No internet? No problem for Cuba's online entrepreneurs

Finding a connection to the internet in Cuba is about as easy as finding water in the Sahara, but that's not stopping a determined bunch of tech entrepreneurs from setting up shop on the island. 

Since coming to power in the 1950s, Cuba's government has been decidedly anti-private business and access to the internet is all but unheard of. Over the last couple of years, however, the government has relaxed its stance on private businesses and a series of public wifi connections were set up around the island.

Technically, the internet came to Cuba in September of 1996, but most Cubans didn’t have access until the government brought 35 public wifi hotspots online in 2015. These are scattered around the country in public squares called telepuntos. Anyone can buy a scratch off internet ticket from ETECSA, the government-run telephone company for around $2, granting them one hour of online access. The result is that otherwise dilapidated corners of Havana are being transformed into digital portals to the rest of the world. But, only if you can afford it.

Cuba is a poor country, where the average official state salary is just $25 a month and even relatively wealthy city dwellers earn under $2,000 a year. The average American spends over 20 hours a week online, a habit that would cost $2,080 a year if internet access was purchased at the official ETECSA rates. (How the Cubans get around that is interesting.)

Regardless, there is enough access for Cuba's first generation of online entrepreneurs to emerge — and emerge they have. We caught up with three such people to see what it was like to startup online in Cuba. Here's what they had to say:

  tourists take a photo with their taxi driver. 

tourists take a photo with their taxi driver. 

Martin Proenza, Founder and CEO at YoTeLlevo 

YoTeLlevo operates a platform connecting tourists with Cuban taxi drivers before they arrive. Think of it kind of like Uber for Cuba. 

What does YoTeLlevo do? YoTeLlevo is about connecting tourists coming to Cuba with independent drivers who own their cars and operate as taxi drivers. We do this by letting our customers talk and arrange the details of their trips (prices, dates, terms of service) directly with the drivers, not with a middleman.

We also connect travelers to multiple drivers so they have choices — they can see pictures of the drivers and their cars, read reviews from previous customers about each driver, as well as discuss prices and terms.

How does that work with Cuba's limited internet access? To operate an online business in Cuba you have to figure out several things, with internet access being the most difficult and recurring. Not everyone in Cuba has the same kind of access to the Internet (some people have more and some have less), but it is a problem for everyone. Basically, you can forget about being online all the time, and you have to plan what you are going to spend your time doing when you're online.

Everyday you download all of the emails that are important to reply to, because you can't reply immediately. Instead, you take them home and write a reply that will be sent the next day. This   getting used to, but once you adapt you can make it work. If you need to make updates to your server or website, you prepare a plan with all the steps you have to carry out so that you don't have to spend time thinking about them once you connect. Again, the clock is ticking.

In general, it forces you to be more organized and to plan ahead.

Has that changed at all with the new WiFi hotspots being installed? Now, with the WiFi hotspots there is a democratic way to access the Internet without depending on other 'strategies,' though it is very expensive. But at least you know there is a sure way to connect to the Internet if you are in a hurry and can afford it.

Other than the Internet, are there any other difficulties Cuban entrepreneurs face? Something else that I've found very difficult is hiring people. I don't live in Havana, which is the epicenter of entrepreneurship in Cuba. Far from Havana, it is very difficult to find someone to join you. There still isn't the mindset of 'starting up' with an online business, partly because people see it as unachievable.

Oh, and you don't have access to money. Period. You have to bootstrap your startup, which is a good thing in the end I think.

On the other hand, there are things that do get easier. For instance, there is not much competition, so if you have a good idea you probably are going to be the first to act on it.

What's the best part of being a digital entrepreneur in Cuba? Well, it is awesome to be part of a startup scene that is being born right now and to do it in your own country. Being part of it makes you feel like you are doing something positive in the exact place you want positive things to happen.

Even with some hurdles, you find ways to overcome them, which is part of the struggle every entrepreneur faces. Just a few years ago some online businesses have started to flourish in Cuba, and I hope it continues to grow... it is a good reason to stay.

  Carlos García, founder of Kewelta.

Carlos García, founder of Kewelta.

Carlos García, Founder of Kewelta

Kewelta operates a decentralized social ad network where users create profiles allowing them to share things they're interested in. 

What does Kewelta do? Kewelta is the only portable app and Kewo is the only local cloud that are venue specific and allow you to share information with other people in your venue. Our team is from Cuba and we incorporated in Berlin to run the last two years of our research and development.

What is it like to operate as a startup in Cuba? There are plenty of challenges for every entrepreneur in the world. Being in Cuba you also have to deal with the Internet and being far away from the entrepreneurial landscape. Finding ways to finance projects is also a big issue.

I know that Cuba has some of the most limited internet access in the world, how do you work around that? In Cuba we have to connect to ETECSA, the official and only monopoly of telecommunications. They charge $1.50 per hour and if you do the math, it is really expensive to access the Internet to do research and work with online tools. However, human resources are much cheaper than in a lot of the world and I think it compensates for the expensive Internet.

What is your favorite thing about working in Cuba? I have been in many countries and there are many special cities that I love, but working in Cuba is about being Cuban and loving what is yours. Also, here we have a special knowledge about decentralized technology that is really important for the Kewo Cloud that we are creating. In Cuba we didn't have Internet but we have really good quality human resources. That's why we created a different use for technology with the same tools as in Silicon Valley.

  Carlos Peña, cofounder at Revolico. 

Carlos Peña, cofounder at Revolico. 

Carlos Peña, Cofounder of Revolico

Revolico is a Cuban online classified advertisement site with sections covering everything from housing to electronics to services. It is Cuba's most popular homegrown website (coming in just behind Google and YouTube overall). 

What does exactly do you do? Revolico is a classified ads website for Cubans. Nowadays it can be seen as the Cuban online marketplace. I launched the company in December 2007 with the help of my friend and co-founder Hiram Centelles. 

What is it like to operate a startup in Cuba? It is an exciting process, full of challenges, but at the same time it is very satisfying. The entrepreneurship sector has grown a lot recently, and although there are still limitations in the legal and economic framework to develop the activity, the ecosystem of entrepreneurs is booming and overflows creativity and the desire to work hard in order to succeed.

I know that Cuba has some of the most limited internet access in the world, how do you work around that? Revolico was built by design to work on a poor and low bandwidth internet connection. Since our launch in 2007, Revolico has become a useful platform for the daily life of Cubans. We are lucky that despite the limited access to the Internet, Cubans inside Cuba have prioritized access to our site, and we have continued to grow over these 9 years. On the other hand, Revolico is also distributed in the offline digital channel of Cuba, well known as 'El Paquete,' which has great impact and penetration on the island, so that most Cubans have access to the site in one way or another.

What is your favorite thing about working in Cuba? Cuba is my country, and I definitely enjoy the culture and people. I love being able to work with talented people, on projects that can have a great impact on the Cubans around me. I get quite motivated by that entrepreneurial spirit and the way we face and solve problems.

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Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity. All images via companies featured.