Jamaica’s dunderhead economy? Flow has problems the EGC must address

I’ve written before about a persistent feature of Jamaican life that is dragging our growth and progress downward. It’s a set of simple inefficiencies that affect everyday lives and waste time and effort. They reduce productivity because of some simple little things. Sadly, their existence can continue and leave us with the illusion of progress when in fact we are standing still, or worse, regressing.

I pointed out previously how our regular ‘patch and mend’ approach to road repairs is literally the old style ‘dig a hole and fill it’ kind of economic activity. In our case, the weather and some usage dig the holes, men and machines fill them; weather and usage dig them again in less than three months; the repairs are repeated. So it goes on. The data record income, spending, and use of materials and labour and we will see higher numbers for national income, aka GDP. But, the economy hasn’t grown in any meaningful way. Traffic delays and damage to vehicles are eased for a while, then reoccur. The repairs make no fundamental changes: the road base is still weak and prone to deterioration.

So, a year on we may see a so-called upturn in GDP but it’s a fiction.

One of my concerns about the government and the Economic Growth Council is that the growth ‘strategy’ talks about not repeating past mistakes but leaves them enshrined in the country. You don’t need to be a brilliant person to see how this status quo suits lots of people. It’s money for old rope–a kind of great swindle.

One can take a certain view when such things are set in the affairs of public sector agencies. But what to do when they’re cemented into private sector activity, too?

Flow is not my favourite corporation for a simple reason: it enshrines inefficient practices that are easy to fix but are left untouched and customers just have to live with them. Competition hasn’t forced Flow to be more efficient. Here’s another strike against them.

Early yesterday, I noticed that I had no wifi service at home. Everything seemed fine with the devices, but the essential connection to the Internet was missing. The TV was working fine, so it appeared that all was well in Cableland.

I contacted Flow via ‘chat’ and then via Twitter.

Chat generates an email exchange with a promise of attention within 24-48 hours. So, it’s not a chat at all. Fix that!

Talking the talk, but walking the what?

My Twitter exchange had more immediate results and highlighted that no technical problems showed up in my area but the matter was passed on another department who would get back to me once the problem had been identified. 

Up to 9pm last night, nothing had changed. I used my data plan all day. I tried to help my daughter to get internet service to do her homework. No joy.

Early this morning nothing had changed after the usual solutions had been tried and all devices shut down overnight and restarted this morning. So I tried to call Flow. My house phone told me service had been suspended. I called them from my mobile. After some checking on the account, I was informed the problem was due to a bill being overdue. The first step, apparently, is usually to call or advise the customer and then suspend service. Not all services, though. Interesting.

I’d never been informed. No one I contacted yesterday had any flag on the account that showed it had been suspended. If that had been the case both I and Flow employees would not have spent time searching for technical solutions to a financial problem.

The agent apologized for the inconvenience and said she’d pass on the point about ensuring customers are advised.

With all the powers of telecommunications at their disposal a way must be there for the simple message to go to the customer. A banner on the TV screen? A text message? An email? A call to the line associated with the service? They know how to find us. 

But it’s part of the corporate MO to not do such simple things. Why? Time wasted is an economic good, now?

The company would rather have its customers and some staff running around aimlessly. Why?

That’s a lot of wasted effort on a regular basis that doesn’t show up as retarding economic activity.

If I had 20 employees dependent on Internet connection who were stymied because of a bill but thought we had technical problems, I’d be fuming. I’m fuming.

For all its PR the EGC doesn’t look geared up to solve problems of Jamaican corporate inertia, such as this episode shows. (I presume that the region suffers as Flow likely has the same practices throughout.)

A little public Expo-sure

I often try to be engaging when faced with people ‘selling’ things. I am probably the person the Jehovah’s Witnesses wish they never meet when the knock on doors. I would have them in a long conversation, lasting perhaps hours, as I explored as many aspects of their activities. We’d need to get to know each other better, of course, so staying for tea and maybe a spot of lunch would be natural. So, when I visited Expo Jamaica yesterday afternoon.

Entrance to National Arena, with food court to the side

I started my buttering up before I went in. I reached the entrance gate and a man said “Where you band?” I told him I didn’t have one and he pointed me to a LIME van where I would spend J$600 to get my entrance wristband. A man from Jampro was also trying to help me, but then went totally into a trance. He was bitten by the ‘I must pay attention to this dignitary getting out of his car and ignore the person I was talking to’ bug. Once he’d flounced off and smoothed the three yard walk of Minister Pickersgill to the side gate, I tried to engage him again. “You were saying?” He’s lost the plot completely. I grinned and shook my head. Oh, what a little deference does to your life. I had my mission ahead. The ‘band’ man greeted me again, and told me “Good morning, again.” It was nearly 12.30pm, but I was glad for his attentiveness.

I was not surprised that I started chatting up all the vendors. I was probing, gently. First, I met all the ladies manning–is that an oxymoron?–the tables in the ‘hospitality village’, where hotels and tourist activities were being touted. I’m also a sucker for swag. Well, the lady from Mystic Mountain had a snazzy coffee mug that caught my eye. I told her, honestly, that I keep trying to take my daughter to the play park, as she says she wants to go, but each time she prefers to stay put. I was in Ocho Rios the day before and again, she’d opted to stay home hunkered down with her Ma. Admittedly, when I got home from Ochi and my little stop for fruit in Port Maria, my daughter was screaming her head off with two classmate in the pool and a soggy puppy was chasing a football the girls were tossing.

View of ground floor of Arena hall, crammed with booths

Well, the lady from Mystic Mountain tried to get my daughter’s interest by offering a 20 percent discount voucher and suggesting that I just take the child and say “Here we are!” (I later gave my daughter the mug and voucher and told her the story. She smiled.) I toured the other tables and had a few bits of useful information about some of the north coast hotels. A lady from Chukka Cove tempted me with a prize draw and got my info in exchange. I know that solicitous emails may soon be arriving. My daughter’s also interested in going there to ride horses, or so she’s said. I talked quickly to representatives from Bahia Principe, where I’d stayed already and liked, and Iberostar, where some friends always stay when playing golf tournaments near Montego Bay. Both are all-inclusive hotels and good value for couples and children.

I then tried to enter the exhibition hall, but was waylaid by a lady who told me to start upstairs and then come down, and by the way, stop at her company’s booth for a bag to carry the items I was collecting. Like that. Upstairs, I trotted and was ready to look around at an array of mainly commercial stands. but, I then bumped into some friends, and asked them what was worth seeing. “See it all, but there’s more happening downstairs.

Jampro’s lounge, a little quiet, but pleasantly displayed

The flooring booth is nice, though.” I had no interest in flooring, so hugged my friend and wished her a great afternoon. Her husband was with her, and his shirt was soaked, and I wondered what he had bumped into. I would learn later what had happened. I moved on to a booth womanned by Scotiabank, which was on my list as they’d been making a big point of touting on Twitter their presence at the Expo. A nice young lady from Christiana branch told me about a few things that would be helpful and asked me to complete a survey–that’s one of the downsides of such events, but I understand the purpose. She pointed me to a Rasta sitting in the corner, manning a juicer. “Get some green juice!” she told me. I obeyed. The Rasta told me and anyone listening about the minerals we needed in our diets and how his juice, which as a blend of a long list including Irish Moss, flax-seed, seaweed and more was put lead in my pencil and an eraser on it too. I was impressed and sipped the juice, which had a little pique to it, from cayenne that was also included. Fortified, I headed on.

I saw a large crowd of people gathered ahead of me, and suspected that food was on offer. That’s always a pull at these events. The little samples help ward off some boredom and naturally saves some dollars that would otherwise be spent in the food court, which was actually outside the hall. Best Dressed Chicken had a stall in the corner.

Best Dressed Chicken hosting a nice little snackery

I knew that Chef Brian Lumley (of restaurant ‘689’ fame) was making occasional appearances, offering delights such as ‘gourmet hotdogs’. Not so, when I sidled up; two nice little chunks of fried chicken in a tasty sauce. I and the other patrons were in finger-licking mood and smiling after our bitefuls.

Another friend nabbed me as I was in mid-bite and told me to come to visit his stall; he’s into some industrial process. We talked a bit about Saturday’s trip to Ochi, which he’d done very early so that he could come back to supervise his stand. I moved on. I was surprised to see a stand for the Jamaica Stock Exchange (JSE). The lady at the table knew me, and greeted me with a lovely warm smile. “You want to buy some stocks, right,” she stated boldly. I told her I had no intention of dipping my toes into the stocks of any of the Jamaican companies, but would prefer to just let my pension fund’s decisions work for me. She laughed. I told her I was an economist, so should know the risks. We chatted a little then I asked her to tell me about the JSE. I was being ‘the foreign investor from Hell’, I told her.

Red Stripe giving drink to cool the thirsty patrons

She got a bit flustered but managed to give me some useful tips about the JSE and advice about brokers. The Ministry of Industry and Commerce was there, and a young man wanted to tell me about trade agreements, but also had interesting pamphlets about the logistics hub. He told me about some information seminars being run by the ministry and the Caribbean Maritime Institute and handed me a neat little Frequently Asked Questions sheet about the logistics hub. I asked him if Minister Pickersgill had passed by yet, but he had not. The young man told me that he’d a degree in International Relations and Spanish and that he was getting good opportunities to use his language skills. “Muy bien!” I told him and moved on to look at Jampro’s stand.

LogoStitch, colourful display of what many companies want to showcase their wares–shirts

Well, as a host of this event, their stand was very empty. The lady looked forlorn and spent time checking her phone. I didn’t have the heart to disturb her and continued on my way.

The rest of the booths did not really interest me, so I passed quickly and headed down to the ‘more happening’ place. I’d seen from above that it was a tighter space, made up of narrow paths with names like ‘Rum Road’ and ‘Reggae Crescent’. The punters were milling around all the stands and trying to weave a path. As I headed downstairs, a young man from LIME put his arm around my shoulder–a pretty risky action in Jamaica when you don’t know someone. He asked me if I wanted to take the ‘Value Challenge’. He pinned a huge button on my shirt and told me breathlessly about how I’d get a one-minute call to show how LIME was much better value that the other people–Digicel.

Rainforest Seafoods’ marlin dipped was totally dug out, but tilapia chowder took its place

He pointed me toward one of his female associates. She gave me more information, but I quickly told her to save the spiel because I was a post-paid customer and her offer was not really of much interest. “Well, let’s make the calls, anyway!” she insisted, “Give me the numbers of contacts who have Digicel phones.” What? I told her that I never tried to figure out what carrier my contacts used; that seemed such a waste of time. I guess she knew I was a faux-Jamaican. Didn’t care! People here are well aware of the prefixes that show if you are LIME or Digicel. They are also adept at making a call and hanging up so that they did not have to pay the higher rates (or because they did not have credit to complete the call), and waiting for the called person to call back. Man, I did not have time for that. I remembered my drive to Ochi, the day before, when one of my passengers had gotten a call that was dropped “Why you call and hang up?” I began to understand another silly game that Jamaicans play.

Cabbages, yellow yam, bokchoi. Jamaican staples.

I was impressed at the cost difference from using LIME’s ‘2.99 anytime’ deal, about one-fifth of the Digicel charge, it seems. There’s quite a fued going on between the two companies. I noted inside the hall that Digicel did not have a booth at the Expo. LIME almost had pride of place in the middle of the hall. I had not seen them listed as the principal sponsor, but they were offering free wifi, so I imagine they were well vested in the show.

I ambled around and realised that, as upstairs, food and drink were being big draws. I went to the National Bakery stand, prominent on a corner with an old break cart, jsut for display. “You need to offer the people some bun and cheese!” I suggested to the people manning the stand. A young boy and his mother came up moments later: “He’s looking for bun and cheese,” said the mother. I just looked that the employees. I got some insight into the bakery’s ‘The Bold Ones‘ programme, which aims at finding new entrepreneurs. I also heard about National’s environmental program, trying to use recyclable packaging, using biofuels in their vans. National also use their vehicles for social messaging, including a very vivid campaign against domestic violence. I felt quite positive, but wondered how many companies were trying hard to do more than just make their goods.

I then visited the Jamaica Producers stand, where they were handing out bags of St. Mary’s Chips, pieces of Tortuga rum cake and big cups of Jablum coffee, with syrup. I’d just driven through St. Mary the day before and noted that the chips maker had a factory outlet. I got details about that, for another time. I asked a very energetic young man about the policy of using imported bananas from Dominican Republic and he gave me the official answer in a natural, flowing way. We talked about hurricanes and how the selling of boxes of bananas was a great entrepreneurial opportunity. Apparently, anyone can start doing this, which is now a common sight on Kingston streets. You start off with two free boxes of bananas, after that you buy at wholesale mark down for resale. Some people make a venture of it by on-selling their bananas to others to sell. I did not get an answer about what sort of profit margins were involved. From the vendors seen on the streets, it’s enough to get buy. You get a nice green and yellow apron and it seems more likeable than washing car windscreens.

I wandered around the whole hall, sampling goods as I went and taking in all the colour and the noise.

Repping UWI Cave Hill School of Business

Jamaica is a place where companies love to show off their colours and logos and I was struck visually by the brightness of LogoStitch‘s stand. I really wanted to have a chat there, as I’m fascinated by the branding of clothing that goes on in Jamaica, to a degree that seems much more than in most other countries.

Speaking of branding, I had gone to the Expo wearing a shirt from UWI Cave Hill School of Business. It was a deliberate ploy, in part to see if people would see me or see my shirt. The shirt won by a huge margin. I sound nothing like a Bajan, but had people asking about my accent. That made for a few laughs as I took people by the line and wriggled them along for a while.

Speaking of shorts. Remember the man with the wet shirt? Well, I understood now what had happened. The hall was very hot. Yes, there was air conditioning, but clearly not enough to keep you and all of the thousands with you, bundled together, in a state of coolness. My own shirt was now quite moist, and it showed off the effectiveness of my antiperspirants. I was not dripping wet, but I was in need of fresh air.

I took a look outside at the farmers market, where cabbages, yams, peppers, carrots, bananas, mangoes, bees, honey, and more were on display. That was a great change, and I a nice stroll around there, regretting that I had not brought a shopping bag.

Window washing is an option if you don’t want to sell bananas

Rainforest Seafoods were whipping up some tasty smoked marlin dip their chef told me, as I passed him in one of the corridors. I had to try that. But, when I reached the stand, the bowl was cleaned out. He came by and gave me a cup of tilapia chowder and I was impressed. Tasty and a little peppery. We talked about conch, which is my wife’s national dish, and we will have to get some recipes exchanged.

Wysinco were doing their usual hydration effort, ‘selling’ bottles of WATA and CranWATA for Wysinco dollars.

I browsed around for a little while longer, and realised that I had spent nearly three hours being well entertained and informed.

Face painting was a bonus, for the few children who visited

As I was heading out, I stumbled across the Kremi stand, where cups of ice cream were on offer to adults; children could get cones. That little piece of discrimination didn’t please me. I love cones 🙂 I had a bag full of leaflets and a few pencils and pens (which I usually hand off to kids when I can).

As I headed out, I met a group of Jampro staff, showing off their corporate logo, but…They were wearing aquamarine and yellow shirts. What? Those are the colours of The Bahamas. I pointed this out to one of the lady. Oops! Why on Earth would you lose sight of your national colours at a major event to promote national products? Why not a variation, as always, on the black, gold and green? Note to Jampro: KISS.

Jampro committee representatives. If I had not asked, I would have assumed this was a Bahamian delegation. A fail!

I wont let that detract from what seemed like a well-organised set up. Today’s papers are full of reports that suggest it was a success. Visitors exceeded the average 12,000-15,000 mark. The Jamaica Manufacturers Association and the Jamaica Exporters Association, the event organisers, are pleased. Five hundred buyers from 27 countries. Plenty of happy Jamaicans, too.

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