You can’t be serious?!?!

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When we heard that someone was proposing the introduction of monopolies on staples like rice and sugar, we were shocked and somewhat amused. Our expectation was that such a hare-brained scheme could never even hit the Cabinet agenda. Then we heard that Cabinet would review and debate the proposal and we began to get worried. How could we, as a nation, be considering monopolies in 2017? It gave us unpleasant flashbacks to the days of the monopolies in things like aggregates, petroleum and telecommunication services. Although we seem to be in a petroleum monopoly with the government-majority-owned West Indies Oil Company (WIOC), but that is for another time.
We will lay our cards on the table and say for the record that we hate monopolies. Sure, we can see arguments in some rare cases for the establishment and support of monopolies but in nearly all cases, monopolies are not good for developing nations. They are especially bad when the goods and services are considered staples or necessities. 
And to further reveal our cards and our perspective, we have fought monopolies in a real way. OBSERVER gave birth to OBSERVER Cellular and Paging back in the nineties. The company traded as Airtel and it was the first wireless competitor to Cable & Wireless in the region. Airtel was also the first to introduce pre-paid services to the region. It is an accomplishment that the organisation and its founders are extremely proud of. 
Airtel is a perfect example of the effect of a competitive environment versus a monopolistic one. On the day of launch back in 1996, mobile rates dropped by over 40 per cent and since that day, competition has increased and rates have dropped considerably more. At the same time, new technologies have been deployed and consumers have been the ones who have benefitted most. It is very likely, almost to the point of certainty, that had a monopoly still existed in wireless telecommunication services, Antigua & Barbuda would trail the Caribbean in terms of technology and wireless/mobile services. The reason is simple: there is no incentive for a monopoly provider to do any better.
We are very passionate about this subject and we know that there are those out there that think that we may have jumped the gun in revealing the proposals this early but the risks are too great. Waiting around to get a great story would risk allowing a bad decision to be made. And once that decision is made, the country will suffer; one way or another.
Back when we sought to break the Cable & Wireless monopoly, we heard every false argument against progress. We were told that the market was not big enough for a second mobile carrier. Today, there are three and there could be more if we were progressive. We were told that technological progress would stall, but that ignored the fact that it was already stalled because there was no incentive by the monopoly provider to progress. The list of reasons went on and on and on but none could stand up to scrutiny and the international experience that stated that monopolies were detrimental to the progress of societies; especially developing countries.
Just the thought of a monopoly on rice is absurd but we can already hear the arguments in support. “Give a local a chance”; “food security”; “why not?” blah, blah, blah. None will persuade us. Even if the government decides that food security is best served by a protection mechanism on something like rice, then why does it require a monopoly? Why not establish a policy that allows free and fair competition for farmers who are interested in rice production? There is no reason why one person or entity should be allowed that privilege and protection.  
There is another worrying aspect to this rice monopoly scheme and that is the need for some Crown land that will be used “for the purpose of establishing a processing unit and for agro-development purposes to support production of identified agricultural produce for CMC to supply locally and externally”. We are not sure what that means but if there are any plans to establish local rice production, we are extremely interested to hear about that because as far as we know, rice is grown in a “rice paddy” which is essentially a swamp – and that is for cultivating semiaquatic rice. Deep-water cultivation requires the land to be flooded with more than 20 inches of water for at least a month!
Ask any farmer if he or she thinks that Antigua & Barbuda can support a crop that requires flooded field conditions and you may have to wait a while for him or her to stop laughing and wipe the tears from their eyes before you get a response. Sure, there are other methods to rice production that require less water but there is no getting around the fact that rice production needs water; lots of water.
We know that we have spoken in generalities but at this point, we hope that you (and Cabinet) are convinced that monopolies are not good for Antigua & Barbuda. They are usually selfish money making opportunities that should be dispensed of as quickly as they are proposed. That said, if the proposer(s) of the monopoly or monopolies would like to make a public pitch to garner support and prove us wrong, we would like to invite them to appear on the Voice of the People to make their case. We await your call while we review the very interesting documents before us.
We invite you to visit www.antiguaobserver.com and give us your feedback on our opinions.

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