The newly formed, Trinidad-based Caribbean Supermarket Association (CSA) is working towards teaming up with private sector organisations in Caricom – from Belize to Suriname – to discuss ways to reduce the region's food import bill and promote food security.
Its the goal of the interim board led by Rajiv Diptee, who is also the president of the Supermarket Association of TT (SATT).
Diptee told Business Day on Wednesday that the CSA, launched the day before, is actively working on recruiting regional members. Diptee assures the CSA, of which he is the chairman, is regional and will not replace SATT which deals with national affairs.
"Caribbean organisations sound big, but they tend to be less active than a national organisation. Caribbean organisations because they're Caribbean they have to work with people in different islands and it also takes time to develop those relationships, so Caribbean associations tend to be a lot slower in terms of outcomes than national organisations."
Curtis Mohammed, the outgoing president of the NGC CNG – now executive director of CSA, said they are in talks with those in the private sector across the region which may not have an association like SATT.
"The process is now happening for that. Not all the Caribbean will have formal associations as TT because of their sizes, and so on. We may have to go out to the major entities, but this association is a private-sector group based in Trinidad and the first order of business is to talk to Caricom (business) heads."
Mohammed said the CSA is in talks with stakeholders in Guyana who participated in the agri-investment forum held in Port of Spain, on August 20. Co-founder Vernon Persad added that members of SATT have also been in talks with private sector organisations in Barbados and St Lucia. Persad is also the owner of the Persad's 'D' Food King supermarket chain in south Trinidad.
Mohammed said the plan is to go to other islands and look for synergies to Caricom's initiative to reduce the food import bill by 25 per cent by 2025.
"We'll be talking to the private sectors in the same business surrounding, and interested in, food security, multilaterals and especially, the different administrations in charge of the different islands. That is now starting, we just wanted to have a placeholder organisation until every one comes on board and as people come on board, the association will be constituted to suit the parties that will have a stake in it."
He said the association will undertake an "aggressive" 12-month programme to get these discussions going, but more will be finalised and detailed after a few more meetings with local private sector stakeholders, the World Food Organisation and the Inter-American Development Bank.
"I think in the next meeting or two, those will be the items that will be dealt with. Certainly, I intend to meet with the rest of the board and get that cracking. My job is to really take their ideas and make them into a form that can implemented. But first and foremost, it is not just about this association, it is also the association in tandem with the rest of the Caribbean's stakeholders."
Mohammed added that their target audience is not just the organisations within this particular industry, but others that are just as beneficial. He used himself as an example, and said he brings the point of view of a stakeholder in the food and beverage industry, but one that comes from the oil and gas one as well.
Mohammed said former trade minister Vasant Bharath, the vice chairman, can provide advice from a government perspective and aid in the legalities of their operations.
He added that food security is a wide spectrum of tasks some of which are energy, cost of production, storage, logistics and jurisdiction within the islands that may have a preference for certain imports.
"After the next month or so, we would probably have a little more structure, we just have to get every one to come together, meet and understand the vision of the founders of the association."
He said he sees changes in either expansion or development once the islands come together, though he said it is too soon to say this with certainty.
"What we may not want to do is have too many objectives that's just ours alone, and our ideas, even though it may be well-intended, we still have to get other people's ideas."
Mohammed said despite SATT being a stakeholder, and the one to spearhead the initiative, the CSA is still for all of Caricom.
"Trinidad is very cosmopolitan, even though we're a very small island, and other islands are very tourist-oriented, so it's a lot that we have inside here. We also have the simple fact of what can we do to get farmers to up their game and they seem to be trying hard, but it's not just about that, it's also about working diligently, ensuring any structured block that is affecting all the farmers in the Caribbean, for someone to help them work through that. We know that the government has been trying to do it, but maybe it's time for the private sector to really make an effort to move it."
Mohammed, Diptee, Persad and Bharath are responsible for the CSA, and along with bringing awareness to food security, they plan to work with Caricom to fill supermarket shelves with mostly regionally sourced goods. But Persad said that it will take time, specifically, when it comes to weaning the public off of certain tastes that results in the costly imports.
Diptee added, "What we import is what consumers demand and what we put out on the shelves. We're not in the business of warehousing goods, especially, goods with such a dear shelf life. What you see on the shelves and what the consumers continue to buy is what we continue to import."
He said at least 90 per cent of what is seen in the supermarkets are imported goods.
"Should there a be a threshold in consumer tolerance where they no longer want to buy these goods? That's a different question, but what you see right now is certainly what's being put out and still fetching a price point that is sensitive for the consumers."
The framework for the CSA was formally confirmed after the signing of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Caricom Private Sector Organisation (CPSO) at the agri-investment forum.