PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad — The Third Caribbean Agribusiness Forum concluded its two-day programme on Monday, and has provided greater insights for operators of small and medium-sized enterprises in the food processing sector in particular, to maximise on gaining access to foreign markets.

This year’s event, hosted by the Caribbean Agri-Business Association (CABA), was supported by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture. It was held under the banner “Strengthening the Caribbean Agribusiness Sector and Expanding Markets Through SMEs Business Development”.

One of the key highlights of this year’s event was the presentation and findings by the various stakeholders of the TBT Programme, which seeks to overcome technical barriers to trade. These non-tariff barriers focused on SMEs operating under international standards in order to access global markets. These standards and certifications –such as HACCP, GMP, GHP, ISO 22000, BRC, IFS and SQF — allow the end consumer to be confident that their purchase was handled and processed in a safe, transparent and accountable manner and that all the raw material can be traced back to their respective sources.

TBT Programme Manager Claudia Schiattarella noted that there is a renewed interest in food quality standards today, as “people want to know that they safe with what they eat, and that what they eat has been processed in a proper way… because with standards, you have a clear and defined requirement in which you can fit, to ensure that a specific product can be accepted in a specific market”. She noted, though, that at the policy level, there must be some balance, as “overregulation may itself prove to be a barrier”.

Prysma consultant Ricardo Rodriguez said that the overall objective was to foster exports of locally produced agricultural products and foodstuff with special emphasis on staples and condiments. Ten selected SMEs from the Caribbean were afforded guidance and coaching from Prysma to developed and implement custom plant to improve their respective processing methods.

These companies that benefited from the project were:

  • Global Seafood Distributors, Inc. (Guyana) – Island Packers limited (Jamaica)
  • Tijule Company Limited (Jamaica) – Purity Bakeries (Jamaica)
  • Cemelts Services limited (Trinidad) – Tobago Fresh Produce Packing House (Tobago)
  • Caribbean Treats Inc. (Barbados) – Armag Manufacturing Ltd (Barbados)
  • Vincyfresh Limited (St. Vincent) – Dasilva Healthy Foods (Guyana)

The workshop also allowed these SME representatives to interact directly with foreign buyers, who also rated the appearance and packaging of the various products, with a view to examine and improve their competitive index on North American and European shelves.

Holly Buchanan, CEO of Canada-based Buchanan Marketing LLC, says there are huge opportunities for regional processors and suppliers to gain market access to foreign markets, “once companies can organise themselves to meet quality and food safety standards”. She noted that becoming certified is a significant investment for SMEs — from training to infrastructure changes — and that small business will require external support.

She suggested that a key approach would be for Caribbean SME’s to focus on niche markets, rather than to go up against large-volume competitors. “Organics, for example, if one country puts a full investment and commitment into going organic … the price is two to three times the price for conventional spices… and with availability limited, once the food quality and standards are in place, it’s a true winner.”

Marketing Manager at Tijule Company Ltd., Candice Ming says that in attaining global certification, her company considered the expenditure as an investment in its consumers, and sought to avoid passing on the cost to its buyers. “You have to look at it as spending on the quality of your brand and the trustworthiness of your brand,” she said.

Vincent Chang, representing Jamaica’s Purity Bakeries is all too familiar with brand reputation and customer trust. “We get instant feedback — because we make bread… so if anything goes wrong, we hear about it in one or two days – this is not a canned product — which is good and bad, as it impacts our sales,” he said, praising the programme as an excellent opportunity for Caribbean manufacturers. “We are therefore going through the stages to retrofit our plant.”

Torin Gilalte is the representative for Trinidad’s Cemelts services, which is a marketing company that oversees the needs of the Trinidad and Tobago Agribusiness Association (TTABA). With a vast portfolio of processed products, Gilalte says that at the moment, Cemelts is just a few steps away from HACCP certification. “Traditionally local manufacturers would not have ventured out of the local market, because they were doing products that would have already existed… sustainability of supplies and sustainability of quality would have a proved a problem for them,” he explained.

“A lot of small businesses would have started up as cottage industries, and on how you paint the picture (of HACCP certification) to them… the certification opens up a lot of doors… so for instance of the bigger players in the service industry will require that their suppliers be HACCP certified… so allowing the supplier to retain the market.”