Entrepreneurial youths invent Isladentro, the Cuban Yelp

The talents of two young Cuban entrepreneurs came together to create Isladentro, a cell phone app that mimics Yelp but can be used without an Internet connection.

Indhira Sotillo, 32, one of the app's founders with Roberto Carlos Vidal, told el Nuevo Herald during a visit to Miami their goal was “to invent something that would give us information about where we could go, places in Cuba we could visit — something like Google Maps and Yelp but something that could be used without an (internet) connection.”

Although the Cuban government has increased access to the internet through public Wi-Fi points, Cubans still have one of the lowest access rates in Latin America and slowest internet speeds — problems that led to the creation of a number of apps that can be used without connections to the Web.

Isladentro, a play on the Spanish words for “Inside the Island,” seeks to be the largest possible directory of the growing number of private businesses and other places such as hospitals, banks and museums on the island, Sotillo said. The business model is based not on the insertion of advertisements but on monthly payments for listing businesses like private restaurants, beauty salons and cell phone repair shops.

The operation has 21young employees who work on updating the software and content and signing up new clients. “The information is gathered by going from business to business, and we have a service that helps to design the profile of businesses on the app,” she said.

Sotillo added that some state-owned enterprises are paying to be included on the app, although the majority of her clients are private businesses. The company currently has more than 600 clients, at a price of $5 per month. Sotillo, who graduated from accounting and finance, acknowledged that it's sometimes difficult to sign up owners who complain the price is too high.

Sotillo said that although it's impossible to know how many people have downloaded the app — Cuba had more than 3 million cells registered at the end of 2015 — it's easy to see its potential for expanding the exposure of the island's small private businesses.

The app is free to the users, who can download it from another cell phone or in specialized shops through the paquete — a massive collection of independent news, entertainment, music and other materials sold widely across the island.

The company has overcome several difficulties. Since the app includes the database, Sotillo said, “at first it was very large. We have updated the software and reduced the size” it required from the cell's internal memory.

It also faces competition from similar apps such as ConoceCuba — Know Cuba.

Isladentro is now trying to expand to all of the island's provinces and keep up with any changes. Its launch of a digital page for people who want to visit Cuba, for example, was the result of a survey showing that 70 percent of visitors to the company's web and Facebook pages were abroad, she added.

With the government's opening more Wi-Fi access points across the island, the company is also working to make its app accessible from its web page.

There are not many women among the young Cuban entrepreneurs in the technology area, and Sotillo was one of the representatives of the sector invited to a meeting with President Barack Obama when he visited the island in March.

“To be at that level, with a president, made me very nervous. The nerves get to you,” she recalled with a laugh. More seriously, he said it's too early to see the results of Obama's decision in 2014 to warm up relations with Cuba.