The Stabroek Business has, on quite a few occasions, raised the issue of the constraints affecting the growth of the agro processing sector, not least the inability of cottage industry operators to secure financing for expansion, the scarcity of modern processing infrastructure, which limits agro processing largely to domestic kitchen operations and of course the underdevelopment of the packaging and labelling industry and the impact of these on the competitiveness of local agro produce.
It has to be said that corrective responses to these shortcomings have been painfully slow, a circumstance that calls into question whether or not many of the small-time operators actually qualify as agro processors. The evidence points mostly to weak and fragile operations that are limited to production quantities that are unlikely to satisfy a region in Guyana far less an external market. Of course, there is also the issue of whether some of these would qualify on the grounds of either food safety or product presentation.
The evidence, based on our recent visit to the Guyana Shop, is that there has been some measure of improvement in the area of product presentation. Local agro produce on the shelves of the Guyana Shop tell a story of an enhanced manufacturer sensitivity to the importance of image as a marketing tool. It is our view that over the past two to three years there has been a quantum shift in the quality of packaging and labelling associated with the agro processing industry. Some of this may well be due to criteria set by the Guyana Shop for display goods on its shelves. For the record, we share the view that product qualification for display on supermarket shelves must of necessity include considerations of appearance and presentation.
There is, however, a high price which producers pay for striving for an enhanced level of product presentation. Much of the material – bottles, jars and other containers – must be imported and when the costs of containers and labels are added to production costs, price-setting becomes an issue in terms of the competitiveness of the product.
Sandra Craig, the agro processor featured in this issue of the Stabroek Business finds herself in just such a dilemma. During a recent interview with the newspaper she explained that it costs her around $80,000 to import 200 bottles for the packaging of her flavoured barbecue sauces so that she is essentially a prisoner of high production costs, which, of course, place her in a bind as far as price-setting is concerned.
Some of these costs can of course be offset by successful initiatives that attract lucrative local and overseas markets, allowing for the production and sale of volumes at competitive prices.
When we cast our eyes across the Caribbean what we find is that other territories have mostly done better than us in having their agro processed/manufactured foods accepted on the external market. Jamaica and Grace come easily to mind. The difference here is that in Jamaica there exists a level of diligence among the business sector of Jamaica and the state agencies responsible for product promotion that is altogether absent in Guyana. So that the marketing of Jamaican pepper sauce, ackee and canned beans in the metropolis has succeeded on account of several factors which include significant financial investment, the assertiveness/ aggressiveness of the business sector of Jamaica and the recognition on the part of state agencies that market penetration in North America and Europe converts into expansion of companies and consequential increased employment at home.
There is absolutely no evidence of a sustained sensitivity to those considerations here in Guyana. Of course, the other significant factor that would give a country like Jamaica a distinct advantage over Guyana in terms of marketing goods and services abroad is the high level of visibility and public demonstration of love of country in the diaspora, which is not always evident among Guyanese. Jamaica is known across the world on account of the exploits of the country’s icons like Bob Marley and Usain Bolt. Guyana does not enjoy that luxury.
After almost three years in the business Sandra Craig remains limited to producing less than 200 bottles of her sauces per month for no other reason than the fact that there has been insufficient investment in marketing. In her instance and in many other local instances it is simply a matter of affordability. This is where, we believe there is room for collaborative initiatives involving the producers, the GMSA, the Ministry of Business and the Guyana Office for Investment (GO-Invest) to build capacity specifically in the area of developing a marketing infrastructure from which local agro processors can benefit. Some support is already being provided through the involvement by GO-Invest in supporting representation by local enterprises at overseas trade fairs and cultural events (this month’s Carifesta XIII comes to mind) though the feedback which we have received from many of the participants at these events is that they are not always ideally structured for the sort of product promotion and market identification being sought by producers.
There is, we believe, also a role here for the diaspora in parts of the world where there are high concentrations of Guyanese and Caribbean people. There is no reason why non-Caribbean people couldn’t come to appreciate our local sweets and condiments. Here, collaboration could be extended beyond product promotion and into the realm of local/diaspora partnerships that could make for the growth of existing local operations and increased volumes of production and by extension, sales.
All of this, of course, has to be planned and rolled out in a structured manner and one is not altogether sure whether there has ever been any serious attempt to have the aforementioned stakeholders to put heads together to make it happen, so to speak.
Making it happen depends on cultivating an understanding of where the gaps are then, after getting past the culture of debate and rhetoric to which the state institutions, particularly, have grown accustomed, creating the structures that take the process forward. There are no reliable figures that would lead us to a helpful determination of the employment-generating capacity of an initiative of this kind, but each time you hear stories like Sandra Craig’s, you can’t help wondering what kind of difference a serious and sustained effort on the parts of those institutions that are positioned to do so, can make.