Un-harnessing the potential of agro processing
The recent re-opening of the Guyana Shop inside the completely rebuilt premises housing the New Guyana Marketing Corporation also re-opens a modest window of opportunity for local manufacturers, particularly agro-processors, whose challenges include insufficient adequate outlets through which to market their products.
The shop itself is a modest facility. Its capacity to carry either significant volumes or a sufficiently wide range of products is limited. That apart, operating as it does in a trading space which it shares with Bourda Market, it will have to promote itself aggressively if it is to secure a meaningful share of the market.
The New GMC’s General Manager is quick to point out, however, that the advantages which the shop affords manufacturers go beyond product space on its shelves. He points out that since the New GMC remains active in seeking to connect local producers with overseas markets through its direct engagements with potential buyers, that provides an opportunity for local producers to access regional and extra-regional markets to add to their local clientele.
That brings us to the issue of our manufacturing sector, specifically our agro-processing sector and its limited capacity – for all sorts of reasons – to secure and sustain overseas and sometimes even local markets. Whenever we begin to discuss export possibilities for the agro-processing sector we begin to hit those hurdles that have to do with funding and the various concomitants that include acquiring machinery, affording sustained supplies of raw materials, quality control, product packaging, marketing and consistently supplying the volumes required for export. These are old problems and we are not close to solving them.
If there is something to be said for gathering large numbers of small manufacturers in a single space the event in itself does not do anywhere near enough to take them forward. While some of the smaller enterprises are beginning to recognise the virtues of presentation and marketing in a competitive environment, far too many of them have remained pinned to the floor. Their operations are driven largely by less than efficient manual or semi-manual technology and they lack the training, funding or business savvy to move any further forward. Add to that the thicket of food safety laws – the most recent one being the US Food Safety Modernization Act – which now serve as the most effective non-tariff barrier against food imports into North America and we begin to get a picture of a local agro-processing sector which – in terms of meaningful growth, expansion and increasing regional and global market share – is really going nowhere fast.
Collectively, it does not appear as though we have worked out any kind of overarching approach to consolidating the agro-processing sector. Here, part of the problem appears to repose in the difficulty some of our micro and small agro-processors have had in taking their operations to the next level, creating a business culture that envisages growth beyond manufacturing operations that are limited to a few dozen bottles of pepper sauce or Noni juice that cannot take the operation beyond the subsistence level. These types of operations survive for varying periods though in the vast majority of cases staying afloat becomes a sort of daily grind.
Some survive for a considerably longer period than others though in the vast majority of cases staying afloat becomes a journeyman’s job.
There is no question about Guyana’s potential ability to create a successful agro-processing sector that can compete inside and outside the region. There is also no persuasive evidence up to this time that we are anywhere near to doing so. In fact, evidence deriving from our imports from the region suggests that we are probably being outdone by some of our Caricom partners, including Trinidad and Tobago.
If the fortunes of Guyana’s agro-processing sector are to change we need to acquire a holistic vision for the sector (pockets of producers who lack any real direction beyond the capacity to produce a commodity really cannot take the sector forward) that is led by a commitment on the part of government and lending agencies to invest in the training, technology and marketing without which our agro-processing sector will remain pinned firmly to the floor. This newspaper has said before that there are still far too few funding opportunities for small enterprises with significant growth potential and those enterprises include some in the agro-processing sector. If some hope appears to repose in the advent of the Small Business Bureau and the funding it pledges, these promises continue to take far too long to manifest themselves. The other issue, of course, has to do with whether or not the promulgation of the bureau will be attended by a recognition of the need to pursue initiatives that seek to grow the agro-processing sector as a whole rather than pour disproportionate attention and funding into individual projects that appear to promise much as is so often the case. Here, it is the government, as much as the private sector, that must make the call.