Import substitution

Earlier this week we received some uplifting news from the agricultural sector, through the National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute (NAREI) regarding a breakthrough in the cultivation of some crops not previously known to have been cultivated on a sustained basis in commercial quantities in Guyana, including onion and potato. Any initiative in Guyana’s agricultural sector that might help reduce the country’s food import bill is important though the onion and potato breakthrough are worthy of particular mention. This, if only because they are both an important part of the diet of Guyanese, have over the years accounted for a significant portion of the country’s food import bill and at one stage having been subjected to an import ban at a time when economic circumstances led to a decision by the then political administration to ration foreign exchange.

In the case of potatoes, particularly, the ban failed to remove it completely from the local diet. What happened was that illegal importation flourished.   More than that, and perhaps ironically, the People’s National Congress which had instituted the ban, itself encouraged experimentation with potato cultivation, though that pursuit was largely unsuccessful.

Fast forward to 2017 and now it seems that with the support of the World University Service of Canada (WUSC)- funded Promotion of Regional Opportunities for Produce through Enterprise Linkages (PROPEL), an important breakthrough has been made in potato (and onion) cultivation locally. A measure of the success of the project is to be seen in what NAREI refers to as “long term plans to guide their introduction of their (potatoes and onions) into the cash crop sector.” Production of the named crops, NAREI says, will take place against the backdrop of plans for “the phased reduction of the importation of the commodities.” This, in itself, is a profound and encouraging statement though we must monitor carefully the pace of implementation of those undertakings.

While we have no particularly accurate figure for the annual monetary value of potato and onion imports the evidence in terms of the volumes purchased in local markets suggests that it amounts to millions of dollars and the fact that those amounts can now be used for some alternative positive purpose ought surely to bring a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment and satisfaction to the Government of Guyana, the agricultural sector and the commercial sector as a whole. Setting aside the fact that, on the whole, our previous feeble efforts at import substitution have met with little real success, the successful cultivation of onions and potatoes creates an additional farming option for local farmers including farmers in hinterland Guyana while the distribution of these commodities creates further trading opportunities for the trading sector. The increased availability of potatoes and onions also opens up further scope for both the culinary and agro-processing industries and holds some measure of export potential. Of course, if it turns out that we can offer locally grown potatoes at affordable prices then that creates, as well, a food-security advantage.

The point should be made that the breakthrough in potato and onion cultivation on a commercial scale in hinterland communities raises once again the matter of the logistical challenges associated with moving farm produce from the hinterland to the coast. While the large scale production of these crops will help to respond to hinterland food security concerns, improvement in facilities for moving volumes of potatoes and onions to the coast could create significant new economic opportunities in interior communities. Here again, transportation issues open up prospects for both public and private sector investment.

The announcement regarding the agricultural sector’s success in realizing the large-scale production of potatoes and onions after decades of promises of import substitution also provides further evidence of the importance of the role that NAREI continues to play in providing scientific and other forms of advice to the sector. Beyond that, the roles of the WUSC and the PROPEL project underscores the important returns that are often derived from bilateral relations.

On the whole, it is a positive development for the agricultural sector and for the country given the attendant issues and challenges that arise therefrom, it would be interesting to see where this takes us.

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