Wed | Feb 26, 2020

Lennie Little-White | Jamaica needs a new USP

Published:Sunday | January 26, 2020 | 12:31 AM
Lennie Little-White
A research engineer works on image processing at the Ford Motor Company Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto, California. Silicon Valley is dotted with research labs opened by automakers and suppliers, who are racing to develop high-tech infotainment systems and autonomous cars.
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The textbook definition of ‘USP’ or ‘Unique Selling Proposition’ is a factor which differentiates a product from its competitors – such as the lowest cost or the highest quality or the first of its kind. In simple words, “What do you have to offer that your competitors don’t?”

As far back as I can remember, we have branded Jamaica as the land of sun, sea and sand. In more recent times, mischievous minds have added ‘sex’. Let’s be honest: Jamaica does not have a monopoly on all these blessings of Mother Nature. Tourism continues to flourish throughout the Caribbean and has become the lifeline for most of these countries.

Successive governments and their technocrats rest on their laurels because of year-to-year growth in the hospitality sector, with more visitors and more concrete citadels. The big hotel brand names are now common to all the Caribbean islands. This is no sinecure for Jamaica because tourism only thrives at the behest of good weather conditions. Even a Category Three storm or an active volcano can mean curtains for an island’s tourism industry. Just look at Abaco and the Grand Bahamas.

I contend that we must establish our own USP that is not duplicated or existing in any other Caribbean nation-state. The fact is, agriculture remains a remnant of the plantation era. We are still using machetes and hoes to do most of our farming while mechanisation is the order of the day in industrialised countries with bigger acreage and cheap development capital.

Our Blue Mountain Coffee might be the best, but our production continues to decline, creating a void which is being filled by countries in Latin America and Africa. Our banana plantations only survive between hurricanes and we do not dictate the selling price in European markets. Bauxite is our diamond, but we are only holding the blade – not the handle. Witness the actions of those who own the biggest plant in St Elizabeth.

WHO WILL BELL THE CAT?

Let’s face it, we are mere margin gatherers that do not control our economic destiny. Who will bell the cat and think outside the box? We are content to be happy with ‘5 in 4’ which we are yet to achieve. Why can’t we think of a 10 per cent annual growth in the next five years?

If we are to achieve this, then we must fashion our ‘Unique Selling Proposition’ that will allow us to make quantum leaps into the future. We can do this if we become a crucible for digital transformation and artificial intelligence. Sounds impossible? Both areas rely on intellectual power rather than massive industrial development, high-rise buildings and expensive capital to start.

If our governments can see the future, then they will see that the digital age is what will rule tomorrow – not sugar cane or banana fields or yam hills with sticks or local factories canning foreign raw material. Check the contents of your ketchup or cheese or powdered milk, to name a few.

The digital explosion was triggered by people like Steve Jobs with Apple, Bill Gates with Microsoft, Mark Zuckerberg with Facebook, Larry Page and Sergey Brin with Alphabet cum Google, Jeff Bezos with Amazon, Jack Ma with Alibaba and Larry Ellison with Oracle. Each of these had associates who helped them to solve problems for humanity with tremendous wealth following close behind.

Consider the case of Spotify, now a global powerhouse in musical downloads. Spotify is the brainchild of Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzo out of Sweden, but it is now an international success story using a digital platform to rule the world in music distribution.

The success of IPO’s on our Stock Market is evidence that we are awash with money anxious to grow. If new investment footprints are worldwide, innovative ideas will attract international investors with the capital needed to take indigenous creative developments global. Using a digital platform makes our products have access to a global market rather than just 144 square miles.

FERTILE SPACE

Why can’t Jamaica position itself to become a fertile space for a new generation of “digital” minds who will make Jamaica their base. Decades ago, Silicon Valley did not exist. Let us create a digital mindset with international linkages that will allow our own people to become part of the giants in the digital space.

Before you ‘pooh-pooh’ this idea and resign us to be ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’, consider these facts. Jamaica’s location is the gateway to North America – and soon a backdoor to China and Africa. We have attracted capitalists to invest in Jamaica with major tax incentives and tax holidays. We can offer the same carrots to our Jamaicans at home and in the diaspora. They might not have all the intellectual capital, but we can copy the Americans who called on thousands of highly trained Indians to become the foundation of Silicon Valley.

Today, Microsoft is headed by Satya Madella – an Indian and, Google is headed by Sundar Pichai – another Indian. This was a direct result of the Indian Government’s initiative in creating campuses in seven universities to train their people in computer technology.

So let us develop a five-to-seven-year plan where our USP will no longer be just sun, sea and sand, but a digital launching pad running parallel to Silicon Valley.

Jamaicans can create positive linkages with highly trained specialists from India, China and Africa to give birth to digital giants that will obliterate the low-hanging fruits of BPOs. Artificial Intelligence is no longer a concept. Let us seize the moment and cast a long shadow – not just across the Caribbean but across the world. It is time to stop playing catch-up.

 

- Lennie Little-White, CD, MA, is a Jamaican filmmaker and writer. Email feedback to: columns@gleanerjm.com and lennielittle.white@gmail.com