T&T sweet potato fries deal turns sour

(Trinidad Guardian) The sweet potato fries deal struck between government agency T&T Agri-Business Association (TTABA) and the KFC fast food outlet in T&T has turned sour. The sweet potato fries was to be sold at four KFC outlets initially, and introduced to the other outlets on a phased basis.

However, within days of the July 2011 launch, by then food production minister Vasant Bharath, the main supplier of the fries—TTABA could not deliver to the restaurants after encountering several teething problems. Newly appointed chairman of TTABA Joe Pires admitted TTABA had hit several snags days after going into business with KFC.

Bharath, at the launch of the product at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s, had promised in the presence of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar that the sweet potato fries would be accessible in other KFC outlets on a phased basis. But within a short period, the supply of fries just fizzled.

Bharath had projected in the ministry’s National Food Production Action Plan 2012- 2015 that sweet potato production would increase from 3,150 tonnes to 8,727 by 2013, and to 13,090 tonnes by 2015. T&T consumes seven tonnes of sweet potato annually.

The initiative to serve sweet potato fries at KFC, Bharath had said, was part of the Government’s mandate to first encourage citizens to eat local, which would lead to an increase in local food production and, by extension, to start the process of reducing the $4 billion food import bill.

Why so much hype?

So why was there so much hype at the launch if they knew it could not be sustained? Pires said Bharath was a bit overzealous. “We were excited about it. We didn’t expect to run into technical problems,”?Pires admitted on Wednesday at his San Juan business, Caribbean Chemicals. With TTABA’s newly appointed acting CEO Neil Gosine at the helm, Pires promised to ramp up its sweet potato production to meet KFC’s demands.

Pires said TTABA?was faced with many constraints from the onset. “There were problems from day one because we did not have the quantity of fries, funding, farmers, storage and subsidy.” TTABA?paid the farmers $2 per pound for freshly picked sweet potato, and sold to KFC for 65 cents. “Remember when I buy from the farmer at $2, I have to sell to KFC at 65 cents. Who is paying or absorbing that $1.35 cents.

“The price that they wanted we could not buy from the farmers at that price. At the end of the day, if we get funding to subsidise the cost…it will help T&T.” Pires said TTABA?needs to cultivate 3,000 acres of sweet potato in order to adequately supply KFC. He said that they have the land, farmers’ backing and capacity to undertake the task.

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