consumers. Start-ups have to also convince potential investors or financial institutions. Making a successful pitch is difficult even with mainstream products, but it’s even more challenging with new and emerging tech. Investors may not fully understand the proposal or, worse, distrust it. With financial backers unwilling or unable to help, small businesses often struggle to monetise their ideas. And GreenTech businesses typically require more financial backing than those in traditional sectors. The initial outlay is high – not just for facilities and equipment, but also in terms of finding and training the necessary staff.

McDonald says the key to finding funding is to have a well-developed business model. “A lot of entrepreneurs cannot communicate their revenue structure and educate potential investors. You cannot get funding if you don’t know your data. You have to speak their language; you need to explain how great your company is in terms of dollars and cents.”

Once in business, start-ups shouldn’t be too eager. Some companies try to scale up too quickly, trying to run before they can walk. “Premature scaling is a real concern,” says McDonald. “A lot of ideas are specific to their communities, and businesses fail to assess how they can be sustainable or they don’t get the kinks out before they scale up.”

SAINT LUCIAN INNOVATION

To date, the CICC has trained over 1,000 entrepreneurs, helped form over 100 start-up teams and enlisted more than 70 mentors to provide invaluable advice, opportunities and support.

The organisation held a successful bootcamp in Saint Lucia last year and McDonald says the response was “amazing”. Around 40 firms joined the event, from which three were awarded cash prizes. The overall winner was Patrick Eze, of Eze Green renewable energy company which generates biodiesel fuel from waste edible oil and animal fats, as well as providing solar hot water systems, solar-powered air conditioning units and other renewable energy solutions.

The CCIC works with hubs across the region and hosted the bootcamp in partnership with the Saint Lucia Coalition of Services. McDonald says the CCIC views Saint Lucia as an important area for GreenTech development. “The Saint Lucia bootcamp was a great success. Saint Lucia is one of our most active groups.

“We have a lot of entrepreneurs coming out of Saint Lucia, there are a lot of great things happening and a lot of creativity and innovation.”

SECURING THE FUTURE

There are many ways to support GreenTech development in the Caribbean, but they all have one goal: to make the region more resilient to the devastating effects of climate change. As one of the most vulnerable regions in the world, it is especially important that the talent, creativity and skills of the next generation of Caribbean entrepreneurs are allowed to flourish.

New and emerging technologies are largely uncharted waters and GreenTech entrepreneurs need adequate support as they navigate them. With Caribbean governments focusing more on short-term issues rather than long-term solutions, they can often overlook the needs of small businesses in this unique niche. In addition, many policymakers are uneasy in the GreenTech space as the technology outpaces both their knowledge and existing regulatory frameworks.

A collaborative approach is necessary: between the public and private sectors, between international and regional bodies, between established companies and new competitors. “We all have a part to play,” says McDonald. “We are more affected than most places [by climate change] and we know that climate action is not just good for the environment, it’s good for the economy.”

With the economic and environmental future of the Caribbean at risk, governments cannot rely on international agencies such as the CCIC to carry the load. Creating a better business environment starts at the domestic level and is something all Caribbean states need to address. Lifting up entrepreneurs, helping them through the arduous journey from idea to product, will result in sustainable, long-term solutions to issues that have hindered growth in the region for decades.

Next week: How entrepreneurs in Saint Lucia and beyond are using GreenTech to develop ‘climate smart’ agriculture

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