🕗 Updated 8:47 AM ET, Tue March 23, 2021
I was playing with the baby on the floor and my wife was on the couch, very engaged in something on WhatsApp. “They’ve got ham, chicken and fish. How many should I buy?” she asked, looking up from her cellphone, her voice tinged with stress as she took in my confused expression.
These new Cuban entrepreneurs are folks who have found themselves sitting at home with too much time on their hands (and not enough money coming in)…
She explained that there were some Havana WhatsApp users making croquetas — a friend in a Havana WhatsApp group of people she went to high school with had bought them and said they were really good. She was nervously watching the clock, worried that the next day’s production would run out before she got a chance to place her order. At 5:00 pm she sent her message, and an hour later she breathed a sigh of relief when she received a confirmation through WhatsApp. “We got them!” she exclaimed as if we had just won a lottery. The next day a young man on a bike appeared on our doorstep with the croquetas, neatly wrapped in plastic wrap and labeled in a bag with our name on it.
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With COVID-19 the usual problems with shortages in Cuban stores and markets have worsened, but a new crop of mom-and-pop COVID entrepreneurs are emerging to help out. Lucky for us they are not people who take advantage of a crisis to price gouge, like the guy who drove from store to store all over Kentucky in early March to stockpile a storage unit full of hand sanitizer and Lysol that he sold at exorbitant prices on Amazon (until he was outed by the New York Times story and eventually prosecuted).
Some more established private sector players have been able to jump right in to meet delivery demand, such as Mandao, the delivery service co-founded by entrepreneur Marta Deus one and a half years ago, and A la Mesa, an online restaurant directory (the Cuban Yelp) that now has the option for people abroad to order and send food from local paladares and restaurants to their friends and family in Cuba. And now some new Havana WhatsApp users are getting in on the action.
These new Cuban entrepreneurs are folks who have found themselves sitting at home with too much time on their hands (and not enough money coming in) and they are getting creative.
In the COVID era the image that matters is the one you create online and success can be as simple as adding some mango emojis to a text message.
Many consumers who are already active Havana WhatsApp users have turned to their phones and their friends to find other ways to get the products they need, often without even leaving the house. When the #quédateencasa campaign began, people with products to sell started to use WhatsApp to take orders for delivery. In addition to our croquette order we have also recently bought frozen mangos, fresh pork and potting soil from new online businesses.
Many consumers who are already active WhatsApp users have turned to their phones and their friends to find other ways to get the products they need, often without even leaving the house.
At the height of mango season, we learned from a WhatsApp group about a new service that will deliver six-pound bags of ready-to-eat slices of sweet mango, frozen at peak ripeness, to your doorstep for 5 CUC. On a hot Havana summer afternoon there’s nothing like tossing a couple frozen chunks of mango into the blender to quench your thirst, and our 1 year old had become addicted to frozen mango chunks to relieve his teething pain. But each time I go to the market closest to our house, I spend at least 3-4 CUC for a couple of heavy mangoes which I then have to lug home and up three flights of stairs. Too often when I cut them open there is one that didn’t ripen well or has large parts that are bruised and inedible. At times coordinating shopping, peeling, cutting, freezing and cleaning up in an apartment with an unstable water source is too much. Needless to say, when we learned about frozen mango delivery, we were hooked!
The unusual circumstances of COVID-19 seem to be creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs in Cuba to start small-scale family businesses.
In their pre-COVID lives, our mango dealers, a young couple in their 20s, lived with her mother in the western Havana neighborhood of La Lisa. Yailen worked in a restaurant and Antonio, a computer programmer, worked in the state sector. When everything shut down in Havana Yailen and Antonio found themselves sitting around at home with time on their hands. They started freezing chunks of mangoes from their backyard tree. With their freezer full they still had so many mangoes that they started giving them away to friends and selling to friends of friends. In early May they got the idea to write a simple text advertisement adorned with mango emojis that they could forward to Havana WhatsApp groups to look for new customers. The business kept growing with the help of Yailen´s mother, and they got permission from neighbors with mango trees who hadn’t bothered to pick the fruits for years to collect more mangoes. As Havana heads into the first stage of recovery and mango season comes to an end, Antonio has returned to his state job, but they are already looking ahead, planning to expand their frozen fruit business to include guanabana and mamey.
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Competition can be tough in Havana and in normal times food service businesses spend a lot of money investing in a location and interior design. But in the COVID era the image that matters is the one you create online and success can be as simple as adding some mango emojis to a text message. The unusual circumstances of COVID-19 seem to be creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs in Cuba to start small-scale family businesses. Like our croqueta makers and the frozen mango vendors, many small businesses have emerged dedicated to selling just one product. By focusing on one product and doing it well they are able to make a go of it with a smaller economic investment and less frustration chasing after ingredients. Since they are based on delivery and come to their customers, location doesn´t matter. Even folks in far-flung La Lisa can be successful.