From Dreamer to Doer : Meet 5 people helping Barbados achieve climate resilience
Climate change is not a future threat for the people of Barbados—they are already experiencing its consequences. In the last three years alone, storms of unprecedented ferocity have knocked out the power grid and washed away roads; rising sea levels have introduced salt water into wells, threatening drinking supplies and food production; and warming oceans have accelerated the growth and spread of sargassum, a ropy brown seaweed that is jeopardizing marine life and fisherfolks’ livelihoods. Climate resilience is now a matter of national survival, according to Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley. Here are some of the entrepreneurs, academics, activists, and government officials helping their country confront the challenge.
Shaping Fishing’s Digital Future
Shelly-Ann Cox, Barbados’ Chief Fisheries Officer, believes that technology and digital data collection methods can breathe new life into the fishing industry, a critically important contributor to local food security and culture. “Many fisherfolk are already using GPS equipment and satellite imagery to help them find fish and monitor sea surface temperatures and heights,” she says.
The new DigiFish initiative, a collaborative program between government, civil society and the private sector, is introducing technology to support the use of these and other innovations in a more systematic way. For example, solar-powered tracking devices, vessel monitoring systems, and Smart Scales—with touch screens that display the weight, length, grade, and temperature of fish—will ultimately feed into a database that generates a tag for fish that are considered traceable and sustainable. This will help local fisherfolk access new markets, such as those in the European Union, that require those certifications.
But Cox never forgets the people who are catching the fish—or the historic role of fishing, which is sometimes considered one of the first self-directed enterprises for many free Black people after slavery was abolished in Barbados in 1834.
“There are lots of economic benefits to digitizing the fishing process, and it also gives us the opportunity to include people who have been excluded in the past,” Cox says. “The new technology will allow us to document local, traditional knowledge, such as boat building and net knitting, and integrate it with data, analysis, and science.”
Converting Sargassum into Sustainable Energy
Warming ocean temperatures are speeding the spread of sargassum—a ropy, brown seaweed that is blanketing beaches, choking coral reefs, and jeopardizing the Caribbean’s tourism and fishing industries.
But where some see a toxic threat, Legena Henry sees a solution to Barbados’ energy challenge. As the founder and CEO of Rum & Sargassum, a spinoff company from research results generated in the Renewable Energy Development Laboratory at the University of the West Indies, she is developing ways for this biofuel enterprise to produce transportation fuel from low-cost local waste streams, including rum distillery wastewater and sargassum. Her research shows that biomethane from these sources can produce transportation fuel that can avoid as much as 1 million metric tons of CO2 emissions in Barbados. These methods hold promise for other regions, including in the U.S., and a patent is expected later this year.
“Renewable energy matters,” Henry says. “We don’t yet have what we need, and with climate change bearing down on us, we’re looking down the barrel of a gun. Better solutions can save the culture, create new jobs, and lower the cost of living.”
Using Data to Design Climate-Resilient Homes
Alyssa Amor Gibbons considers herself an “architeer”—someone who designs environmentally conscious, energy-efficient, and resilient buildings. It’s a job title she tailored to fit her architectural design work in Barbados and across the Caribbean, and it hints at a very different future for the region’s built environment. An important step toward that future, she says, involves cutting-edge technology like artificial intelligence (AI), the use of data, and digital twin construction.
But small countries like Barbados rely on data in a way that’s different from larger, wealthier nations, according to Gibbons.
“We don’t have access to large pools of money to make the changes we need. So, we have to rely on what’s available to us in this digital age, to start to take the guesswork out of some of the solutions we need to implement,” she says. “Data generated by new technology allows us to close the gap between the resources that we have, and the largeness of the solutions that we need to come to terms with.”
Gibbons, who delivered a TED Talk on creating climate-resilient buildings in January 2023, relies on these digital technologies to generate virtual housing, civic, and urban spaces to test energy-efficient benchmarks. When a building meets its resilience targets, the cost savings are significant and the overall performance of the building is more sustainable in real time as well as over its projected lifecycle, she says. That’s “incredibly important” because “in Barbados, a tiny country seeking to solve some really big issues, little numbers matter.”
Offering First-time Homebuyers HOPE
The demand for affordable, climate resilient housing in Barbados is growing alongside the country’s need for renewable energy sources. One government-championed project is pursuing a solution that meets both requirements. HOPE Inc. (Home Ownership Providing Energy) is behind the effort to build solar-powered homes that can withstand hurricanes—and it offers those homes to first-time buyers at below-market rates. That’s why Tony Hoyos, Executive Project Director of HOPE Inc., loves his job.
Hoyos signed on to HOPE Inc. to help people who would not otherwise qualify for a loan find a safe place to call home. Project coordinators locate lenders for the potential homeowners, process the loan online, and negotiate all the fees, bringing down transaction costs. Homeowners receive the land free of charge and allow HOPE Inc. to use the house’s rooftop to generate solar power for 20 years. HOPE Inc. then sells the power to the national utility.
“We sat down and did the calculations and realized that the revenues from electricity generated from these rooftops over 20 years would more than cover the cost of the land we are giving away, plus the civil works and PV systems themselves,” Hoyos said. The rainwater will also be harvested, and small treatment plants built on the property will process all of the wastewater to agricultural standards so farms can use it to grow vegetables and crops. The government intends to use the revenues from the green energy generated to raise green bonds to pay off the land development costs and buy additional land to expand the project further.
“We give people equity who have never before had the chance to own a piece of the island. That builds stability and offers the first opportunity for intergenerational wealth.”
—Tony Hoyos, Hope Inc.
The project is the first of its kind for Barbados, and 10,000 homes are planned for the next five years. Hoyos believes that the environmental benefits are matched only by the social benefits. “We always remember who we are building for,” he says. “We give people equity who have never before had the chance to own a piece of the island. That builds stability and offers the first opportunity for intergenerational wealth.”
Democratizing Tech to Confront Water Scarcity
When Karl Payne returned home to Barbados last year after a decade abroad, he had a sense of déjà vu. During his time away, he received his Ph.D in civil engineering for water management and worked in the private sector in the U.S., using technology to create novel solutions related to climate resilience.
Once he was back in Barbados, he realized the country was still struggling with water scarcity, intermittent water supply, and water quality issues—the same resource problems that plagued it when he was growing up. But the compounding, cascading effects of climate change meant that the consequences—like salt water intrusion into wells, a result of rising sea levels and more extreme rainfall—made it even more urgent to find solutions.
Payne, now a university lecturer and stream coordinator of the water resource management program at the University of the West Indies-Cave Hill Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies, is leveraging approaches from data-driven modeling, artificial intelligence (AI), and systems thinking to develop sound science-based policies for Barbados and other small island developing states.
“The democratization of AI tools like machine learning, along with cloud computing, allows us to develop sophisticated models, and predict things like how water levels change in response to rainfall,” he says. “We can train the AI models to recognize a certain climate scenario, and it then can tell us how much to conserve, which policies might be most effective, and even how to quantify non-revenue water. These tools make it possible to finally move away from an ad-hoc, responsive, reactive approach to water resource issues.”