Sunday, August 14, 2011

Innovative Avenues for Business between Curacao and St. Kitts

Speech for the Rotary Club of St. Kitts, July 14, 2011

My grandmother was born in St. Kitts.. Together with her mother, uncles and siblings she later moved to the Dominican Republic. In her twenties she left all her family behind to follow my Nevisian-born grandfather to Curacao. Of her arrival in Curacao she says: “I was still on the boat when I saw them put my Singer sewing machine on the dock”. At age 100 she was still sewing. She died later, still a Kittitian or “British”, as she would say, not having consciously experienced the independence of her country.
As you can imagine, it’s a deep honor for me to be stand before you today. I bring you greetings from the Rotary Club of Curacao, as well as a more personal greeting, and thank you for this opportunity.

As you know, since 10 October 2010, the Netherlands Antilles no longer exist. Instead there are, on the one hand, the countries of Curacao and St. Maarten. And, on the other hand, the BES islands- Bonaire, Statia and Saba, which have become provinces of the Netherlands. Curacao is not independent. We are all still Dutch citizens and we are still Caribbean with all the opportunities and challenges these bring.

Talking about opportunities in Curacao. You know, or can Google, the standard list of opportunities in Curacao: tourism (including long-stay and real estate), international finance and trade, harbor, logistics, oil refining. But permit me to take a road less travelled, based on my professional background and interest.

My company, MarkStra Caribbean’s, key words are research, strategy, competitiveness and innovation. We help companies grow through research, strategy and innovation in products, services and markets, particularly Caribbean markets. I am personally doing academic work on competitiveness of small state economies. That’s essentially where ‘competitiveness’ comes in.

So, today, permit me to highlight some innovative avenues for the growth of Kittitian and Curacaoan businesses, particularly knowledge-related businesses, which most of your businesses are.

What could be the added value of Curacao’s businesses to Kittitian businesses? In other words, what are the relative strengths of Curacao and Curacao business?

1. Anything with language, diversity and multiculturalism. Just about every Curacaoan can make himself understood in at least 4 languages: Papiamentu, Dutch, English and Spanish, with growing sprinklings of Brazilian Portuguese (which is a lot like Papiamentu) and French. Between 1920s and 1950s, we had a large influx of British Caribbean nationals. In the past 20-30 years we have become particularly popular among the European Dutch, Dominican, Colombians, Venezuelans, Haitians and to a lesser extent Jamaicans. Twenty percent (20%) of our labor force of 55.000 people is born outside of Curacao. Think translation, advertising, communication, but also the interpreting and understanding of other cultures. For instance: I have done preliminary research among Haitians friends in Curacao before going to the field in Haiti.

2. Anything European, particularly Dutch. We have better access to European markets for products to which we add value (not so much commodities). In addition, Curacao is probably the destination of choice for Dutch visitors and business people.
But there is also the more intangible. I am an exception –I studied in the U.S. - but most of my peers studied in Holland and still have close ties. An example: There is a company in Curacao which recruits employees for Dutch companies to work in Holland, based on the time difference- candidates can be called after their work hours. But more importantly, they make use of the Dutch network of recruiters who have moved to Curacao.
What else have we learnt well? Organization, structures, rules & regulations, directness, on-time performance and reliability. We stress ourselves trying to imitate and please the European Dutch and sometimes it has its benefits, a fact sometimes mentioned by regional clients.

3. Anything related to Spanish speaking Americas. I mentioned the large and increasingly professionally diverse diaspora from Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, who have to our shores for many reasons. Today they have been in Curacao long enough to have become duly settled. Their new businesses thrive, many based on ties with their home countries. So, if you want to sell to or source from these markets, Curacao can provide the network.

4. Resources. With a population of 140.000 and a GDP of USD 20.000 per capita, Curacao is a relatively large economy among the really small ones. We have more consultants, architects, doctors, engineers, etc.. Perhaps we can offer more specialization, or just more choice. In this specific case, our professionals probably have a different perspective from our CARICOM colleagues, which can add value. And… we are farther away. Some clients value the resulting objectivity, real or imagined. We also all know that, for some, an expert is someone-who-arrives-on-a-plane.

What is St Kitts’ relative added value to Curacao and its businesses?
It’s my 5th time in St. Kitts in 20 years. I first came here at the start of my career to explore business opportunities for a financial institution. Later I came to explore family ties. I have landed here a couple of times with a sailing boat with friends and this time I am here to celebrate family.

1. Caribbean or CARICOM hinterland. We are not allowed in, on our own. And perhaps, because of size St. Kitts cannot take advantage of the Caribbean market of 20 million, on your own. Perhaps, we can succeed together.

2. Programs, projects customized for the Caribbean often by Caribbean people, which may be suitable for us also. Perhaps you have more access to them or you are more aware of them. Remember, we are not independent. Therefore we are excluded from many programs from the WTO, IDB, etc. Sometimes it is possible for us to get access in partnership with an independent country. In addition, generally our focus has been Holland, so we are less aware of what is possible in and for the region.

3. Canada. Canada is perhaps to you what Holland is to us: a country we are quite familiar with, where we have a large diaspora and whose opportunities we can make much better use of. Curacao is interested in Canada. Perhaps you can help. On the other hand, perhaps Curacao is further along in exploring its Dutch-based diaspora. Perhaps there are some learnings to share there in your relation to Canada.

4. Every time I come here I marvel at the choices in Caribbean children’s books at the bookstore. Our education is not in English – it is in Papiamentu and Dutch. But rather than writing our own Caribbean based children’s books, we can translate yours. I think we have some translated African children’s books. But I know our children would be better able to identify with stories of beaches, tourists, slave history, etc.

So, the message is: there are many opportunities ahead, if we work together. But this is just some food for thought till next April. I invite you to come explore for yourself. April 5-7, 2012 is a good time to do so as the two Rotary Clubs in Curacao will be hosting our District’s Conference in Curacao. Our club is celebrating its 75th anniversary, so it will be something special. The Rotary International President Kalyan Banerjee is scheduled to come, as are several other prominent Rotarians. And it would be a personal pleasure to welcome you to Curacao.

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