Cuba is historically a tricky landscape for starting your own business. First, it was only in 2014 when the banned was lifted for US exports entering the country. Second: the sketchy communication and lack of connection (a ban on civilians owning mobile phones was lifted in 2008 and only five per cent of the population have access to the Internet at home). Then there’s the government’s hard-line on preferring talent to stay in the public sector and work in state-run businesses: 2010 figures showed 95 per cent of Cubans worked for the government, and ‘private employment licenses’ were infamously difficult to acquire.
Now, as US President Barack Obama makes the historic trip around the island nation and the opportunity for industry becomes more accessible, we’re already witnessing a boom of innovation – and Obama only touched down just over 24 hours ago. One of the first diplomatic exchanges was lung cancer vaccine Cimavax, a Cuban created vaccine that, according to local studies, increases survival rates with a very small number of side effects. Considering Cuba has the highest number of medical doctors per capita in the world, the scope for medical innovation is high and now that the US is accessing those resources, even higher. Online room booking giants Airbnb have also just announced they will open their Cuban listings to residents of any nationality on April 2nd, making cheap accommodation considerably easier to obtain.
“It was viewed as a new idea and here it was something that was already familiar to the culture,” Airbnb founder Brian Chesky told CBS. “There were tens of thousands of people that were already sharing their homes and so we felt like it wasn’t that big of a risk. And all we had to do was make sure the community embraced Airbnb.” Considering the fact that Cubans were using an Airbnb-esque business model before Airbnb even got to the country is proof that locals are already thinking about ways to expand in the entrepreneurial sphere.
In short, entrepreneurship is blossoming in Cuba, despite decades of attempts to stifle creativity and private enterprise. There are now over 450,000 registered entrepreneurs working in the country and President Castro has stated that private business is part of Cuba’s new economic model. With the US trade embargo lifted and the political gap closing as Obama’s time on the island continues, local entrepreneurs will face another challenge – competition from America’s power products, as the spread of Airbnb demonstrates. This start-up scene is familiar with an uphill battle, and entrepreneurs globally can learn significant lessons from the creative Cuban locals who are the leaders in what is already a start-up revolution.
Here are some ways that Cuba is championing local entrepreneurship against the odds:
SAY IT WITH A SIMPLE SYMBOL
Pre-Airbnb in Cuba, a huge homestay industry existed in the country and was a major cog in the functionality of the tourist industry. A small logo painted next to the front door (of two blue arrows joined together) identifies the house as one offering private accommodation, a ‘casa particulares’. Homeowners pay an annual tax to the government to obtain a sign, but can pocket any additional profits. Simple concept with instantly recognisable marketing = booming business.
BLEND THE OLD AND THE NEW
Havana’s famous Romeo y Julieta cigar brand is a traditional business learning to pivot. Since the 1860s, a ‘reader’ has stood at the front of the factory, reading aloud to the workers, but these days in a bid to attract young employees (in addition to a more relaxed dress code) the traditional Shakespeare now shares space with Fifty Shades of Grey and Harry Potter. Clearly even the oldest traditions can be given a new twist.
MAKE DO AND MEND
In 2008, the mobile phone ban was lifted but it’s still hard to access gadgets. Instead, tech entrepreneurs focus on revamping or extending the shelf-life of older technology. Word is, people even run their own ‘app stores’ from their living rooms, where customers pay a fee to come and download Apple and Android software from a hard drive onto their device.
UBER-ISE… TO THE BEST OF YOUR ABILITY
Uber doesn’t currently exist in Cuba but a local Cuban has created the next best thing. YoTelLevo (translation: ‘I will take you’) pairs local drivers with fares via email, arranging rates in advance with customers who pay cash on arrival. Sometimes complete Uber-isation is impossible, but you can compromise.
STAND BY YOUR STYLE
Whether it’s the vintage cars, rainbow buildings or bold local fashion, Cuba has its own unique aesthetic. In an era of trend-led fast fashion, it’s refreshing to find somewhere that knows what it likes and sticks to it. Who says you need to follow the trends?
Read the full story in Issue 31, available now.