Dr. Balraj Kistow
Lecturer and Programme Director
Lok Jack GSB
Caribbean societies have quite a few things in common. In large part we have beautiful tropical flora and fauna, fantastic beaches, a common Euro-centric colonial past, which has influenced our legal, socio-political and administrative systems as well as our trading relations. We also have a common history in the early development of agriculture-based industries as the core of our colonial economic purpose. While some countries have moved away from this sector to varying degrees, we all in some way maintained the same principle of economic development by selling our natural endowments. When we look at the region, we are either dependent in large parts on tourism, agriculture and oil and gas. Now don’t get me wrong. I am thankful for these natural resources as I am sure you are as it have sustained us for generations. However, our continued path of being overly dependent on these resources by selling it mainly in the primary state does not only derive less values for us but have given rise to much less virtuous commonality in the region, which is, our economic well-being that’s very much vulnerabile to external events and price shocks.
When we look at regional economies we see that our prosperity could quickly turn to poverty with a crash in the fall in the prices of oil and gas, a mad man’s rant that makes people nervous to travel or an arbitrary decision by some major government or supra-national body that severely impede our ability to trade our products and services in the traditional markets. In the highly globalized, interdependent and connected world of today it is not possible to be totally insulated from the happenings international community. The question is how do we position our economies to be less vulnerable to these external shocks and events while at the same time creating an entrepreneurial culture in our population that facilitates and empower people to take advantage of events and current trends towards economic prosperity.
This may sound like a tall order and I can hear the less optimistic among us pointing to the reams of paper that have raised this or similar questions before, but we are still in the same place. That might be true, but time have changed, people are changing, the world is evolving and maybe we need to change our approach and perspective.
The usual approach to trying to move to a more secure and less vulnerable economic platform has been to look to diversification as a solution. While we have looked in that direction we cannot say we have been able to diversify in any meaningful way. I am sure there are many components to why we have not fared well in the area of diversification but I feel that an important element is our approach that seems to suggest moving away from traditional sectors rather than an approach that emphasise on using the resources, skill sets, networks and competencies to develop new products, services and sectors. In this way we can use the traditional sectors as focal points in creating value added solutions for the modern world.
Rather than speaking about moving away from the traditional sectors of agriculture, tourism and energy we should be asking the question as to how can we leverage these sectors such that we are able to create new and exciting products and services on the higher end of the value chain that treats with contemporary trends, issues and challenges. For instance, rather than see agriculture as a relic from a bygone era maybe we can look to develop selected areas that can serve global and diaspora markets with traditional goods and local delicacies. In the last few years coconut is the new craze with coconut water being demanded for its isotonic qualities, coconut oil as a health fat for cooking and in beauty products from New York to Paris and coconut flour and sugar selling at premium prices. A company in Guyana is now canning a local delicacy called “Heart of Palm” or Palmiste, as it is traditionally known in Trinidad and Tobago, for the export market. The leaves and the fruits of the “Sijan” or Moringa plant is now a global health phenomenon and is being sold on Amazon. With fish stocks being depleted globally we should have the capacity to develop fish farms that can serve the domestic and international markets and the regional tourism sector. These are few examples where we can relook, remodel and recreate the agriculture sector to generate wealth and foreign exchange and I have not even touched on the potential of medical marijuana, eco and indigenous tourism and renewable energy.
We cannot continue to see our natural resources as cash cow by being sold as a primary product, but we need to create and foster an entrepreneurial mindset where we see our resources as raw materials that can be used to create high value products. We all have our parts to play in this regard as there are key roles for academic in research and development among other things, government in creating and maintaining a secure and predictable enabling environment and industry in taking the lead investing in value creating solutions. Moreover, creating an entrepreneurial mind set would require a systemic change especially to the way we see education and the way we educate as the move to creating this mindset would not happen in the boardroom if it is not inculcated in the classroom. I am not saying this is an easy task as it would require many herculean changes and dealing with many moving parts at the same time, but it is not beyond us. Frankly, I don’t think we have much of a choice.
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