The closure of money transfer services such as MoneyGram during the phased reopening called attention to the relative dearth of e-commerce options in the territory. (Photo: JOEY WALDINGER)

The coronavirus lockdowns have highlighted the Caribbean’s struggles to implement e-commerce solutions, but they have also presented an opportunity for innovation, according to a Zoom panel made up of owners of small- and medium-sized businesses convened last week by the Caribbean branch of the International Labour Organisation.

The relative scarcity of online payment platforms came to a head in the Virgin Islands when money transfer services like MoneyGram and Western Union initially were left out of the phased reopening, leaving customers temporarily unable to send money to loved ones abroad.

Although the services have since been able to reopen, many residents had no access to electronic forms of payment like PayPal or Venmo, or didn’t know how to use them.

Renee Thomas of Grenada owns KariBites, a regional online platform available both in Grenada and Antigua that allows people to order food from
local restaurants, similar to services such as DoorDash in other countries.

In response to a question from the Beacon about the VI’s situation, she suggested that there is more room in the Caribbean for a regional payment platform like PayPal or Venmo. She added that some regional telecommunications companies have already adapted similar payment platforms “where you could register as a small business and receive
money being paid to you.”

“So that is something else that can be explored with your tech companies,” she said. “See if that can happen for you. We really need to get assistance with payment platforms that will aid and assist in receiving money.”

Her business has increased dramatically since the Covid-19 lockdowns, she said, but the expansion has led to growing pains. She noted the cultural challenges of adopting e-commerce solutions, noting that many of her restaurant partners “expected you to come in and talk to them, show them it’s true.”

“We are as a people very interactive in that way,” she said, adding, “ That’s why sometimes we get some of those hiccups. It’s a combination of access and comfortability.”

She said that some people have been hesitant to use the software because they are uncomfortable with the technology.

“[But] then when we finally schedule a meeting, it’s pretty simple: We can walk you through it,” she explained. “That usually changes their perspective.”

Anthony Smith, owner of the EasyGrab chain of convenience stores in Antigua and Barbuda, which also operates a Western Union franchise, said that besides offering delivery and stocking needed supplies like disinfectant and hand sanitiser, offering e-commerce platforms has helped keep him afloat.

Although he acknowledged that some banks are still unwilling to work with companies using e-commerce, including PayPal and other apps, banks have not been the primary challenge he has faced.

“The culture of our people has been the main problem in how fast e-commerce is developing here in Antigua,” he said.

“Culturally … in the Caribbean, we are generally not that much into the online platform[s] of goods and services. It is relatively new to us. Because of the Covid situation, it has sped up tremendously. And more and more businesses are trying to move to the online platform just to survive in these times.”

Lyndell Danzie-Black, cofounder of the Women’s Chamber of Commerce and
Industry Guyana, who moderated the discussion, noted that although high-tech ideas may provide solutions, the old ways remain useful too.

“The whole issue of bartering was literally alive and well [during the lockdowns].

There were people who were offering to do graphic designs for each other and so on and so on,” she said. “We will often feel that Covid will leave behind legacies. And the legacies may be negative as well as positive.”