How a proposal for a plantain chip factory in 1977 became snared in racialized analysis

Dear Editor,

Please permit me a meditation prompted by your Editorial yesterday on the recent UncappeD show of the GMSA. There has been much positive publicity on the event, for which I applaud Guyanese entrepreneurs in agro-processing. Among the supportive statements from Government figures, I looked out for, but maybe missed, any mention of plantain chips, an employment option recently recommended from on high. Which had started me reminiscing over the approach I made a generation ago for permission for a Trinidadian investment in a factory to make plantain chips for export.

It was 1977, and I was head of a local distribution company importing the snack food products of Holiday Foods. That Caribbean-wide marketing network had received an enquiry from Puerto Rico for Platanos Fritos, and projected a surge in new business if they could supply the wildly popular snack that we West Indians knew as plantain chips. The Trinis figured that only Guyana, self-touted foodbasket of the region, could produce the volume of plantains required for this opportunity.

Clearly this proposition would need sanction by the Government, given its control of not only direct foreign investment but of all significant economic activity. Thus I sought and was granted audience with the then Minister of Economic Development, the Hon. Mr Hugh Desmond Hoyte. He listened attentively as I laid out my scheme to process plantains bought from contract farmers of proven capacity, encouraging them with a guaranteed market and, in collaboration with Government agricultural services, technical support where necessary. He saw the point of a modern food processing facility that would also need to buy locally produced coconut oil and labour of a range of skills.

Mr Hoyte told me that he understood the possibilities of the project, but it would have to be approved by the Cabinet. In less than a fortnight I was summoned to a second meeting, at which the Minister said the project would be approved on condition that it grew all its own plantains itself, purchasing none from other farmers. I protested that the project proposal was focussed on local processing and export marketing. With no expertise in farming, we preferred to make partnerships with small cultivators who had generations of local knowledge established at the grassroots.

The Minister countered that purchases by a factory would increase demand for plantains, causing farm price rises. “Plantains is black people’s food. We can’t allow the price to increase. You can grow and fry your own plantains.”

I could have argued for foreign exchange earnings from exporting surpluses over direct consumption, for phased purchasing at programmed prices, for other approaches or compromises to save the project. But I couldn’t bring myself to discuss, especially with a Minister of the Government, any topic based on an openly racialized analysis of objective business factors. So I politely thanked Mr Hoyte for his intervention, and withdrew.

The lesson was about our socio-political environment, in which economic development was nothing but a means for the exercise of authority. Power for the sake of power in the hands of a few individuals. How has this changed in the generation since?

In the last two decades, we have seen political power become the power of those few to become rich. For the sake of money alone, the methods of gaining and maintaining political power have been degraded and vulgarized, in the use of nasty racism, violent crime and systemic corruption, with diminishing lip-service to the interests of ordinary people. How has this affected our economic environment?

That’s the perspective from which I watch the ineffectual wordplay of our precariously elected politicians and their incompetent mouthpieces, on the few occasions when Guyanese can show how true development could have happened. Maybe it could still, if unfettered and UncappeD. Let’s be optimistic, as the future unfolds.

Yours faithfully

Gordon Forte

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