By NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporter
The first investor in Grand Bahama’s “technology hub” yesterday questioned the Government’s “commitment” to continue pursuing the concept given the seeming absence of Budget funding.
Greg Wood, GIBC Digital’s founder and chief executive, in an interview with Tribune Business said the company “can’t do it alone” while admitting it had cut staffing levels by 90 percent due to challenges with developing its business model in The Bahamas.
Still, reiterating the company’s long-term belief, Mr Wood said: “We are very committed to Grand Bahama. We have made a significant investment, and it has taken longer than we expected for that to play out.
“I don’t think of things in terms of six months but, rather, six years. It’s been very difficult to do that but, as a business, we had to do it and now we are really waiting to see what happens.”
“Is the Government committed to creating a tech hub in Grand Bahama? If they aren’t then that’s a different matter.”
Mr Wood said GIBC Digital has given the Government a “road map” to making its technology hub aspirations a reality, and added: “We had given them a road map. It’s something that can be done by 2020, but you have to get moving.
“The consequences of not doing so is The Bahamas will get left behind. You need a significant upscaling of people - not just in Grand Bahama but in The Bahamas. The recent Budget, there is no money allocated. It makes me wonder how serious is the commitment
Mr Wood continued: “I think that creating a tech hub is challenging because you have to create an eco-system. You need the academic world, government, private industry, investors to all come together with that commitment, and with a similar vision, but the most important thing is to have a plan and execute the plan.
“We put a plan in place for the Government. It’s really up to them if they want to follow through and do what they could, or just talk about it. Words are easy but the work of creating a tech hub is significant. It is going to take a significant investment in time and money to get that kick-started.
“It depends on not only the Government but it depends on other businesses in The Bahamas. Are they ready for digital transformation? Do they want to compete and, if you want to compete globally, you can’t compete. The Bahamas will be left behind. Are we in this and do we want to make the changes we need to make to compete globally or not?”
Mr Wood confirmed GIBC Digital had laid-off 27 of the 30 persons it hired on Grand Bahama, and had to scrap the opening of its Nassau office. “It’s always difficult when you have to lay people off, especially in a market where there are not a lot of other good jobs,” said Mr Wood.
“We hired 30 people. We are down to three. That is not something we have done lightly. It’s a very difficult thing to do. People are disappointed. It’s very difficult when you come, give people hope and that disappears. I think if people will take a longer term view we will work this out.
“It’s not six months; it’s six years, and we will fulfill our commitment to the people of The Bahamas and Grand Bahama, in particular. We were getting ready to open an office in Nassau and when we realised the work wasn’t coming we pulled back. As a business it is necessary to make those decisions. Everyone wants to be popular but sometimes you have to make the difficult decisions. I think it’s temporary.”
Mr Wood acknowledged that finding staff with the necessary skills and expertise was a challenge, but something the company had anticipated. “We knew that the skills didn’t really exist [locally],” he added.
“We knew we would find a few people who had the skills that we needed but, overall, we were committed to training people. That is a long-term process and is something that you need a national strategy for. It can’t be just one company. We have to work with government, other businesses and universities to make that a reality. We are committed to doing that work but we can’t do it alone.”
As to GIBC Digital’s plans moving forward, Mr Wood said: “One of two things will happen; either the work will start to come because the Government is committed to digital transformation and they are going to build a tech hub, or we are going to find work outside The Bahamas and bring that in so that we can create business here that isn’t dependent on local work.
“That is very different from the model we have. Our model is we hire local people to do local work. If the work is not here we have to consider other options and alternatives. I have made a commitment to the Bahamian people and I want to fulfill that. Even if in the short run we can’t, over the long run we will and it will be that second path if the first doesn’t materialise.”
Senator Kwasi Thompson, minister of state for Grand Bahama, told Tribune Business yesterday that the Government remained focused on building technology as the third pillar of the Bahamian economy with a focus on Grand Bahama.
He said the 2019-2020 Budget contained increased funding of over $1m to finamnce initiatives associated with the technology hub plan. “This year we will have a focus on Artificial Intelligence, which is another growing area of technology,” Mr Thompson added. “However, we acknowledge there is a lot more that needs to be done.
“This will take time to fully development. We need even more collaboration with the private sector, government and universities. We need more investment promotion. We are prepared to work with all companies who share our vision for the tech sector and Grand Bahama.”
He continued: “This commitment to diversifying the economy by embracing technology is a core component of the Government’s mandate to create additional opportunities for Bahamians, and allow for participation in a sector that traditionally sparks innovation and is responsible for the creation of the majority of new global wealth,” he said.
“The Government is committed to creating the appropriate legislative environment, investing in educational and promotional programmes, and assisting small business entrepreneurs.”
Mr Thompson added: “One of the key pieces of legislation that has been passed to support the growth of the technology industry is the Commercial Enterprises Act of 2017 (CEA). The CEA is designed to encourage both Bahamians and international investors and entrepreneurs to invest in the technology sector. Companies like GIBC, Dev Digital, Skyward Tech have been able to take advantage of this Act.
“We recognise the need to build the technical skills of citizens and residents to better position the country to have sustainable growth of its technology industry, and to this end has made significant investments in expanding STEM education in K-12, the $17m school digitisation programme, providing free technical training and certifications for students at BTVI, and now free tertiary education at the University of The Bahamas.
“BTVI has started training and certifying high school students in critical ICT courses. This year we will commence ICT certification courses which can be accessed through Urban Renewal centres on Grand Bahama. We recently created a tech company relocation incentive called the BH1B visa programme to encourage tech companies to relocate some parts of their operation to The Bahamas.”
Mr Thompson said draft FinTech (financial technology) legislation, which the Government is “serious about” to create the right atmosphere for blockchain and crypto currency companies to responsibly operate, has been circulated.
“The Government of the Bahamas recently launched its Small Business Development Centre (SBDC) with a focus on training the next generation of Bahamian entrepreneurs,” he added. “The Office of the Prime Minister in Grand Bahama is providing small business grants.
“In addition to the SBDC, the University of The Bahamas had created an entrepreneurship degree programme that will provide training for the next generation of technology entrepreneurs. We also continue to promote Grand Bahama internationally through our major annual event, the Tech Summit. This year we will have a focus on Artificial Intelligence which another growing area of technology.”
GIBC Digital was among the first companies to apply for, and be approved, under the Commercial Enterprises Act, which aims to smooth the path for investment in targeted industries by easing Immigration bureaucracy and ‘red tape’.
The Act, together with the Grand Bahama ‘technology hub’ initiative, are major components in the Government’s plan to restructure and reposition the Bahamian economy by diversifying away from its reliance on tourism and financial services.
GIBC Digital was founded by Mr Wood in 2011 as an enterprise focused on the provision of operational and information technology (IT) strategy, with a focus on regulatory-driven change. GIBC helps its clients re-engineer their data resources in order to help them stay competitive and optimise their data security. The firm launched its office in Grand Bahama just last June.