Why SMEs like Splice Studios are the real test of our ‘Roadmap to Recovery’

Originally published on Wired868 Wednesday 26 May 2021

So the dream of Splice Studios is no more. If Abigail Hadeed—with her brand recognition, contacts, creativity, and privilege, could not navigate to save her business during this pandemic—then tell me who can. Just reading her post was painful:

‘Thank you all who have shared, supported or created at Splice for our short lived but yet still inspiring existence. Like the Phoenix I will rise from the ashes.’

Photo: Keeping my head above water in a pandemic…
(Copyright Abigail Hadeed/Splice Studios)

Like the crisis of Errol ‘The Independent’ Fabien and Gayelle, hers was brought into the public domain but with a different result. Splice is up for sale while Gayelle, through crowd funding, has pivoted to a different kind of offering.  

For each Abigail Hadeed, there are hundreds of others who are quietly drowning and cannot even hold up a hand to attract attention. She is a good example of one who breaks the stereotype that says creativity and entrepreneurship seldom reside in the same body; and in T&T, she is not alone.

Why did it come to this? Could it be that the banks have not changed their operations to suit the changed economic context? Is it that there is no end to foreclosing on defaulters and what next? 

Is there a viable resale market in an economy which has crashed to a halt? Is it that the business ecosystem remains firmly rooted in pre-Covid norms?

A reimagined role for the banking sector would be to shift from the 1980s ‘greed is good’ template, and move to a practice of preventing customers and clients from coming to this screeching halt. The reality is that businesses are closed, so there is no in-flow of cash but their overheads remain the same.

Photo: Splice Studios in Port of Spain before the hurt of the Covid-19 pandemic.
(Copyright Abigail Hadeed/Splice Studios)

When businesses run out of options to pay their overheads, they are forced to walk away, whether it be from office rent or rental of a Lynx/Credit card  machine. The greater the number of crashed businesses, the more difficult our recovery will be.

We know that foot traffic will return sooner rather than later, so this is the time for deeper analysis and understanding of the possibilities. The idea should be: how can individual businesses and the banking sector collaborate for businesses to survive and thrive in the short-to-medium term rather than facing closure.

The collaboration is not simply between businesses and the financial sector, but with the government as well.  A visit to the Ministry of Finance’s website suggests a structured almost seamless approach to applying for the Entrepreneurial Relief Grant so it appears that businesses should not be in too much trouble.

The social media posts from such entrepreneurs, however, leave me uninspired—because clearly there is a formidable gap between what we say and what we’ve done (or not done), and this is reflected in the reality of our poor ranking on the Ease of Doing Business Index.

Photo: A barren room at Splice Studios.
(Copyright Abigail Hadeed/Splice Studios)

The Roadmap to Recovery document referenced the Small Business Enterprise (SME) Sector as accounting for more than 20,000 businesses and employing more than 200,000 persons. This is where urgent attention and focus is needed.  Organisations like Splice, Drink Wine Bar and a number of others must be saved if we want to ‘build back better’.

Chatting with Reval Chattergoon and Errol Fabien

Recorded on May 01 2021, President of the Arima Business Association, Reval Chattergoon commented on the need for collaboration between the Business sector and the Government to acquire vaccinations for the entire population.
He lamented the political polarization of our country and made appealed to citizens to become “Trinidad and Tobago aligned”. In looking at the future he dreamed of a country where persons greet each other respectfully; where we feel safe; where we keep our environment clean and were we feel proud to be personal ambassadors.
At 12:46, the conversation changes and Errol “the Independent” Fabien shares how he survived the devastation of moving from 3 bookings per week to 6 over a 12 month period. As a true survivor, he retrained and developed new skills. The licks and love of Covid has helped his company Gayelle transform into staging nightly live productions from the Tony Hall Studio.
His plea to other performers is find an opportunity to collaborate with any eye on the future. He commented that the creative sector needs to be capitalized and re-positioned as a pillar of development which can contribute to the national economy.
Errol suggested the Parliament legislate the banning of the use of certain words and tones. His belief is that our society needs to engage in a big “Love up” at all levels if we want to change. From the penal system to the man in the street, love will show us the way.

Language and respect are connected; don’t popularise profanity

Originally published on wired868 Monday 17 May 2021

It was January 2001 when then President ANR Robinson addressed the nation and quoted his mother as saying: ‘Bad habits are gathered at slow degrees, as streams running into rivers, and rivers into seas.’

This statement was subsequently modified by a friend who reminded me that: ‘it begins with raindrops’. That’s what crossed my mind when I heard our prime minister in a press conference quote from a calypso, Don’t Jackass De Thing.

Image: A screenshot of Remy Rembunction’s version of Doh Jackass De Thing.

I grew up at a time when the word ‘profanity’ was used to describe certain words which you were not expected to use publicly. Madam Webster describes profanity as: ‘a socially offensive use of language, which may also be called cursing, cussing or swearing, cuss words, curse words, swear words, bad words, dirty words, or expletives’.

At that time, you may have gotten away with these words under your breath or as they say, sotto voce—in a quiet voice or not to be overheard. But there was an expectation that certain words would never cross your lips publicly. I grew up in East Dry River where one perceives that the standards were lower, but I never heard my mother use profanity and I am still offended by the use of expletives.

Fast forward to today, my contemporaries are using outright obscene language on their Facebook pages; my prime minister is talking to me about not jackassing the thing; another person responds to a member of parliament with the statement  ‘STFH (meaning stay the f*** home)’; and a number of other comments which a few years ago would have been viewed as inappropriate.  

It might be that I missed the memo that these words are now acceptable but I have not heard them used in any of my online meetings or briefings. I have searched without success for world leaders using similar exhortations.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.

I accept that language evolves and I am old and irrelevant, but as long as I am in charge of my faculties, there are things to which I shall object. The use of inappropriate language is one of them.   

You see there is a connection between the breakdown of discipline and the use of inappropriate language. For me, language and respect are all wrapped up, intertwined with each other. The moment one begins to fall apart, it is just a matter of time before the other follows.  

From where I sit, people resort to these expletives either because they want to appear trendy or they are reluctant to find a more appropriate word.

I expect the highest standards, and shall continue to demand it from whomever I interact with or whomever leads us. When we lower our expectations, we will get responses aimed at the lowest common denominator.  

The old behavioural edict has not changed, ‘behaviour breeds behaviour’. Citizens will follow and emulate your behaviour at every turn, so don’t degenerate us—we deserve better.

The Chief Medical Officer has lost the sparkle in his eyes and appears tired.

The Minister of Health is crying.

The Prime Minister vacillates between bouff and his version of softened communications.

The population is suffering from pandemic fatigue with no end in sight.

Women continue to be abused, murdered and raped.

All of this is on display on nationwide television and social media, and all these are ingredients for a recipe for a psychosocial explosion which will impact us for years to come. The pot is starting to boil, and no one is moving to turn off the stove.

Now is the time for our leaders to collaborate to overcome the healthcare, social and economic challenges created by this pandemic.  Collaboration is our only solution.  In the absence of joint efforts by our leaders, the economic loss we have experienced will lead to a catastrophe of incomparable proportions.

Of course, the times are uncertain.  Intellectually we know that some measure of stability will occur when we reach herd immunity or have vaccinated one million persons.  Until then, we have to live with COVID-19 and the death and destruction which it is bringing.  

How to minimize that death and destruction is not even a million dollar question.  It requires a comprehensive plan with a communications strategy to engage the population in what is being implemented.

DJs, communications practitioners and gurus offer their suggestions and proposals both publicly and privately.  From my observations I have no evidence of the roll-out of a comprehensive, planned, sustainable Communications Plan.  Weekly press briefings do not constitute a communications plan and strategy.  It is just one tool used to brief the media, to disseminate data about parts of a strategy and announcing upcoming stages of the strategy and how they will be implemented. Like the virus, the strategy seems to be invisible.

In times of war, leaders park their politics aside and collaborate to fight the war to the end.  Why haven’t we taken the same approach to COVID-19?   It is a war which we must win.  Maybe if the population sees our leaders collaborating to find solutions their behaviours might change. 

We accuse the population of being lawless and disobedient and try to treat them like children who must be grounded.  Well IT IS NOT WORKING!  If your cupboards and wallets are bare, you will not remain indoors and hope for a saviour.  If your choice is between purchasing a mask or some rice, the rice will take priority.  People are forced to find every available coin and to satisfy their basic needs.

Keeping us all safe requires an improved level of trust of both the system and the people who operate the system.  Approximately 350,000 citizens voted against the Prime Minister, so this might not be the best time to implement traditional methods of trust-building. Some unconventional methods need to be employed. It is possible that those persons may respond differently if they see collaboration between the two political parties.  

For us to win this war the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition must come together to engage their communities and the population.  We are losing the war against crime, we cannot afford to lose the war against COVID-19 because our leaders are unable to collaborate.  The time is right for collaboration and you have a collective responsibility to do whatever is necessary for our country in a manner that doesn’t destroy it while trying to save it.

Graphic Design Education and Creative Liming

Ju Lee shares her strategies for keeping students engaged in an online environment. Her classroom is designed as her holy space (Sanctum Sanctorum) where students find themselves and their purpose. Life is design and art is her mantra. She comments that Graphic Design is one of the growing areas at Costaatt and expects that her students will continue to be successful, expanding their knowledge and moving to greater heights of excellence.

Her success began with parents who supported her desire to study art at Howard University. Ju Lee worked as a graphic designer at McCann World Group, WHMM TV Channel 32 and the Washington City Paper.

At 15:00 the mood changes to a discussion about value of “liming” with Sonja Dumas who is a performer, choreographer, writer, filmmaker, teacher and arts development consultant.

Sonja acknowledges the wisdom of developing the creative arts offerings at our educational institutions and makes a case for developing local “patrons” who would fund the creation of works of art. She notes that the French Caribbean territories like Martinique and Guadeloupe have designed a creative ecosystem where artists can thrive as professionals as opposed to the English speaking Caribbean where creatives engage their passion as a “side hustle”.

As Sonja projected into the future she suggested that there should be a “government bond” of $100 million to fund the arts. It would require an administrative framework to operationalize and measure and evaluate its success.

Her parting advice was: “be efficient so could you lime more”.

Talking Transportation with UWI Lecturer – Dr. Trevor Townsend and UTT & Culture Lecturer/Saxophonist Tony Paul

Dr. Trevor Townsend, Senior Lecturer in Transportation Engineering at the University of the West Indies weighs in on public transportation in Trinidad and Tobago. He points out that with a population of just over one million persons, the solutions to our transportation problems are within reach but they require that an institution/organization/official takes responsibility for planning and execution. While there are no overnight fixes a focussed approach, with clear allocation of responsibilities will make a difference.

His view is that citizens deserve to be confident that the systems and processes are available to make transportation seamless and convenient. Currently the state is subsidizing each passenger on the Water Taxi services between San Fernando and Port of Spain to the tune of $100.00 per trip and spending $M400 million annually to subsidize a bus company which transports 1% of passengers on the east/west corridor.

At the 19:00 minute mark the mood switches and we welcome Saxophonist/Educator Tony Paul who makes a strong case for pushing the cultural shift from the seasonality of our music to music which can be offered year round and have international appeal.

Tony’s training spans the United Kingdom and the United States where he attained an MMus focused in Music Education from Boston University.

In responding to a question about performance spaces, he spoke about the need for spaces to be more user centred and tailored to both the performers and the supporting public. While the aloneness of Covid has devastated a number of performers, Tony has used the time to refresh some of his skills, improve his craft and work on his new album.

Technology long ceased to be a sector

The official in another country laughed when I presented my driver’s permit because it was a simple laminated card which could be made at any print shop.  That was about 15 years ago and things have improved slightly.  I thought of this when I received my vaccine card which provides evidence that I received my first COVID-19 Jab.  My mind wondered even further when I considered that our celebrated first round of vaccinating 3% of our population will generate at least 80 thousand pieces of paper if the model at the Queens Park Savannah is replicated throughout the country.

A casual scrub through the Facebook page of the Ministry of Public Administration and Digital Transformation (MPADT) throws up the following statement: “Our aim is to bridge the digital divide by providing free and easy to access Wi-Fi to citizens at their convenience.”  I therefore question the missed opportunity to digitize the administering of the COVID-19 vaccines.  

COVID-19 vaccination is an opportunity to interact digitally with the at-risk cohort and the senior citizens cohort.  It is an opportunity to send a message of transformation; to use technology to demonstrate that we can communicate effectively using a modern approach; to map where those 40,000 jabs reside and maybe help communicate the behaviour change which is necessary to transform our country.  So many unintended messages could have been sent had we taken the time to use technology in the vaccine roll-out.

The main document each person needed was their identification card.  The information was copied into a book when you made the appointment, then a form was filled out at the Vaccine Centre and after receiving your vaccine, you were given a vaccination card.  Couldn’t this have been done electronically and your certification emailed?

We have missed these opportunities in the first round, but thankfully it is not too late to develop the systems and processes necessary to digitize the second round.  Taking that bold step requires a forward thinking leadership that understands systemic thinking and behaviour change. The leadership on this giant step should come from the Ministry of Public Administration and Digital Transformation (MPADT) which, as the name suggests, was established to lead our country’s digital transformation.

Finding one specific vaccing card without the use of technology.
Trinidad’s unhackable database. 🙂

Part of the COVID-19 conversation speaks about building back better and bouncing back.  As a developing country we need to go beyond bouncing back and figure out how to bounce forward and take our populations with us.  The world has moved forward to a different landscape where using technology is common, available and all over the place.  Trinidad and Tobago is far behind the curve but we need to find the means necessary to really transform our digital space and be part of the global conversation about sustainability and development. 

The only future wave we need to be on
is the one powered by technology.