Agro–processing on the up and up

If the adage about one swallow not making a summer clearly applies to the recent initiatives by the Government of Guyana and the Guyana Manufacturing and Services Association (GMSA) to attempt to breathe new life into the country’s agro-processing sector, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the recent developments in the sector and what we should be reading into it.

Some background is necessary. The agro-processing sector is one of those areas where progress had come to be measured by the decibel level of the various commitments given, time and again, to take one initiative or another to take the sector forward. Nothing really worked and at the end of the day it has been down to the endeavours of the intrepid producers with their limited and sub-standard capacity, not least the lack of any real marketing skills, to keep the sub-sector going. There has, however, never really been any question about the talents of the producers of the various condiments, fruit drinks and food spices, though most of them were rendered uncompetitive on the market on account of sub-standard packaging and labeling which meant that they failed to meet the standard set by the high-profile local outlets and by the regional and extra regional market.

All of that aside, we have never been able to successfully integrate our farmers and our agro-processors, the net negative effect of that deficiency being that our bountiful harvests of fruit and vegetables have not been able to take full seasonal advantage of our agro processing sector.

The growth of the agro processing sector would also have been retarded by the poor relationship between government and the manufacturing sector and the failure of the two to work together on any really ambitious projects aimed at significantly upgrading local agro-processing capabilities. Government, for example, has failed to utilize its relations with countries in the hemisphere, notably Brazil, with impressive agro-processing credentials to acquire the technology and the training to help the sector to grow. For its part – and for reasons not all of which can be blamed on the sector – agro-processing persisted in a mostly underdeveloped condition where ‘manufacturing’ was confined to domestic kitchens and to crudely created ‘factories’ that simply never met the standard that would fill consumers with a generous measure of confidence.

Beyond GuyExpo, there had not been, up until recently, any real signs of sustained collaboration between the public and private sectors.  With regard to GuyExpo promised attempts to use the event to expand our export market, at least as far as the region, never really came to much nor did the feeble efforts to promote local agro-processed goods, even amongst Guyanese in the diaspora.

On reflection, there is no evidence that successive political administrations have really been putting their backs into first, supporting the improvement of the overseas-market readiness of our products, either by way of investing (as is manifestly the case in other countries in the hemisphere) in factories that would ensure more efficient production, packaging and labeling that would help with market acceptance or funding to support an expansive marketing effort. In other words and barring the lofty public promises and commitments agro-processing had been left largely on its own.

A few things have changed. For a start the new leadership of the GMSA has managed to develop a seemingly more constructive relationship with government, a circumstance that is manifested in the ongoing high-level talks on a broad sectoral agenda between the GMSA leadership led by Association President Shyam Nokta and a government team that includes a number of Cabinet Ministers. Reports from the GMSA, including a recent media release points to progress in a number of areas (including the recent communication to government of a private sector proposal for investment in low-cost agro-processing factories and a more concerted effort to create stronger links between the agricultural sector and its agro-processing sub-sector.

It is, of course no secret  that the growth of the agro processing sector has proceeded in fits and starts, its biggest failing being not only its failure to make any serious impression on the external market but also the fact that it has long surrendered a huge portion of the domestic market to foreign imports. Finding a way to turn that situation around is agro processing’s biggest challenge.

What the two UncappeD events did was to send a signal that the sub-sector is alive and growing and perhaps more significantly that it is now providing a reasonable livelihood for scores of small vendors who, gradually, are transforming themselves from unemployed poor into hopeful entrepreneurs. That, in a country where salaried jobs are hard to find, is a good sign.

The sub-sector still has quite a few mountains to climb. For example, we need to know quickly whether government is inclined to support the GMSA’s request for support with the importation of technology to better facilitate the various manufacturing processes. Decisions will also have to be made on how to create linkages between the various agricultural pursuits in the non-coastal areas of the country and the processing of farm produce into manufactured goods. Marketing our agro produce, both at home and abroad will require significant financing and that will have to come from government. The same protracted official dithering over marketing our tourism product must not be allowed to harness our agro-processing sector for much longer. Packaging and labeling need to be further refined to meet ever rising market expectations and food safety considerations need to loom larger in the production process.  

Like other countries do, we must also press our overseas missions and our contacts in the diaspora even more into becoming aggressive promoters of our agro produce. Somehow, one gets the impression that enough of that is not happening in this area. It is time that our much vaunted economic diplomacy effort begin to target more aggressive product promotion in overseas markets. At home and in circumstances where our agro-processors make a first of rising to the challenge of reaching acceptable market standard, local distributors and supermarkets must give them the opportunity they deserve by pushing what they produce.

All that being said, it would be churlish not to pay a generous measure of tribute to the legwork of the GMSA and to the public/private sector collaborative effort that has taken us to where we are. At Providence a few weeks ago, the commercial banks were there aiming presumably to work with the vendors as were private companies offering packaging and labeling   services. This is a far cry from just a few years ago when small-scale agro-processors would share their stories with us about being given the cold shoulder by the commercial banking system. The process is still too gradual and we are still some distance from that takeoff point being sought for our agro-processing sector … but there is evidence that we are seeing movement.

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