The weaknesses in the local agro-processing sub-sector have, over the past year or two, secured increasing traction as a talking point at various fora. This has to do, mostly, with two considerations. The first is the increasing numbers of ordinary Guyanese who have now turned to agro-processing as a means of making a living and the obvious further growth potential. The second has to do with the obvious potential which agro-processing has as a money-earner for local small businesses and of course there is the larger money-earning potential that reposes in the export market, both intra- regional and beyond. All of this is, we need to remind ourselves, just potential.
The current discourse on the deficiencies of the agro-processing sector has to do mostly with how to get our locally produced agro-processed products to realize standards of product quality and presentation that would allow them to hold their own on the more demanding end of the local market and on the even more demanding international market. Much of this concern derives from the fact that a great many of our small agro-processors simply lack the resources to invest in the kinds of initiatives that would add value to their products and make them more market-ready though it has to be said that there are a few reasonably successful exceptions to this rule.
This has to do, in part, with the failure of both government and up until relatively recently, the GMSA to show any aggressive interest in significantly taking agro processing forward. This, notwithstanding the fact that countries right here in the hemisphere – Brazil, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic are good examples – have invested heavily in the infrastructure necessary to build a strong agro-processing base, thus rendering the technology relatively easily accessible to us. Both government and the private sector have failed, over the years to aggressively investigate securing access to accessible technology associated with the food processing industry.
Then there is of course the old story of the inherent conservativism of the commercial banks, untrusting as they have been, over the years, of the small business-orientation of the vast majority of the agro-processing sub-sector, which of course means that there has not, over the years, been sufficient funding coming from the banking sector for any really meaningful investment in the significant growth of agro-processing…though the point should be made that the posture of commercial banks to lending to the small business sector has been gradually changing in recent years.
No discourse on the viability of local small business enterprises, particularly in circumstances where export markets are being targeted, can ignore the continual raising of the safety and health-related food standards bar by countries offering what are potentially the most lucrative markets. One might add that it is a pity that an official decision to create a proper facility to house the Government Analyst Food & Drugs Department has come only after developments like the United States’ Food Safety Modernization Act appear to have finally driven home to us the reality that countries offering the biggest markets for imported foods are serious as far as food safety standards are concerned.
What this newspaper has discovered based on conversations with several agro-processors is that a great many of them are self-taught and would require some amount of institutionalized training if they are to raise their game. The severe local shortage of training skills raises the issue of looking outwards. Here, account must be taken of the need to extend such training to interior communities (particularly women) where agro processing continues to emerge as an important source of income.
One need hardly make the case for an acceleration of collaboration between government and the private sector in order to take agro processing forward. Talk about making available a sizeable plant that could lift agro-processing out of the domestic kitchen environment in which much of it is taking place ought, at this juncture, to be significantly elevated on the scale of important issues. That, coupled with training for agro-processors aggressively on the issues of labeling and packaging, creating the linkages between the farmers and the agro–processors and ensuring that quality assurances are provided to both the local and international markets can make a difference to the extent of providing at least a few thousand jobs across the country, which will make a considerable difference in our circumstance of high unemployment.
Insofar as financing is concerned, it is not just the commercial banks but state-run institutions like the Small Business Bureau that must begin to focus even more attention on financing and training in the agro-processing sub-sector. Local agro-processors, by their persistent turnout at local and external trade fairs and exhibitions – even in circumstances where the returns continue to be modest – have more than made a case for greater attention from state institutions, the lending sector and Business Support Organizations. They are yet to get the help that they need.