Roopan Ramotar retains a generous measure of optimism about the long-term outcome of his investment in the coconut industry notwithstanding what, up until now, has been his failure to break into the regional coconut water market. His most recent effort, late last year to market his Rooster brand in Trinidad and Tobago now appear to have been extinguished in disappointment, his last shipment having been rejected on food safety grounds.
He holds the view that the sanction placed on the product could be partially a function of the twin-island Republic’s inclination towards protectionist tendencies which both the letter and spirit of the Treaty of Chaguaramas frown upon. More than that, and without delving too deeply into the details of what he says was a soured deal with an unnamed one-time Trinidadian business partner, he does not rule out the possibility that it could have been an act of revenge. The man, he said, had walked away from what had once been an intended partnership brooding and vowing to ensure that the Rooster brand does not take root in that particular coconut market.
Whatever the real reason, Ramotar says that he is yet to be handed a persuasive reason why the shipment of coconut water cleared on safety grounds in both Guyana and Jamaica ended up being black-marked in Trinidad and Tobago and denied marketing clearance there.
At one point he had returned the frozen coconut water to Guyana to place it on the market here. That idea, he says, will be shelved. Having made a decision to cut his losses he is now, he says, focused on properly branding the product here in Guyana.
On Friday, the day that Stabroek Business finally managed to catch up with him, he had travelled to Georgetown to attend the joint Ministry of Business/Guyana Manufacturing & Services Association UncappeD event. The trip was intended to be used as an urban launching pad for the Rooster bottled coconut water and he had brought with him to the city a refrigerated truck laden with coconut water. While we spoke with him the truck was distributing coconut water to persons who had gathered outside the GMC’s Guyana Shop for the UncappeD event. Afterwards, it had set out on a sortie around the capital showing off the product. Ramotar told us that he had already managed to have the coconut water accepted in some supermarkets in the capital and that once he had consolidated the product’s acceptance in Georgetown he was going to target Berbice. In the weeks ahead, he said, the truck would we seen in Georgetown and that he would be undertaking a sort of media-driven popularization campaign aimed at seriously testing the market.
That, he says, is a measure designed both to put the disappointment of failing, up until now, to break into the Trinidad market and to focus on what he says is an initiative to provide the Guyanese market with regular and reliable supplies of high-quality, locally produced coconut water.
A businessman with varied interests, his current preoccupation appears to be with making his mark in the local and regional coconut industry, coconut water, he says, being the start of an initiative that will ultimately take him into the various other coconut by-products. All of this revolves around his 500-acre farm at Hackney Canal in the Pomeroon River which he says is “the best coconut-growing region in Guyana.” The packaging facility for the coconut water is located at Land of Plenty so that the coconuts must be moved by land and water to the factory. The plan, down the road, is to move the factory into the farm “so that whatever money we can save in the processing we can give that to the customer. That means that we can make our product much cheaper and more competitive”.
No ‘numbers’ are offered on the size of the investment; however, the businessman who has invested in, among other sectors the gold mining and construction sectors says that it is a “considerable” investment. “… we recruit about sixty workers. The coconut industry at this point in time is very labour intensive, especially in the bottling of coconut water. You have to cut every coconut individually and examine them for spoilage and cracks.” He explains that the process of bottling must be done quickly and in a controlled (sanitized) environment if spoilage is to be avoided. A freezing facility located at Land of Plenty allows for rapid freezing.
On Friday, having made his coconut water’s presence felt at the UncappeD event Ramotar appeared rather less preoccupied with his travails in Trinidad and Tobago. Still, he does not neglect to make the point about what he regards as the dichotomy between the generous lip service being paid to regional free trade and Guyana’s still limited efforts to claim its fair share of the market and the rejection – without, he believes, no good reason – by Trinidad and Tobago authorities of his Rooster coconut water. Beyond his own considerable losses arising out of the failure of the consignment to ‘make it to market,’ Ramotar believes that the broader implications have to do with the extent to which government is prepared to respond “at the appropriate level” to what he sees as the attempt by a sister CARICOM country to stifle imports from Guyana at a time when there is a huge imbalance in trade between the two countries. Equally importantly, he says, at a time when the global coconut and coconut by-product industry is growing, it could be awkward to have a quality-related stigma settle over the local industry.
Not one, he says, to be taken in by the notion that oil and gas will be the “ultimate salvation” of Guyana, he believes that it would be a serious error to allow the presence of oil to create a drift away from the coconut industry. Not only does he make the point about the ebb and flow of global demand for oil as against the perpetually high demand for food; he also points to the importance of both food security and employment security associated with agriculture and agro-processing in circumstances where there is every evidence that oil will clearly not be a serious employer of Guyanese labour. Then he repeats the point about the value of Guyana taking advantage of the opportunity afforded by the global demand for coconut and its by-products to create a new and potentially lucrative opportunity for a sector in which Guyana has a proven track record…agriculture.