Packaging deficiencies bar access of local produce to overseas markets

Few of the hundreds of local small producers in the food, drink and condiments subsectors turned up at last month’s seminar on packaging and labelling, though they needed to be there if they were to become aware of just how far away they are from realizing their dreams of lucrative overseas markets.

At a basic level packaging provides a convenient way for customers to transport products while labelling helps with product identification. Beyond these functions, particular types of packaging and labelling appeal to consumers who may prefer a product brand because of its particular package features.

In metropolitan countries where food safety regulations pay close attention to packages that better prolong shelf life manufacturers are known to engage in what are often costly collaborative initiatives with researchers to produce the right types of containers. Consumer pressure is also compelling manufacturers to become more aware of allergens in certain foods, hence labels offer warnings about the presence of ingredients like wheat, milk, yeast and soy.

  Pandama wine display
Pandama wine display

What also interests manufacturers is the role that packaging and labelling plays as product-positioning tools. These days, consumers seeking premium brands often recognize them from the packaging and labelling. Premium packaging can also represent prestige for customers.

The seminar was hosted by the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI) and delivered by the Jamaican marketing firm Prism Communications. Prism Managing Director Beverley Hirst believes that regional manufacturers seeking to do well on global markets need to raise their game considerably as far as packaging and labelling are concerned. “It’s either that or they pay the price in failure,” Hirst told Stabroek Business.

Some of the handful of medium-sized local manufacturers at the Pegasus forum appeared taken aback by the cost and complexities associated with high-level packaging and labelling. As it happens, consumers in the major markets of the north are preoccupied with presentation. As the old advertising adage goes “image is everything.” On the whole, most of our local producers are still light years away from grasping the concept.

Devon Gilead, the owner of the micro enterprise known as Nature Gift had gone to the Pegasus event hoping to get closer to finding the packaging that would get his products closer to the overseas markets he seeks. No one questioned the quality of the honey, soaps and candles, beeswax, hairdressing pomade and honey-roasted nuts produced at his home at Islington, Corentyne, but there appeared to be plenty of concern that in their present, unpackaged state not only would they not travel well but were unlikely to make the shelves of even the more modest North American outlets. During a subsequent interview with Stabroek Business Gilead admitted that the Pegasus event had been a sobering experience.

  Locally packaged seasonings
Locally packaged seasonings

Marva Hestick did not attend the forum. Her modest enterprise, Alpha Manufacturing produces a range of food seasonings and a point has been reached where even her local market is constrained by the difficulties associated with securing the right containers for her products. When Stabroek Business spoke with her earlier this week, Hestick said local sales were being badly affected by the fact that Alpha had been unable to secure 250 ml glass bottles in order to meet consumer demand for smaller quantities of seasonings. At the moment only 500 ml bottles are available. And according to Hestick, Alpha’s customers “are complaining” about the quality of the plastic bags in which its plantain chips are sold. “We desperately need a sturdier bag,” she told this newspaper. Prior to the Prism Communications seminar Stabroek Business had spoken with Carlene Kartick, an East Coast Demerara producer whose sweetmeats—predominantly tamarind balls, fudge and sugar cake—had been unable, for want of adequate packaging, to get into supermarkets. Kartick had told Stabroek Business that her business had always been limited to roadside vending since her packaging had never really been able to get past grease-proof paper wrapping. She conceded that she was running a hand-to-mouth enterprise.

When presented with a package of tamarind balls imported from Thailand, Kartick seemed amazed that the manufacturers would go to that level of trouble to present what she considered to be such a basic product.

Lois Rickford, the owner of South American Coco, manufactures Virgin Coconut Oil and soaps from coconuts. She has worked as hard on her packaging and labelling as she has on refining her products and it is beginning to pay dividends. Her high-quality bottling and labelling has begun to attract modest but promising markets in some Caricom territories including neighbouring Suriname and Jamaica. Her coconut oil has also attracted attention on the United States market. Packaging for her soaps remains a work in progress and though she is satisfied with the product presentation of her coconut oil she is constantly on the lookout for improvement.

Rickford says that packaging and labelling could “run you” as much as 40 per cent of overall production costs in some cases. “You really have little choice if you want to attract the high-end market,” she says. What has made her constant quest for improved packaging and labelling meet with a measure of improvement is her constant search on overseas markets for more attractive bottles and her diligent local investigation into the official concessions available on importation of containers for the packaging of locally-produced goods.

The single largest variety of locally produced food and beverage products in a single space is to be found at the Guyana Marketing Corporation’s Guyana Shop at the corner of Robb and Alexander streets in Georgetown. One of the aims of the Guyana Shop is to provide market exposure for locally manufactured goods. Where possible, the facility also helps manufacturers find markets abroad.

Perusing the shelves of the Guyana Shop provides a fair idea of the quality of packaging and labelling produced locally. Limited access to bottles means that there is an external similarity to the appearance of most of the locally-produced condiments on display. Labelling also reflects near similar colour and style characteristics. While on the whole the quality of many of these products might meet with customer approval, their presentation does not seriously rival that of similar high-end imports. At the lower end of the spectrum the Guyana Shop accommodates packaged seasonings, many presented in fragile plastic bags with substandard labels. Many of these types of products are unlikely to meet the requirements for entry into North American supermarkets.

Last year, Manager Kevin Macklingham had said that the Guyana Shop served as a kind of incubator that sought, simultaneously, to provide local products with exposure to the market whilst setting minimum packaging standards to which the manufacturing sector could aspire.

Warren Douglas, co-owner, along with his wife Tracy of the Pandama brand, which produces a range of fruit wines that have caught on locally and on the regional market, believes that the application of innovativeness can go a far way towards overcoming much of the problem. While acknowledging that “product packaging is the single most significant challenge facing Guyanese manufacturers” Douglas says that not only is “the cost differential hardly back-breaking” but that “a little imagination” can go a long way towards meeting and overcoming this challenge. “We at Pandama have found that the extra investment translates directly into increased sales. We have actually recently had to put shelf plaques in Bounty, DSL and our other retail establishments because many consumers were of the opinion that our presentation was that of a foreign [import],” Douglas says. He adds that while, “unfortunately, more times than not, our local products do look inferior in quality, we can reverse this trend if retailers insist on minimum quality standards.”

Local container manufacturers Caribbean Container Inc’s (CCI) Managing Director Patricia Bacchus told Stabroek Business in a recent interview that part of the focus of the company is on broadening the range of packaging options for local exporters. An investigation of the local export market suggests that more fresh fruit and vegetables and seafood exports, particularly to North America are on the radar of several local businesses though business owners are becoming increasingly aware of the packaging challenges that could stand in the way of their ambitions. Bacchus believes that CCI can help. The company’s line of cardboard containers which includes ventilated fresh produce packaging can meet the needs of exporters of fruit and vegetables and can also facilitate the cold storage requirements of the local seafood industry. Interestingly, Bacchus says that the company is also prepared to work with smaller businesses that are unable to afford to place orders for large quantities of custom-built and custom-printed packaging.

Still, insofar as packaging and labelling are concerned, most local manufacturers aspiring to secure a firm foothold on the North American market have a long road to travel.

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