By Orville Williams
With a largely untapped market for local sustainable products, entrepreneurs in Antigua and Barbuda and the wider Caribbean are being encouraged to equip themselves with the adequate knowledge and move to further infiltrate territories like Europe and North America.
That call is coming from Deodat Maharaj, the Executive Director of the Caribbean Export Development Agency – a regional entity tasked with helping businesses develop, market and export their products.
According to Maharaj, local products are in great demand in certain export markets and with sustainability having become so important on a global scale, the time is ripe for local entrepreneurs to stake their claim.
“There’s a greater awareness now, globally, on the importance of living sustainably, producing sustainably and exporting sustainably [and] we are lagging in terms of developing sustainable products, which is in high demand in places like Europe.
“We, in the Caribbean, have a natural space in that particular product market, but we have to take advantage and seize the opportunity because time is of the essence,” he said.
The cost of penetrating certain markets often proves a deterrent for many Caribbean entrepreneurs, considering the marketing, licensing and duty fees that are required for access to the markets and to improve the chances of success.
However, Maharaj said there are arrangements in place with some of the bigger markets to help reduce the burden on prospective exporters.
“With the European Union, there’s something called an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and, in essence, we in the Caribbean can access the EU market without our goods and products paying duties.
“Basically, it’s duty-free, tariff-free access, which is a big concession. What we have found out is that still there is a lack of information and we are not capitalising on this opportunity with the European Union, as a consequence of the EPA,” he said.
“We also have a free trade agreement with Canada called CARIBCAN, where 99 percent of the goods that go into Canada from the Caribbean are duty-free [and] tariff-free. Yet still, we are not taking advantage of those agreements.”
In light of these deficiencies, Caribbean Export is stepping up its efforts to assist entrepreneurs by providing a valuable foundation centred on know-how.
As Maharaj explained, “We are launching a Trade for Sustainable Development (T4SD) hub, to help businesses that are keen to go into sustainable products, for which there is a ready and captive market in places like Europe.
“This hub will provide that information to enable businesses to participate, compete and earn precious foreign exchange by trading, developing and exporting sustainable products.”
Some of the business areas that would have fared well with the assistance of Caribbean Export so far, include exotic products such as sauces and condiments – pepper sauce for example – and Maharaj acknowledged that there is a niche market for Caribbean products of that very nature.
He also advised entrepreneurs not to focus solely on creating exportable products, but to include local services as well in their strategising.
“We have some companies associated with logistics that have strived [and] we have some of the service industries – in terms of arts, entertainment and culture – they have [also] done well.
“Sometimes, we only think about goods, like fruits or vegetables or [even] fashion, but we also have to think about services in the Caribbean and how we commoditise and export the creativity, the music and the dance of our people, because that’s a very good income stream as well.”
With the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic still affecting almost every sector within the region, Maharaj talked up the importance of business to an economic rebound, adding that his organisation was prepared to support this effort where possible.
“Our mandate is really to support you and your businesses, because in these times and [with] the challenges that we face now, business has to take an important leadership role in generating much-needed jobs for our Caribbean people.
“Hence, we are redoubling our efforts to ensure that businesses can grow, the private sector can play a central role [and these] much-needed jobs can be created.”