Entrepreneur Writes How-To For Jamaica Businesses

Like many poor countries, Jamaica has a vast informal economy that paradoxically seems to limit the nation's overall growth. A combination of bureaucratic inefficiency and an ingrained distrust of government, makes many entrepreneurs wary of legalizing their ventures. That in turn, makes it virtually impossible for them to consolidate, distribute goods widely or take other steps toward expanding a business.

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Here's something you hear a lot: Taxes restrict economic growth. But sometimes a country can suffer from not enough taxes. Take Jamaica. A large part of the economy is what economists call informal, meaning that people make money but don't pay any taxes.

In Jamaica, it's estimated that 95 percent of the people who are self-employed do not pay their taxes, 95 percent. The self-employed included doctors, lawyers, plumbers, contractors. That means less money for the government to build things like roads and schools and police stations. That's the problem. Now Alex Blumberg from our Planet Money team will tell us about one Jamaican businesswoman's quest to try to fix that problem.

ALEX BLUMBERG: The Jamaican businesswoman is named Kimala Bennett, and her plan is both modest and audacious: a book.

Ms. KIMALA BENNETT (Entrepreneur): This is the mockup of the book, starting a business in Jamaica, and the manual includes a step-by-step guide, a checklist, completed sample forms, business company registration...

BLUMBERG: The book is a how-to manual, with charts, bullet points, checklists. And the story of how Kimala Bennett came to write this book says a lot about the Jamaican economy.

From the time she was little, Bennett wanted to be a music video director. She went to college in the States, got an internship at a big music video production company, and then moved back to Jamaica and started doing freelance music video and film production. And like most people in Jamaica, she was doing it informally.

But after two years of this small time stuff, she decided to make the jump from just another under the table freelancer in Jamaica's vast informal economy to a legitimate tax-paying business.

Ms. BENNETT: To be honest with you, I really, really honestly wanted to be the best production company, not only in Jamaica but in the Caribbean. To me, the only way to do that was to be legitimized.

BLUMBERG: Girl with a big dream, welcome to the post-colonial bureaucracy, where dreams go to die.

Ms. BENNETT: I'm going to give you an example of what you have to do to register a business in Jamaica. You have to go to the company's office, and then you have to go to the NIS office. And then from the NIS office you have to go to the TRN office, and then you have to go to the NHT office. And then you have to file a GCT, and then you have to file income tax. And these offices are all over the place.

BLUMBERG: The World Bank does this survey where they look at all the different countries in the world and rank them by how difficult it is to comply with the tax code. Jamaica is almost at the bottom of the list, 174th out of 183 countries in the survey. In other words, it's harder to pay your taxes in Jamaica than almost anyplace else in the world, which might explain why so many people choose not to.

Kimala Bennett was seeing this first hand, running back and forth to different government offices. And then she remembered the words of one of her heroes: Donny Deutsch, who used to host a television show on CNBC.

Ms. BENNETT: He has this show called "The Big Idea" on. It's a U.S.-based show and he interviews all these people that have these great ideas, and you know, they made a lot of money from them. And one of the biggest things he says is that it has if something is annoying you or frustrating you or there's a need that you have, chances are there are like millions of people just like you that are complaining about it. And I complain and I complain and I complain (unintelligible) why can't we just have a book that will show us where to go, tell us what to do. So that's how the book came about.

BLUMBERG: Bennett says there are a lot of Jamaicans who could benefit from her book. The trick is making them realize it. Jamaican entrepreneurs, she says, don't think of themselves as small business people. They think of themselves as hustlers.

Bennett argues it's the same thing though. Take, she says, the situation outside of the U.S. embassy in Jamaica, where there's always this huge long line of people waiting to apply for visas to the U.S. The line moves really slowly, it's always really hot under the sun, and you're not allowed to carry anything into the embassy with you.

Ms. BENNETT: You can't have a bag. You can't have an umbrella, you can't have anything. So you have people there that rent umbrellas. And you have people there who will keep your cell phone, so they give you a number and when you come back you collect your stuff. If that is not entrepreneurship or an entrepreneurial spirit, then I don't know what is. But they really honestly (unintelligible) a hustle, it's just a means to survive, is the goal. But it is what it is. It's business.

BLUMBERG: Hustlers might need to become legit, whether they want to or not. The Jamaican government is pretty broke right now and they're planning to start cracking down on people who aren't paying their taxes. Tax cheats should be afraid. And by the way, Bennett says, fearing the tax man, that's a good thing.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Blumberg.

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