Rajiv Diptee

:‘Customers’ resources depleted’: Rajiv Diptee

Head of the Supermarket Association of Trinidad and Tobago Rajiv Diptee is hoping that a waiver of traditional freight charges, taxes and rents on imported goods will be announced in today’s national budget.

He said yesterday that this would redound to consumers “getting the best price” on goods.

Finance Minister Colm Imbert will present the 2021/2022 budget in the Parliament from 1.30 p.m.

In an interview with the Express, Diptee acknowledged that the economic situation faced by many consumers was a worrying one.

He said while there was an increase in food prices even before the Covid-19 pandemic, it never occurred with “this kind of frequency or jump in such a short period of time”.

“It’s a situation whereby you feel for the consumers, those who are now emerging from Covid-19. We are very cognizant of the fact that savings have been depleted and that the average consumer is poorer coming out of the lockdown and that they need time to catch themselves or recover from this tumultuous period,” he stressed. “In that regard, when we look at the food basket of items, things like oil, rice, flour, sugar, butter, milk, cheese, meats, etc and you analyse the different portfolio of products, you see where the price increases have happened. And we’ve explored the various factors affecting the price increases, not least the increase in freight, insurance and transportation of vessels carrying these containers.”

High prices no fault of retailers

Diptee insisted that the high cost of food was no fault of retailers.

“It is really important to note that local retailers and local importers do not control the prices that they are being given. When they go to their foreign companies they are quoted at the going rate,” he emphasised.

“We acknowledge our role as a net importer of foods in T&T and there is very little outside the scope of what we consume that we actually produce, and what we produce, foreign inputs go into the cost of production...things such as flour. So we are greatly affected as a small island in the Caribbean, effectively constraining our ability to produce goods. So from that point of view, we are price-takers on the international market. So whatever is happening in a global way impacts us as a net importer of foods in T&T.”

He noted that while there was no control over the cost of goods on the global market, on the local front, there were measures that could be put in place to keep prices down.

“I think that for a long time, enough pundits and commentators have said enough about what’s happening at the port and the Port Authority. We can take a look at what happened in Guyana where President of Guyana Irfaan Ali gave instructions for tax waivers to the government of Guyana so that they would be able to cut some costs in bringing in the goods, as well as look at the efficiencies that need to be tightened at our domestic port of entry,” he highlighted.

“This all goes back to the ease of doing business, making it easier and simpler. There are a lot of things that can be achieved to cut costs if there were greater efficiencies and greater ease of doing business,” Diptee said.

He said Government has acknowledged the rising food prices and the Ministry of Trade, which has been monitoring the situation, has been keeping in touch with the association.

“I think that what we expect to see (in the budget) is some softening of traditional positions by the Government in their analysis of the situation and our analysis of the situation, which means that we acknowledge from a national perspective that we can only achieve so much, because at the end of the day we are still buying the goods from the outside,” he said.

“Import substitution strategies have a gestation period, so while there may be products being brought forward by the Ministry of Agriculture and other bodies, they take time to get off the ground. So for the short term or at least for the next budget year, we’re going to be a net importer of food,” Diptee pointed out.

He suggested prioritisation of foreign exchange to domestic suppliers and importers to continue prioritising essential goods.

“This has traditionally come via the Eximbank with whom we have a wonderful working relationship and which has actually been functioning pretty well throughout Covid. Their allocation needs to be continued and perhaps expanded beyond a list of items we regard as core food basket items,” Diptee said.

Farmers feeling the pinch

On the agriculture side of things, farmer and founder of non-profit organisation WhyFarm, Alpha Sennon, explained what was contributing to the current spike in some market prices.

According to the Norris Deonarine Northern Wholesale Market report for August, the price of chive jumped from an average of $40 per bundle in July to as high as $140 per bundle at the end of August.

Sennon noted that whereas hot peppers, which were once $35 per 100, now cost $80 per 100.

“A lot of people who don’t farm would see tomatoes gone up to whatever price and chive selling for $140 a bundle and wouldn’t realise there is a reason for that. In most recent times, besides flooding in some areas, the weather changes would have affected a lot of the crops...so from some level of very, very hot sun to off-and-on rain would affect some of the crops,” he explained.

He said this was why he hoped that in today’s budget, there would be focus on developing more climate smart technologies in farming communities.

“When I travel to different parts of the world there are weather forecasting systems in farming communities so people would go and see what kind of weather is expected on a particular day, so they can adapt their farming practices to beat the system,” he noted.

He stressed that efforts should also be made to train farmers in adapting to climate change.

“Farmers cannot farm the way they were doing 40 years ago. The reality of it is that they wouldn’t just pick up their phones and Google what other farmers are doing in Germany or Indonesia. The ministry, alongside the private sector and NGOs, have to team up and go into communities and do that training,” he suggested.

Sennon said also contributing to the final price of produce is the high cost of input supplies such as chemicals and fertilisers, which are imported.

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