The Sophia Business Exposition and beyond

There was an encouraging sense of entrepreneurship amongst many of the vendors who placed their goods on display at last month’s first ever Small Business Exposition. Perhaps the most encouraging sign was the evidence presented during the three-day event that the small manufacturing and creative industries are beginning to find their feet. Guyanese, notably women and some previously unemployed, are beginning to take the plunge into business, investing their savings and engaging commercial banks and other loan agencies to get off the ground.

What was put on display at Sophia – particularly in the craft and clothing sectors – suggested that our creative industries are in a pretty healthy place as far as talent and ingenuity are concerned. The real challenges have to do with investment capital and with marketing. Most of the vendors with whom we spoke pointed out that their expansion plans are limited to their access to capital for growth and to the limited marketing opportunities afforded them.

In the case of marketing, last month’s Business Exposition is the kind of event that allowed the small business sector to breathe – so to speak – insofar as it offered a one-off exposure and marketing opportunity. And yet it is clear that if the small business sector is to grow market opportunities can no longer be available few and far between. Opportunities for vendors to place their produce on a fairly large market must become far more frequent and must be distributed across the country rather than being located strictly at Sophia. Not only do we need a significantly strengthened Product Display Secretariat inside the Ministry of Business but we also need a service that mobilizes our small businesses and readies them for the market.

Of course, not enough is likely to come out of this effort if the market remains as small as it is and if our creative people continue to have to compete with imports particularly in the areas of food and fashion. Without compromising our commitment to allowing access to imports, therefore, there is need to find ways of providing advantageous access to locally produced goods. There is, for example, simply not enough opportunity for our local clothing and jewellery designers – the ones who are now coming through, that is – to access the wider market. The Ministry of Business can help there too.

To return to the issue of their size of the local market, the reality is that the goods that we produce locally must attract patronage outside of Guyana if the businesses are to expand. This is where exposure to regional and international markets through trade shows come in. Here, participation is largely limited to those producers who can afford the costs associated therewith. We are yet to come to understand with sufficient clarity whether the period ahead will see the emergence of a re-energized Guyana Office for Investment that will continue to facilitate subsidized participation for local producers in international trade fairs though that might be one of the outlets through which more local goods might reach external markets.

We are probably not likely – for many years – to have a better opportunity to market Guyana and what it has to offer on a much wider scale than next year’s 50th anniversary of the country’s independence. How the event is planned and executed will almost certainly be used as at least a partial yardstick with which to measure the performance of the political administration. If we can use the opportunity of our independence anniversary to attract positive attention to Guyana and by extension to attract more visitors to our shores, we will be creating a larger market for what we produce. The craft, clothing and agro processing sectors could be handed a once in a lifetime opportunity to create worthwhile and sustainable relationships with Guyanese residing overseas. Our 50th Independence Anniversary programme is therefore an aggressive initiative to market what we produce across Guyana, the region and further afield with a view to significantly enhancing the global visibility of what we produce and increasing our market share.

One of the reasons why we can make no profound pronouncements about the success or otherwise of the Business Exposition is because we are yet to see any post-event evaluation from the Ministry of Business. When that comes, hopefully, we will be better positioned to make a judgment. Our own limited feedback based on coverage of a limited number of booths at the event suggests that there is an encouraging level of interest in much of what was on display at the Expo among visitors. How effectively we can put vendors and potential customers together is one way of measuring the success of the event.

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