Businesses call on governments to remove barriers

Representatives of two of the region’s largest conglomerates are calling on Barbados and other Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member states to remove barriers to intra-regional trade.

The Barbados-based Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Goddard Enterprises Ltd. Anthony Ali, and Jamaica-based Deputy Chief Executive Officer of GraceKennedy Financial Group Steven Whittingham said this is necessary to achieve food security and increase cross-border commerce.

They identified a lack of harmonised regulations and standards as well as high logistics costs as some of the barriers to micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) engaging in intra-regional trade.

Ali added that there were “a number of infrastructural challenges”, including “the regulatory environment in which we operate [and] the barriers we create ourselves within the region”.

He was responding to questions during a panel discussion as the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) held its 196th annual general meeting at the Barbados Hilton Resort under the theme Building Resilience and Sustainability Amidst the Tide of Global Uncertainties.

Ali pointed out that CARICOM member states have varying standards and requirements for products coming from other CARICOM countries that did not apply to products imported from extra-regional markets.

He said “until we get a proper framework from a regulatory environment that allows the ease of movement of goods [and] capital”, moving food across the region to ensure food security would remain “a major challenge”.

Ali said while there was potential for the region to become self-sufficient in meeting its nutrition needs, that would require private-public sector partnerships.

“I think it has got to be led at the regional level within government to remove the barriers that will then enable the private sector to do what it does best, which is to deploy capital and exploit those opportunities. But to me it sounds really good on paper and I know there are a lot of projects looking at this, but we really need a collaborative effort at the regional level first to really exploit that opportunity,” he said.

Whittingham agreed while noting that the lingering issue of costs associated with shipping should also be addressed.

“Even if we get to the point that it was easy as we are using the same labels and there are unified standards, it is not cheap to move goods in relatively small container-type quantities across the region. That is another problem; logistics become a huge factor in commerce in our region,” he said.

“So there are some real structural impediments that we need to address. I am not saying we can’t address it, I am saying if the governments are prepared to help support, if the respective regulatory bodies in the region are able to work together then businesses will come together to fix the logistics problem, because if Anthony can move goods and I can move goods the only problem is logistics; I promise you we will fix that,” he said.

During the discussion, it was also noted that while e-commerce was already allowing for micro and small businesses to sell their products directly to consumers across the region, a lot of work was still to be done to reduce logistics costs.

Senior Technical Advisor to the Barbados Government Dr Kevin Greenidge said he was not aware of the technical hurdles that were preventing the progress towards food security, as he pointed to the ongoing thrust by Barbados, Guyana and other regional states to have Guyana become the breadbasket of the region.

“So action is happening at the Government level in order to push that,” said Greenidge.

Stating that “sometimes businesses tend to be a bit too reliant on government”, Greenidge suggested that there was nothing stopping the private sector from setting up shop in one country and doing trade with others.

However, Ali cited the issue of front-of-package labelling as one example of what was stopping companies from doing just that. He said until the region was able to get it right, companies were “stuck in limbo”.

“So, within the Caribbean, we can’t decide on how we are going to implement front-of-label packaging. Every country has not signed off and [some of them] want different models. As an exporter trying to export, I am not going to go and develop five different labels to send to ten different countries; it is impractical,” he said.

Ali also pointed to the Goddard Enterprise experience of having to label some products differently for different markets “because the regulatory environment of how you label [and] where that label is, is different”.

Minister of Business Development Kerrie Symmonds agreed there was need for harmonisation of standards in CARICOM.

“We are going to have to be able to get the standards,” he added.

“I think there is no real challenge with us being able to step up to the plate. I think what is important is for us to have a broad buy-in in terms of getting us as a Community to that level.”

Speaking specifically about Barbadian companies, Symmonds expressed disappointment that more of them were not seeking to obtain standards and certifications necessary to export to some markets.

He pointed out that while there were an estimated 10 000 businesses on island, fewer than 100 of them were clients of the Barbados National Standards Institute (BNSI) which is responsible for developing standards.

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