Women and the agro-processing sector: The challenge of sustainability

Women agro-processors: Rodiek-ah De Freitas, Sandra Craig and Princess Cosbert

Despite the role of women in the production, processing and marketing of agricultural goods in Guyana, the available evidence suggests that production resources and opportunities to consolidate what are mostly their modest economic ventures remain strictly limited.

Over the last four decades we may have watched agro-processing in Guyana grow from experimental-type attempts at ‘preserves and pickles’ ‘cooked up’ in domestic kitchens, offered in ‘tacky’ jam jars with crude paper labels affixed and limited in their volumes, to more eye-catching efforts. These days, it is fair to say that a visible even if still underdeveloped agro-processing sector has emerged and that it has become a recognised part of the local economy.

If agro-processing has, until now, played only a limited role in putting Guyanese women on the local entrepreneurial map what it has certainly done is to provide an income-earning niche for women who have demonstrated the energy and creativity to transform creativity into commerce. While there are no precise figures regarding the extent of female representation in agro-processing in Guyana the available evidence, based on representation at the increasing number of agro-processing-related public events, suggests that women almost certainly account for upward of 80% of the small to medium-sized players in the agro-processing sector.

During the two UNCAPPED agro-processing marketing events held in 2017 and 2018, for example, women displayers/ vendors accounted for all but a handful of the stalls participating in the event. At last September’s GUYTIE event at the Marriott Hotel, a public-private sector event staged to expose locally manufactured food and beverage products to international markets, all of the approximately ten agro – processing displays, featuring products ranging from herbal teas and fruit-based food sauces to ‘treated’ coconut oil were provided by women.

If all of this may portend new entrepreneurial opportunities for women, most of whom have no permanent and significantly income-generating jobs outside of the home, raising the profile and the profitability of the local agro-processing sector has presented its adherents with a mountain to climb. To understand the nature of the challenge we must first appreciate that many, perhaps most of the women who have gradually created income-generating enterprises through the vehicle of agro-processing have had little if any business training so that much of what is produced and placed on the market is not a function of any sophisticated demand-related study, but the pursuit of a money-earning venture linked to supporting poor families. In essence, many agro-processing ventures have emerged through ‘hit or miss’ initiatives and some of them have only remained alive by virtue of sheer persistence, failure in the economic circumstances of the intrepid investor, simply not being an option.

Setting aside only a limited understanding of the orthodoxies of business, the women-dominated agro-processing sector has, from its inception, had to endure the disappointment and frequently the humiliation linked to the rejection of its bona fides by the mainstream business community, more particularly the banking sector. As a consequence, access to funding for growth and development has been a struggle, with investment capital limited mostly to meagre family savings or else to loans from ‘agencies’ outside of the formal banking sector.

For Guyanese women agro-processors, even limited growth has presented some enormous challenges. As product quality in the global agro-processing sector has been driven ever upward by rising consumer expectations, the local agro-processing sector has had to face increasing challenges associated with product quality, for certification standards and packaging and labelling. More than that, given what in many instances is a lack of any strong direct links with the farmers who produce the fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs that are an essential part of their production process, small enterprises (and the overwhelming majority of agro processing ventures fall into this category) remain mostly hostage to price fluctuations associated with availability.

But the challenges associated with production costs do not end there. Increasingly, ‘staying in the game’ requires women to remove their ‘processing’ operations from outside the limited confines of their kitchens and into modest but – given the circumstances of the women – costly ‘factories’ if they are to meet the licensing standards set by the Government Analyst Food and Drugs Department (GAFDD).

The operationalising of the Small Business Bureau in 2013 and the supporting financing, training and marketing roles provided by state entities like the Guyana Office for Investment, the Small Business Bureau and the Guyana Marketing Corpora-tion coupled with the support of entities like the Guyana Manufacturing & Services Association (GMSA) offer useful but still inadequate support. Standards of packaging and labelling, for example, which, increasingly, have become critical criteria for market acceptance in local outlets as much as on the external market, have become sufficiently stringent to become too costly for the modest investment capabilities of most investors in the sector.

As local agro processing initiatives find themselves increasingly saddled with the weighty responsibility of running orthodox business enterprises, the complexities of managing a business and by extension, making a profit inevitably kick in. This newspaper’s interviews with several small scale agro-processors have found them to be equipped with an abundance of drive but frequently lacking in an understanding of the fundamentals of entrepreneurship. 

Truth be told, they have not been entirely without support. As has already been mentioned, government and the various private sector Business Support Organisa-tions, joined forces to stage both the UNCAPPED and GUYTIE events which at least offered some valuable immediate-term marketing opportunities. In the longer term, however and in the absence of structures that can sustain these mostly small operations, financing and marketing being key considerations, they remain vulnerable.

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