Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Eastern Caribbean island nation, famed for its beautiful landscapes, pristine white-sand beaches and temperate climate, attracted around a million tourists each year. But with travel restrictions across the globe, tourism all but dried up, and the country’s economy has seen a dramatic downturn. It is estimated that, by the end of 2020, GDP had contracted by 18%, primarily due to a 71% decline in long-stay arrivals over the year.

In these times of instability, the Barbadian government is accelerating its efforts to diversify the economy and rebuild a more sustainable and resilient one. Apart from renewed activity in traditional sectors, the country aims to tap into the new value chains of the emerging global green and blue economy. Barbados not only has ambitious plans to become the first carbon-free small island developing state by 2030, but also intends to become an export leader of cleantech products and services to the Caribbean and beyond.

Cleantech for more resilience

In this context, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), with funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), is supporting the Government of Barbados with the establishment of BLOOM, the Caribbean’s first cleantech cluster. Created as public-private partnership, the cluster provides shared resources and services, as well as a makerspace for companies and academia to work on joint projects, solutions and marketing. The cluster is hosted by the Barbados Investment and Development Corporation (BIDC), under the supervision of the Ministry of International Business and Industry.

Mark Hill, CEO of BIDC, said, “Cleantech is part of our “Design It, Make It, Ship It” export and business development strategy, which aims to foster the design of feasible, viable and desirable Barbadian products and services that are well-produced, sustainable and globally competitive, and can be physically shipped or virtually exported across the globe. With the BLOOM cluster we have an important tool to promote local cleantech entrepreneurship and innovation.”

“We can build on the success of the Barbadian solar-thermal industry, which has its origins in the 1970s. Solar thermal water heating reaches over 55,000 consumers today, saving thousands of barrels of oil and CO2 emissions each year. Under the common BLOOM label, we will upgrade existing industry and create new ones, tapping into new technologies and business models, including electric mobility, battery storage, green hydrogen, ocean energy, efficient appliances, waste recycling, bioenergy and the circular economy,” he added.

“The cluster’s sustainable, responsible and impactful investment design-led approach to export development, embraces the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a bedrock for developing Barbadian businesses.

“The days of business-as-usual are over. We’re doing business unusual,” concludes Hill.

Matching businesses, science and beyond

Jari Aaltonen, manager of BLOOM, explains, “The BLOOM cleantech cluster is still a relatively new player in Barbados’ innovation ecosystem as it was launched in 2020 in the midst of a deep economic crisis. As of now, the cluster has 20 members including start-ups, government agencies, chambers and universities.”

“Working with young start-ups and new business development projects has great economic and job creation potential,” says Aaltonen. At the moment, the cleantech incubator is established with 10 incubatees, whose business models and business plans are under development in cooperation with the cleantech cluster members.

The cluster has engaged young cleantech entrepreneurs from the University of West Indies for the incubation programme, offering them high-quality training, individual coaching and mentoring provided by local experts and partly by international training institutions like Coursera and the International Labour Organization. “This combination is the key for accelerated learning,” Aaltonen says.

“The cluster is working at all levels: local, national, regional and global. The country’s first cleantech incubator was established with four experts, which has nearly doubled to seven since, in line with growing demand. The team is working very closely with their start-ups in their first two years, to help them validate their business idea and business model, secure financing, start product development and get their first few clients. Building new skills and capacities is key for the success of any start-up, and, therefore, there is a sharp focus and a lot of attention on organizing online training courses that are compact, innovative, and pragmatic at the same time.

Since 2019, a close cooperation has been established with the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Caribbean Climate Innovation Centre and the International Association of Science Parks to boost strategic partnerships between local and international businesses.