Informal Economy

Cainton Milroy – One Tech-Savvy Entrepreneur’s Mission to Digitalize Vanuatu

This month we sat down with Informal Economies Recovery Project partner, Cainton Milroy – an ambitious young software engineer, entrepreneur and self-confessed coffee addict from Vanuatu. He spoke to us about his role in organizing Vanuatu’s first ever e-commerce symposium; why digitalization is the future of small business success, and what his hopes are for his country – the most disaster-prone nation on the planet. Interviewer: Sanya Ruggiero

Article | 22 July 2021
Cainton Milroy

Hi Cainton, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Cainton Milroy and I am an indigenous Melanesian from the beautiful country of Vanuatu. I come from Vanualava island, located in the Banks group of islands in Torba province. My parents and families are subsistence farmers living of land and making little bit of cash from copra, selling ginger, taro and yams in our small provincial market. I am the first born of two siblings. We moved to Luganville, Vanuatu's second biggest town located on Espiritu Santo, in 1989. After completing my primary and secondary education, I went on to do a Teachers Education qualification at the Vanuatu Institute of Teachers Education. In 2012, I completed a degree in Software Engineering in New Zealand. Prior to completing my degree in Software engineering, I self taught on computer programming and worked in various government departments and regional organisations.
During my studies in New Zealand, I started a software development business called Garden Code. I did various projects from developing websites, applications and developing software systems architecture for various government entities, businesses and individuals. After completing studies, I came back to Vanuatu and started "Tech Talk" a TV show to inform, educate and empower Ni-Vanuatu [people indigenous to Vanuatu] on technology, innovative ideas and engineering solutions.

I love working on complicated and challenging ICT projects, solving business problems using technology and innovation and working with creative people! During my free time, I take photos and videos, fly my drone and hunt down the best coffee in Port Vila. I am trying to live a healthy lifestyle by cutting down on the seven cups of coffee I have in one day! During this Covid-19, I am proud to have my second dose of Sinopharm vaccine and now I think I am safe.

Wow! And in the midst of all this, you organised Vanuatu’s first ever e-commerce symposium in July! Tell us a bit about that.

I am a board of director at Vanuatu Post Ltd (VPL) and with the reduction of mails due to Covid-19 and lack of regular flights and physical movements, VPL lost 60% of its revenue. As board of director, we were faced with the dilemma to keep VPL's essential services running throughout the country and also fulfil our shareholding obligations from the Government.

I proposed to the Board of VPL, that we have to go beyond traditional means of our existing business model and look at innovative business and activities that would potentially increase mail and parcels at the Post Office. The Universal Postal Union (UPU) have an e-Commerce roadmap for all designated Post offices around the world; the Vanuatu Government have an e-Commerce Readiness Assessment report, supported by UNTAD and DFAT that is being shelved and awaiting some serious implementation.

I read the two high level reports, talked to several businesses, a few of strategic trade professionals, and did a lot of research online. I then went back to the VPL's board and suggested an e-Commerce Symposium. We took the idea to VPL's Annual General Meeting, and it was endorsed by Minister of Finance and Economics Management, Hon. Johnny Koanapo and Minister of Infrastructure and Public Utilities, Hon. Jay Ngwele.

The board then coined the theme: "Beyond the pandemic, fostering e-commerce landscape in Vanuatu for an interconnected digital economy".
We believe that the more e-Commerce businesses are established in Vanuatu, the more parcels logistics, which means more revenue for the Vanuatu Post Ltd!

On July 8th and 9th of 2021, Vanuatu hosted its first ever e-Commerce Symposium, bringing together four Government Ministers, including the Prime Minister who gave a powerful speech on Digital Economy and urged both private and public sector to work towards building a conducive environment for e-Commerce and support for entrepreneurs and small business operators.

The symposium brought strategic actors such as the Government, Reserve Bank of Vanuatu, Commercial Banks, Financial Association Representatives, Incubators for entrepreneurs, a few existing e-commerce businesses and students from senior high schools. The final report will outline priorities and be made available to everyone. We are now working and looking forward to e-Commerce Symposium 2022. In the meantime, Vanuatu Post Ltd is working to implement a physical addressing standard to rollout door to door parcel delivery!

That is an incredible achievement! So, with Vanuatu being the most at-risk country in the world for natural disasters, tell me a bit about why you think Ni-Van entrepreneurs need to adapt to a more digital-tech world.

With the compounding impact of Covid-19 crisis, combined with existing natural disasters in Vanuatu, individual Ni-Vans - our communities, our businesses and our government - continue to face multiple challenges on all fronts. One advantage we have as Ni-Vans is that we are resilient. The disadvantage is our geography; how our islands and people are living faraway from each other over the 83 islands with lack of roads and other means of traditional connectivity, accessibility, transportation and communication.

As entrepreneurs with limited money and assets, the internet becomes an important platform to do business, earn money and connect with customers, businesses, resources and services. The internet never sleeps. With the internet, I can connect with my customers, advertise and promote my business; store documents and work using cloud business solutions; and use it for entertainment during my free time. With the 90% penetration of mobile data coverage in Vanuatu, it makes it easier to reach more people and connect with more businesses and customers!

So how would local entrepreneurs go about digitalizing their business?

I think the underlying medium here is the internet. With Covid-19 changing the behaviour of physical movement, an entrepreneur can now move to the internet, because that's where most people spend their time most of these days.

Most of this time is spent on Facebook and other social media platforms, because peoples’ physical social life is being disconnected with border lockdowns and social distancing. Entrepreneurs can now make appealing digital business offers to promote a product, or a service or sell items online. There are big businesses who look for creative digital creators, to take photos and videos and promote their services or product online. Having an online shop or online market place is profitable these days, thus its worth it for young entrepreneurs to team up and develop online e-Commerce platforms.

That’s encouraging news indeed. On a more personal note, how has COVID affected you across work and life?

Covid-19 is a blessing in disguise. Things that I see useless and unprofitable in the past are now very useful. I can spend time reading books, watching educational YouTube videos to improve my software development knowledge, read more important news and value life more.

You’re a wonderfully optimistic person Cainton! What do you hope Vanuatu looks like in the next ten years?

In the next ten years, our geographical differences to connect with customers and businesses over the 83 islands of Vanuatu will no longer be a big challenge, because more businesses will go online, government services will move to online processes and digital payments will transform how people buy and sell services and products throughout the country. Learning will become more easier as more schools will move to online platforms and adopt digital learning approaches. By everyone using internet, hopefully, we are going to experience a dramatic decline on social issues such as crime and unemployment.