PODCAST: How to support business growth in the Caribbean?

In this issue of the IMC podcast, we talk with colleagues Alix Landais and Daniel Idowu about how to support business growth in the Caribbean.

Thursday 28 April 2016

We recently published another issue of the IMC Worldwide podcast to our Soundcloud channel. Below is the transcript.

SC: Hello, and welcome to the IMC Worldwide podcast. My name is Sajid Chowdhury, and today, I’m joined by two colleagues, Daniel Idowu and Alix Landais, to talk about boosting business and entrepreneurship in the Caribbean.

And then, we are going to dive into a programme called Accelerate Caribbean, which is funded by the World Bank and Canada, and is being implemented by IMC to support business incubators in that region, and we’re going to talk about exactly what business incubation is in a minute.

Now, the Caribbean’s 20+ countries have diverse cultures, resources, and skills, and relatively small national markets, which offers a challenging scenario for scaling up business across the region. The varying structures and demand that characterise each market can make high-growth business particularly expensive.

But the region has good infrastructure and a young well-educated population that can serve international markets, which are all traits that offer opportunities for entrepreneurship and business growth. So what do they need to thrive, and what role can business incubators play?

So, just some quick introductions: Daniel works with the IMC Inclusive Growth division, and he pilots innovative initiatives designed to help entrepreneurs develop viable business models.

He’s also part of the Accelerate Caribbean team, supporting the design of the training and coaching content for business incubators across the programme. Daniel, it’s good to have you with us.

DI: Thank you, Sajid.

SC: Alix is an economics and finance specialist focusing on innovative solutions that align private entities activities with emerging countries development strategies. She is also part of the Accelerate Caribbean team, coordinating the team’s training, mentoring, public-private dialogue, and development of entrepreneurial networks. Alix, also, welcome to the show.

AL: Thank you. Glad to be with you today.


SC: So, Daniel, let’s start with the Caribbean business scenario. Can you paint the scene for us?    

DI: Yeah, sure. So while everyone might think of the Caribbean as being all beaches and palm trees, which of course it is to an extent, it’s also very very diverse in terms of the size of the market of the different countries and also the skill set and some of the resources which the countries have to develop.

So we are working in 14 of those countries, from larger size markets such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago to smaller countries such as St. Lucia.

And the main characteristics which I could say across all the islands is that the Caribbean has a young population who often see opportunities in the public sector as opposed to the private sector. So one of the key challenges around the business environment is enthusing that population with the passion, energy and drive to turn these talents into creating new entrepreneurial ventures.

Now the programme can and does focus on sectors such as agri-business, software development. I think there’s plenty of potential in the Caribbean to transform these areas of the economy if we can support the concentration of activities in these areas.

What has been identified through research and in-country assessments is a lack of support to businesses, fledgling businesses, which means that either entrepreneurs themselves don’t feel confident that they can build a business which can scale, or the fact that the business environment isn’t supportive – Daniel Idowu, Deputy Team Leader, Accelerate Caribbean


SC: And so do you want to just tell exactly what is a business incubator?

DI: Sure, Sajid. So a business incubator is defined as an organisation designed to support and accelerate the growth of entrepreneurial companies through an array of different business support services. These can range from physical spaces, capital, country, and also supporting them to connect to different networks and market linkages as well.

So business incubation programmes can be sponsored by private companies, government support, and can also spin out out of colleges and universities. So their goal is primarily to support the growth of business.

Typically, incubators will also have a graduation period, when the businesses who started as fledglings have now matured and can survive outside the business incubation environment.

Typically, this can be anything up to two years, but no two business incubators are alike. So sometimes there is a mix of length of incubation period but also types of services provided, and whether these are provided virtually or physically.


SC: So Daniel, if we step back for a moment, and if we look at the broad business scenario once again: we’ve got the Accelerate Caribbean programme, funded by the government of Canada and the World Bank, and IMC is managing it in partnership with a few other organisations which we can talk about in a minute. But for the benefit of our listeners, can you tell us how a programme like this come about? How does an organisation like the World Bank and government of Canada arrive at the idea that boosting the strengths of business incubators is a good way to boost the business environment and overall development in the Caribbean?

DI: Yeah, sure. I think the first method is to really come from understanding what it’s like to work in the local context. So the design of the programme really focuses on needs, and I think this is common across the whole world, but the idea that we need to support job creation and job growth as a way of alleviating poverty is the central basis from which we start.

And then you look at some of the blockages and the hindrances to that happening. And what has been identified through research and in-country assessments is a lack of support to businesses, fledgling businesses, which means that either entrepreneurs themselves don’t feel confident that they can build a business which can scale, or the fact that the business environment isn’t supportive.

That includes policy, training for entrepreneurs. So I think that’s where it starts from — a needs basis.

And then you look at a range of tools to support businesses. One of them commonly regarded across the world and is emerging in the field as being particularly strong is business incubation.

The idea that businesses, if supported in an early stage and supported throughout the process of developing your idea through to a concept, proving that in the market, and then raising finance for that… if that is supported at a really early age by experienced professionals, businesses have a better chance of succeeding.

So we are working from that premise. And we have designed a programme that supports the entrepreneurs themselves by working with the incubators.

We help them develop their business model and revenue streams. We also work across the ecosystem, so trying to enthuse the Caribbean with the idea that entrepreneurship is exciting and can be achieved. We do this by working with our consortium partners.

We have Koltai and Co, with a track record of developing businesses across the developed and developing world. In addition, we have in-country support from UWI Consulting to allow us to really understand the local environment for business. So while we have a range of expertise of how businesses can be supported globally, making sure that it fits the local landscape is really important.

So our partners UWI Consulting are very invaluable to that process. We also work with the BSCI, the Barbados Coalition of Service Industry, to help arrange the logistics and make sure that we know who the key players are in the ecosystem as well.

So what we are really trying to do is build up the capacity of the incubators to work for themselves after we step away. And I think we are well on the way to that as a goal – Daniel

SC: So, Alix, if we zoom in to some of the programme activities that have been taking place recently, you recently came back from Belize, where Accelerate was hosting a workshop and training seminar. Can you paint the scene for us and tell us what went on there?

AL: Sure. So our third Business Incubation Management session in the Caribbean was organised in Belize City, in partnership with the Small Business Development Center and Beltraide, two public Belizean institutions whose mandate is to spur entrepreneurship, trade and job creation in Belize.

Both the workshop and the training where delivered along a peer-to-peer model where the project team but most importantly participants experience and best practices of supporting entrepreneurship in Belize but also across the world.

So opportunities to bolster entrepreneurship were analysed from various perspective including the government perspective: how to help government to create the conditions supporting successful start-up development at a national level?

From the business incubator managers’ perspective: how to provide tailored services to the entrepreneurs we serve to help them growing and scaling in a fragmented ecosystem?

And finally, from an entrepreneur’s perspective: how to overcome structural challenges and influence my ecosystem to make my start-up creation story successful?

So in the specific case of Belize, the key areas for improvement identified by the audience during the sessions included the need to support a culture of entrepreneurship in Belize, as Daniel mentioned, through education, and to communicate on venture creation as an opportunity rather than a risk.


SC: Has there been any feedback so far from the business incubators? Have they let the programme know how the activities are working out for them so far?

Yeah, so far the feedback we received from the programme participants has been very positive. It was obviously different depending on the level of involvement of each participant, so for example, among the 10 incubators that are incubated in our Business Incubation Clinic, what seemed particularly appreciated was our team responsiveness, and the culture of excellence in supporting entrepreneurship that we tried to promote.

So for example, one of our mentees, David Roberts, who works for the National Integrated Business Incubator System in Trinidad and Tobago, highlighted the benefits of being exposed to dedicated, high-calibre professionals in the field of business incubation who can support him to strengthen this operation and deliver increased value for the client companies.

Ronald Dubrigsingh from CARIRI in Trinidad, mentioned that mentor Susan’s mentorship had been extremely helpful to CARIRI in structuring their programme offerings and improving their modes of delivery. 

What I personally hadn’t anticipated is the impact of the entrepreneurial ecosystem development workshops like the one we had in Belize recently. Those provide real opportunities for participants to reflect on their ecosystem and to be heard and better understood by government officials – Alix

So those workshops serve as public-private dialogue platforms, as I mentioned, and they entice participants to work collectively to gain increased influence and impact.

As an example, we were requested after the Belize session to provide Mrs Krista Barrow at the Women’s Department with the data collected during participants’ collective mapping of the Belize Ecosystem qualified by Mrs Barrow as instrumental in the work that needs to be done within her own Ministry.

So those workshops also empower entrepreneurs by giving them a voice, and the networking opportunities and perspectives of future collaborations with the Accelerate team but also and importantly with other participants, is according to participants’ feedback, a key value added to the event.


SC: So Daniel, related to that feedback that have got so far from people in the programme, I just want to pull back a little away from the specifics of the programme to ask you about the longer-term expected outcomes of the programme. A programme like this is funded for a particular lifespan, like a project or programme period, and then it shuts down. So what happens next? Based on the outcomes of Accelerate Caribbean, what’s the aftermath of that?


So the idea is that at the end of the programme, not only do they have the operational revision to their plans, but they also have a roadmap for the future as well. We will leave them with a plan for sustainability, with contacts with organisations that they can reach out to to ensure that their operations are sustainable in the future.

So that includes opportunities to raise revenue, but also to bring on board new networks and mentors to support and strengthen their operations as well. In the longer term, we are trying to leave a network of these organisations, who collectively can start to support each other to increase job provision for the Caribbean.

The idea that when we leave, these organisations will be able to work inter-dependently and look for strategic opportunities for them to be more collaborative and take forward the idea of business incubation as a way of supporting job creation through enterprise support. So those are the key objectives of the programme and what we are looking to do?

SC: Alix, is it possible for people to get involved in the programme now? If there are business incubators out there who are interested in learning more about the programme, are there channels or mechanisms they can go through to see how they can participate or at least learn more about it?

AL: Yes, definitely. The programme includes various components, one of them being this Business Incubation Clinic for which participants have been selected since April 2015. But we are also organising Business Incubation Management training sessions in-country that are accessible to all aspiring and experienced business enablers from the Caribbean region.

The last session was in Belize and focused on marketing and financing your business incubator. So registration for those events is free, and information as I mentioned earlier is provided on our website, acceleratecaribbean.com.

We also organise online webinars delivered by inspirational speakers from the Caribbean region or global markets, who are selected by the Accelerate Caribbean team.

The event is public, people can connect from everywhere in the world, and listen in to improve their understanding of how to build successful and viable businesses.

So these are the four components of Accelerate Caribbean, but we also have within the project team obviously very dedicated mentors, who besides the scope of their work with the ten selected mentees, are happy to provide support to any business incubator manager or entrepreneur requiring help.

We also try to coordinate our support with other donors across the region, and as an example, while we were delivering this training and workshop in Belize, we were also invited to present at the World Bank-funded Caribbean Growth Forum, where we aimed at presenting in front of government officials from everywhere in the Caribbean the need to put entrepreneurship as a priority on the national agenda.

SC: So just following on from that, Alix, we have talked a lot about what the programme has done so far, successes, positive feedback, what the programme aims to do aspirationally, but obviously with a programme like this, there are going to be challenges or maybe things that aren’t working out as expected. Can you outline some of those for us?

AL: A key clarification to make is that while Accelerate Caribbean was designed to support existing business incubators, the reality of the Caribbean region is that there were actually very few real business incubators or operating business incubators in the 14 CARICOM countries covered by the programme.

We therefore adapted the programme objectives to support not only existing but aspiring enablers in the process of setting up an incubator. This involves helping aspiring enablers to understand the needs of entrepreneurs evolving in their ecosystem and to develop appropriate solutions to serve those.

The second objective is to infuse a culture of entrepreneurship in beneficiary countries and raise stakeholders’ awareness of the principles of venture acceleration through incubation. This involves helping each public and private sector stakeholder to understand the specific role they could or should play in supporting entrepreneurs and the ease of doing business in the Caribbean.

Other challenges were related to the actual nature of the programme. We are working remotely. Aside from the training and workshops that we provide in-country, most of the mentoring and coaching that we provide to the ten mentees is being done online or on the phone, so that doesn’t enable to follow up on a daily basis on what is going on, or to better help the mentees to influence the direct ecosystem.

It also means that donor coordination, even though we work on it, can be limited, and sometimes we duplicate efforts instead of acting in synergy. And finally, the scope of areas and actions required to effectively support entrepreneurship and business incubation in the Caribbean encompasses what can be achieved through a programme like Accelerate Caribbean.

Entrepreneurs thrive when multiple actors act together to develop a supportive environment, so that’s what we try to make happen in our workshops, but obviously, much more is needed for the fundamental actions required to build a successful entrepreneurial systems to be put in place, such as identifying training, connecting and sustaining entrepreneurs and incubator managers, enabling their access to finance, and celebrating them.

And these require work with multiple actors such as NGOs, corporations, foundations, government officials, academic institutions, and investors. So even though we do as much as we can to involve all these actors, much more work is needed in these areas.

DI: Yeah, and I think that brings me onto an important point in terms of time. So the project is a two-year project, and in terms of time, to reorientate business incubators’ operations and how they are strategically working within the market is not a long time at all.

Alix mentioned coordinating with a wider ecosystem… this take a lot of time, and I think this was one of the key challenges in working in these diverse markets, understanding them, and actually supporting the incubators to reorientate how they are operating has been particularly challenging.

I would also like to add that one of the challenges has really been around the distance and how we are supporting these entrepreneurs.

We provided training, coaching and mentoring, but actually, in any kind of follow-up work that would be done, the idea of working much closer with the entrepreneurs would be a key way to move forward so that the incubator managers could learn by doing as opposed to theoretical training, coaching and mentoring, which of course is valuable.

But to make sure the learning has really landed, working with them closer as they develop their operations, as they provide services to the entrepreneurs would make for an even more successful programme.

SC: It’s a fascinating programme, and it’s one of IMC’s bigger programmes, and I do wish you guys the best of luck with the rest of it over the coming months. Thank you to you both for being with us today.

And for anyone who’s tuning into the IMC podcast for the first time: we are a team of international development consultants who work in low- and middle-income countries to respond to challenges in fields such as infrastructure, engineering, economics and finance, environmental impact, and the development of inclusive societies.

And if you are interested more about what we do, you can visit our website, which you can find at imcworldwide.com. Thank you for being with us.

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