Jean Arnell (bottom left) during the virtual panel discussion.
GALISBAY--Computech managing partner and entrepreneur Jean Arnell was a guest panellist on CNBC’s Jon Fortt programme on May 21 where panellists discussed how developing and emerging Caribbean economies can better use technology investment given the impact the COVID-19 crisis has had in the region.
Arnell was joined by Miami Herald journalist Jacqueline Charles and former Caribbean Development Bank Director of Economics Justin Ram.
He highlighted how COVID-19 has accentuated deficiencies in macro-economic structures: lack of economic diversification, lagging adoption of digital technologies to create new business models, and the need for a real regional supply chain.
Most Caribbean islands have tourism-dependent economies with the tourism industry one of the largest contributors to gross domestic product (GDP) among Caribbean countries. Caribbean islands have been severely hit economically and socially by the impact of COVID-19 in addition to effects of Hurricanes Irma, Maria and Dorian.
“Travel restrictions and stalled domestic economic activity puts increasing pressure on already struggling economies,” Arnell noted. “Many Caribbean nations do not have social protection programmes like we see in the USA or “activité partielle” in France. Unfortunately, even as our countries re-open, the domestic demand cannot suffice to keep our economies going, not even for the remainder of 2020.”
He said working from home, home schooling, domestic/regional E-Commerce (online ordering, payments), digital payments including social services and remittances, and access to government services or filing and paying taxes online are not part of Caribbean culture, causing many students, businesses and governments to suffer total losses.
Arnell described digital transformation as “using technology to improve the performance and reach of an organisation.” He pointed out that businesses that have become digital masters are 26 per cent more profitable, and that digital transformation is driven by the leaders at the top of the organisation.
“We need to deploy more digital broadband fibre for high-speed Internet. Some 40 per cent of residents in the Caribbean do not have access to broadband fibre.
“Secondly, retail stores and restaurants had to shut down during coronavirus with no income. But if they had an e-commerce platform with on-line payments they could have salvaged some of their business by delivering to the domestic market.
“Building technological economies to diversify will permit us to be less dependent on tourism to the extent we are presently.”
“Expansion into these fields will not only broaden the base of production, it will also diversify the structure of employment and increase opportunities to find productive work. This is growth that can transform households and countries and boost participation in education – which, in turn, enhances long-term productivity and poverty reduction.
“Digital transformation requires digital leadership and there are some encouraging digital transformation initiatives locally in the public and private sector.”
To illustrate, Arnell said the Dutch St. Maarten government uses its website to conduct a social impact survey and online forms to authorise movement of people with “COVID-19 forms A, B and C.” Civil servants also used Microsoft Teams to communicate, collaborate and attend meetings remotely.
The newly formed St. Maarten Stimulus and Relief Plan (SSRP) launched its website
https://www.ssrp.sx/ in less than a week and immediately started accepting and processing online applications for payroll and social protection services. The website and underlying application are integrated with the back office systems of social insurance provider SZV and the Ministry of Public Health, Social Development and Labour VSA.
Employees of utilities company GEBE and telecommunications company TelEm were equipped with new laptops, Microsoft Office 365 collaboration tools and access to business applications through secure VPN connections. In the private sector, larger retailers DIVICO and Cost U Less deployed new websites to enable online shopping, payments and deliveries of goods to customers (B2C) and smaller shops (B2B) on the island.
“These case studies have created tremendous value for the community and should encourage digital leadership from government and business owners to embark on digital transformation initiatives to sustain and expand their organisations going forward.
“Ubiquitous mobile Internet, Cloud computing as well as emerging technologies in security, big data, artificial intelligence and Blockchain are dramatically improving businesses, governments and education. In order to leverage these advances, we need digital leadership in both public and private sectors.
“In that regard, I am recommending a digital leadership framework aimed at generating digital dividends for society. These recommendations are specifically focused on digital infrastructure, digital platforms, and digital skills development,” Arnell concluded.