Essequibo, says Deleep Singh, who has been President of the regional Chamber of Commerce since 2016, has adjusted reasonably quickly to its rice industry’s loss of Venezuela’s PetroCaribe market. He believes that what had been, for a protracted period, easy access to a huge market may have lulled the farmers into a false sense of security, even in some instances, complacency. “The loss of that market came as a shock to the farmers,” he says.
All that, however has had to change. Adversity has brought about adjustment. The farmers are persisting with rice but they are seeking ways of reducing cultivation costs. There is even evidence of greater mechanized farming. The Chamber President feels that the rice farmers’ failure to diversify in times when rice was more lucrative was part of the problem. But part of the turnaround has included a change from the condition where the payment for paddy given on credit to the millers had become a problem. Payments have been forthcoming and the farmers have been able to make some headway in beginning to settle some of their considerable debts. The commercial banks, Singh says, have been patient with the farmers and that has helped them to structure their debt repayments.
More than that, there has been some measure of diversification. More rice farmers are now pursuing cash crop farming though he hastens to add that the rice industry is by no means on the wane. More than 35,000 acres are still being cultivated on the coast.
Himself a farmer – 1974-76 Best Graduating Student from the Guyana School of Agriculture, Singh is also the holder of a Bsc. Degree in Dairy Production from the Louisiana State University. He believes that farming, not least rice farming, can be much more of a success if more farmers were familiar with some of the orthodoxies of entrepreneurship. In some instances, he says, even basic record-keeping can be a problem. “We need a greater appreciation of the importance of record-keeping. There is an indifference there. I believe that the younger more educated generation who opt to remain in the rice business would have that appreciation.”
Part of the responsibility of what he says is an Essequibo Chamber of Commerce in ‘recovery mode’ is to help provide that orientation. More than that he is, he says, cognizant of the importance of building bridges with the state sector. He believes, for example that NAREI has an important role to play in the growth of the agricultural sector. He is, he says, satisfied with the Chamber’s relationship with the Ministry of Business though the bureaucracy associated with getting things done at the central government level has caused him to advocate that an ‘all purpose’ state agency, offering a scaled down version of all of the various key government ministries and departments.
These days an increasing number of Essequibo businessmen appear to be pinning their hopes on coconut cultivation. Their estates are situated mostly in the Pomeroon, the largest coconut-growing region in the Caribbean.
Singh himself has been involved in the coconut industry since 1980. He believes that he has played an important role in the development of the copra industry having been instrumental in the upward adjustment in the price of the commodity from $2.75 per pound in 1984 to $25.00 per pound. These days, he is more concerned with a limited shadehouse operation and with the running of his hotel, the W.D. at Charity.
For all the hype about the coconut industry, Singh says, it remains an industry of fluctuating fortunes. Pomeroon may now be producing around 21 million nuts annually but fluctuating prices can be a challenge. The industry has been boosted by investments from Essequibo businessmen who have fared well in the gold mining industry. Going forward, however, he believes that coconuts could still face challenges associated with external markets.
His recommended solution is the creation of a Coconut Export Board, a facility that can coordinate coconut production to supply a single market though he accepts that such an arrangement will depend on the willingness of the farmers to be part of it. He believes that the Essequibo Chamber can play a pivotal role in the development of the coconut industry.
One of his priorities as President of the Essequibo Chamber, Singh says, is to sell the region’s tourism potential. “We need to be marketing the quiet and tranquility of Essequibo. We need to be promoting its historical sites, its rainforests. These days more people are finding their way to Mainstay. The facility has been significantly upgraded. What we need in the region are better roads and more reliable electricity. The airstrip at Anna Regina is also in need of rehabilitation”, he said.
When we asked Mr. Singh about the prospects for the development of a manufacturing sector in the region he responded that the solution lay in acquiring the technology and the supporting training facilities. With regard to training he is concerned about the need to upgrade the quality of tuition at the Essequibo Technical Institute at which institution he serves as Chairman of the Board of Directors. If the skills that Essequibo needs are to be found he says, then the Institute must take its offerings beyond basic carpentry/joinery and elementary technical skills. “It really is a matter of developing the skills to create a viable manufacturing sector in Essequibo We also need to upgrade the skills of our teachers,” he says, adding that apart from creating the skills needed for a viable manufacturing sector Essequibo will also need to be able to retain those skills.
Then there is a matter of acquiring the technology to support a manufacturing sector. Here, he believes that government can play a role in investing in equipment that will encourage the aggressive pursuit of manufacturing amongst Essequibians.
Essequibo, Singh says, cannot realize its developmental ambitions in the absence of a significantly enhanced electricity generation regime. There is no way that we can compete in the manufacturing sector unless we can significantly bring down the cost of electricity. More reliable, cheaper electricity is critical to the creation of a strong manufacturing sector in Essequibo.”
It is much the same with the Guyana School of Agriculture on the Essequibo Coast, Singh says. “The school needs to produce what the market wants. It can train young entrepreneurs and we can do more practical courses in areas like hydroponics. There is room for those skills in Essequibo.”