Time to push value-added agriculture

Over the years there have been exhaustive discussions on the country’s failure to maximize its returns from the various raw materials including, particularly, timber, fruits and vegetables  on account of its lack of attention to the importance of adding value to those products  The truth is that setting aside a few notable exceptions – Precision Woodworking is perhaps one example that comes easiest to mind – neither the government nor the private sector has paid any really significant attention to adding value to the raw materials that we produce. Indeed, if anything, economic activity in the area of value-added has been occurring mostly in the small and micro business sector, notably, among handicraft producers and retailers of pickles, jellies and other condiments.

In most cases when this newspaper has sought  to give some  publicity to these ventures we have found that the small, underfunded nature of their operations mean that they continue to fall short of one or another regulation associated with – for example – the manufacture of processed foods, a circumstance which, for obvious reasons, has made them more than trifle publicity-shy.

The fact that the vendor retailing pepper sauce or achar on the pavement outside any of the municipal markets cannot afford to meet the standards of packaging and labeling that the international market demands,  is a time-worn dilemma  for the agro-processing sector and one which neither the government nor the private sector has done much to address.

True, there are the occasional seminars and workshops to deal with some of the issues associated with adding value to raw materials but it has to be said that – perhaps the odd exception apart – these initiatives have not come even remotely close to creating a heightened level of sensitivity to developing an agro-processing sector that can better take advantage of the potential gains of adding value to raw materials.

This week both Agriculture Minister Robert Persaud and Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Chandradat Chintamani alluded to the critical role that value-added can play in increasing the returns to the agricultural and agro-processing sectors. The Minister’s remarks on the subject, made at a small business forum organized by EMPRETEC, spoke to the need to have small and micro businesses use their resources and the training to further refine their skills and increase the level of their productivity in areas of economic activity where value is added to raw materials.

Part of the problem with these pronouncements and initiatives, of course, is that there is very rarely any serious attempt at the kind of follow up that looks at (for example) financing the equipment and machinery necessary for the manufacturing component of value-added pursuits, or the support and exposure associated with things like packaging and labelling, two of the elements that add further value to the manufactured products.

And then of course there is the importance of linking local manufacturers to external market information through which they can come to a fuller understanding of just how much there is to be gained from adding value to raw materials.

Recently, this newspaper learnt that the GCCI and the United States Embassy in Georgetown are currently working on a project which, we understand, seeks to link local farmers with markets, technical help and possible financial assistance in order to help them better develop their enterprises along orthodox business lines. It would do a lot of good if this initiative pays more than passing attention to the agro-processing sector and its value-adding potential.

Given the size of the country’s agricultural sector and the huge potential for the further expansion of that sector, there is really no good reason why we have failed to develop a strong agro-processing sector that can add value to our agricultural produce.
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Seminars and conferences on agro-processing and value-added have invariably led nowhere as both the private sector and the government continue to pay scant attention to the investment in equipment, training and research necessary to kick-start a genuine interest in adding value to raw material.

And while some small and micro businesses have evinced an interest in value-added products, the truth of the matter is that they are far too small and far too weak to go it alone.

If the truth be told we have now reached a juncture where policy pronouncements about the virtues of value-added amount to little more than so much waffle in circumstances where there is no real evidence of a preparedness to take the process forward in a manner that can make a significant difference to the country’s economy.

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