The Ramotar administration must wake up and tackle the policy, institutional constraints of the sugar sector head on

Dear Editor,

Agricultural activity accounted for about 30 per cent of GDP in 1991 according to the World Bank.  In 2012 according to the Bank of Guyana the agricultural sector only contributed 22 per cent to GDP.  In spite of this shrinking of the economic contribution the agricultural sector still remains of crucial importance to the socio-economic well-being of rural Guyana, with some 100,000 mouths alone feeding from the sugar belt.

In 1991, the agricultural sector accounted for 48 per cent of merchandise exports and 40 per cent of the employment.  Based on the latest credible estimates, in 2012, the agricultural sector accounted for 32 per cent of the merchandise exports and 30 per cent of the employment.

Although it has lost its place as the primary driver in the Guyanese economy, the importance of the sugar industry cannot be over emphasized, especially from a socio-economic point of view with respect to rural Guyana.  Sugar is intertwined in whether rural parts of Demerara and Berbice do well or not and if rice is added to the equation, all of coastal Guyana.

It is therefore imperative that the Ramotar administration wake up and tackle the policy and institutional constraints of the sugar sector head on, if these 100,000 mouths are to eat.  It is not today that we know that Guyana has a low-lying coastal topography which presents a whole range of challenges concerning the water table and its direct impact on the sucrose content in the sugar cane, yet we continue not to give adequate attention to this key factor that determines whether GuySuCo succeeds or fails.
We have to return to basics.  It was Jock Campbell of Bookers who produced 334,441 tons of sugar in 1960 using three fundamental principles:

(1) an increase in the efficiency in the water system, factory and field; (2) stable prices and (3) an improvement in the human relationship between the managers and the workers.  It is vitally important that GuySuCo accelerate the technological innovations (no we are not talking of Chinese help) and social reform in the sugar belt.  That means mechanization in the field; it means rehabilitation of the factories; it means getting more specialists into the sugar industry; and most importantly, getting the government to drill down into the sugar households and find out what is really keeping them back socially – is it the education system, the health care system, the water distribution system, the roads, access to land, crime, etc?

According to Clem Seecharran’s book Sweetening Bitter Sugar, Jock Campbell as a sugar leader had a mantra – “producing the greatest tonnage of sugar from the smallest acreage in the shortest time at the lowest cost.”

Everything in the industry revolved around achieving this objective; that was their goal and every decision was coin in how it achieved that goal.

Now ask yourself, can Mr Raj Singh, the chairman, motivate the 15,000 cane-cutters to give their all towards such a dream?

Jock Campbell was quoted by Seecharran as stating that the qualities of sugar leaders must include competence and experience to achieve the above objective, while at the same time understanding how and when to access and structure a request for new capital and minimize the cases of hydrological deficiencies.

Campbell was quoted as saying, “One ignores this dismal reality of coastal Guyana at one’s peril.”  But Campbell was not done; he put aside money under the Sugar Industry Rehabilitation Fund to facilitate planning, maintenance and mechanization to reduce the unit cost of production.

Jock Campbell’s intimate knowledge of the industry always brought him to the Venn report which revealed that “every square mile of cane cultivation involves the provision of 49 miles of drainage canals and 16 miles of high-level waterways.  In the Bookers days they had some 5,000 miles of canals and the mileage today is not significantly less.

It was Jock Campbell who reminded us that if we think maintaining the waterways in the sugar belt was expensive we should try neglect, since in his words “trenches left to themselves rapidly silt up and become choked.”

This is a recipe for floods and the associated low sucrose content that feeds directly into the productivity of the industry.  It is all about the size of the production and the productivity level down to the granular level.

Since the Jock Campbell days, the land has not changed and we have to accept the fact that we have to maintain the field and the waterways; we have to flood fallow and we have to rehabilitate our factories.  Unfortunately the biggest distraction to this process is former president Jagdeo’s Skeldon sugar mill.

I firmly recommend that a special team of international sugar professionals from South Africa (they are already there) take over the Skeldon factory and field for a fixed period of time with clear deliverables that will be funded directly by NICIL (the holding company for all state-owned entities) and allow the Guyanese team to fix the rest of the industry.
Honestly, can a human resource manager do all these things?

I am sorry but this post-Jagan imposition on GuySuCo of Mr Raj Singh will not bring confidence to the process of expanding the cultivation, maintaining that cultivation and enhancing the efficiency of the factories.   At the end of the day all Guyanese want a world class sugar industry but there is little hope the post-Jagan PPP has a firm idea of how to execute the technical innovations, enhance productivity in the fields and improve efficiency in the factories to achieve this.

Does GuySuCo have a professional plant pathologist or field agronomist or certified agricultural machinery engineer?  I rest my case.  I am now overwhelmed with classified internal report after report being sent to me by people who really care about the sugar industry, and the more I read and decipher, the more scared I am for those 100,000 mouths that feed from the sugar belt.

These people in the post-Jagan PPP who are in charge of GuySuCo are operating like strategic novices.

As a final point in this letter, I want to personally apologise to Mr Rajaindra Singh, the current Deputy CEO of GuySuCo who is unduly being mixed up with Mr Raj Singh the current Chairman of GuySuCo.  For the record, the person under the microscope is Mr Raj Singh – Chairman of GuySuCo, not the Deputy CEO.

Yours faithfully,
Sasenarine Singh

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