What could be better than a new and simple way to buy and sell items locally in Cuba using only mobile devices?
With Cuba’s economy still heavily dependent on the central government for supplies and distribution networks, finding products and services can be difficult especially when inventories are inconsistent and fragmented.
Merkat is an app designed to solve this problem on Internet time (ie. now) and the founders have a vision to alleve friction in such things as everyday milk buying – and also to become a bridge between the formal and informal sectors so that Cubans can benefit from better price discovery.
The Cuba Journal caught up with one of the developers of the app. According to Yoilán Fimia-León, a Merkat co-founder and chief technologist, “We want to provide a trusted and easy-to-use platform that brings the marketplace right to mobile phones, no matter if the user is connected to a Wi-Fi area or not.”
Today, many Cubans use email-enabled mobile devices that have no Internet without a WiFi connection. Despite increased mobile phone adoption and growth in public WiFi hotspots around the island nation, Cubans remain far behind the region in terms of Internet access.
Solving problems with technology in Cuba means finding creative workarounds.
“In those cases where the user is not connected to the Internet, the app uses alternative methods such as the email, SMS or MMS to transmit data from Merkat’s servers,” according to Fimia-León.
One of Merkat’s distinguishing features is the ability to store a catalog in the user’s mobile phone. The catalog synchronizes with the server on demand or as needed. Items in the catalog will include the name of the product or service, a description, the price, and the stock among other characteristics. This way, Merkat reduces the high rate of no availability that users of other platforms have experienced in Cuba.
Fimia-León, a software engineer and former university professor of computer science, sees Merkat enticing users as potential buyers and sellers on the platform. This is a vital aspect of C2C platforms that thrive only when so called “networks effects” create multiplying supply and demand for the products and services being offered. The more users on the platform, the more value accrues to those users. Eventually, consumers come to rely on a platform to easily solve everyday problems much like the way Amazon has transformed retail buying in the U.S.
Fimia-Leónand his two Cuban co-founders believe that data collected by the platform will be valuable for consumers and for market research purposes.
The future is bright, according to Fimia-León. Today, the platform has thousands of users and the number of daily queries is growing rapidly. He hopes to offer a payment function in the near future, but for now many Cubans are happy to find what they are looking for where and when they need it. To create more awareness, he is rolling out local ambassadors in Cuba’s regional cities to evangelize about the platform.