The Sleeping Jaguar Awakens
by Storm Gonsalves
I am writing this article to share my recent experiences In the beautiful country of Guyana. I want to encourage those of my generation in Caricom to take notice of the fastest growing economy in the world. On a whim, I decided to jump on a plane with a business associate of mine to the untouched land of the Demerara & Essequibo. I was spending time in Trinidad, also known as the metropolis of the Caribbean, a name that was earned as a result of over a hundred years of oil and gas exploration and exploitation. While I was in Trinidad I noticed most business people were either starting or finishing their sentences with the word “Guyana”. This was strange as for decades Guyana was seen as the agricultural capital of the region which sadly meant low paid work and the resulting socio-economic issues that come with it. Why would a country with over 700 million barrels of oil, 1.3 million people and a GDP of about US 16 billion be so obsessed with a country of 750,000 people and a GDP of only US 3.7 billion? I had to find out.
On the descent to Cheddi Jagan International airport, I saw what seemed to be a huge brown snake cutting its way through miles of the dense Guyanese jungle. As far as the eye can see this silt coloured river meandered its way through this never ending green carpet several times the size of our homeland St. Vincent. The passenger to my left, seeing this small islander peer through the window in amazement, announced knowingly “That is the Demerara”. It struck me, the sheer scale of this land meant that Guyana could not have realised much more than 5% of its potential. Even with 10 million people it would still be a daunting task to achieve the full potential of such a vast country. This in my opinion makes the strides achieved by the Guyanese people thus far even more remarkable.
Guyana has always been a naturally blessed country. Guyana totals 83,000 square miles in comparison to Trinidad’s 2000 square miles and St. Vincent’s 150 square miles. Guyana has gold, bauxite and even diamonds. One gold mine, the Omai Gold Mine, produces 300,000 ounces of gold per year (gold now sells for $1300 per ounce). If you scratch the surface anywhere in Guyana you are likely to find a fresh water spring. Guyana has for many years fed the region and supplied us with rice and sugar to name two major crops. It is also an abundant source of affordable lumber, not to mention labour. With all these blessings Guyana seemed to have avoided the mother of all blessings, and that is the blessing of Oil. This too has changed.
Trinidad has long been seen as the engine of the English-speaking Caribbean economy. Trinidad has been able to achieve this position due to a strong entrepreneurial spirit combined with capital derived from the oil and gas industry. In Trinidad today you find many of the conveniences of the first world such as Porsche and Mercedes Benz dealerships and franchises that range from KFC, McDonalds to Haagen-Dazs ice cream. As mentioned previously Trinidad has roughly 700 million barrels of oil. I use Trinidad as a comparison of what is to come in Guyana because honestly there is no other country with which you can make this comparison. An English-speaking Caribbean country endowed with major natural resources. In 2015, Exxon Mobil discovered oil deposits in Guyana estimated at around 6 billion barrels or 6 times Trinidad’s reserves. Guyana has hit the jackpot, again.
On the ground in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, I set out on a fact finding mission to see whether or not Guyana was a place I could find opportunity. Some quick facts soon jumped out at me. Guyana is still a poor country. Police officers earn roughly US $250 per month. Most of the homes are still made of wood (which I love). A part of the transportation backbone in the rural areas consists of horse/donkey drawn carts as opposed to trucks. Most of all I discovered the Guyanese people are a strong, resilient and fiercely patriotic people who despite their challenges have moved from strength to strength. It does not take a prophet to predict that the situation in Guyana will be vastly different in 5 years. By that time, Guyana is predicted to be producing more than a barrel of oil per person a day. Assuming the price of a barrel of oil at US $60, Guyana, that now has an annual GDP of US 3.7 Billion, will be producing billions of dollars worth of oil per quarter. In 2020, Guyana’s GDP is estimated to grow by 33.5% and by 22.9% in 2021. This is a rate of growth that would make even the largest economies in the world blush.
The injection of cash needed to sustain this oil production is staggering and there is already a huge stable of international conglomerates pouring money into Guyana. From Exxon Mobil to its downstream contractors Schlumberger and Saipem they are all spending hundreds of millions to set up their operations. Land prices have skyrocketed but are still within reach in certain areas and are much more affordable than comparable land in some tourism oriented islands.
The tourism and hospitality industry is the second largest income earner in Guyana but is in need of expansion. There will be thousands of well paid expats looking for things to do, places to see and not to mention, good food. The Guyanese people will make good use of these opportunities but as I said before even a much larger population would struggle to make use of all the opportunity in Guyana. It is now our chance to explore opportunities and get involved before the world takes notice. A great example is the child of our own soil, Samara Murphy, daughter of famed Vincentian restaurateur Syd Murphy, has done just that by opening what is widely considered to be one of the best cafes in all of Georgetown called Petit Four.
Another very important characteristic I discovered about Guyana is that the Guyanese people are also very helpful. For instance, I bumped into the President of The Chamber of Commerce, Nicholas Deygoo, who was kind enough to drive me around the capital to point out the different areas that were ripe for development. Being involved in real estate myself I found this to be an almost spiritual experience. He calmly stated the astronomical prices of land as we drove past the prime waterfront areas of Georgetown that only a few years ago were selling for 1/100th of the price. That said, despite all the action taking place within Guyana, Nicholas was still eager to find new export markets for Guyanese businesses in the region as well as investors for Guyana. Guyana’s huge potential combined with its openness to investment creates an ideal environment for the Caribbean entrepreneur and professional. I implore all young people in Caricom to take advantage of this.
Lastly, Guyana, the fastest growing economy on earth, is a part of Caricom. Guyana needs skilled workers and professionals. It also needs driven entrepreneurs. After the Guyanese themselves, the citizens of Caricom should, if we act strategically, be next in line to benefit from the massive wealth generation and industrial boom that is about to take place. We are not looking for handouts but the opportunity to work hard and contribute to Guyana’s success. The governments around the region should enable this by creating stronger reciprocal working and business visas and by opening even more our borders to our neighbour on the South American continent for their people and produce to move freely among us. In short, we need to make the Caricom Single Market And Economy (CSME) work much better in practical terms. We have no time to waste, the jaguar to the south is stirring. To the people of my generation, do not hesitate, the sleeping jaguar awakens!