After years of groundwork, on 25th March 2019, the Government of Malta entered into a partnership with the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry, to create Tech.mt, with the aim of driving results in the technological sector by helping local companies export their services, products and intellectual capital abroad, as well as to encourage investment into the island.
And, over the past 18 months, the entity has worked to champion Maltese talent by participating in international fora – despite the challenges presented by COVID-19 – thus raising the profile of Maltese technology companies.
It has also encouraged upskilling and academic research in the field and provided guidance to firms seeking to expand beyond Malta’s shores.
Indeed, these endeavours have assumed even greater importance in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which has also pushed the organisation to assist private sector firms – across a gamut of sectors, even those not traditionally associated with tech – in transforming their digital capabilities to meet the challenges posed by the pandemic.
We’ve only been in operation for little over a year now, and we’ve not only had to go through the ‘grand birth’, but we’ve had to revisit our strategy as a result of COVID, though we quickly realised the need to be of assistance to companies to help them transition to the digital world,” says Dana Farrugia, the Chief Executive Officer of Tech.mt.
“COVID has put us all in a difficult position, and it has strained many businesses in terms of consumer and investor demand. But it has also encouraged change, and, fortunately, Malta can boast of a resilient infrastructure and solid management styles within the tech sector and beyond.”
This has enabled Tech.mt to “embark on an aggressive campaign” helping companies move online, with guidance given on how to create online stores, as well as revamp operations to incorporate digital processes in deliveries, logistics and management systems.
“We’ve aimed to help firms optimise their outlook, so they can, even, attract a wider variety of consumers, including those abroad. In this way, we have immediately embarked on putting Malta on the digital map for new technology,” she explains.
Even prior to meeting these challenges, Tech.mt was recognised by the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) as a “strategic establishment for the tech sector in Malta,” Ms Farrugia says.
Indeed, Malta’s country report for 2020 highlights the entity’s remit, within the context of the island’s National Digital Strategy – which is up for renewal next year – and underscores the collaborative perspective being adopted by the entity.
“Although we have come onto the scene a bit late in the day, since the technological sector has grown from strength to strength over the past decades, we have hit the ground running and we’ve established ourselves as a pillar for those who want to see more investment and business in tech, but also for those firms, in other industries, which want to modernise,” Ms Farrugia continues.
This modernisation, she continues, allows companies to formulate innovative solutions to the storage of data, allowing firms to monitor consumer behaviour. “You can then determine what’s working well for your company and what isn’t, and this information is critical to determining where you should spend your time and energy,” she says.
Malta offers fertile ground for this modernisation to take hold, the CEO attests. This is corroborated by the DESI report which found that 85 per cent of the local population uses the internet at least once a week, ranking sixth when compared to other European Union member states.
Moreover, the percentages of ICT graduates and specialists supersede the EU average, and 38 per cent of residents have above basic ICT skills. Yet, there’s still more work which should be done.
For, DESI also finds that the country is slightly below the EU average for basic digital and software skills: 56 per cent of people have at least basic digital skills (compared to the EU average of 58 per cent), and 58 per cent have at least basic software skills (with the EU average being 61 per cent).
“Teaching digital skills at primary level is essential, if we’re to meet the demands of highly evolved industries,” Ms Farrugia asserts.
“We need to introduce digitisation in our culture from the ground up, and, to this end the private sector – together with the Government – is intent on finding solutions for continuous training for local communities. A digital perspective must be firmly integrated and become embedded in our core values,” she says.
Honing in on the tech sector, more specifically, Ms Farrugia says that expanding digital skills to meet demand will further propel investment in the field.
This outlook indicates a cyclical process whereby the tech industry – as well as other highly-digitised sectors – acquires the consumers and staff it needs to keep driving progress. However, she warns, investment opportunities are shifting, and businesses can no longer rely on the traditional banks to supply the liquidity necessary for change.
“We cannot keep relying just on our banking sector,” she insists. “We have major banks, but we’re not exactly spoilt for choice, so we need to find alternatives, from a financial point of view.” Yet, this investment is integral to development in the tech sector, she continues.
“Here at Tech.mt, we are very proud to be responsible for growth in the technological industry, and we do encourage a broad range of opportunities, helping to connect businesses. We would also advocate the creation of an environment in which mergers and takeovers can be encouraged.
This would be fruitful since it keeps the wheel turning: struggling businesses can actually provide opportunities for growth for other firms,” she explains.
Moving on, and speaking more broadly, within the context of the ‘new normal’, Ms Farrugia re-asserts the call for firms – whatever the size, and from whichever industry – to use their investments and the revenue accrued to upskill their staff, and to adopt a digital mindset.
“A small investment today will help the business in the future,” she insists, adding, however, that the challenge is to get business leaders to change.
“In times of stress, some tend to go for, shall we say, a more traditional style of leadership, focused on monitoring numbers, cost crunching, and shifting employee roles. Let’s be honest, everyone seems to have been affected by a small degree of panic.
Yet, while we have no precedent to base decisions upon, there is one thing we can be certain of: going digital is a must,” she asserts. However, Ms Farrugia is not naïve to the financial difficulties being faced by business owners, and says she understands that, today, companies may have other priorities. Despite this, she points to the funding schemes and support services being offered by Malta Enterprise – including their Business First facility – as one way how firms can finance the upskilling of their workforce and the shift to a digital set-up.
“Government provides incentives to help business leaders affect change. I understand that organisations, particularly SMEs, are stretched at the moment. However, I would advise seeking a balance between cost-cutting and spending wisely, to innovate for the long term,” she says.
Indeed, looking ahead, encouraging innovation will be central to the strategy adopted by Tech.mt. “We’ve already been making strides in this respect through the connections we’re developing internationally,” she explains, pointing to Tech.mt’s participation in the World Summit AI, 2019, in Amsterdam as an instance during which Malta boosted its profile.
“We’re trying to establish connections globally, so that we can propel local businesses to the forefront,” she says. “Our major objective is to take Malta to international destinations, thus creating an environment which encourages mobility and innovation.” For, in her view, this is the future of business, whether in technology or beyond.
This interview was first carried in the October edition of Digital Island