Inside Cuba’s Tech Revolution with the Co-Creator of AlaMesa, the Food App for Locals

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Iconic restaurant El Floridita in Havana. Image: Radio Taino

Anyone who doubts that the tech revolution has touched every corner of the globe needs only to look to Cuba, where the island notorious for its lack of technology and famous for its proliferation of 50’s cars is fostering a bourgenoing start-up culture. From digital magazines to apps that work offline, a new generation of creatives is giving the tech giants of Silicon Valley a run for their money  in terms of sheer ingenuity. Imagine attempting to create an app or website in a country like Cuba, where private enterprise is heavily regulated and access to the internet is limited to costly hot spots or tourist hotels. It would sort of be like attempting to build the freeway and drive on it at the same time. And yet, somehow it’s happening.

Cuba, it should be noted, is also well known for its robust education system. Well educated, tech-savvy Cubans have launched internet start-ups intended to address all manner of commonplace issues. What’s more, many have succeeded despite the obvious infrastructure problems and a challenging legal climate. Technically, most of these start-ups aren’t legal. While changing laws have allowed private companies to be formed, these new regulations don’t extend to these kinds of services. That said, officials are sometimes willing to look the other way. Even in this legal limbo, the growing tech industry has drawn the attention of stateside tech companies, with Airbnb expanding into Cuba in the last few years. The Verge reported that in 2017, Cuba was the 9th most popular destination for American tourists on Airbnb. But none of this is possible without locals greeting and driving the tech revolution.

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Havana. Photo: National Geographic

And yet, setbacks continue. As the United States again restricts relations that were opened by the Obama administration, the boom in American travel and business expansion to Cuba will be dampened. The embargo was never fully lifted, which is something that earns annual condemnation from the United Nations. Like a distant but looming older sibling, the United States weighs on the small island about 90 miles from Florida. Cuban innovators persist, in no small part due to the fact these tech entrepreneurs seek to provide services primarily for Cubans. With or without American travelers or corporations, there will still be demand. 

“If you want to get tourists involved in something like this, you must design it for locals”

One of the companies at the forefront of the changing tech climate is AlaMesa (Spanish for “To The Table”).  It’s an app that provides reviews, menus, and an easy to navigate map for restaurants across Cuba — sort of like a Yelp meets Google Maps meets OpenTable. Best of all, once it’s installed it works completely offline — it relies only on the phone’s GPS. AlaMesa also has a website with blog posts in English and Spanish, online booking for tourists, and a newsletter, and they’re looking to expand to meet whatever demands arise. Members from AlaMesa’s team personally visit restaurants to write reviews, and they have already documented 900 restaurants. 

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A woman in Cuba using her mobile phone. AP/Franklin Reyes

This passion project has garnered attention from The New York Times, The Guardian, and Forbes, and AlaMesa was mentioned by former President Barack Obama in an address regarding Cuba-US relations. While the AlaMesa team seems proud of this, their focus remains on figuring out how to improve their platform to reach even more Cubans.

AlaMesa can be downloaded on both the App Store and Google Play  by tourists before they arrive. But, while many Cubans have smart phones and can use the app, the lack of connectivity means they can’t visit these app stores to install it. Instead, locals physically distribute the app person-to-person via file sharing programs and flash drives, and then use it offline once it’s downloaded. 

I had a chance to interview AlaMesa co-founder Ariel Causa through email (while services like Skype are not available, Causa replied promptly via email). Even through this somewhat impersonal mode of communication his enthusiasm, sense of humor, and deep love of Cuba showed through. We discussed the challenges of building an app, his optimistic view on the future of tourism, and of course, food.

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The AlaMesa team (Ariel far right), courtesy AlaMesa

How and when was this app created? Where did the idea come from?

First, it is an app, a website, a newsletter…

The idea came naturally, there was a major change in the law [in] my country and a lot of new restaurants were being created. But there was no hierarchically ordered system providing updated information about those places, so basically potential customers could not find about them. So we decided to create a platform solving the problem.

Is this app designed for locals, tourists, or both?

If you want to get tourists involved in something like this, you must design it for locals. You get critical mass of users, you get the proper standard so it can work solving the limitations of the market and you get the word out here. Plus, nobody is going to influence your system like locals because they will use it regularly and extensively so you will get the best tips about how to improve it from them. So it is meant for locals particularly and for tourists as well.

 If locals use it, how do they download it?

You can download it from the internet; it is in both official app stores. A large amount of Cubans just copy it from a friend via file-sharing apps such as Zapya, it is very much in the culture.

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Courtesy AlaMesa

What is your personal role/responsibility in AlaMesa?

I manage contents for the platform. But it is a start up like any other so you do whatever is necessary.

What is the most challenging aspect of running AlaMesa?

Body weight? Joking… We’re creating tools and services that [didn’t] exist in this market, so it is a challenge to find out how to make it right. You don’t know how your audience is going to react or if what you’re proposing is going to work for them.

What do you think the future of American tourism is in Cuba given that travel restrictions are once again being tightened by the U.S. government?

I think the most important thing is information. Americans can travel to Cuba but a large part of American audience has been misinformed about it. If that gap of information is overcome then there is a big future for that industry.

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The interactive map for Android, updated every 15 days. El Lindon in Santiago De Cuba shown here.

How has tourism changed the restaurant industry? I understand that many locals were surprised when they had to start making reservations to certain restaurants? Does downloading Alamesa help with that?

The restaurant industry is bigger, more complex and busier, and it is partially because of the surges [in the] tourism industry. Booking is not really in the culture for locals; we like to just show up. Since restaurants get busier that is a problem because they cannot always provide accommodations. It is still easier for locals to pick up the phone and make bookings that way, but we have rolled out a system to book online through our website (alamesacuba.com) focused on travelers. It helps them get seats, helps restaurants organize more, and creates the buzz to move this kind of service online.

Do you have a personal favorite restaurant?

Hahahaha. No way I am going to answer this one… 

What is a misconception about Cuba and Cuban culture that you think should be corrected?

[Here is] a list:

1. That it is difficult to travel to Cuba.
2. That it is dangerous to come to Cuba.
3. That Cubans hold a grudge against Americans.
4. That Cubans are illiterate.
5. That Cuba was somehow set apart from the world.

What’s the future for AlaMesa?

Our mantra is to help discover and enjoy Cuban culinary culture. When you got that in your system, all sorts of ideas pop into your mind. Delivery, bookings, recipes, food events, you name it. Cuba has a strong culture and we would love to help people discover it, enjoy it and value it.

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Courtesy AlaMesa

What impact do you think external investment will have on Cuba?

With the right legislation and culture in place, it will only mean business will be able to grow faster, easier and stronger.

For those who can’t travel there, what are some Cuban dishes everyone should try?

You need to try Malanga fritters in a honey dip, make sure they put parsley and garlic on the dough of the fritters. Try plantain chips or tostones, but you need them to be dipped after peeling the plantains in a mix of water, vinegar, salt and garlic to make chips and tostones crispier. You need black beans with bay leaf. Eat them with white rice (put a little bit of lime juice, garlic, and cumin in the water while making the rice). 

You need pork in Cuban sauce, make sure you get the real deal. Pork has to be marinated in sour orange juice with garlic, onion and salt for at least 3 hours. Minimum. Sour orange is a very particular type of orange [that tastes] sour. Try it with pork ribs. You gotta try casquitos de guayaba with cream cheese. You need a mamey milkshake. Mamey is a fruit, you make a milkshake with it and you will never forget it. You need a bottle of Cuban aged rum to process all that. 5 years minimum. You sip it from your old fashioned glass and dream of Cuba.

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This interview was lightly edited for grammar and style. Visit the AlaMesa website here.