August 29, 2014

Boost for agricultural exports?

Fri, Aug 29, 2014

A media release from the Ministry of Agriculture earlier this week again raised hopes of access by local producers to markets in Britain and Europe, which in the past have turned out to be so frustrating, at least where state-led initiatives are concerned.

If those hopes materialise, then it can only be a most welcome boost for our farmers, agro-processors and for the economy as a whole.{{more}}

We use the term “if” here guardedly, not in a negative sense, but based on the experiences of the past. Many have been the opportunities announced grandly, often after much hard work by entrepreneurs and enterprising state officials, only for hopes to be dashed in actual realization of those, for one reason or another, many of them our own fault. These experiences have left us, producers and marketers especially, with bitter tastes in our mouths and often sceptical about the success of any new opportunity on the horizon.

The initiative, persistence and hard work of those who have continued to press ahead to find and secure markets for our local produce, must be commended and supported. While this latest opportunity, led by the WINFRESH group, owned by the governments of the Windward Islands, is on the cards, one must applaud the continuing initiatives of those like the Eastern Caribbean Trading and Development Organisation (ECTAD), Erica’s Country Style and all the others who have, over the years, in the face of trying circumstances, maintained a market presence for Vincentian products overseas. In fact, it is true to say that private initiatives, including the efforts of our traffickers in the region, have been the rock on which our agricultural export trade has been built.

It has, by no means, been an easy task. Bureaucratic inertia and bungling, and failure to meet market requirements have let us down on many an occasion. In addition, the producers have often been left with the wrong end of the stick when arrangements go awry, payments not being met in full or in a timely fashion. If we are to succeed in marketing our local produce, it is vital that proper business practices and procedures be adhered to by all involved.

Most importantly, we have to understand that we must produce according to the requirements of the market. We are striving to sell our produce in markets far more sophisticated than our own subsistence-level one. We can no longer believe that lame excuses will suffice in the face of stringent demands concerning quality, consistency and timing. We have to get it right; there is no other choice. There is intense competition for markets in today’s world and the rapid dismantling of trade barriers is a warning against complacency.

It is one thing to seek out and obtain access to external markets. Satisfying the requirements of those markets and sustaining them are the major challenges. Meeting those demands calls for cooperation among all involved locally, with appropriate state facilitation and, in addition, given the limited scale of local production, at the sub-regional level as well.

Finally, it is vital that in our eager search for external markets, we take note of the relatively unorganized and underdeveloped nature of our own local market. The sooner we bring our demands with regard to standards and quality in line with regional and international ones, the easier it will be for our producers to understand and be able to satisfy global requirements. In the absence of these, as consumers change tastes and patterns, as lifestyles vary, there will be more demands for imported products, placing our economy and producers at a disadvantage. Our own food security depends on all these factors.