There currently exists here in Guyana an uncanny and unkind coincidence between the attention that agro- processing has been attracting as an entrepreneurial option, particularly at the micro and small business level and what, up until now, has been a largely futile official battle to break open the protectionist fortresses that continue to place measly limits on access by our own agro-produce to regional markets. The attendant frustration over this state of affairs has been raised repeatedly by the agro-processors themselves, who must continue to limit their own market largely to the limited pool of domestic consumers and to the local Business Support Organizations (BSO’s).
The argument that continues to be made has to do with what is widely believed to be a largely one-sided trading arrangement, particularly in manufactured food products and preparations. This imposes on our local manufacturers, the indignity of having to watch the substantial inflows of manufactured foods and condiments from the region (particularly from Trinidad and Tobago) into Guyana. Access to regional markets (again particularly markets in Trinidad and Tobago) continue to be constrained largely by what is widely believed to be an assortment of non-tariff barriers of which (as in the instance of our coconut water) questionable safety and health considerations are proffered as reasons for blocking access.
Traditionally, the local response to the regional squeeze on food products and food preparations that originate in Guyana – with the exception of our abundant agricultural produce of which there are serious production shortfalls in much of the rest of the region and which can be acquired here ‘dirt’ cheaply when comparisons are made with extra-regional sources – has been to either ‘grin and bear it’ or otherwise to make rumbustious noises. At the end of the day, appeals to government to use the forum of the Caribbean Community to remedy the situation become exercises in futility.
Successive administrations have been unable to successfully make the requisite regional interventions to create enhanced opportunities for local producers to benefit meaningfully from CARICOM markets. It will be recalled that what had been, for a while, under the previous administration, a highly touted intended bilateral arrangement for Trinidadian investors to lease lands in Guyana for major agricultural projects ultimately turned out to be a damp squib that lacked any real ‘oomph’ in the first place, either here in Guyana or in Port of Spain. The current administration has fared no better. Subsequent official efforts in this direction have failed to produce anything significantly better, notwithstanding evidence of enhanced official support for local representation at regional trade fairs and related events.
Here, GO-INVEST has been the local ‘point’ agency. The problem here, however, is that GO-INVEST is essentially an executing agency responsible, largely, for facilitating the actualisation of initiatives agreed to at government to government level. The work of GO-INVEST in terms of opening up opportunities for regional market access by supporting representation by local small businesses at regional product promotion exercises can only succeed if it is preceded by the tough negotiations that will realise the official green light at the level of regional governments for market access to products from Guyana. Historically however, this kind of lobbying has been characterised by a mind-boggling sluggishness which, coinciding as it does with the significantly enhanced efforts on the part of the agro-processing sector to raise its game, makes for a bottleneck that is as frustrating as it is counterproductive.
The Stabroek Business has already commented on what appears to many, to be the unchecked flooding of the Guyana market with consumer goods, notably food products, from the region (Trinidad and Tobago again warrants a mention). However there has been no real response from either government or the private sector to this observation. This is nothing new, though it has to be said that there has not been a great deal of precedent to the recent expression of concern over this trend by the recently elected President of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Nicholas Boyer. For the record, what Mr. Boyer says he is advocating is not protectionism but the levelling of the playing field to allow goods produced here to enjoy reasonable access. Additionally, he says he wants to see the creation of this more level playing field to enable Guyana to produce and market its goods abroad with the same proficiency as other regional states notably Trinidad and Tobago, enjoy on our local market.
Of course, if we are to optimise the opportunities afforded by greater market access we must first invest in the requisite equipment and machinery and create the necessary legal and operating framework that would significantly empower our manufacturing sector. In this regard there are still several hurdles to be crossed.
If we accept that there is already manifest evidence that the expansion of the manufacturing sector and the creation of enhanced opportunities for external market access can create jobs and put money in the pockets of ordinary Guyanese (bearing in mind that whatever the pundits say, oil will ultimately not be everyone’s economic salvation), then it is in the interest of government, in tandem with the private sector to be seen to be placing the strongest possible lobby for regional market access high on the national agenda. That, historically, has not been the case and it has to change and quickly if the present administration’s own expressed wish that agriculture and agro-processing not be simply abandoned when oil and gas takes the stage with its anticipated steamroller effect, is to be realised.
The starting point for doing so is for government, with the private sector in tow, to roll up its sleeves and hit the CARICOM road to fight with some measure of tenacity for more market access for what we produce.