Cuban entrepreneurs reinvent businesses to survive

Faced with a collapse in tourism and the worst economic crisis in decades, some Cuban entrepreneurs are shaking up their business models, trying to create opportunity during pandemic times.

'El Jibaro' restaurant has started bottling its own line of cocktails. Co-owner David Roque says 'ready-to-drink' cocktails to go are a new concept in Cuba.

"We took a gamble on developing these cocktails. In-house cocktails for which Jibaro is known … and now we're taking a greater gamble as we believe that this initiative has been successful. We are going to take a punt on a second line that is focused on classic Cuban cocktails."

While Jibaro’s owners found a way to keep their business open, many others are struggling in Cuba.

The government closed the country’s borders for seven months and ordered a drastic COVID-19 shutdown.

That limited coronavirus deaths on the island of 11 million people to just 122. But in Havana’s colonial district, streets that used to be heaving with tourists are now empty, making it especially difficult for the self-employed – around 13% of the workforce – to make money.

The founder of business consulting firm ‘AUGE’ Oniel Diaz says he thinks around 250,000 people, mostly linked to the tourism sector, have lost their income.

"It is the most difficult economic situation that this country has experienced in the last 30 years. The issue of COVID-19 has been the biggest challenge that the private sector has had to face since its rescue in 2010. I believe that this has been more difficult than the closing down of cruise ships, or the end of trips by Americans to Cuba. And the impact is going to last longer."

Getting access to food and other essentials was already a challenge in Cuba before the pandemic.

And with no way to import products, items like toiletries have become even more scarce.

That led to the start of organic cosmetics firm Corpus, with innovative employees like Suney Pena.

"Since there is a shortage of these types of products there is no choice but to use domestic products, products that we can make at home, in the same families. We developed a line that we had dreamt of doing a long time ago, of making products by ourselves and this way we are able to sell them to our customers."

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention – and so it is for these Cubans, who have risen to the challenges of a health and economic crisis, with a plan to keep on pedalling through tough times.