Opening comments by the Hon. Dr. Andrew Wheatley, Minister for Science, Energy and Technology
"This Ministry is one of the most critical components of the Government. Our motto is “Fuelling Growth.” We cover key areas of the economy such as ICT. In terms of the Global Logistics Hub being put forward by the Prime Minister, the most Hon. Andrew Holness, and the Minister for Transport and Mining, the Hon. Michael Henry, ICT plays a major role in knitting the necessary infrastructure into place.
The Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector is a major growth pole in the national economy. The Ministry is supporting the sector’s efforts to move beyond the basic level of call centre operation, and similar functions, to higher level back office functions including Human Resources and Finance. One of the main reasons for the successful growth of the sector is that it now employs 22,000 Jamaicans and has been the widespread support for Public-Private Partnerships (PPP). BPO relates to the level of national infrastructure, and our private Telco partners have made significant investments."
PR: What have been the main policy reforms enacted to accommodate more international investors and enhance the role of the private sector?
AW: As part of the Government’s support for the BPO sector and other ICT related industries, a highly progressive legislative framework has been advanced by the current administration. The idea here is to ensure that all relevant legislation is up-to-date with modern technological demands and processes. For example, a new Data Protection Act is being put to Parliament this year. This act is designed to encourage universal access to and use of the internet in the country, by protecting individual’s digital rights. Another point of note is that a single ICT Regulator is in the process of being established. This speaks of the significance of the ICT sector in its own right. All of this stems from the Government’s desire to build a digital society, and partnering with the private sector is crucial to the successful outcome of this idea.
This also aids universal access does it not?
AW: Yes. We have taken a number of steps to encourage the growth of universal access. We believe we need to build a digital society, a knowledge based society. To that end we are partnering with the major telcos to zero-rate all government websites. This encourages usage of government sites. For example, we have a tablets programme for children – to boost educational achievement. The Ministry of Education is so important for national development. The Ministry’s website has no data charge for access – this allows children and their parents to have unlimited access to the information and tools on offer. Our private partners have been instrumental in affording this universal access.
If we look at the energy side of things, we are very pleased at the sector’s recent advances. Renewables are a significant part of our national energy diversification process. The National Energy Policy that was formulated in 2009, provides the framework for the energy sector. The plan stretches to 2030. It allows us to diversify our energy sources. It means that Jamaica will no longer be dependent on one single fuel source. As part of that policy, it was decided that no one-fuel source shall contribute more than 42% of our energy requirements. In that regard, we now have the new LNG facility in Montego Bay. It has been the first major success of the policy. It is a dual fuel facility, providing a high level of flexibility. .
On the renewables front, approximately 16% of our energy requirements were provided by renewable sources last year. We are leading the region and Latin America in this space. We received the Central American and Caribbean Renewable Energy Congress – RECAM 2017 Award recognizing our efforts in renewable energy. In Jamaica, we are committed to having at least 30% of our energy from renewable sources by 2030 – so we are well on our way to achieving that target. Last year we commissioned 80MW of renewables to the grid. Wigton Wind Farms – 24MW. Blue Mountain Renewables (BMR) – contributed 26MW and Content Solar contributed 20MW. The BMR and content facilities were funded by the US based OPIC organisation. This shows the strength of the support from the United States to diversify our energy sector. We are very keen on diversifying our energy mix in order to develop our energy security. We recognise how vulnerable we are, especially when oil prices go above $100 per barrel. The last time this happened, there was a major knock-on effect on the national economy. Our production in the manufacturing sector was heavily impacted. Therefore, we are taking steps to protect ourselves by diversifying the sector – lessening our susceptibility to future energy shocks.
PR: When the JPS LNG plant was commissioned, the Most Hon. Andrew Holness stated that the plant was going to make Jamaica a major energy player in the region.
AW: LNG coming to Jamaica is not just about providing affordable, clean fuel to generate electricity for Jamaica. It also positions the country as a regional LNG supplier for our neighbours. We have been having discussions with our partners in this regard. Beyond this, on land, we are looking to distribute natural gas to the tourism sector, in particular. The current facilities we have are located in Montego Bay – at the heart of the tourism sector. It is ideally located. On the other side of the island is the 190MW plant in Old Harbour that is currently being converted. This will bring LNG to the South coast of the island. It is critical for Kingston, St Andrews, Spanish Town and Junction to have access to natural gas as they are the major urban areas on the island. The other point to being on the south coast is that the new plant is ideally positioned for transhipment of LNG throughout the Caribbean.
PR: Affordable and reliable energy is one of the key challenges encountered by the private sector. What feedback are you getting from the major players about these changes to the energy sector?
AW: We are getting quite a bit of support from the private sector. In fact, the private sector plays a critical role in the decision-making process through consultation and participation in the generation procurement entity. We have representatives from the different parts of the private sector. Every decision is made after consultation between all the major players. We have a smooth dialogue between all parties. That is how we have evolved as a government – to be inclusive, to ensure that we develop consensus before taking a decision.
PR: You mentioned the Global Logistics Hub – What is the key role of your Ministry within the Prime Minister’s plan?
AW: This Ministry is critical not just to a site or a project, but to the country as a whole. This is because of the interconnection between the towns and cities, the knowledge based society that we are rolling out, it is all a part of the vision. All of our citizens will be exposed to the technology, to the impact of the hub. We have been investing in our road networks. We have partnered with the Telcos to provide coverage and connectivity throughout the island. We see this as an ideal opportunity for Jamaica to be the logistics hub of the region. This, of course, includes our ports.
Jamaica is positioned at the centre of the region. As a result, we already have a huge amount of seaborne trade passing through the island. We have been attracting significant interest from overseas investors in the ports. There is a particular economic zone called the Caymanas Economic Zone that is earmarked to be the centre of the whole logistics operation in the country. The road network is already there, providing excellent access to the north and south of the country. It has good access to the wharves in Kingston Port and good access to the airport. Furthermore, in terms of internet connectivity, it is already up to speed.
PR: FDI inflows were close to US$ 1 billion in FY2015/16, an increase of nearly 42% from a year earlier, and Moody’s estimates they will exceed 7% of GDP in FY2016/17. The Government has allocated $850 million to a project to strengthen the enabling environment for private sector competitiveness, which will help the country unleash productivity and growth. Please describe your strategies to promote partnerships, enhance the role of the private sector and attract investments.
AW: Let me start with energy. We are currently working on and Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for the increased energy demand. The IRP will guide us with regards to additional demands being placed on the energy sector. We are sending out Requests for Proposals (RFP) for additional capacity for electricity supply. The focus here is on renewables in particular, as well of course on cleaner fuels such as LNG. This provides an ideal opportunity for investment.
Regarding the BPO sector – the infrastructure here supports the sector. Our citizens are relatively well educated, there is a high level of English and many are bilingual too. We are developing our human capital by rolling out a knowledge-based society to capitalise on new opportunities that are being created. We are a very stable democracy – which aids development. We are open to investment and we are providing legislation to support increased levels of investment. Indeed, over the last couple of months we have received considerable interest from overseas players looking to set up regional headquarters in Jamaica.
PR: Another major milestone for the country is the recently signed agreement with Venezuela to upgrade the Petrojam Refinery, can you tell us more about the impact of this agreement?
AW: The upgrade of the Petrojam Refinery has been on the table for some time, but we have now been able to commit to the upgrade and move ahead with the works. There will be several benefits from this. First of all, if you are able to refine your own crude, it produces fuel at a much cheaper cost. Our customers – the manufacturing sector – will be able to purchase fuel at a much more reasonable cost. That alone cuts the costs of doing business as energy fuels everything.
What it also does is reduce the demands on our foreign exchange holdings as we will not need to purchase finished products. We will not only be able to produce our own product, but to also export it to our neighbours in the region. This provides an additional income source to help the economy grow.
PR: If we focus on the relationship with the US, the most Hon. Prime Minister Holness expressed, during a talk with U.S. Vice-President Pence, optimism about the future and confirmed Jamaica’s continued interest in building stronger ties with the United States and enhancing current partnerships. What is your overview on the diplomatic and commercial relations of both nations?
AW: Historically, Jamaica has had excellent relationship with the United States. We continue to work on this and develop the partnership and relationship. We have benefitted significantly from these links and we work closely with our neighbours to ensure that we have created the right environment to benefit both countries. In fact, we have already benefitted from the visit of the previous President who lent his support to our renewable energy efforts. Regarding the most recent discussion with the Vice-President, we believe that the relationship is even stronger, we have seen a number of opportunities that have presented themselves for FDI from the United States. We look forward to embracing the collaborative effort to boost investment here in Jamaica. To be honest, we have not seen any deviation in policy towards Jamaica, it is looking very positive for us.
****AW – additional points: There is another point I want to raise about the Universal Service Fund – a key agency of this ministry. It is really doing some tremendous work to connect our people. We have embarked on a number of initiatives, such as the Free Open Wi-Fi Access plan. This is covering public spaces like the parks, historical spaces like Devon House, the markets, the deep rural areas. We are going out there to ensure that people have access and connectivity to the internet. This is at zero cost to the public. We are bringing technology to our people and allowing them to become innovators.
PR: An informed population is a productive population.
AW: Very much so. This leads me to another program we have where we are rolling out Community Access Points (Capsites). These capsites are located within communities as a free Wi-Fi point, and free access to computers. This allows them to do their own research, become self-employed, plan their own business, etc., at no cost as they are self-sufficient. We are coupling energy and ICT. The new sites are self-sufficient as they have solar PVC facilities to provide the energy requirements. The communities therefore, do not need to pay for the energy. These capsites also help to develop the human capital of the citizens in these communities. We use these capsites to communicate with, educate, and train people in their communities so that they can boost their contribution to society. ****
PR: You mentioned that Human Capital was critical to society. How innovative is the Jamaican population?
AW: I’m glad you asked this question as we have several programmes designed to stimulate innovation in society. We are very pleased that we have people working in the animation industry, application development sector – tech as a whole. We have a very active, techie group of workers. They are very smart and have used new technologies to earn a living. For example, a lot of the animation being released in Europe has been built or created here in Jamaica. It has been recognised worldwide, that the Jamaican tech workers are on a par with their peers globally.
PR: Your vision for the Ministry is for it to become the driving force that propels Jamaica’s transition into a world-class society through innovation. Steve Jobs once said innovation is what distinguishes a leader from a follower. What are in your opinion the key characteristics of a leader?
AW: There is something that I personally believe in as a Jamaican – I must also admit that I was a lecturer at the University of the West Indies in another life – and as an educator, I have developed the following principle: We, as Jamaicans, have the innate ability to move from being mere consumers of technology to becoming the developers of technology. We are going to ensure that we put the necessary support mechanisms in place to allow Jamaicans to express themselves as true innovators, as true leaders. I think that this Ministry, and the team I lead, is not only competent, but committed. In all our efforts – we must put Jamaica first. We must put the people first as we recognise that innovation provides opportunities for all of us to grow economically. Therefore, it is my commitment to unleash the innovative side of our people, for the good of not only Jamaica and the region – but the entire world.