Haitian Times tech contributor Henry Beaucejour interviewed Dr. Jean-Jacques Rousseau who serves as a Technical Advisor in Innovation, Science, and Competitiveness to President Jovenel Moise. Dr. Rousseau is helping launch ‘Alpha Haiti‘ in the Spring of 2018, a Haitian government initiative aimed at taking a new approach to economic development. He says the tech incubator will be an innovative platform to “develop solutions for persistent local problems.”
Q: Tell us about yourself and experience in the tech ecosystem?
A: I’m a Canadian innovation policy expert and philosopher of science born of Haitian parents. I’ve worked in a broad range of sectors and positions, including as a basketball coach, music talent agent, and promoter, machinist, economist, university lecturer, senior manager in the public sector and advisor. I am currently Technical Advisor in Innovation, Science, and Competitiveness to the President of Haiti. My education includes undergraduates in Law and Philosophy (Carleton University, Ottawa), MBA (York University, Toronto) and Ph.D. in Philosophy of Science (University of Toronto).
Before my current role, I worked on a number of high-profile innovation ecosystem building initiatives in Canada. For example, I contributed to writing the nation’s first government-led innovation policy, developed funding programs for innovative companies, led the creation of a clinical trials promotion agency, and led investment attraction to grow the local life sciences footprint. I also developed a web programming boot camp for out-of-work youth at the country’s largest social services agency to help them land a first work experience in tech.
Q: What’s your read of the tech sector in Haiti and what can be done to make it better?
A: The Haitian tech sector is embryonic but it’s there and growing. If it were a stock, it might be a penny stock but I’d recommend it as a solid “buy”. There are tech schools, companies, an active industry association, dedicated media outlets and many high-quality and well-attended conferences. In Haiti, it is possible to get trained in tech, get hired or start a company and get inspired by others doing the same.
What isn’t clear is how to get to the critical mass of people with globally competitive technical and business skills to business sustainable companies. This is why I say the sector is embryonic. Innovation and tech have the potential to help grow the national economy to new heights but, in my opinion, we’re not there yet.
What we can do is make good on our commitments. Private actors are doing good work and it is important for the national government to support these positive efforts. Fortunately, that is exactly what is happening.
I’ll mention only three concrete examples: the national telecommunications regulator CONATEL organizes an annual tech conference that features local talent, the Ministry of Economy and Finance is currently holding consultations on a first national innovation policy to guide government actions and investments, and the government is soon launching the first tech incubator of its kind as basic innovation infrastructure to launch more tech companies.
Q: What concerns do you have about Haitian youth leaving the country?
A: I don’t think it’s necessarily a concern that (young) people leave. The question is why they leave and whether they can come back if they want to.
But I understand the question. It was hard to accept why last year over 40 times more Haitians left for basic economic opportunities in Chile than did just 5 years ago (104,782 versus 2,428 according to January 16, 2018, article in Le Nouvelliste). Or that last year there were about 40,000 Haitian students in the Dominican Republic at a cost of $US220 million to their families (according to a February 15, 2017, article in Le Nouvelliste). Of course, Haitians in Haiti who choose to stay here should have a fair shot at a decent life.
My concern is the insufficient quantity and mix of opportunities to retain and attract ambitious youth. We need them here to build this brighter future and that only happens if it is possible to systematically develop and grow talent right here at home.
Q: What’s the plan of the government for the youth and tech ecosystem?
A: The intersection of youth and tech is particularly interesting in Haiti. Over half of the population is under 21 years old. Also, about half the population has a cell phone and social networks like WhatsApp and Facebook have a very high penetration for those with mobile devices.
The government is keen to leverage the youth dividend to economic advantage. It recently set up a presidential commission with a mandate to promote the socioeconomic social insertion of youth. The launch of the tech incubator is another youth-centric offering.
Q: How can innovation contribute to socio-economic development in Haiti?
A: That’s the great question that the national innovation policy will pose and for which it will crowd-source answers through consultations.
I am optimistic that, like Rwanda for example, Haiti can benefit from an innovation-powered boost to achieve its goal of becoming an emergent economy within a generation. In fact, it is difficult to imagine how the country can attain the productivity levels required for this feat without becoming a much more innovative economy.
Q: Can you tell us about this exciting project Alpha Haiti?
A: Alpha Haïti is the name of the new tech incubator. It is named “Alpha Haiti” to reflect the intention of the government to take a new approach to economic development.
I’m most excited that Alpha itself will be very innovative as a platform to develop solutions for persistent local problems. Specifically, it will host a number of “labs”, each experimenting on the right mix of business models, technologies and regulatory regimes to develop solutions to for better-delivered services to the population, financial inclusion, access to electricity and connectivity. The second shoe drops when carefully crafted solutions developed here can be exported to international markets.
The overall vision is to launch the largest and achieve the most sophisticated incubator in the Caribbean region. In the next three years, we want to see it become the window into the national and regional innovation ecosystems.
By providing entrepreneurs with the inspiring works spaces, reliable electricity and high-speed internet, specialized training, and mentorship, Alpha will help build new startups and support the creation of the jobs and wealth the country needs.
Alpha is a key deliverable of a broader strategy for economic transformation to be signaled by the parallel launch of a new national innovation policy. The aim of this new policy is to guide public sector spending in favor of higher productivity in other key sectors of the economy.
Q: Do you think this initiative will bear fruits that can galvanize economic growth?
A: Absolutely. Investing in human capital development and providing concrete spaces and tools is a strong strategy towards a brighter future. We expect to incubate up to 100 entrepreneurs a year and initiate up to 1,000 people a month to technology and entrepreneurship.
Q: Is there a legal framework of science, technology, and innovation in the making?
A: The projects I lead (incubator and national innovation policy) do not require new legislation. However, there is a new law on post-secondary education and scientific research that is highly relevant to the objectives of innovation at the service of a more prosperous Haiti.
Q: When is the grand opening?
A: Alpha is expected to launch by the end of Spring 2018. We will communicate exact dates as soon as they are confirmed so that members of the diaspora may join us to celebrate this decisive step towards a more innovative and prosperous Haiti.