Cuba’s ‘Informal Market’ is Transformed with La Chopi / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mata

Browsing categories or using the search engine, one can find a wide range of products on La Chopi. (La Chopi)
Browsing categories or using the search engine, one can find a wide range of products on La Chopi. (La Chopi)

14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 21 September 2016 — On the shelves of the markets that sell goods in Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) prices have skyrocketed and shortages have become chronic. The problem in the state owned stores – which Cubans call “shopping,” using the English word – is aggravated by the lack of liquidity. In this situation the informal sales networks have found an ally in technology. An application for cellphones created by Cuban developers, facilitates access to the informal market. Its creators have called it, with a certain irony, La Chopi – a Cuban spelling of the word “shopping.”

Conceived for iOS and Android devices, the tool combines practical utility with an attractive and well-maintained design from the young computer expert Pedro Govea. The menu displays the classified ads by category, which range from home appliances to job openings in private businesses.

La Chopi, which is currently distributed free of charge through the Weekly Packet and can also be downloaded from its own website, has built on the experience of other classified sites such as Revolico, which help Cubans in the difficult task of acquiring scarce merchandise, goods that are banned or that aren’t sold in its retail network.

La Chopi’s offerings are some of the most diverse. Unlocked iPhones, masseuses who promise to “relieve stress and recharge your batteries for a hard day’s work,” and from wholesale acrylic nails, to products that have never been marketed in state networks, such as satellite dishes, visas to several Central American countries and Dalmatian puppies.

The application is like a show that goes from the sublime to the ridiculous, covering incunabula two centuries old or drugs to “strengthen muscles,” one more display of the consumer appetite that runs through Cuban society and their desire for the free market.

Most of the information contained in this unique online store comes from the digital site, but it also supports ads that come from users via email or text-only messages (SMS). The objective of its lead programmer, Ernesto Redonet has been “facilitating sales and the promotion of services in Cuba.”

In version 1.9, La Chopi also offers the ability for users to pay for placing advertising for their business or product, whether on the start screen of the application, in one of the categories of offerings, or as a featured ad. This is a trend followed, with fewer and fewer limitations, by classified sites and apps developed on the island.

Developers believe that suspicion of advertising is declining. (La Chopi)
Developers believe that suspicion of advertising is declining. (La Chopi)

“We’ve gone from being afraid of advertising, to everyone wanting to advertise,” says Yusiel Ruiz, a self-taught apps developer for Android who has worked on several projects in the Cuban market. “Cellphones are the technology of the moment, so we focus more on products for phones than for computers,” he says.

In the private audiovisual content market Copy Pack, in Central Havana, users acquire the popular collection of movies, telenovelas, shows and documentaries known as the Weekly Packet. In the packet there is a file that also contains the latest cellphone apps appearing in the market. “La Chopi is really popular,” one of the employees tells 14ymedio.

“Competition is strong because there are a lot of apps with classified ads and promotions for services, but the only ones that will survive will be those offering the most information and the most attractive design,” speculates Yasiel Ruiz, who is working on an app right now for blind dates that will use text messaging to connect possible partners.

With the advent of new technologies, the black market has gone from being a network where trust between buyer and seller was essential to one that is more public and easygoing, like Craigslist. The state has also wanted to participate in this battle for advertising, staring with the publication of a tabloid called “Offerings,” but independent digital sites are still preferred.

La Chopi also reinforces the trend of apps developed by residents of the island, particularly focusing on ones that work off-line, given the difficulty in connecting to the internet. It’s enough to copy the new database every week, also distributed in the Weekly Packet, for the user to get the latest ads.

“The future belongs entirely to the apps,” says Ruiz convinced that the advent of tools like La Chopi “make life easier for everyone.”