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Canadian tech hub gives Cuba's start-ups a helping hand

Cuba's internet availability is limited and home internet is very rare, but new tech start-ups are emerging on the island thanks to the help of Canadian technology hub Notman House. The company has created Develop Cuba, a programme that will support, and educate communities in Cuba to help them create an ecosystem, and tech start-ups and online businesses.

Canadian tech hub gives Cuba's start-ups a helping hand

Cuba is one of the least connected countries in the world, and internet availability is limited and practically unheard of in private homes.

One company in Canada is hoping to change this by helping tech start-ups in Cuba and increase the presence of online businesses in the country.

Montreal-based technology hub Notman House has launched "Develop Cuba", a new programme that will help educate and support Cubans. Noah Redler, the campus director at Notman House and the brains behind the Develop Cuba project, explained:

"The idea of Develop Cuba is to create a seed fund and a way to support and educate the community on how to build an ecosystem. The major obstacle they have isn't around talent, it isn't around want or desire, it's literally just that basic seed capital."

Develop Cuba has already raised a few thousand dollars to rent space in Havana where start-ups can meet, and provide a projector that is rare to see in Cuba, but will be key to helping individuals learn and share information with each other.

The company is planning to send mentors from Montreal to Havana to work with local start-ups, and eventually open the first co-working space in Cuba which will be led by local people.

The Cuban government lifted a ban on web access in 2008, and since then internet usage has grown significantly.

But, rather than using free Wi-Fi in cafes, restaurants, and bars like many other countries, Cubans have access to it public squares and parks across the island, thanks to Etecsa, Cuba's state-owned telecommunications company, who cut the price of Internet access last June. Previously, Cubans would have to wait to use computers at an Etecsa outlet or a post office to use prepaid internet, and they would have to show ID.

The lack of internet availability means that many Cuban apps have been built to work offline. AlaMesa is an app for finding restaurants that uses a directory and map downloaded onto phones that can be used without an internet. The directory is updated once the user is online again.

Alfonso Ali, the lead programmer of AlaMesa, explained:

"Considering the insufficient connectivity infrastructure and cost of Internet access in the country, an offline solution was mandatory. Due to U.S. blockade restrictions, we are unable to use PayPal or Stripe. So standard operations like online booking, coupons, etc., are very difficult and costly to implement."

The start-ups aren't drawing much attention from the government, so companies are working under the radar at the moment. However, even if this changes, Cuban business owners say they're optimistic.

"The Cuba education system is very good, so it's very easy to find talented people to work on any field of innovation."

Mr. Ali concluded with an optimistic smile on his face.

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