These past three weeks have witnessed the opening of two of the largest supermarkets ever to be launched locally, and there is a sense in which the officially acknowledged slowdown in the economy notwithstanding, the two multi-million dollar investments point to evidence of an encouraging measure of local investor confidence, never mind the apprehension reflected in the post-budget responses by the country’s major business support organizations.
Both Mr Harry Mattai, proprietor of the massive Mattai Food Market and Mr Roy Beepat, CEO of the popular Giftland Mall that now houses a supermarket trading under the name of Food Maxx have, in turn, made a significant commitment, which, in our circumstances, cannot be allowed to pass without comment. The point should be made, of course, (and both businessmen have made this point) that the initiatives are in fact, investments in a future that they are backing as of now.
Messrs Mattai and Beepat have both publicly stated that they are eager to have the respective supermarkets display for sale a certain amount of ‘local content’ (admittedly a somewhat over-used phrase in Guyana, of late) which is another way of saying that they are prepared to use their two high-end outlets as a means of popularizing and creating new potential markets for manufactured goods, fresh agricultural produce and agro-processed foods.
In the case of Mr Mattai, he told the Stabroek News in an interview a few days after the new Food Market was opened that he had already begun to engage local manufacturers and farmers and when we visited the supermarket there was a fair degree of evidence to show that quite a few deals had already been struck. In the instance of Mr Roy Beepat, he said in an address during the ‘soft’ opening of Food Maxx on Sunday that the facility would not only be throwing open its freezers and its shelves to local agricultural and agro-produce, but would also be utilizing what, in the circumstances, is the significant advantage of Giftland’s independent power supply to engage in some measure of food processing of its own, with particular emphasis on providing options in terms of both quality and variety where meat and fish are concerned.
One should add, of course, that Messrs Mattai and Beepat have each, in their separate ways, attached to their expression of preparedness to work with local manufacturers and agro-processors, the caveat that, first, product quality and, secondly, labelling and packaging standards will the critical criteria for the promised shelf and freezer access. That is as it should be, since given the competition that local products will have to endure from the high level of imports currently on the market, quality and presentation compromises that threaten to undermine whatever standards the two supermarkets might set for themselves, could mean that they will end up doing no more than taking up space.
The pronouncements of the two businessmen are a challenge to the business sector, more particularly to agro-processors. They are, as well, a challenge to government. Indeed, it is encouraging to note that all of this is happening at a time when there is “high-level” discourse between the GMSA top brass and a government delegation that includes the Ministers of Finance and Business, among others, although it might be noted it is the outcome rather than the process, per se, that counts.
This newspaper has learnt that arising out of the high level engagements has been an idea mooted by the GMSA and shared with us by one of its officials, regarding seeking support from government (what type of support is unclear) to have imported into the country a multi-purpose food-processing factory that can respond meaningfully to the need of small manufacturers. Here, the point should be made that the country’s failure to emulate much of the rest of South America in investing far more significantly in food processing and manufacturing is really without any acceptable excuse, particularly in view of the opportunities to take advantage of the significant capacity afforded by our proximity to Brazil.
One of the significant developments in the manufacturing sector – and here there is considerable evidence that small manufacturers have benefited – has been the marked improvement in the standards of labelling. Here it has to be said, however, that product presentation still ranges from one extreme to the other, so that if product acceptance in high-end supermarkets depends largely on product presentation, then that means a lot of small businesses would need significant help or otherwise they would be excluded. That is as much a challenge for the government as it is for the private sector, and even more concessions that allow for the further strengthening of manufacturing and agro-processing capacity is something that the government might wish to take seriously.
Here, it should be said, of course, that issues of product quality and product presentation as criteria for access to high-end supermarkets will apply similarly to fresh fruit and vegetables, which is in itself a value-added challenge to farmers.
All of these will require a collective effort on the part of the producers, be they farmers or manufacturers, as well as government to complement the commitment to providing what is in fact an opportunity to significantly heighten the profile of local produce not only for the purpose of better readying themselves for the major supermarkets but as well to better position them for access to regional and international markets. In circumstances where a real window of opportunity may be opening up for our long underperforming manufacturing and agro-processing sub-sectors, this is not an opportunity that should be missed.