There are signs that the agro-processing sub-sector of our manufacturing sector is beginning to creep closer to the realization of the long-held ambition of having our products such as sauces, condiments, beverages, snack foods and the like, make a mark on the local, regional and international markets. Here, we have to hedge our bets, since so many things in our Guyana proceed in a sort of one step forward, two steps backward fashion, with many of them disappearing as though they had never existed in the first place.
In the instance of agro-processing there is reason to be encouraged by the efforts of producers not only to meet product quality standards including food safety standards, but also by what has been a significant effort to raise packaging and labelling standards. Both quality and packaging/labelling standards have become critical criteria for accessing external markets.
Incidentally, it would help considerably if those locally produced beverages and snack foods that meet an acceptable standard benefit from inclusion in the 20 per cent share of state contracts for small businesses outlined in the Small Business Act. There is absolutely nothing wrong with introducing our local beverages and condiments at high-level official functions since this could be a variant of our much-vaunted economic diplomacy thrust that might bear some fruit. Who knows where local plantain chips might go, for example, if members of the diplomatic corps (particularly representatives of the ABC countries) could be afforded the opportunity to snack on these (rather than imported peanuts) at an official function.
As an aside, and to make a wider point, it is taking the Ministry of Business far too long to make a clear public announcement regarding the procedures under which small businesses can benefit (not next year but in the immediate term) from the 20 per cent provision. It is just this sort of official dilatoriness that often stymies perfectly worthwhile initiatives.
Efforts to secure market access for our agro-produce in the wider Caribbean, in the first place, are coinciding with a veritable flood of snack foods, condiments and beverages from Trinidad and Tobago, particularly, finding their way into Guyana. Contextually, there are signs that while regional free trade arrangements exist on paper, the spectre of protectionism is manifesting itself in the behaviour of some Caricom member countries. Recent claims by the authorities in Trinidad and Tobago that the decision not to allow Guyana’s Rooster brand of coconut water to be sold to consumers in the twin-island Republic were made on food safety grounds, continue to be challenged by the local manufacturer who is insisting that testing of the product in Jamaica revealed that it has met the Caricom standard. This, incidentally, is not the first time, recently, that charges of erecting non-tariff barriers have been directed at Trinidad and Tobago by other countries in the region. Whatever the truth or otherwise of this matter an assertive stand by the Government of Guyana against intra-regional protectionist practices must surely be an integral part of our economic diplomacy thrust.
Difficulties associated with the penetration of some regional markets are occurring at a time when our own supermarket shelves are groaning under the weight of a mountain of packaged food imports from T&T, particularly. It is high time that the Government of Guyana move to further raise awareness of the imbalance in trade here, though, of course, the point should be made to the local manufacturing/ agro-processing sector that a corollary to demanding a greater share of the regional market is that we must, correspondingly, increase our own production volumes and continue to improve our product quality and presentation.
Much of the improvement in the performance of the agro-processing sector has been due to the burst of energy that has come from the Guyana Manufacturing & Services Association (GMSA) not least, its ongoing high-level engagement with government. Over the years public-private sector collaboration aimed at taking the wider manufacturing sector forward has been hamstrung by a lack of the requisite infrastructure. This has been due in large measure to official failure to aggressively pursue bilateral measures with countries that are close by and that can provide technical and other forms of assistance. In addition, there has been the protracted scourge of high electricity costs and unreliable supply. The growth of the sector has also been considerably slowed down by the highly counterproductive over- bureaucratization of the attendant discourses and the inevitable disappearance of initiatives that had earlier been brought to public attention in a blaze of misleading optimism. It is high time that we move to put an end to those barriers to the growth of the agro-processing sector.
This newspaper’s experience of last year’s public-private sector Uncapped forum at the Sophia Exhibition site was that, its best intentions notwithstanding, the planning – more particularly the promotion of the event – appeared to be characterized by an oversized committee which, at the end of the day, did not do sufficient to whip up the requisite support for the event. Events of this kind that target particular outcomes require careful planning into which a great deal of mental and physical energy has to go. This is something that the planners of the Uncapped events planned for this year must bear in mind. More time and resources need to be spent on ensuring meaningful attendance and patronage at these events.
If our own high-profile supermarkets have made modest efforts to promote local agro produce by making them available for sale to consumers, the reality is that imported products still dominate the market and would appear to be in greater consumer demand. Part of the reason why so many locally manufactured products realize only limited market success has to do with the high cost of planned and sustained marketing. State-funded efforts to create a product promotion tool in the form of the Guyana Marketing Corporation’s (GMC) Guyana Shop can be significantly improved upon. While the inside of the Shop is now bursting with locally produced goods it is patently clear that if it is to properly serve its purpose the Guyana Shop needs to be properly branded, upgraded, expanded and decentralized, allowing not only for an even greater range of local products than obtains at this time, but affording more clear choices for consumers.
There is absolutely no good reason why local consumer choice, in terms of peanut butter, for example, should be limited to half a dozen imported brands in circumstances where there are also a few local brands to choose from and which should have equal access to our supermarket shelves. Peanut butter is, of course, just one example. The point should be made of course, that where product quality and product presentation fall short of expectations, market acceptance will continue to be a challenge.
As far as this newspaper has learnt, part of the current high-level (public-private sector) deliberations have to do with investment in inventory that will address considerations of both quality and volumes in the local manufacturing sector. Our response to this is that far too many things take far too long to be settled (we are still to hear from Go-Invest, for example, on the promised return visit here by a Brazilian mission interested in investing in agriculture in the hinterland). This is in circumstances where the rapid expansion of our agro-processing sector, through the creation of opportunities to improve both product quality and production volumes can provide employment (now that we have been firmly disabused of the myth that oil will bring significant direct employment opportunities for Guyanese), expand the range of consumer choice and increase our export earnings. The problem is, of course, that not a great deal will happen for us unless we understand that a critical focus of our effort has to be invested in transforming our ideas and our talk shops into the realization of their envisaged objectives.