The Jamaican Business Landscape of the 21st Century

52 years ago today, Jamaica gained independence from British rule. Since then, things have not always been easy for the Caribbean island. But things have not been all bad either.

The reason for Jamaica’s economic woes are complex, and if you are ever able to see the documentary Life And Debt, it will really open your eyes to world economics and how trade agreements and international borrowing can effect developing countries significantly. Jamaica has been a victim of this, as well as political ostracization from the United States due to Jamaica friendliness and tolerance towards Cuba.

For many countries in the world, that would have been the end of it. Jamaica would have slipped into obscurity, continuing to struggle and lose millions of natives to the diaspora due to emigration. However it hasn’t quite worked out that way. While the stereotypes of Jamaica may be corny and overly simplistic, the “brand” that the island has created for itself is easily recognized all over the globe (thanks to Mr. Marley, and lately, sports superstars such as Usain Bolt). Reggae music, dreadlocks, Red Stripe Beer, pirates, rum, beautiful beaches, marijuana, etc. — all come to mind when you think of Jamaica.  These well-established associations are great to take off with if you are in the Jamaican tourist industry. However there is more to the Jamaican business landscape then tourism.

Jamaica has a population of 2.7 million people, making it the 3rd largest English speaking country in the Americas. Tourism (and it’s related industries) make up 5% of the country’s GDP yet employs 25% of the workforce. However, Jamaica is also the world’s 3rd largest producer of bauxite, which is the world’s main source of aluminum. While tourism, manufacturing and agriculture are currently the sustaining industries for the island, the 21st century has been revealing many surprise opportunities that were previously unattainable.

Jamaicans have always done wonders in the creative fields or art and music, with very modest technology at their disposal. When King Tubby built his own sound equipment to remix (which Jamaicans simply call “version”) Jamaican hit songs, he revolutionized popular music. While you still have innovators in the Jamaican music industry, some exciting things are happening in another creative industry…animation. Major studios have been outsourcing animation work due to labor costs for decades. However, most of this outsourcing has been sent to various Asian countries. However, Jamaican animation studios have been making major inroads. The Jamaican animation studio Reel Rock, will be co-producing 13 episodes of the show Quiz Time for Disney Junior France.

Another emerging industry is the mobile telecommunications industry. Due to issues with updating the infrastructure and the relatively shallow inroads being made by the home internet/broadband industry (only 42% of Jamaicans have access to the internet at home, compared with 81% of Americans), cell phones are very popular in Jamaica. In fact, some estimates put the market share at 110% (which means there’s more cell phones then people)! Digicel is the homegrown (well almost, the company’s founder is Irish, but its headquarters is still in Jamaica) superstar of the mobile industry; not only in Jamaica, but across the Caribbean. Currently, about 50% of cell phone subscribers in Jamaica have smartphones. And that number continues to grow.

It’s obvious that most of the high growth potential in Jamaica is in the private sector since the Jamaican government’s debt has limited its ability to provide economic opportunities. But low wages (good for foreign investors) and low productivity (bad for foreign investors) have presented some serious challenges. Inflation and the ever-weakening of the Jamaican dollar causes workers to lose motivation. They dream of leaving the island for greater opportunities abroad or abandon their passions for other jobs that pay better wages.

A novel compromise to combat this, is to have foreign companies outsource to Jamaica. Its English-speaking population and its proximity to the U.S. places it in a favorable position to corporations looking to save on labor costs. Of course, this is easier said than done…but with some effort, it could be possible. The trick for long-term success is for companies to see more than the bottom line. The island does have free zones – areas where companies do not pay taxes on their revenue (particularly attractive to manufacturers, especially in the garment industry). However, more often then not, companies get greedy, and exploit Jamaican workers..due to the fact that the Jamaican workforce is largely uneducated and underemployed.

However, what they lack in regards to education, Jamaicans make up for in the area of drive and entrepreneurship. They have a high level of pride in themselves and their ability to make waves. What Jamaica needs is to have natives and those abroad who think outside of the box. Who look for ways to overcome the Jamaican government’s failings and tap into the global network of opportunity on their own. It can be done; there are plenty of people both on the island and outside of it who are rooting for your eventual success!