We need to significantly strengthen a weak agro-processing sector

Last week the Stabroek Business  reported on what appeared to us to be a somewhat unusual though not unique increase in the volume of greens, vegetables and fruit on the urban retail market and what appeared to be, at a certain point, a condition in which, even what in most instances were ‘bargain’ prices, supply appeared to outstrip demand. By last weekend it seemed that consumers had bought all that their disposable income and storage capacity could afford so that even though the vendors were offering what, under normal circumstances could be considered to be ‘bargains’ in some categories of fruit and ‘veg’ they were complaining that the only takers were consumers who have limited storage space and were therefore buying only what they needed for their kitchens over the next few days.

As time went by, the evidence of the trucks arriving at market each day with freshly reaped consignments of food made it obvious that a great deal of spoilage and dumping was taking place. What we were witnessing was a circumstance in which the sheer extent to which greens and vegetables, particularly, had been cultivated over a limited period, had created a glut in the marketplace.

We never tire, of course, of insisting that our agriculture sector produce more and that government, through its various tiers of extension services to the sector continue to make it possible to maximize production. The problem is, of course, that the situation becomes counterproductive when supply outstrips demand and when the farmers, the vendors, or both suffer what in some instances are heavy losses as a result of inevitable dumping.

There is, as well, the folly of us designating ourselves the potential food basket of the region in circumstances where – for an assortment of reasons the details of which cannot be properly ventilated in this editorial – we are unable to move the oversupply to the regional market. Here, one must make the point that buyers from the region, particularly Barbados, find their way into our municipal markets to purchase (admittedly limited) quantities of fruit like watermelon and tomato at prices that are unlikely to obtain elsewhere in the region for use in the hotel and food industries. But then the volume of those purchases is limited which, of course, still leaves us with the problem of oversupply and spoilage.

The problem here, of course, is not a new one; and it is, as well, not a case of us not being aware of what the solution is. To understand the problem we have to go back to what has been the absence of structured linkages between the agricultural and the manufacturing sectors or, more specifically, our failure   to create a manufacturing sector that takes account of the volumes of our agricultural production.

It is, of course, not just a matter of establishing factories and processing and packaging value-added fruit and vegetables that can withstand the scrutiny of the external market but also of competing in what has become an increasingly demanding marketplace. These things we have manifestly failed to do over the years. What we have done instead, for the most part, is to parade our potential in the political realm carrying on relentlessly about just how well-positioned we are to take advantage of the wider market for our agricultural produce whilst presiding over one undercooked initiative or the other to build a sufficiently substantial manufacturing base to support our agricultural sector and boost our farm exports.

It is not as though there have not been a few local forays into agro-processing and even a few reasonably successful ones. The real question has to do with whether all the discourse about the desirability of building an agro-processing base has brought us anything remotely close to the desired outcomes. Instead it has become politically convenient to make vacuous pronouncements about the virtues of pursuing manufacturing in circumstances where there is rarely if ever any meaningful follow-up. Indeed, what we already know is that our fanciful ambitions in the realm of agro-processing and subsequent exporting to the region and beyond is not matched by the actualization of a level of growth in the sector that matches those ambitions.

For example, after more than a decade we are still in the process of having seminars and workshops (with a good deal of external support) where we discuss things like where the most efficient processing equipment can be had, how to we raise our standards of labelling and bottling to a level where our agro processed exports can stand up to the scrutiny of display shelves on foreign markets. The point to be made here is that we need to move as quickly as we can beyond the stage of the seminars, the training and the rhetoric and (utilizing our agricultural produce) begin to produce high-quality manufactured foods for regional and extra-regional markets, taking account, of course, of the continually rising food safety standards that obtain abroad.

All of this, it seems, requires a greater measure of official intervention to a level where the institutional arrangements including more generous state support for the manufacturing sector. All things considered, agro processing, on the whole, remains, by and large a semi-cottage industry. That has to change. We need a significantly expanded measure of state support (in much the same way that there is a state support infrastructure in the rice industry) so that potential investors, both farmers and manufacturers can feel secure in making the kinds of investments that they will be required to make if the sector is to become a major money earner for the economy.

Arguably what the sector needs as much as anything else is the creation of an institutional direction in order to address issues like coordination between the farmers and the manufacturers, the identification and acquisition of equipment for manufacturing centres (factories), accelerated training in significantly upgraded food safety standards in the production process, labeling and packaging and guidance and support in pursuit of marketing initiatives that provide our products with the best possible access to the external (including the diaspora) market. Mind you, we cannot afford to wait for another ten years to have these institutional arrangements fall into place.




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