In restructuring its sugar industry, Guyana has the advantage of being able to learn from the mistakes and successes of those Caribbean territories that have already completed the process, according to consultant Sharma Lalla.
Lalla, who was the last Chief Executive Officer of the Trinidadian Sugar Company, Caroni 1975 Limited, was in Guyana as part of a team representing one of the three international accounting firms bidding to provide their services to the Special Purpose Unit (SPU) responsible for the divestment and privatisation of some of GuySuCo’s assets.
In an exclusive interview with Stabroek News, he offered his personal opinion on the options available to Guyana going forward.
“I speak as someone who had the experience of winding down a sugar industry and also building a new agricultural diversification company,” Lalla explained. After serving as CEO of Caroni 75 from 1999 to 2001, he returned to the sector as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Caroni Green Limited in 2015.
According to Lalla, hindsight has showed him that Trinidad and Tobago made two big mistakes when it closed the sugar industry—it assumed that sugar workers could become general agricultural workers and it failed to conduct a comprehensive market analysis of diversification options.
“You have to do research and develop based on what the market de-mands. Don’t assume that a sugar cane worker is a general agricultural worker and be prepared to offer him the training and technical support he will need. Every single crop has its own agronomical processes,” Lalla explained.
He noted that 14 years after the sugar industry was wound up in Trinidad, workers are still waiting on the promised residential and farm lands. He stressed that the infrastructural work needed for both provisions was underestimated and has not yet been completed.
To avoid this pitfall, Lalla said Guyana needs to craft a strategic agricultural plan. “If I had a clean slate, I would do a strategic agricultural plan. I would identify what areas are better to plant which crop. This will also be informed by the market demand. Everything has to be market-driven. I would train the people. I would have a pilot project to ensure commercial viability of each crop, I would put in place a network of technical support. I would negotiate with insurance companies and get them crop insurance. We did none of that, we left them on their own so when they [suffered] loss, they failed,” he explained.
His emphasis on market data is a result of his own experience with the cultivation of hot peppers for export to the North American market.
Lalla explained that within two months of him becoming CEO of Caroni Green Limited, a situation developed where the primary supplier of hot peppers to the US, the Dominican Republic, had a pest infestation and its product was banned. “I stopped everything and jumped on that opportunity. We worked day and night to develop the right agronomic practices for that crop and at the end of the day we were exporting more than 95% of what we produced,” he explained.
This meant a lot to the Trinidadian economy, he noted, as not only were they earning foreign exchange but they were also conserving foreign exchange since those companies producing condiments no longer had to import pepper.
He stressed that these simple lessons can make in big difference as Guyana moves to privatise and diversify its agricultural sector. “Why keep making the same mistakes someone else made already?” he asked.