Caribbean Business Incubators

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By Cdr. Bud Slabbaert

Last Friday, the Saudi Fund for Development signed a $10 million loan agreement to construct Business Incubation centers in the Bahamas. It intends to support the growth of tourism, create direct and indirect job opportunities, and to enhance sustainable economic development.  It may facilitate new business projects of a total of 100 small companies.

For education and sustainable development, often financial support from a number of countries abroad is available at attractive conditions. However, these “angels” usually want to first see a well-prepared proposal that shows realistic achievable goals that are leading to advances. Business Incubator efforts can solidify reaching a viable and prosperous future for the Caribbean territories.

The availability of a Business Incubator will not just give some young talented people the chance of their life. Also spirited members of an earlier generation may be able to get an operation going. With regards to the latter, an old fox knows more tricks to get a rabbit out of a hole than a puppy with a degree. Degrees? An incubator could also cooperate and be associated with a university research center.

A start-up doesn’t typically have to be a new service or retail operation. It can involve a promising research and development project that is started on a small scale by a single bright mind. Yet it can have a significant future economic impact, but in the initial stages a Business Incubator can provide the base for it.

There may be a need to make connections with researchers abroad. Those are linkages with entities that can accelerate the work of start-up at the incubation centers. Overseas research centers as well as manufacturers are willing to share their expertise and possible even be part of the future development results that come out of it.

Innovative ventures and break-through initiatives can be developed in business incubators. Because some of these start-ups can advance services that are needed internationally, and therefore they can contribute to the export economy.

Just making financial support available to individual start-up entrepreneurs is not an ideal solution. They need a supporting environment to begin with. A Business Incubator can provide just that. Such a facility may typically have space to accommodate several startups. Individual work units may be furnished. Telephone connections through a central system. WIFI signal throughout the building. Central secretarial services. In principle one facility administration takes care of it all, including things like hiring services ranging from cleaning to accounting.

Management training could be included in the incubator concept. It will be a truly professional and motivating environment to operate in. The young and new pioneers may lack some experience in running an operation, like marketing, accounting, or other expertise. Appropriate workshops will provide new skills to support their new business activities.

There will be several start-ups with different services sharing the same location. The incubators could foster cooperation or joined activities. The model of the Incubator can be shaped to the needs of particular professional needs or a certain group of startups.

The idea of a Business Incubator is not new. Some programs have popped up or tried to pop up.  But none of them seem to have the potential that the Bahamas with the support of the Saudi Development Fund has now to take on a leading role in new business development projects that can have a significant impact. Not only on its own nation but also on the wider region and even internationally.

In 2009, The World Bank group initiated a Caribbean Business Incubator Association that was launched by representatives from 10 independent Caribbean countries. It was in the line of thinking being a part of a CARICOM Single Market and Economy. The Association became dormant due to lack of funding. Accelerate Caribbean was created in 2014 by the Entrepreneurship Program for Innovation in the Caribbean. It met the same fate just two years later.  There are some projects like CARIRI in Trinidad or REVUP in Jamaica. There are a few virtual incubators. But virtual is not hands-on.

Unemployment rates in the region are too high, especially among young people. There is no such a thing as opening up a can of jobs. In some cases, efforts are made to provide extended education. However, how does having another education certificate help, if one is still not able to find employment, because jobs are just not available.

There is a distinct difference between providing a job and keeping people entertained for another one or two years with additional education. It is meant well, and the basic thinking behind it is not wrong but it is not creating jobs. Jobs are created by businesses. Incubators are catalysts to create those businesses and for economic development.  They are part of the solution to encourage self-employment first. When the new operation grows, it will have a multiplying effect and provide employment for others.

Caribbean territories should focus more on the potential of entrepreneurs as drivers of economic growth and playing an important role in job creation. There is no specific geographic location in terms of where bright minds or innovative entrepreneurs can be found.

Business Incubators can be shaped for any need or size. They could be as big a technology park. Let’s not go too far though with our imagination and keep both feet on the ground considering where we are. But then again, when reaching out for the stars, one will not end up with a hand full of mud.  So…, let’s get going here.