A 5-Point Plan To Future-Proof Tuvalu “The Sinking Nation”

Photo © 2007 Juriaan Booij

Tuvalu, a small island atoll in the South Pacific, is at risk of sinking if sea levels continue to rise. With foreign aid and climate talks taking up most of its attention between 2010–2020, a unique opportunity relating to its .tv ownership may pave a path for its own salvation.

Recently, I came across an article about Tuvalu “cashing in” on .tv thanks to popular streaming platform, Twitch. As someone with Tuvaluan ancestry, it got me thinking. Mainly because of what I know about its plight around being one of the first islands to sink if ocean levels continue to rise.

Before we continue, let me give you a bit of background (especially for any Tuvaluans reading this): I was born in Fiji to a Fijian-Indian father and Tuvaluan-Samoan mother. I’m an Australian citizen but have grown up abroad most of my life. My Tuvaluan heritage comes from Nanumea and the Fakaua clan, as well as the Sakaio families.

Since I am yet to make my way to Tuvalu (hope to one day), most of my knowledge of the nation is through my mother and families — from stories, legends, and traditions passed down. My interest in reconnecting with my roots came around 2010 when I developed an animated series called Tales From Nanumea. This came at a time when global warming discussions started escalating, and the only way I thought I could help, was by preserving the myths and legends of my maternal homeland (that I had never set foot on).

This project, which started out of university, led me to connect with various other Tuvaluans, First Nation peoples, and indigenous communities, due to the fact that they were also interested in preserving their intangible cultural heritage. It made me respect and appreciate just how much we have to learn from Elders and wisdom of the past.

Fast forward to today, and we are now in a situation where Tuvalu has an opportunity to preserve its culture, land, and heritage, by leveraging their .tv renewals in 2021.

To Renew, Or Not To Renew

From what I’ve heard and learned, Tuvalu didn’t know much about how big .tv would become when it initially signed the deal (at a bargain) with Verisign. Fortunately, they’ve been able to learn much more over the years and in 2021, their deal with Verisign expires.

What this means is that, if Tuvalu can negotiate wisely, .tv could become a huge cash-cow for them, helping them save themselves instead of relying on foreign aid and charity. With a GDP per capita of USD$3,702 (in 2017), and the $50m Versign deal making up 10% of the Tuvalu government’s total revenue (which helped paved the nation’s roads), Tuvalu could really transform themselves further with a better deal.

As a result, being the start of 2020, I thought I’d share an inspired 5-point plan that is based on the following three points:

  • Digital readiness
  • Maximizing returns
  • Focusing on a knowledge economy in lieu of physical land or resources (e.g. Singapore)

The 5-Point Plan

In a nut-shell, here are the 5 key points:

Read on for an explanation of each point.

1. Open .tv to a bidding war (but negotiate wisely)

This would be Step 1. Although Verisign and the Tuvaluan government may have good relations, we now know just how valuable .tv is (thanks Twetch). And where there’s value, there’s opportunity. Opening .tv up to a bidding war between foreign companies means you can let the market speak for itself in terms of how much Tuvalu could really get from .tv. There is also a few decades worth of data to make some educated forecasts on what it may be valued at in the future. When it comes to negotiations, make sure it’s a win/win, but be clear that Tuvalu is in the position to set terms. Not others. Do not let others take advantage of you.

2. Improve internet infrastructure

With new terms and cashflow, immediately focus on improving the internet infrastructure on all 8 islets. The reason for this is because we’re going to leverage the fact that Tuvalu:

  1. Has a 99.0% adult literacy rate
  2. All speak English
  3. Struggle with finding work (usually travel to neighboring islands)

With an improved internet infrastructure, we can then focus on skills that will actually leverage their strengths.

3. Run a nation-wide digital transformation program

In a knowledge economy, it is not physical property that matters, it is intellectual (IP). Smaller nations like England, Switzerland, and more recently Singapore, have shown just how much you can accomplish with focus and leveraging your strengths.

As such, with a small but focused population (just shy of 13,000), and high literacy, the only thing lacking is connection and applied knowledge. It amazes me that, in today’s day and age, people forget how much knowledge is available on the Internet for , which could enable them to make money in abundance from anywhere, any time.

By leveraging the rising trend of the freelance economy (also known as the “gig economy”), Tuvalu could easily tap into this and start earning an income by teaching sales, marketing and digital skills (e.g. website creation, graphic design, programming, etc.) to the population. Consequently, complaints around needing to travel to other countries for work diminishes.

By teaching (online) sales and marketing — skills that are applicable to industry — you also enable citizens to “sell” their newly learned digital skills. Nearby APAC nations that have done this (e.g. Philippines, India, Malaysia) have seen huge spikes in work and opportunity as a result.

4. Go cashless

There is an increasing trend for nations to go cashless. There’s also examples of nations in the past who have “leap-frogged” technologies to catchup to other countries (e.g. the rural poor of Bangladesh skipping land-lines to go straight to mobile phones).

Since the nation has very few ATMs as is, don’t have a currency of their own (currently use Australian dollars), and has a population > 13,000, going cashless may be far easier to accomplish in Tuvalu than it would for larger nations. Singapore’s relatively small size made it easier for its government to enact changes as it was transforming from a third world country to first (led by its founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew).

In order to go cashless, I’d look at leveraging some of the latest in blockchain technology (e.g. Bitcoinˢᵛ). Most people don’t know that Bitcoin is more than just a cryptocurrency used for speculation or “digital gold”, its underlying technology can enable far more through its public ledger and micro-transaction innovations.

Using partners such as Tokenized, I’d tokenize the country’s currency supply (pegging it to fiat while the country gets used to digital), and invest in all businesses to enable completely cashless transactions, with Bitcoinˢᵛ as the underlying financial infrastructure.

Some other benefits to using Bitcoinˢᵛ for the entire country includes:

  1. Being one of the first to innovate in such a manner
  2. Using a blockchain that is built for scale
  3. An immutable public ledger to track cashflow (and reduce corruption)

Would also need to ensure that citizens can easily onboard or off-board into whatever fiat currency they so wish (or at least have the option), but with companies such as Revolut or even HandCash, they will hopefully see the benefit of keeping their day-to-day transactions digital. Many nations are already racing to go cashless, including Sweden. This is all to help set the country up for an increasingly digital future, without sacrificing culture.

5. Invest in land and property

After setting previous steps in motion, Tuvalu could then look into purchasing land/property in other countries, rent them out, and then use the additional cashflow (plus income from .tv) to raise the islands to safer heights. Since Tuvalu has already rejected offers from Chinese firms to build artificial islands (much like how Dubai has done), Tuvalu just needs a way to fund its own development.

Now, to reiterate, the above plan is one that comes without any knowledge of the Tuvaluan economy from a local perspective. Nor does it take into account any immediate political concerns such as climate change, healthcare, infrastructure, and/or traditional education.

However, sometimes having an “outsider” (even though I’m part Tuvaluan) looking in means greater detachment and objectivity. Focus is always helpful for spearheading progress when resources and/or time is limited. The above plan looks at future-proofing the country through economics and communal up-skilling, with the assumption that these things will then lead on to improvements in other areas. Instead of seeking foreign help, the above plan aims to build value and sovereignty for Tuvaluans by leveraging a unique digital asset (its ownership of .tv).

The most empowering thing a nation can do is set itself up to be self-sufficient and globally competitive, not relying on handouts, charity, or foreign aid too much. Many small nations have punched far above its weight in the past to great effect— England, Switzerland, and even Singapore. The common thread between these countries is that they all identified a strength or opportunity, then capitalized on it. In my opinion, Tuvalu is being presented with a similar opportunity.

With the Verisign deal expiring in 2021, it puts Tuvalu in a unique position to realize its potential, capitalize on its biggest (digital) asset for the future, and invest wisely into other areas that could further increase its self-sufficiency and physical value in a hyper-globalized society.

To Tuvalu, I really hope you make the best of the upcoming deal — I’m rooting for you!

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