Noah Redler is reaching out to the greater community in an effort to raise funds for a new initiative aimed at building Cuba’s startup community.
Redler, who serves as historic Notman House‘s campus director as well as a community leader for Startup Canada, is spearheading the fundraising project called Develop Cuba. He’s currently asking for between $3,500 and $4,000 to help boost Havana’s shoestring community efforts thus far, led by a pair of Cubans. Redler wrote on the project’s Eventbrite page that the money will go towards renting event space in Havana for several future meetups, t-shirts, stickers, a projector and a screen, and delivery fees.
Contributions can be made out in $10, $20 or $100 increments, with the latter price tear getting a sponsor a Develop Cuba t-shirts and an invite to a video Hangout with Develop Cuba’s Cuban leaders.
Once this has been accomplished, Redler wants to organize a formal delegation of entrepreneurs and investors to go to Havana and meet entrepreneurs, share best practices and even provide a platform for Cuban entrepreneurs to pitch investors.
The idea for the project came about while Redler visited Havana on vacation. Prior to his trip he managed to contact a couple of Cuban techies who had organized what must have been the country’s first informal tech meetup in March 2015. According to Redler, over 50 locals showed up. They put together their own cash to make it happen – US $700 – which is roughly the equivalent of one person’s salary for 28 months.
“Each of them presented a project that they were working on alone in their spare time, a lot of it offline solutions but all mobile and tech-based,” Redler told MTLinTech. “So they’re a lot more technologically advanced then you would expect, even without stable wifi.”
Associating the words “startup community” with Cuba almost seems comical. After all, this is still a heavily-monitored communist country with a deep-seated distrust of foreign initiatives. Those with experience travelling around Cuba and staying with local families can often sense a culture of paranoia about what one can or cannot say around their neighbours.
Moreover, the availability of reliable home internet for the great majority of the country is simply a dream – even those who can check email are “intricately monitored.”
“The Internet in Cuba is among the most tightly controlled in the world,” reads Wikipedia. “It is characterized by a low number of connections, limited bandwidth, censorship, and high cost.” Reporters without Borders goes as far as labelling Cuba an “Internet Enemy” since 2008.
Redler said there’s only a few rentable event spaces in Havana with wifi access. This was a challenge, along with acquiring proper resources for a meetup – like a projector and screen.
“I was so impressed with what they were accomplishing despite those obvious challenges,” he said. “They believed in it so much that they were willing to put their money where their mouth is and I just figured this is a great way we can support them.”
Despite the government’s heavy censorship and the country’s restrictive policies towards independent businesses, the amount of change in just two years within Cuba’s borders has been significant.
Politically, Cuba’s President Raul Castro announced his resignation for 2018 that will end his current five-year term, potentially paving the way for permanent term limits for future Cuban Presidents, including age limits. Under a year after that announcement in 2013, an agreement between Cuba and the United States was reached in an effort to thaw relations. Cuba and the US agreed to release political prisoners and the United States began the process of creating an embassy in Havana, which happened in June 2015. As well, the US removed Cuba from its list of nations which sponsor terrorism.
In terms of commerce, the country has slowly recognized the need for change. Each Cuban citizen still earns a government wage of roughly US $20-25 per month, and as a result the black market for basic commodities is a near-necessity for those with any extra income. Despite some progress in restructuring the state sector since 2010, the private sector remains constrained by heavy regulations and tight state controls. Open-market policies are not in place to spur growth in trade and investment, and the lack of competition continues to stifle dynamic economic expansion.
However, travel restrictions are slowly being eased for Cubans, while U.S. banks are now moving in to offer financial services after the reopening of diplomatic relations. Redler noted Airbnb’s now 2,600 rental spaces in the country after the San Francisco-based company landed in Cuba in April, anticipating a high influx of American travellers after the events of 2014. Even Facebook is serious about moving into Cuba.
Redler said he wants to do the delegation in a completely transparent manner to ease any possible governmental concern. He thinks ultimately the government will “see the value in this and be open in giving Cubans the ability to create wealth themselves.”
“Otherwise,” said Redler, “I think the Cuban government knows as well as anyone else that if it’s completely left to international companies to come in and provide all the jobs then the culture will change immediately. But Cubans can create something that retains Cuban culture and I think that’s important.”
One thing is for certain: we’re all in for change in the immediate future as it pertains to Internet entrepreneurship in Cuba. It’ll likely come gradually, but Redler wants to make sure the Cuban people see the Montreal startup community as friends who want to assist them in building their own culture. It’s not about sending money or trying to influence them, but by providing tangible tools, like projectors, screens and event space.
“Hopefully the dream is that we develop enough interest with some local investors where we could raising some money to help them establish the first co-working space in Cuba, and that would be in 2017, 2018,” said Redler.