The next big thing

In our Tuesday edition, we ran a column by Miami-based Argentinian writer Andres Oppenheimer in which he bemoaned the lack of innovation emanating from Latin America and the Caribbean. According to Oppenheimer, a study done by Cornell University’s College of Business, INSEAD – known as the World Business School, and the United Nations’ World Intellectual Property Organization found that, “African, Eastern European and Southeast Asian countries are doing much better than Latin America when it comes to modernizing their economies and producing more sophisticated goods and services that help their economies grow faster.”

Oppenheimer quotes from the report: “The region’s innovation rankings have not significantly improved relative to other regions in recent years, and no country in Latin America and the Caribbean currently shows any innovation outperformance relative to its level of development.” He then asks the question: “Why is it that a region with so many talented individuals cannot excel in innovation?” Why indeed?

It is sad, but a fact nevertheless, that many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Guyana included, are in a situation where net imports far outweigh net exports, so much so that it is hurting the economies of those countries. Yet the madness reigns unchecked.

We can point fingers at all of our neighbours, but Guyana is a prime example of a country where there is a wealth of talent and resources, a dearth of innovation, and a penchant for copycatting and catching up with the rest of the world. Our baby boomers would have grown up learning that the country’s economy was based on the production of sugar, rice, bauxite and later gold. Rice and sugar were the major exports. For years there had been talk of diversifying in terms of planting other crops as well as making eco-tourism an income earner. Well this is the generation of the millennials and baby boomers are now grandparents. What has changed? Not much and a lot.

With all the writing on the wall as regards the decline of sugar, there was still a frenzied push to make it work and attempts to spend down the failures. It amounted to throwing good money after bad. Stiff competition on the world market has also affected rice, though to a lesser extent. Current sentiment seems to want to send spending on rice down sugar’s rabbit hole. Bauxite is in foreign hands and not doing well, nor is gold as with everything else, its fortunes and future depend on the world market. Guyanese have talked globalization for years with few attempts to walk it.

In terms of eco-tourism, it has not taken off as it ought to, because it has never had the support given to the traditional industries. In any case, today’s best practices are a sure sign that this industry should remain outside of government’s hands. With regard to other crops, again, there is no massive income earner, possibly because many farmers are too afraid to step outside of the wishing and hoping box. However, there has been moderate success with coconuts as this fruit and its byproducts, particularly water, oil and milk, are a large part of the current global health-food craze. Unfortunately, none of it was driven by Guyana; this country is in fact late to the game and playing catch-up.

Another prime recent example is the plantain chip factory at Leguan that was started under the previous administration, completed under the current one and may soon begin production. Farmers on the island who spoke with this newspaper’s reporter last week, were enthused at the imminent opportunity to sell their produce right there. That is all well and good, but is there no one who thought: Why a chip factory? What else can we do with plantains? Because it cannot have escaped anyone’s notice that there are about a dozen brands of plantain chips already on the market – quite a few of which are imported – in addition to the ubiquitous plantain chip seller on practically every corner.

On Sunday last, we published a story about a young US-based Guyanese entrepreneur, who having already invested in producing coconut oil, moved to utilize the shells she saw polluting the Pomeroon River to make coconut charcoal. It may be a first for Guyana, but coconut charcoal has been blowing up the global beauty and health industries as a natural teeth whitener, facial mask, skin cleanser, anti-toxin and bloating and hangover cure, among other things. If Guyanese stay true to form, Danielle Hodge may soon find that she has competition for the use of coconut shells.

But surely we can do better than becoming a nation of ‘follow-mes’. One would like to think that somewhere in a garage, backyard, bottom house or laboratory, there are Guyanese working on developing the next big thing. Something that the world has not yet seen, rather than a copy of someone else’s original; something that will put Guyana on the map and make the rest of the world take notice. At the same time, one hopes too that children are being encouraged to be innovators, despite the education by rote that is still par for the course.