Can digital currencies open the doors to the Internet Economy for the Caribbean?

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Using digital currencies to increase Caribbean participation in the Internet Economy

By Shiva Bissessar B.Sc. (Hons) MBA M.Sc., Managing & Technical Director, Pinaka Technology Solutions

Abstract

Small Caribbean content creators who are attempting to monetize opportunities on the global stage are left with the headache of resorting to traditional payment infrastructure to actually receive payment.   We examine some of the pitfalls of the traditional payment and remittance systems which they are forced to rely upon and the opportunity created by these inadequate systems for new digital currency based services.

We also explore the response of authorities to the phenomenon of digital currencies in the context of Caribbean entrepreneurs willing create products and services in the space and the global context of nations willing to evaluate risks and opportunities in the space.  We also take a look at the latest Caribbean development in the space. 

10th Caribbean Internet Governance Forum

I participated in the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU) hosted 10th Caribbean Internet Governance Forum (CIGF) over the period 6th – 8th August, 2014, which featured several distinguished speakers on various topics of internet governance ranging from the administration of Country Code Top Level Domain (ccTLD)  to Cyber Security to increasing Caribbean participation in the Internet Economy.

I presented on the topic Achieving Caribbean Cyber Security and the relaxed atmosphere of the room was very conducive to lively audience participation throughout the forum.  The audience was made up of senior stakeholders in ICT from various CARICOM member states, international organizations and private institutions.  This included participants from ICANN, ARIN, ISOC, LACNIC, CARICOM, ECLAC, CARCIP, TATT, iGovTT, Digicel, Flow and various ccTLD administrators.

How Do Caribbean Content Creators Receive Payment?

The exploration of increasing Caribbean participation in the Internet Economy took the form of presentations which sought to make the case for utilizing gains in broadband penetration rates and intra-regional pathways (via increased IXP deployment) to increase the level of Caribbean digital content for local, regional and international consumption. Ms. Nerissa Golden of www.goldenmedia.co, named one of TechLink’s 2013 Caribbean Innovators for her work in technology public awareness, gave a very insightful presentation (available on the CTU’s event page)  on this very topic which touched on the perspective of entrepreneurs actively participating in the space.

She spoke of the need for digital content creators to continuously develop and output material to stay relevant and of being knowledgeable of Caribbean digital video content creators who missed out on opportunities for monetization due to lack of adherence to technical standards in production as expected by big media houses.

She then spoke of something which really struck a chord with me.  She questioned the availability and quality of traditional payment systems, like PayPal and MoneyGram, to meet the needs of small digital content creators.

“What is critical and many are failing at is the monetization of their cultural goods.  A major challenge is that many islands are not in the PayPal system for receiving payments. This has restricted more artists to be able to accept purchases direct from their websites.”

Now, it’s difficult enough for Caribbean content creators to find opportunities to monetize their work, but when you add onto that the burden of unresponsive methods for them to actually receive payment, are we really encouraging growth in this area?

Problem With Existing Payment Systems

At the end of her presentation the moderator, Mr Nigel Cassimere of the CTU, asked an intriguing question as to what can be done at the government policy level to assist Caribbean content creators. It was at this point I interjected; empathizing with the small content creators mentioned by Ms. Golden and suggested that exploration should take place outside of traditional payment systems to seek out digital currency systems which offer greater geographical reach, higher availability, lower transactional costs and faster transmission rates.

I went further to offer that if Caribbean governments were serious about encouraging participation in the Internet Economy they need to examine the risks and opportunities of digital currencies and encourage systems which can facilitate payments to small Caribbean content creators. Bevil Wooding of Packet Clearing House also chimed in; suggesting that reliance on traditional payments systems in such circumstances removes wealth from the Caribbean economies.

Figure 1: SWOT analysis of Digital Currencies in Trinidad & Tobago
Figure 1: SWOT analysis of Digital Currencies in Trinidad & Tobago

I developed the above graphic for a presentation delivered at the 6th South School of Internet Governance (SSIG) 2014 which attempted to show the potential benefits of digital currencies to Trinidad and Tobago, and by extension the Caribbean, in the context of expensive traditional remittance systems imposed on African nations and other discussed factors.

Given Ms Golden’s initial stated desire for better traditional payment systems, it is instructive to note that in November 2012, WordPress began utilizing Bitcoin to pay their bloggers in certain countries where PayPal did not operate due to political or other reasons. Of late, PayPal’s ‘politics’ has been an increasing source of concern, hence why should we leave our entrepreneurs no alternative other than traditional payment and remittance systems?

If Caribbean content creators were to receive payments in Bitcoin or other digital currency they would then require the services of a digital currency exchange to convert said digital currency into the fiat currency of their choice.  Are we currently encouraging the establishment of such digital currency exchange services?  What has been the response from Caribbean Governments and Central Banks to the digital currency phenomenon?

Encouraging Growth Of Caribbean Digital Currency Services

My own efforts to stimulate discussion on the topic with financial authorities in Trinidad and Tobago have been unremarkable and in the meetings I have had, I sense more unwarranted fear of this financial disruptive innovation than a willingness to objectively evaluate risk and opportunities.  The Koblitz Group describes itself as offering Caribbean based crypto currency digital exchange services, wholesale mining facilities and digital currency ATM services.

However after several months their digital currency exchange website still indicates formal launch as being imminent.  Generally speaking, to launch such services there may be various obstacles to overcome such as; seeking clarity on how operations may be perceived and classified under the Financial Institution Act, 2008 (as in the case of Trinidad and Tobago), obtaining necessary bank accounts to facilitate operations and currency trading and obtaining facilities to allow for the mining of digital currencies.  I am yet to see any clear statement or even signs from any Caribbean Government which can be deemed as supportive of digital currency entrepreneurs.

Koblitz Group co-founder, Oliver Gale, offered the following quote as a summation of the roadblocks they have faced in trying to get established in certain Caribbean nations:

“Regulators are very slow to respond and educate themselves on digital currency technology. Whilst other small economies around the world respond proactively to this emerging technology (See Isle of Man) to establish themselves as forerunners in a new age of finance we have found Caribbean government bodies resistant to change. This is a shame because not only do our economies need stimulation, but our people need help in entering the age of e-commerce and m-commerce.”

How is this different from what is taking place globally?  The UK Treasury will soon be embarking towards understand the risks and opportunities posed by digital currencies while in the state of New York in the US has extended the period of comment on their proposed controversial regulatory framework for the virtual currency industry.

Closer to home in Latin America, some see Argentina’s debt default and Venezuela’s high inflation and foreign currency controls, as making these nations more likely to adopt Bitcoin. It is encouraging that mobile money solutions have been developed in some Caribbean nations including Guyana, Jamaica, Dominica Republic and Haiti.

In an article where Mr. Kosta Peric, Deputy Director for the Financial Services for the Poor at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, espouses the virtues of “financial inclusion” and outlines his mission to reach the “un-bankable”, we get a possible glimpse of the future role of digital currencies (e.g. Bitcoin), payment protocols (e.g. Ripple) and the role of new actors (e.g telcos) in achieving such a mission.  Do we have the courage to consider digital currencies as possibly augmenting mobile money solutions?

Figure 2: Kosta Peric's Disruptive Future of Financial Services
Figure 2: Kosta Peric’s Disruptive Future of Financial Services

Getting back to the initial problem highlighted by Ms. Golden; post CIGF meeting, I asked her for further comments on the problem and her thoughts on how new payment infrastructure can assist small Caribbean content creators:

“There is a great need for more education on what payment options are available for entrepreneurs to make use of in the region. While Paypal is an option many would like it is not available for receiving payments in quite a few Caribbean jurisdictions. The high costs of opening merchant credit card accounts is also a further barrier.  It would be necessary to see more promotion on the potential of Bitcoins and other virtual currencies as an alternative that entrepreneurs can use.  Banks should also be encouraged to find new ways of facilitating the needs of businesses who function primarily online”

So if we are serious about encouraging participation in the Internet Economy, there is a necessary first step of clear direction from respective Caribbean governments to have authorities objectively analyze the potential benefits of digital currencies and then place necessary policies and measures in place to deal with the risks whilst ensuring that innovation to create the payment systems which small Caribbean content creators need and other services are not stifled.

Latest Caribbean Developments

Dominica

There has been some chatter on the Internet over a “Let The Bit Drop” event to be hosted in Dominica in 2015.  It is part of an awareness drive around Bitcoin and future services being developed on island by Bitcoin services provider Coinapault.  The project is being driven with the assistance of Bitcoin friendly Aspen Insurance, the non-profit Crypto College Network and the women’s industry group Bitcoin Beauties.  The chairman of the board and director of Aspen Insurance is former Prime Minister of Commonwealth of Dominica, Mr. Oliver James Seraphin. Further details of the event and the development of future services can be found here

Trinidad

The Alliance for Financial Inclusion, which is funded by the aforementioned Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will host their 2014 Global Policy Forum (GPF) in Port of Spain Trinidad over the period 9th -11th Sept, 2014.  One of the items on the agenda is a moderated discussion on Digital Financial Services (DFS).  The focus here will most likely be on mobile money solutions, but as mentioned above there is a future role for digital currencies in DFS as recognized by Mr. Peric above and the International Telecommunications Union Focus Group on DFS.

Shiva Bissessar

About the author, Shiva Bissessar B.Sc.(Hons.) MBA M.Sc.

With over 17 years of industry experience, Mr. Bissessar currently offers corporate entities and public institutions consultancy on strategic matters of ICT and Information Security.  Of late he has been focusing on bringing awareness to cutting edge issues within the Information Security domain including areas Digital Currencies, Cyber Security and Cloud (security and privacy).  

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