– Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Eastern Caribbean island nation, famed for its beautiful landscapes, pristine white-sand beaches and temperate climate, attracted around a million tourists each year.
But with travel restrictions across the globe, tourism all but dried up, and the country’s economy has seen a dramatic downturn. It is estimated that, by the end of 2020, GDP had contracted by 18%, primarily due to a 71% decline in long-stay arrivals over the year.
In these times of instability, the Barbadian government is accelerating its efforts to diversify the economy and rebuild a more sustainable and resilient one. Apart from renewed activity in traditional sectors, the country aims to tap into the new value chains of the emerging global green and blue economy.
Barbados not only has ambitious plans to become the first carbon-free small island developing state by 2030, but also intends to become an export leader of cleantech products and services to the Caribbean and beyond.
Cleantech for more resilience
In this context, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Vienna, with funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), is supporting the Government of Barbados with the establishment of BLOOM, the Caribbean’s first cleantech cluster.
Created as public-private partnership, the cluster provides shared resources and services, as well as a makerspace for companies and academia to work on joint projects, solutions and marketing. The cluster is hosted by the Barbados Investment and Development Corporation (BIDC), under the supervision of the Ministry of International Business and Industry.
Mark Hill, CEO of BIDC, said, “Cleantech is part of our “Design It, Make It, Ship It” export and business development strategy, which aims to foster the design of feasible, viable and desirable Barbadian products and services that are well-produced, sustainable and globally competitive, and can be physically shipped or virtually exported across the globe. With the BLOOM cluster we have an important tool to promote local cleantech entrepreneurship and innovation.”
“We can build on the success of the Barbadian solar-thermal industry, which has its origins in the 1970s. Solar thermal water heating reaches over 55,000 consumers today, saving thousands of barrels of oil and CO2 emissions each year”.
“Under the common BLOOM label, we will upgrade existing industry and create new ones, tapping into new technologies and business models, including electric mobility, battery storage, green hydrogen, ocean energy, efficient appliances, waste recycling, bioenergy and the circular economy,” he added.
“The cluster’s sustainable, responsible and impactful investment design-led approach to export development, embraces the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a bedrock for developing Barbadian businesses.
“The days of business-as-usual are over. We’re doing business unusual,” concludes Hill.
Matching businesses, science and beyond
Jari Aaltonen, manager of BLOOM, explains, “The BLOOM cleantech cluster is still a relatively new player in Barbados’ innovation ecosystem as it was launched in 2020 in the midst of a deep economic crisis. As of now, the cluster has 20 members including start-ups, government agencies, chambers and universities.”
“Working with young start-ups and new business development projects has great economic and job creation potential,” says Aaltonen. At the moment, the cleantech incubator is established with 10 incubatees, whose business models and business plans are under development in cooperation with the cleantech cluster members.
The cluster has engaged young cleantech entrepreneurs from the University of West Indies for the incubation programme, offering them high-quality training, individual coaching and mentoring provided by local experts and partly by international training institutions like Coursera and the International Labour Organization. “This combination is the key for accelerated learning,” Aaltonen says.
“The cluster is working at all levels: local, national, regional and global. The country’s first cleantech incubator was established with four experts, which has nearly doubled to seven since, in line with growing demand”.
The team is working very closely with their start-ups in their first two years, to help them validate their business idea and business model, secure financing, start product development and get their first few clients. Building new skills and capacities is key for the success of any start-up, and, therefore, there is a sharp focus and a lot of attention on organizing online training courses that are compact, innovative, and pragmatic at the same time.
Since 2019, a close cooperation has been established with the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Caribbean Climate Innovation Centre and the International Association of Science Parks to boost strategic partnerships between local and international businesses.
Standing out from the crowd: women and youth cleantech entrepreneur
One such organization is CEMBI (Caribbean Environmental Management Bureau), a non-governmental organization which has launched the BitEgreen Market web platform and app to increase the use of recycled materials.
CEO Simera Crawford explains that the BitEgreen app is “a solution that offers value to the community at large through the preservation of the environment for present and future generations.
“I live by a purpose which is to preserve the well-being of nature for present and future generations. I have the training and abilities to do something about it,” she adds.
Crawford also acknowledges that “building a team to foster high performance implementation of a very extensive business idea and finding assistance in marketing and communications is a challenge.” UNIDO’s programme is designed to help alleviate these concerns until the growth of the business diminishes them.
Empowering women and youth
As of now, there are ten start-ups in the incubation programme, and 60% of the entrepreneurs are women. Close to two-thirds of the clients have managed to raise financing through grants and/or loans.
Kerri-Ann Bovell is part of the cleantech cluster with her business EcoMycö, which seeks to replace traditional fossil fuel-based packaging, such as Styrofoam and high-density and low-density polyethylene, with a bio-based and biodegradable alternative. She incorporates local plant matter as the raw materials for the bioplastic films she has created so far.
“I feel like I am at the starting point of a successful journey. Thanks to the support from the incubator, I have already learned to think more critically and have gained a much better understanding of what it takes to start and grow a successful business.”
For Bovell, pushing a bio-material business ahead implies “contributing to both our Barbadian and Caribbean economies, possibly even the international community, in a manner that results in little-to-no negative environmental impacts.”
And for those who are interested in working in this field, Bovell advises “be prepared to not only work hard but work smart as well. Also, utilize the resources provided for you as much as possible.”
Pilot for global replication
The GEF-funded project in Barbados is a pilot for the Global BLOOM programme promoted by UNIDO, within the Global Network of Regional Sustainable Energy Centres (GN-SEC), which assists developing countries in the establishment of cleantech clusters as part of their energy, environment and industrialization policies.
According to Martin Lugmayr, UNIDO Global BLOOM Coordinator, “Clustering is an important tool to incentivise the private sector to strategically engage in the expanding value chains of global cleantech manufacturing and servicing. A sustainable and inclusive climate transition requires the strengthening of local entrepreneurship and innovation, also in lower and lower-middle income countries. Ultimately, it is about local jobs and environmental sustainability.”
“In the past, cleantech clustering has been predominantly a domain of industrialized and emerging countries. However, there is also a critical mass of young entrepreneurs and scientists in developing countries who are keen to work together in a collaborative platform, benefitting from joint resources, intelligence and support for incubation and industrial upgrading,” he adds.
Borbala Csete and Andrea Eras Almeida work in the Energy Systems and Infrastructure Division of the Directorate of Environment and Energy at the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Vienna, Austria.