Tue | Jan 19, 2021

Technology in Focus | Are Jamaican businesses embracing the digital age?

Published:Wednesday | September 11, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Colin McGann is assistant general manager, innovation at MC Systems.

The corporate world has come a long way since the days when doing business online meant treating your website as a virtual business card: “Here’s what we do and here’s how you can contact us. Have a nice day!”

Instead, the digital age has upturned entire industries as start-ups force incumbents to rip up their existing business models. Companies which do not own hotel rooms – for example, Airbnb – are competing heavily in the global accommodation sector, allowing everyday Jamaicans to stand toe to toe with big hotels. The world’s biggest taxi company, Uber, also does not own taxis.

“Organisations that will succeed in this environment are those which fully embrace the culture and practices of the digital age, and not only that, but the raised expectations of their customers. You can see that concept increasingly reflected in the business models of new Jamaican businesses, such as QuickPlate,” said David Soutar, principal of the Kingston-based civic tech organisation SlashRoots Foundation.

QuickPlate allows customers to purchase meals from third-party restaurants via their virtual platform. Customers can also communicate with their team and track deliveries all the way to their doorsteps as bearers provide the link to third-party restaurants which may not otherwise offer a delivery service.

“The difference between now and when we just started three years ago is stark. At the beginning, we found that very few people had done any kind of online transaction with local companies,” said Monique Powell, founder for QuickPlate.

“Many had bought and shipped goods from Amazon, etc., so they were familiar with the concept of e-commerce, but getting them to trust local businesses in the same way they did those companies took some time. They’re now far more open to it. The restaurants have also followed suit, in terms of a sharp increase in their willingness to use online ordering to bring more business to their restaurants,” Powell said. “We started off with just five restaurants in 2016, and there are now over 50 restaurants on the platform.”


Increased expectations demand better infrastructure

“Challenges remain,” acknowledges Colin McGann, assistant general manager of innovation at MC Systems, a JN Group technology company which assists businesses, including financial institutions, to integrate digital technology into their operations.

“As it stands, Jamaica does not have a large presence in the global online economy. There is much opportunity for development of e-commerce platforms ... . However, the local online payment platforms which would facilitate vendors collecting funds into their local bank accounts from customers are limited,” he said.

He continued: “The local logistics infrastructure that currently exists for export of Jamaican-made commodities is also lacking; and it is a tedious process for vendors to quickly ship products to global customers.”

Jamaicans want to take advantage of the digital age.

Ingrid Riley of SiliconCaribe.com, has been heavily involved in the local tech scene, having hosted a series of events and sought to document the progress. She recently founded a company – Maverick Media Group – which is aiming to be at the centre of the country’s growing cannabis industry.

“Online is going to be where much of the action is,” said Riley. “Online – digital technology – is crucial to the growth of the ganja industry, in terms of how ganja-related businesses integrate it in their daily operations; as well as, how the industry uses digital to educate and excite people about the wellness and wealth-generating opportunities,” said Riley. “Where things are now in the Jamaican/Caribbean and the global industry is exciting. [It] kinda reminds me of the early days in tech!”


Responding to needs, disruption

In its earlier days, Facebook famously had the motto ‘Move fast and break things’. Years later, when the social network giant recognised that it had to behave in a more corporate fashion, the company’s mantra evolved into ‘Move fast with stable infrastructure’.

Although not as sexy, it still echoed the point made by Riley about ‘operations’ and that which Soutar raised about ‘expectations’.”

This was something husband and wife Airbnb hosts, Joe and Natasha Levy, quickly discovered.

In true entrepreneurial fashion, the Levys decided to dive right in, except they got their first booking a couple days before a hurricane was supposed to hit Jamaica, and then had to scramble. Nonetheless, they managed to meet such ‘raised expectations’ and made their ‘infrastructure’ more stable. Airbnb now ranks them as ‘super hosts’.

“I think responding promptly to customers’ messages is key, and we have a few platforms set up to allow us to respond quickly without having to be in front of a computer. We have had numerous guests and potential guests comment that they really appreciate how responsive we are to their messages,” said Natasha.

“The other thing we do is make sure that the place is super clean and welcoming by adding some nice personalised touches here and there,” she added. “With the super host designation comes the reassurance of a particular level of experience. It gives confidence to prospective customers that your product is consistent, and they can be reassured that you are going to honour their booking. I know of many persons who only book with super hosts because of the level of reassurance it gives them.”

While some relatively small businesses appear to be adapting, the question remains: How can larger businesses better adapt?

As Powell observes, they are often more likely to fall victim than change with the times.

“They’re usually in a wait-and-see mode, sometimes for years, and then often scramble to catch up when they realise the trends aren’t going to reverse and that they’ll be left behind if they don’t get on board. It’s usually in that wait-and-see gap that the disruption of their business models occurs,” the QuickPlate founder said.

“The shift to digital has become more and more of a necessity than a cool idea,” adds McGann. “The business culture in Jamaica is driven by legacy, perceived value and trust in tangibility. Jamaican business is still heavily driven by cash and an unwillingness to do something in a manner outside of which we are used to.”

“Businesses in any country continue to be products of their environment, influenced by culture, regulation and infrastructure,” said McGann. “In other words, doing business in Liguanea Plains is just not the same as Silicon Valley. However, competing online, and especially for export, the global economy affords Jamaica no such consideration, hence the local economy craves such disruption,” he believes.


Digital transforms business operations

A buzzword heard inside many companies nowadays is ‘digital transformation’, which provides a solution, but needs to be absorbed much more deeply, advises McGann.

“Digital transformation is not simply about applying technology to a process. It isn’t about an online registration form,or a well-designed website. It encourages business leaders to take a step back and assess the business, along with the subsystems it relies on, to gain an understanding about how things really work and who is affected by the business decisions made,” McGann emphasised. “Digital transformation is about empathising with customers to gain perspective about their needs and the way they want to be engaged. Once we understand our customers and our business value, then we can apply the various technologies to support us in delivering that value.”

Successful digital transformation exercises are, therefore, those which cut across and realign business operations. For instance, Jamaica Broilers linked manufacturing with mobile marketing by inserting coupons into Hi-Pro and Best Dressed Chicken products, which customers redeem via SMS and online. With every customer added and with each successive purchase, this allowed the company to grow its database and harvest big data – building relationships with customers in a way that would otherwise be near-impossible for the business, which typically sell via retailers and wholesalers.

A word of advice from an Internet entrepreneur: “Make sure the product is satisfying a genuine need in the market, and that there is an actual demand for what you’re offering before you start investing heavily in it. Also, be patient,” warns Powell. “As much as the Internet has been around for decades, Jamaicans are only just warming up to the idea of truly doing business online – outside of, perhaps, retail shopping – especially with local entities, so you may need to spend some time educating the market before they begin to truly respond to you.”

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