It may surprise readers to know that DIY innovation and startups have been growing in Cuba, even under communism’s rule. Here, we describe what the startup scene may end up looking like.
Since the United States’ opening of ties to Cuba this month, there has been a natural curiosity about the lives of Cubans, a reality that has mostly been kept in the dark for the last 50 years. Such interest has sparked a Reddit discussion about a 2013 video called “Cuba’s DIY Inventions from 30 Years of Isolation,” to rise quickly, helping the video reach almost 1 million views to date.
Cuban designer and artist Ernesto Oroza, whose findings are described in the video, explains what he calls Cubans’ “technological disobedience.” To cope with the intense poverty Cuba experienced in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, he relays that many Cubans know how to deconstruct objects to fit new purposes. In the video, he describes the unintended use of objects like aluminum trays that turn into TV antennas, or the non-working dryer whose motor is used to get a fan blowing, or a shoe-polishing machine working.
“People think beyond the normal capabilities of an object, and try to surpass the limitations it imposes on itself,” says Oroza in the video. “The same way a surgeon, having opened so many bodies, becomes insensitive to blood, to the smell of blood and organs, it’s the same for a Cuban. Once he has opened a fan, he is used to seeing everything from the inside, everything dismantled. All of the symbols that unify an object, that make it a unique entity – for a Cuban they don’t exist.”
Here, you can watch the full video:
What will the startup scene look like in Cuba?
Now that Cuba will be open to the world in ways it has not experienced in half a century, how will that affect Cuba’s “DIY” nature? Readers may be surprised to know that the communist country’s government officials approved measures aimed at helping startups back in 2011, after many startups were founded in the wake of reforms the year before that eased restrictions on privately owned businesses, according to a Reuters report. The measures include granting financing credits to small businesses and the right to sell products and services to a state that had long kept the lid on private enterprise.
By July of that year, the Los Angeles Times reported, more than 325,900 Cubans had taken out licenses to open, run or work at private businesses including carpentry, dance instruction, hairstyling and shoemaking. Bonus: Proprietors can now employ any Cuban instead of being forced by law to practice nepotism.
There are still plenty of obstacles, of course. Organizers for Startup Weekend, Startup NEXT, and Google for Entrepreneurs have set up virtual test groups in Havana to gauge the country’s interest in startups, but they’ve had a difficult time making the connections they need, largely due to the extremely low Internet penetration rate: Right now, just 2.9 percent of Cubans said they had access to the Web, though outside observers say the figure could be as high as 5 to 10 percent, according to a report last year. The fact that improving Cuba’s Internet infrastructure is one of Obama’s main goals in reestablishing ties will only help Cuba’s startup scene grow.
“I’m sure that there are a lot of traditional entrepreneurs,” said Ramphis Castro, the founder of Mindchemy, a startup specializing in bringing tech entrepreneurship into the developing world. “Once there’s infrastructure and banking these guys will want to go into innovation-driven enterprises,” Castro (no relation to the dictator) told Upstart Business Journal.