SINCE March 12, 2020, the population has undergone a series of changes, losing lives and livelihoods to the extent where some even felt threatened that their rights are being infringed upon.
One thing has been predominant throughout the pandemic and that is change which has been dubbed “the new normal.”
One of the changes that came with “the new normal” was the skyrocketing prices of everything from food to building materials.
With every new shipment that comes into the country, the consumer is being told, prices have increased. Even with an item that is manufactured locally, the cost has also increased since some raw materials are also imported.
Businessman and Managing Director of Fens of Trinidad and Tobago Neil Mohammed spoke with AZPNews.com Assignments Editor Sue-Ann Wayow about the change and how it affects purchasing and lifestyle behaviour of citizens.
He also called for more importation from CARICOM countries and gives reasons why food prices increase.
Referring to the Christmas holiday season that is going to be celebrated for a second year in the pandemic Mohammed said, “It does not mean that they are going to enjoy themselves any less.”
He said, “The holiday season is going to be a good one but it is not going to be a high priority one. People are going to cut back on everything.
“We are more or less an opulent society which is borderline wasteful to start with. People are realising that I do not need to do things with the frequency that I used to do before. For example, if I used to go to Christmas dinners, every day for the week, I might cut that down to two or three days for the week in 2021, because going to a Christmas dinner means you may have to buy a new outfit, if you are entertaining, you would have to purchase more food items.”
Mohammed said people were now getting accustomed to where they have removed from their life and habits as mall visits while casual shopping have all decreased significantly.
The malls may have more challenges in terms of business opportunities for the holiday season as people are also not visiting with the same frequency.
“Even though, we have business places open, what you would realise is that people have just gotten comfortable being more at home and making use of what they have available. Some of them are probably realising that I do not have to go to the mall as often as I used to,” he told AZPNews.com.
While there are those who have the choice to shop differently, there was a group of people who could not afford to shop and they formed the section of society that is really in need of assistance and guidance back to some sort of financial freedom, Mohammed added.
The need to eat
The greatest need that Trinidad and Tobago has had during the pandemic was the need to eat, Mohammed said.
The importation of food was greater than the importation of commodities.
“Regardless of what circumstance the country faces, everybody has to eat.” he said.
Two factors contribute to the increasing food prices and they are the insufficient supply of food grown locally and too much of what is consumed is imported.
Mohammed said the need to eat will not diminish, but he is suggesting that the bulk of imported food come from another part of the world, from countries nearer to Trinidad and Tobago.
He is suggesting that the import food bill be redirected to Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries.
“We don’t understand the power of CARICOM. It is not something to be dismissed at all. It is a billion dollar business if we know how to monetise on it,” Mohammed said.
With many CARICOM countries being in debt including Trinidad and Tobago with a high debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ratio, the additional revenue would be welcomed.
He said, “In relation to Trinidad and Tobago, it is not so much the food importation bill that is the problem but where we import from. First world countries call for first world prices.”
When heads of government of CARICOM meet, the major discussion should be food security since many countries in the Caribbean are major agriculture producers.
Referring to the international brands, Mohammed said, “We are growing ever closer to where we are not going to afford these brands in the first place. We will grow to adapt to better and cheaper options.”
And one of those factors would be a lack of US currency.
He said persons should take note of when the US needs food, where they import from, which were mainly Latin and Central Americancountries adding that the quality of food was not compromised.
“It is not what you eat but where you get it from. The level of food should remain the same the level of cost must not.”
If T&T redirect its food import purchases, the import bill could be reduced as much as 40%, he said.
In need of a shopfront
While T&T produces commodities, there is hardly any item made that is entirely local as certain raw materials are needed from abroad.
However, Mohammed is saying that the manufacturing capacity can push to about 80% of localised materials and goods to be used making the product “more and more our own.”
The country also has enough capability of exporting high quality, local products but it has to be marketed regionally and not just locally.
“If we continue to market to local people, the only persons that will buy would be locals,” Mohammed told AZPNews.com.
T&T is leading the list of CARICOM countries in manufacturing but tourism was still the major revenue earner for other states.
What will boost export sales would be a shopfront.
Mohammed explained, “We have no shopfront. Nobody knows what CARICOM makes because of this. By shopfront I mean we need to have a designated piece of land that will be used for business purposes. We can name it the CARICOM Free Zone and open a showroom something like the Panama Free Zone. We would be able to showcase our items to the world but we can sell primarily to CARICOM. We need to take advantage of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME).”
He added that soon CARICOM will begin to realise that the prices can be much more competitive than the ones in Miami, Florida.
T&T produces many construction materials locally and some of its high premium products include building blocks and building materials such as galvanise and pearling, electricals, ceiling parts and many more.
“We can build a model home and say, ‘This entire model house, I can get for you in Antigua for a price that you will not get anywhere in the world,’” Mohammed recommended.
And while the Free Zone concept can also be applied to food, it would be more feasible to export commodities and import agriculture he said.