Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Can Innovation and Tech Help Colombia Cope and Recover?

Inter-American Development Bank President Luis Alberto Moreno recently cited technology companies in Colombia among the innovators during the Covid-19 pandemic. // File Photo: Inter-American Development Bank. Moreno // File Photo: Inter-American Development Bank.

Luis Alberto Moreno, the president of the Inter-American Development Bank, recently cited technology companies in Colombia switching production to medical supplies as an example of innovation in Latin America in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In what ways is the pandemic spurring innovation in Colombia, and how should the government of President Iván Duque seek to leverage new technologies for economic resilience and eventual recovery? Looking toward the future, how can innovation be deployed in Colombia in areas such as education, health, financial services, trade and other areas affected by the crisis? How should Duque’s administration ensure that the best regulations are in place to facilitate innovation and that new technologies can benefit the country’s most vulnerable populations?

Laura Gaviria Halaby, director at Softbank Group International: “Understanding how the coronavirus pandemic will change the world is top-of-mind for political leaders and entrepreneurs. Although the extended lockdown is protecting lives, many people have lost their jobs, including thousands in Colombia. Now, Colombia and governments around the world have to get millions of people back to work and at the same time develop a more agile health care system to fight this pandemic. Innovation is key to both of these challenges. As scientists and medical experts use technology to help identify treatments and therapeutics to combat the virus and stop the pandemic, entrepreneurs and companies are also using technology to create new connectivity platforms for telemedicine, food delivery and digital learning. The crisis has spurred an increase in telemedicine technology to deliver care at a distance, which helps address people’s medical needs and reduces hospitals’ overcapacity. Even though schools are closed, digital learning and teleconferencing platforms are helping students continue with their studies. While we can’t go out shopping today, we have delivery platforms that are bringing groceries, medicines and essential goods to our doorsteps. We can entertain ourselves with video streaming platforms and social networks, and we can work remotely from our homes. Technology is allowing Colombians to stay safe and healthy at home during the pandemic. While the ‘gig economy’ and the ‘passion economy’ are redefining the way some work, they will be essential in supporting the country’s most vulnerable populations. These platforms will bring work opportunities and at the same time democratize access to quality services that were only available to a few. Improving our health care system is critically important, but bringing the economy back to life is equally important. The government should eliminate outdated provisions that impede innovation and job creation and should adopt new regulations that improve our health care system. This includes formalizing telemedicine in the country—from consultation to diagnosis to e-prescriptions—enacting regulations that protect gig economy workers and allowing them to move freely between different platforms.”

Maria Velez de Berliner, managing director at RTG-Red Team Group, Inc.: “Innovation is not the panacea that would enable the majority of Colombia’s employers, SMEs, to meet payroll after April 30. Widespread unemployment and its resultant scarcities will be the durable result of Covid-19. However, Medellín’s Ruta N development and in-situ testing of its pneumatic or mechanical respirator demonstrates how innovative development and online sourcing of suppliers is achieved through open-source, free, technical drawings, available to anyone. However, Ruta N’s legal inability to outsource its formula for antiseptic gel to a local, compatible producer exemplifies the restrictions Colombia’s current regulatory and licensing regime places on innovation and technology. Covid-19 gives Duque’s government the opportunity to review regulations, where and when necessary, to incentivize any Colombian to innovate, no matter how incipient or primitive the innovation might be. The public-private partnership between the Medellín mayor’s office, the Universidad de Antioquia and private investment that created Ruta N should become the norm for Colombia to accelerate innovation. Covid-19 motivated the five largest private, legal fortunes of Colombia to finance health projects in amounts previously unseen. Such generosity must continue through the creation of a network of national Rutas N that benefit all sectors of Colombia’s economy. If all levels of government and the wealthy and innovatively savvy legal sectors of Colombia fail to use this opportunity to make innovation a central feature in which Colombians engage without the deterrent of lack of capital, the criminal organizations that flourish in Colombia will. These organizations will follow the primitive innovation model financed and encouraged by the cartels that turned the coca leaf into a global economy that neither the United States nor Colombia has yet destroyed, despite massive financial infusions, anti-cocaine laws and lost lives.”

Felipe Colmenares, innovation catalyst at Universidad de los Andes in Colombia: “In Colombia, innovation has been advancing alongside a spirit of collaboration. For example, some food companies have started common e-commerce platforms, such as amicasa.com.co and todoscomemos.com, as a form to distribute ready-to-make food for homes while at the same time providing a sustainable source of income to their employees and food to communities in need—certainly a good example of social innovation. In the health industry, some actors have been making alliances to manufacture respirators and protective masks, including universities, hospitals and industrial firms. This guarantees a local offer of medical and protective equipment. Certainly, the freeing of respirator patents, which several countries have done, influenced this cooperation. This is a unique opportunity for the country to demonstrate that it is capable of adapting products and services for these times. In education, universities and private schools have been adapting by providing quality online education through different platforms. But the main concern is how our educators are working to change their methodologies to make online learning a quality source of skills acquisition. In general, Duque’s administration should design regulatory measurements to provide Internet access to regions where connectivity is poor and to ensure there are enough tools for educators to provide quality teaching to vulnerable communities. Lastly, there is a huge opportunity for the government to provide the best incentives to help different actors, including youth groups, to collaborate and generate digital and physical products and services with social inclusion for the subsequent low-touch economy era.”

Kathleen McInerney, global head of public affairs and policy at Rappi: “The Covid-19 pandemic has forced all companies to innovate for survival. Even for a technology company, the demand to innovate to meet the challenge has been tremendous. As one of the few companies allowed to operate on the streets in Colombia, we take our responsibility seriously. We worked with medical experts to design and implement safety protocols in our delivery process, including contactless delivery, trainings and protocols for the Rappitenderos and our shoppers, and recommendations for our restaurant partners on how to ensure a secure delivery. We had to reinvent ourselves into a company that sources and imports products, to provide millions of hygiene products, including antibacterial gels and face masks for shoppers and the Rappitenderos. Recently, we launched robotic delivery in Colombia and a phone line for people over the age of 65 to enable them to make orders through our service. We are implementing technological changes for all of our users, restaurants, Rappitenderos and consumers, including offering new buttons that resolve their needs, such as one connecting them directly to official information from local governments. We are incredibly proud that we have been able to onboard thousands of new partners, offering both big and small commercial partners their first opportunity to sell their products through e-commerce, and easing the burden on many local heroes to continue doing business through the crisis. We also included a donation button that provides our users with a channel to help the most vulnerable. However, it is our fundamental innovation, providing last-mile delivery, that best helps to keep people safe at home by being able to keep them connected to their favorite supermarkets, pharmacies and restaurants. This crisis has demonstrated that technology can provide solutions to some of the toughest challenges—and innovation needs a flexible regulatory approach that allows for new business models, sandboxing new ideas and nurturing creative thinking. Innovations that will address these challenges need time to be tested and a principle-based regulatory approach that is nontechnology specific and that fosters investment and education.”

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