The agro processing sector: Seizing the moment

The Stabroek Business has, in recent weeks, focused a considerable amount of editorial attention on the collaborative efforts involving government, the Guyana Manufacturing & Services Association (GMSA) and the agro processing sector, through initiatives like the UncappeD events and the lobbying efforts taking place at the level of exchanges between GMSA and government officials. While all of this is yet to transform itself into a really meaningful breakthrough for the sector, there are signs of a measure of enthusiastic response amongst the agro-processors themselves as reflected in their attendance (in fair numbers) at the display events and their efforts to raise their product quality and presentation to a level where they can make a more persuasive case for increasing market share both locally and overseas. Due credit must be given for these efforts and their outcomes.

 What we have noted, as well, is that there appears to be a higher level of invention and creativity being applied in the manufacturing of the various jams, jellies, food seasonings and condiments, a development that caters to consumer taste as well as more strenuous attempts not only to establish orthodox business arrangements with retail outlets  but also to be more mindful of the various critical considerations – including those that have to do with the conditions under which their products are manufactured – associated with food safety. Here, we believe that what we are witnessing is a greater preparedness on the part of our growing army of agro-processors to work within the ambit of the law.

 As an aside it needs to be said that the agro processing sector has the potential to significantly expand the frontiers of self-employment in circumstances where state-driven job creation still provides a less than adequate response to the high level of employment that continues to afflict Guyana. We make this point in order to stress the importance of ensuring that more state resources are allocated to ensuring that the agro processing sector continues to be better positioned to provide opportunities for business growth and as a corollary, increased employment.

 Part of the current challenge facing the agro processing sector is that it is still to grow away entirely from the culture of ‘hustle’ that spawned the sector in the first place. While it may be true that some long-standing and established businesses have invested in agro processing, the sector is still dominated by significant numbers of under-funded, under-resourced operators who simply cannot afford the high investment costs associated with enhanced growth and greater market success. A successful agro processing sector requires not only a production infrastructure that includes the technology associated with efficient production but also the access to upgrading-related training for agro-processors and meeting the costs of acquiring raw materials and product presentation. Although some headway has been made in most of these areas, funding to do with growth and expansion and with enhancing market readiness remains scarce. There is also the need to pay more attention to the farming side of the equation, that is, the need to ensure that the agro processing sector is better-served by farm produce.

 The higher visibility afforded the agro processing sector on account of what, in recent months has been an enhanced public/private sector collective effort is not, however, on its own, sufficient to get the sector where it needs to go. Historically, we have always been afflicted with a proclivity for debating things to death and ending up accomplishing little or nothing. Up to this time it has to be said that for all the high profile discourse there still appears to be no definitive plan to take the agro processing sector forward, a plan linked to providing funding for targeted investment in the sector in areas such as significant lending for private investment in the sector, for the acquisition of production-related technology, for product preparation and for marketing. A point has long been reached, as well, where (without becoming steeped in the kind of trade protectionism that so frequently manifests itself elsewhere in the region) we support the creation of enhanced home markets for our agro produce by unashamedly immersing ourselves in a good, old-fashioned ‘buy local’ campaign, which, of course, our agro-processors will have to support by stepping up their own game and which, as well, needs to benefit from a buy-in by our local commercial outlets.

 Here, it is not just a matter of following the pattern set by some of our continental neighbours (Belize, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic are good examples) of creating a strong agro processing sector but also a matter of providing meaningful employment (in a condition of high unemployment) outside of the state sector and raising the profile of locally produced foods outside Guyana, including in a largely untapped diaspora market.

 The truth is that there is not nearly enough evidence that government has gone much beyond the ‘talk’ stage in terms of the promotion of agro processing. One might well ask, for example, whether the outcomes of what we are told are high-level public/private sector talks on areas that include the agro processing sector will go beyond the talks themselves. This is by no means a rhetorical question. Talks without attendant action in areas pertaining to development have traditionally been an occupational hazard of government in our country.

 One of the things that the emergence of an oil and gas economy will do for Guyana is to serve as a global attention-getter, a marketing tool with which to promote the various other facets of what Guyana, as a country, has to offer. Our tourism product stands to benefit from this opportunity as does our agro processing sector. All of this, however, is no more than potential. Even now, there is a need to think beyond tomorrow, to contemplate the possibilities and to begin, today, to plan for transforming these into real gains. The agro processing sector, for example, can benefit significantly from global branding spinoffs associated with the enhanced national profile that can derive from an oil and gas industry. These are not tomorrow’s opportunities; they are today’s.

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