Editorial — 28 August 2019
Our formula for success: Made  in Belize

When neighbors work together, both prosper. How good it is when one neighbor milks their cow and shares the product with a neighbor who gives them green corn and RK beans in return. That is a healthy relationship.

The relationship between neighbors is not always healthy. All is good when the goods and services the neighbors share are comparable in worth, but all is not good when one neighbor is constantly contributing more than the other. In those cases we have an unbalanced relationship. This is not healthy. The side that is contributing less begins to fall into a beggar situation.

Belize is not in a healthy relationship with many of our neighbors/trading partners. We get more products from them than they are getting from us. These neighbors/trading partners need to get paid, and to meet our obligations we give up our dignity and beg for donations from other countries, or we give up some of our sovereignty to those we owe.

Belize would be in a more respectable position if we defied the formula advised by world experts, which is that we pursue a course as a tourist destination, and that we confine ourselves to the production of agricultural goods — raw goods which we are to ship abroad to other countries for them to process.

Belize has all the desirable attributes of a tourist destination, but every serious country knows that that industry is dessert, not the main course. Tourism is an industry you can’t sell your entire self to because it is vulnerable to a number of vagaries. If you are working from a position of strength, you can defend your dignity; if all your eggs are in that basket, if it is your main course, you can’t stand your ground when ugly tourists decide to come to your destination, or tourists decide that you should charge less for your product.

Belizeans know that tourism can only be a complement, not the main player. The main player that carried us for much of our existence during the last fifty, sixty years is agriculture. Our agricultural products are down these past several years but even in our best days we weren’t uplifting our nation sufficiently on the backs of sugar, citrus, bananas, grain, and marine produce.

Our main exports — sugar, citrus, bananas, and marine products — earned around $350 million in 2017. Much of that $350 million is eaten up by imports of fuel, fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds.

Nationalistic economists tell us that we need to turn some of our raw agricultural produce and products in our forest into processed goods. Nationalistic economists say that if we are to improve the standard of living in our country, more of the products on the shelves in the grocery stores have to be labeled, “Made in Belize”.

The people who handed down the formula maintain that our economy is too small for us to get into the processing of goods, that we lose our advantage when we move from primary to secondary production. What they are saying is that we are doomed to remain poor.

Belize imports around $200 million in food products each year. There are tariffs set by our government to give us a chance to compete, but most local entrepreneurs say they are far from sufficient.

The Ministry of Trade offers incentives to encourage Belizeans who want to sell finished products abroad, but Belize’s products are limited to niche markets. The Ministry of Trade has its detractors, but the brain trust in that ministry could argue that they are limited by trade agreements, that they can’t offer many more incentives to encourage the processing of products for the Belize market.

Our big limitation to selling products “Made in Belize”, in Belize, is our culture. We are not sufficiently nationalistic. Belize can’t, we shouldn’t, try to produce everything, but there are many products we can produce competitively, for our shelves, if we had the support of the local market. These products we can produce competitively are those that don’t carry large labor, infrastructure, and heavy machinery requirements.

One of Belize’s brilliant sons, the late Godsman Ellis, became a businessman after he retired from his job with the Ministry of Agriculture. Mr. Ellis, who was the first Dean of the Belize School of Agriculture (now part of the University of Belize), a founding member of the modern banana industry and pioneer of our tourism industry, and a founding member of the National Garifuna Council and the National Agriculture and Trade Show, set up a small factory and started processing peanuts into peanut butter, which he bottled and named “Gabela”.

Mr. Ellis’s peanut butter was good, but it was not as refined as some of the imported brands. Some Belizeans complained that the liquid and solid portions separated while on the store shelves and you had to stir it to remake it into a consistent product. Some complained that is wasn’t as smooth as the imported brands. Should these little flaws have caused Belizeans to withhold their support from a product that was made in Belize?

Mr. Ellis’s Gabela was competing with companies in countries that have millions of people. They were more advanced in the business, they had more capital at their disposal, and the size of the economies they were serving was in their favor.

Belize can grow peanuts competitively. We need to do some more research to find out the quantity of peanut butter Belize consumes each year, but we are pretty certain Mr. Ellis did his market studies and found that his product was viable, if the people of our country supported it.

If Gabela had taken off, the market for farmers who grow peanuts would have increased. Apart from having more cash the farmers would have had improved soils, because the peanut is a legume and plants in this family increase the fertility of soils.

The great American scientist, George Washington Carver, found nearly 300 other uses for the peanut, so the potential for more industries using peanuts grown in Belize would have increased.

We are aware of some entrepreneurs who are hanging in there, and prominent among them are Mrs. Marie Sharp, who continues to find niches out in the world to expand the market for her pepper products; the Mennonite group, which has, despite little protection, been able to get a share of the local cheese market; and the meat processors, who, with some protection, hold a sizable share of processed meat products consumed in the country.

We can produce more. If we can’t pull together as a nation to support our entrepreneurs because the things that pull us apart are too great, then we have to find a way to circumvent our deficiencies. There are ways to do this, and one of them is to harness the tremendous cohesion that exists within our labor and public sector unions.

We cannot muster sufficient numbers to compete directly with markets outside of our region, but if 10,000 heads of families were committed to any product that is made in Belize, through investment, the chances of that product’s success, in Belize, would be exponentially greater. In the dark it is good to light a candle. Tourism and primary production are not sufficient to make life better for all Belizeans. We need to produce goods that, with the support of Belizeans, can replace products made abroad.

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Deshawn Swasey

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