There are a whole host of reasons why Guyana’s agro processing sector has been unable, up until now, to deliver to anywhere near its fullest potential. Most of those reasons have to do with an absence of infrastructure and inventory necessary for producing consistently high-quality products on a sufficiently large scale and possessing the requisite equipment to deliver at the processing/manufacturing end of the overall agro-processing chain. There are other constraints too, like challenges associated with meeting the high food safety standards which, these days, are increasingly associated with export markets and the absence of the quality labeling and bottling requirements associated with effective marketing.
Setting these aside there is the historical indifference of government to making any serious investment in the agro processing sector in terms of inventory for manufacturing. In sum, it remains the case, after decades of debating the virtues of manufacturing that most of our agro-processing efforts come out of kitchens, or else, out of small scale ‘factories’ with strictly limited capacity. Here, two additional things are worth mentioning. First, (and this is not the first time that this is being said) government has made no real effort over the years to take advantage of its various bilateral agreements with other countries in the hemisphere (Brazil is the first one that comes to mind) with significant agro-processing credentials to secure support for the sector here. Beyond that, by continuing to do little to improve the capabilities of the Government Analyst-Food and Drugs Department (GAFDD) to carry out the requisite standards and safety testing associated with affording our agro-processed foods greater access to overseas markets we are certainly doing the sector no favours.
The limitations in terms of access to overseas markets do not, however, apply in anywhere near the same measure to the local market. While the days of indiscriminate barriers to trade are long gone that does not invalidate the case for the more aggressive promotion of local agro-processed goods on the domestic market, the increasing popularity of various types of food imports notwithstanding.
This, as we understand it is the purpose of next weekend’s Uncapped event. It seeks, primarily to bring potential buyers and sellers together in an effort to significantly popularize the wide range of local agro-produce much of which is yet to find its way into the up–market distribution facilities. As we reported in this week’s issue of the Stabroek Business it is likely that more than eighty of our agro processors are expected to show up at Sophia for the Uncapped event and if the expected engagements between those mostly small entrepreneurs and the potential buyers (supermarkets) secure any traction then we would expect to see, hopefully, a higher volume of local agro-produced goods on the supermarket shelves not too far down the road.
As a public/private sector gesture it breaks the absurd monotony of the persistent and pointless cat-sparring that leads nowhere, even though what Uncapped seeks to achieve is not without its challenges. Next weekend’s engagements will have to find ways of tackling issues like raising presentation standards which would mean, among other things, investing more in labeling and packaging; and if serious business between the agro-processers and the various distributors and retailers is to be done, the former are going to have to provide reliable supply guarantees and food safety assurances. And if government is serious about pushing the agro-processing sector there is a role as well for state agencies like the Small Business Bureau (in terms of support financing for agro processing ventures and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in probing the hemispheric possibilities in terms of inventory for processing/manufacturing.
Two points should be made at this juncture. The first is that if the public/private collaborative initiative that spawned Uncapped is allowed to become submerged beneath the persistent rancor that attends relations between the two sides then the effort would have been a waste of time in the first place. Secondly, what Uncapped seeks to do, among other things, is to push local agro-processors to raise their game. They will need help to do so but then they will also need generous measures of enterprise and self-motivation.