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Pacific Islands need technology more than travel bubbles

 
 
 

A pathway to reopening Pacific Island tourism in parallel with the roll out of NZ’s COVID-19 vaccination programme in 2021 would be a significant economic boost for the region. While NZ tourism operators enjoyed a buoyant domestic holiday season the same can’t be said for tourism hot spots such as Fiji, Vanuatu and the Cook Islands.  

Yet tourism is not a silver bullet for these economies, and nor does it solve the deeper challenges facing the Pacific Islands.  

During the three years ending 2021, MFAT will have invested over NZ$1.3 billion in the Pacific region1 and there are plenty of other global donor organisations investing in Pacific economic development and disaster recovery.  

To build sustainable, self-reliant economies, diversification that reaches beyond tourism, into new sectors is what is needed.  

Technology can and should play a pivotal role in unlocking new opportunities, as it has the power to mitigate the tyranny of distance the Islands have to navigate. Technology is the foundation for new weightless industries which are resilient to the shock impacts of global pandemics, extreme weather conditions and the subsequent interruption to the supply chain as experienced in tangible economies. Business process outsourcing, fintech and other intangible industries are obvious opportunities for Island locations such as Fiji which boast well educated, English speaking, service orientated people.  

The International Finance Corporation is a member of the World Bank Group and the largest global development institution focused on the private sector in developing countries.  

In October 2019, IFC’s representative for Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu, Deva De Silva said, “From mobile money, to sending remittances and bringing in electronic payment systems, we’ve seen the use of digital technology help people in the Pacific overcome the disadvantages of distance… Continuing to harness the power of technology and innovation can deliver more opportunity for more people.”  

Yet capacity and cost constraints remain. Submarine data cables now snake across the region, with the notable Manatuacable spreading some 3800km. This is expected to improve connectivity and decrease data costs. Even tiny islands are now connected to the internet. Whether there hasn’t been enough infrastructure investment or whether industry hasn’t come to the table with sufficient demand, it is clear that the opportunity that De Silva was talking about needs to be borne out of public-private partnership.  

The region’s digital deficiency costs it dearly.  

Just one example of this cost is the region’s relationship with cash. Whereas globally cash has been falling as a share of the money supply, in Pacific island countries it has remained at a constant level since the early 2000s. In NZ we are phasing our cheques, but in the Pacific it’s still the go-to for large payments.   In 2019 the International Monetary Fund wrote: “The provision of digital retail, interbank, and international payments would reduce transaction costs for households, businesses, and the government, particularly the substantial costs associated with traveling between islands to physically make payments.”  

The payments industry, banks, cards companies, fintechs along with government stakeholders must work together to bring payment technology to the region. If cracked, this would enable Pacific Island businesses to prosper in the coming years.  

Despite the challenges the region presents, Tower is forging ahead with plans to help island economies get the same efficiencies and opportunities from digital technology that we enjoy in New Zealand. We get a sense of what’s possible in the region when we give the Pacific Islands the same business tools we have in NZ.  

In New Zealand we utilise world-leading technology, and as a result, around two-thirds of our new business originates through on-line channels. We have now taken this tech to the Pacific, investing over $1.3m to launch it into Fiji, with other Pacific countries progressively following over the coming year.  

This means, for the first time ever, our motor customers in Fiji can get a quote and buy a policy online. All customers across the region can already make a claim online and while this might sound basic, this is a major step forward and a first for the Pacific Islands. They can now use the one common piece of technology that they all have access to –a mobile phone –to do everything they need to keep themselves safe, regardless of their location.  

At present, our 10 branches cover the entire Pacific region and while plenty of people and businesses email and call us, plenty of people still make long trips to our branch once a year. Addressing the accessibility issue of island nations can only be achieved through a digital proposition and Tower’s digital innovations will make a difference to people in the region.  

We have a team of over 100 people in the Pacific who are highly engaged and passionate about being part of our business, and we are actively looking to grow this number. The benefits of having multiple locations, all operating from the same technology platform means we can access new talent pools, share work during peak periods and provide support when we respond to natural disasters and pandemic stay-at-home orders.  

In order to prosper, the Pacific needs what other global businesses take for granted. It’s not about reinventing the wheel. It’s about taking what we know works for digital businesses and implementing them in partnership with Pacific nations in a way that works for Pacific peoples. This includes plans to have community based digital animators to raise awareness and facilitate a values-based design process.  

So yes, let’s enjoy being able to fly once more to island beaches, but save the real celebration for when economies are back on the path towards sustainability and self-reliance.  

  • Strategy for Fintech Applications in the Pacific Island Countries, International Monetary Fund, 2019

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