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A “cooperative” response to bringdown the price of food

EditorialA “cooperative” response to bringdown the price of food

We are living in tough economic times. The number of people with sufficient disposable income to spend on entertainment and patronize small entrepreneurs in the food business has shrunk considerably. The tough times are not a surprise. Less than four years ago, the number one thing on the minds of Belizeans and people the world over was SARS-COV-2, how they and their family could survive the epidemic.

We should be grateful for small mercies. Most of our people have jobs, albeit the pay is low. Because two of our major agro-industries, citrus and farmed shrimp, are struggling, a third, bananas, is not having its best year, and our oil wells are only producing a trickle, our foreign exchange earnings and tax collections are down. Today, our country is more dependent than ever on the tax take from fuel and other imported commodities to pay salaries and pensions and purchase the necessary supplies for public projects.

The pandemic exacted a massive toll on the world, and so have the war in Europe and Israel’s invasion and bombardment of Gaza. They have all contributed to a tremendous increase in the cost of goods, adding more weight to the burdens of people in Belize and across the globe. Everywhere the cost of goods is inflated; even the great USA is pinched. Loria Konish, in a story on CNBC, said US president Joe Biden had made a call to US “snack makers to stop ‘shrinkflation’ rip-offs.” Biden said, “Some companies are trying to pull a fast one by shrinking the products little by little and hoping you won’t notice.”

Biden has come under attack from some of his political rivals. The editorialist in the Las Vegas Review-Journal said “shrinkflation” is a response to economic pressure, “runaway inflation” caused by progressives in Biden’s government who supported “the American Rescue Plan, a massive new spending bill larded with handouts for left-leaning special-interest groups.” The Las Vegas Review-Journal said one of Barack Obama’s top economic advisers warned that the plan “would spike inflation”, and that to survive, businesses have turned to shrinking “their products because the alternative, raising prices, is even more unpalatable.”

More than ever before, our experts must present sober analyses of our economy and social programs, and criticisms must be accompanied with well researched solutions for the people to look at and compare with existing initiatives. Attacks on our economic policies are self-serving, if the proposed solutions don’t have the numbers to back them up.

It is true that people in the buy and sell business are under pressure. We can survive shrinking the chips and overpricing the sodas; our trouble is the reduced quantity of staples we now get for our dollar. Most of these staples with inflated prices are imported, or crops, mainly our vegetables and fruits, that have been severely impacted by the dramatically increased cost of imported fertilizers and by diseases that are proving difficult to cure.

There is opportunity in these tough economic times. It is the moment for local producers to take over the shelves in the stores. To do that we would need to change the way we do business. The government boasts that we earned $70million from cattle sales to Mexico and Guatemala last year. The biggest lifter in that exciting story, of course, is our Mennonite group.

In agriculture and agro-processing, that group is a dominant monopoly, and our governments are happy with the status quo. The justification for our governments, why they have left some groups, with their arms folded on the sidelines, might be the cost advantages that monopolies have, and the fact that logistics in a small economy aren’t easily overcome. However, remaining with monopolies means continued higher prices.

Government might consider incentivizing other groups to copy what the Mennonite group is doing. In the early years of our Green Revolution there were farmers’ cooperatives all over Belize. Then someone came and said we were communist, and most of the agricultural cooperatives gave way to the “individualist” system. But Valley of Peace didn’t give up its cooperative. And neither did the Mennonites, our most successful group. The potential of our other groups is being wasted in the present system. The government needs to revive cooperatives across our land. Then the price of most vegetables and fruits produced in Belize will go down, and more products on the shelves in the stores will be labeled, Made in Belize.

Is BPO really in for better times?

As our agro-industries recede from their position as the backbone of our economy, the service industries, tourism and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO – call centers), have grown exponentially. Tourism was frowned on by our first prime minister, George Price, but under his nose one of his ministers, Sandy Hunter set the first seeds. In the first Esquivel government, tourism minister Henry Young increased the focus on sun, sea, temples, and sand, and since then the industry has grown to become the top earner in our economy.

A fledgling in the early years of the 21st century, BPO/call center growth has since exploded. When tourism crashed during the pandemic, it was the call centers and our agriculture that saved us. Speaking on the BPO industry in October 2023, a Channel 7News report said PM Briceño said the industry now employs close to 14,000 Belizeans, and the salaries Belizeans in the industry earn range from 5 to as much as 10 dollars per hour.

The Belizean people flourish in the BPOs. And we need them to. With some of our main agro-industries still on the ropes, we need these jobs. Thus, we are unnerved, on edge with this rapid advancement in Artificial Intelligence (AI) which, to both the casual observer and some seasoned business experts, is viewed as a threat to our little nest egg.

The BPO business has been a boon, but most of us knew that we wouldn’t always have this cow to milk, that it wasn’t here to stay, and the greatest threat we saw looming for the industry was AI, an area which has seen boundless advances. There are machines that can do the work of a hundred people. AI will displace people in many areas, and some saw it as inevitable that these super-smart machines would surpass people in the BPO industry. But some in the industry say, not so fast, AI won’t displace people in BPOs; instead it will empower, make them more valuable.

Dion Jay Tality, in a January 2024 story in the newsletter Unitycommunications “The Truth About AI Taking the Place of BPO Call Center Agents,” said it’s a myth that AI is a threat to BPO employees. Tality said the “technology can assume certain BPO responsibilities currently handled by contact center agents, but it cannot entirely supplant these agents.” Tality said “most customers seek human touch and connections,” that AI “still has a lot of limitations…is prone to errors,” and that “integrating AI technology can be costly.” Tality said AI is “an ally” of BPOs, “not a foe”, that with its addition it will help call centers to “empower agents, scale operations, and achieve customer satisfaction.”

“It” is to be seen, but one hundred percent of Belizeans are hoping that this Unitycommunications analysis is right, that if we up the quality of our services we can earn even more in this industry. One sure thing is that with the proper investments from government, Belizeans will excel.

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