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Caribbean countries to reduce imports of wheaten flour, white potatoes

President of the Caribbean Agri- Business Association, Vassel Stewart

Plans are afoot to reduce the demand for foreign foods in favour of those produced in the Caribbean, but Guyanese authorities would have to focus heavily on promotion and marketing because of lingering fears about food bans in the 1980s.

President of the Caribbean Agri- Business Association, Vassel Stewart reflected that decades ago Guyana had sought to enforce consumption patterns. “Much of the resistance, in my view then, was due to that. It was not market-driven.”

“We think that if it is market driven people will in fact consume local and again, I say it is not seeking to make dramatic change in how or what people consume,” he told a news conference. He cited the need to put in place a strong promotion programme and product formulation that focus on the health benefits. “We are confident, based on studies we have done, that people are not unwilling to consume local. It’s about price largely and about promotion. If we can get those two things right we are well on our way to making a significant impact on our food imports,” he said.

He said the 2nd Caribbean Agri-Business Forum being held in Barbados has agreed to reduce the amount of wheaten flour being used to make bread and get fast-food restaurants to use more sweet potato chips rather than white potatoes.

“This is an area where the region has the capacity to displace some of the imports so that, as part of our strategic approach to reducing this food import bill, we have targeted staples-particularly cassava and sweet potato as two of the priority commodities that we can develop to displace some of the wheat,” he said.

Stewart said a number of Caribbean islands have already begun producing bakery products utilizing raw materials from cassava, sweet potato, plantain, indeed all of our staples so we now have the capacity to replace up to 40 percent of the wheat in most bakery items including our regular bread,” he said.

The CABA President said efforts were being made to increase the production of sweet potato and plantains to a level whereby fast-food outlets would reduce their demand for white potato fries by 25 percent over the next two years. A pilot project already` conducted on the use of sweet potato fries by KFC outlets in Trinidad and Tobago has shown a high degree of customer satisfaction.

Resident Representative of the Inter American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA) in Barbados, Ena Harvey said her organisation would be accessing cassava and sweet potato germ plasm and tissue culture from several Latin American countries to increase yields, resist droughts and regenerate very quickly after storms.

Stewart said hotels were eager to buy fruits and vegetables that are grown in the Caribbean but they want them at the best prices, internationally recognised high quality and consistent supply. He added that hotels also prefer to source their commodities from few suppliers rather than individual farmers. Another key constraint, he said, was that farmers were unable to wait up to 60 or 90 days for payment unlike large suppliers.  In that regard, CABA said it would be willing to consider a factoring service that has been proposed by a Curacao-based company that allows such an entity to pay the suppliers 80 percent of the cost in 48 hours while awaiting full payment from the buyers over a longer period.

CABA and several financial institutions are due to meet early next year to discuss financing and discount rates that would be of benefit to hotels who would like to supply large hotels.