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The decision in 1973 by the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) that foreign oil corporations increase prices had a dire impact on oil dependent economies around the world. Smaller societies and highly oil-dependent nations like Guyana reeled from the price-increase. Given Guyana’s heavy reliance on oil, and the importance of this commodity to the economy, a strain was placed on the foreign reserves.
The financial ability of Guyana to import, including food staples such as wheat flour, Irish potatoes, yellow split peas, evaporated and powdered milk, etc. was affected. A national appeal was made to Guyanese to respond to the economic challenges by substituting imported with local products such as rice flour, eddoes and yams, black eye and pigeon peas, etc.
There was also the urging to Guyanese by the then Forbes Burnham government to produce value-added products from local produce. For instance, local fishes- bangamary and shark- replaced the imported salted cod fish. Five finger and golden apple were made into preserved fruits replacing the raisins, and Guyanese were urged to have a greater reliance on locally grown fruits instead of the imported ‘ice apple’ and grapes.
Some reacted to the adjustment of taste and local utilisation through a political lens and accused the Burnham government of bad economic management. There was also the ethno-political factor where the restricted items were said to be deliberate in order to deprive an ethnic group, when the truth is all groups used the same items. By the 1970s the diverse historical cultures of Guyana became an integrated melting pot.
On the other hand, some Guyanese seized the opportunities to create local substitutes. The government also played a role in local production, primarily with rice and baby foods. Rice was used to make rice flour, and rice and cornmeal to make Cerex, a food for baby and toddler.
But Guyana missed opportunities, through Research and Development, to improve those products and compete in the international market. Had more Guyanese explored the opportunities that availed, Guyana could have been a serious manufacturing hub. For instance, nutritionists, after studies, state rice flour is a great substitute for wheat flour. It contains no gluten which irritates the digestive system and of which some are intolerant to. Rice flour is therefore better for those allergic to gluten.
Rice is also used to make infants’ formula as seen with food manufacturing giants such as Gerber. There are so many other by-products of rice flour such as in toiletries (shampoo, conditioner, bath soap) and makeup. In cooking, rice flour is also used to make noodles. India, China, among other rice producing countries, are using rice flour in so many different ways and exporting commodities made from rice. A February 2, 2021 online businesswire news report advised that the global rice flour market will reach US$921 million by 2027.
Then there is also the absence of vision for sugar. Sugar still remains in the primary product (raw) phase when it is being used as value-added in so many forms. It is a shame Guyana has not been able to mass produce at least cane juice for national and external consumption. Other countries that cannot produce cane sugar have turned to local substitutes such as high fructose corn syrup that is seen on the label of almost every packaged food and beverage.
Guyana has missed out on so many opportunities to exploit the creativity of its citizens, boost its manufacturing sector, and take a significant slice of the international food and by-product markets. There needs to be a rethinking about value added, including what needs to be done, the government facilitating this venture through incentives, and the greater opportunities presented for the nation’s food security and development.