Thursday, December 14, 2017

Hard-selling change inside T&T energy belt

Express editorial logo393

Mark Fraser

 Trade and Industry Minister Vasant Bharath was deservingly presented a bottle of Guapo-area honey, after he spoke up in encouragement of local investors and entrepreneurs. Honey production suggests a new way of looking at southwestern Trinidad, an area historically identified with energy-based industry.

With the Atlantic Point Fortin complex a centre of world-scale natural gas liquefaction and export, the southwest might appear irretrievably dependent on energy. But the Minister was addressing a Point Fortin forum on promoting diversified business in the region.

Mr Bharath accordingly pointed to areas of non-energy economic development. Agriculture, fisheries, tourism, film, fashion, and music count among such prospective fields. 

 Tobago might just have been showing the way in this regard. Its jazz festival, with associated fashion presentations, showcased obvious possibilities in music, tourism, and of course, fashion and design.

The minister was ringing the bell and calling out to business movers and shakers. For investment purposes, he assured, the money is available: “There is $7 billion parked in our banks today, owned by local investors. What do we do to get them to unlock that $7 billion and put them into communities?” 

Long recognised as the key to opening up business and economic initiatives, the work of releasing the dead hand of bureaucracy must claim a place high on the action agenda. Last week, too, in an interview with the international publication, WorldFolio, Mr Bharath cited the danger of making false promises to would be investors: “The last thing we want to do is to have an investor get excited, come to T&T, and we’re not ready for them.” 

He talked a good game about readiness to grapple with “cultural issues” and about forcing “work ethic” changes. And he claimed the positive result of reducing the “process for business licensing from 43 days to three days”. 

Still, a lot remains to be done in the area of affecting expectations bred by the habit-forming process of dependency on the all-important energy sector. Mr Bharath referred to the “boom and bust economics”, deriving from the uncontrollable ups and downs of the energy market.  “We’re trying to limit the significance of oil and gas,” he added,  “so we aren’t dependent on that one commodity.”  

To take T&T over the psychological hurdle of energy sector over-reliance, confident and forward-looking investors and entrepreneurs remain in need. In a country that has done well by energy, the need for change is not, however, easy to sell.

Mr Bharath, to his credit, appears willing at least to preach the message of economic diversification. Doing so should help release the brake on the “parked” billions in would-be investment dollars. If he also manages to devise policy to liberate bureaucracy, and make things happen, Mr Bharath will have earned at least another reward in made-in-T&T honey.