N Touch
Saturday 25 May 2019
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Letters to the Editor

Diversification is non-optional



LAST WEEK’S column focused on economic diversification, or at least our continued sidestepping of it. If only a fraction of the time already committed to ole talk about diversification was spent on the groundwork to make it possible, this country would already be there. We have the ingredients to make a go of it and invite more players into building a durable economy bolstered by multiple revenue streams.

Recently a young man approached me in a food court. After verifying he wasn’t conducting any surveys or distributing copies of Watchtower, I lent him an ear. On his phone, he showed me an impressive app he developed with some colleagues. I don’t want to give away the details, but suffice it to say this young man is a good example of a citizen willing to take risks. In his own way, he is bucking conventional import-and-sell business traditions and has created a tech-based business model for himself.

It’s easy to indulge the perception that this country is primarily comprised of people who expect the Government to “mind” them. The truth is, however, more nuanced. We are surrounded by proof of the Trini entrepreneurial spirit. The trend of artisanal markets which has exploded over the past few years could not have happened without this innate entrepreneurial drive. Exquisite hand-carved wood products, herbal teas, fashion, art, photography; we are not nearly as lazy as we’ve convinced ourselves.

What many small business owners and entrepreneurs lack is the guidance and market support to grow the opportunities they’ve forged with their own hands. The artisanal marketplace is really meant to function as a gestation environment where creators can improve on their products, build their clientele and establish contacts. What many of these markets have endured over the years under different political regimes is an endless parade of ministers preening for photo opportunities and taking samples in exchange for empty promises.

Getting support from the State to advance entrepreneurship has always been a struggle. There is a tendency to think of this support in the context of financing. Now, seed money to create a new, export-oriented enterprise is always good. What enterprising citizens really need, however, is mentorship and market information.

When I produced DVDs of my television shows, this strategy was in line with a mantra I would repeat for anyone passing within earshot: I know there’s a market out there. What I didn’t know is that I needed the services of Mulder and Scully of The X Files to find that market.

Putting products on Amazon to sell them in the international market barely scratches the surface of what a small business must do to reach foreign consumers. We can’t all be soca artistes hired to perform at shows in the UK, Canada and the US.

For local entrepreneurs, finding the expat Trini market abroad, people interested in local products other than fete and pepper sauce can be incredibly difficult. There’s also the challenge of finding cost-effective ways of exporting goods abroad to wider, global markets. How do you ship and fulfil orders overseas?

That’s the kind of nuts and bolts support state agencies should offer to businesses that are the seeds of economic diversification. Our entrepreneurs need in-depth information about foreign market access and consistent mentorship along the way. The State’s role must go beyond the occasional seminar or workshop. The Ministries of Trade, Planning, Agriculture and Tourism must function like hatcheries for export-focused businesses.

Local producers angling for lucrative foreign markets need market insights to help shape the sort of products they offer to the international community. Foreign consumers are more shrewd and hypercritical about the products they buy. For example, the packaging of condiments in the same type of plastic containers used for disinfectants or cooking oils won’t fly in the export marketplace.

Health and environmentally conscious consumers abroad are steering clear of products in plastics. Even a plastic cap is “corka non grata” for many people. Additionally, our local producers need information such as FDA compliance regulations so their products and packaging can meet strictly enforced standards.

The foundations of a diversified economy require work and determination. Next year promises to be even more challenging than 2018. Businesses will continue to die, albeit in their sleep, as the protracted economic slump grinds on. Diversification won’t save them or the jobs they will take to the grave. If this country is to have any sustainable future, however, we’ve got to move more aggressively on diversification immediately.

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