Jamaica could be on a roll
IT was an energetic January, a launching pad for what I believe could be a meteoric year for Jamaica. Various private sector groups have been drilling down into the issues they must tackle if we are to turn this very deep corner in our economy. The fact that so many stalwarts in industry and commerce are taking our economy so seriously is one that should encourage new entrepreneurs to persevere.
I had two important interviews over the past week with two extraordinary Jamaicans: the understated chairman of Food For the Poor and financial director of Wisynco, Andrew Mahfood; and Jamaican winner of NBC's The Voice, our sparkling Tessanne Chin.
As I spoke with Andrew, I felt the same patriotic fire of his dad, the late Sam Mahfood, who was a dynamic president of the Private
Sector Organisation of Jamaica. Andrew gave a tight analysis of our economy at a Jamaica Manufacturers' Association forum last month.
"Our nation faces a must-win between getting multilateral support and further economic crisis," he said, noting the following:
"The exchange rate is declining. The Jamaican dollar has been devalued 14.5 per cent in 12 months. It looks to be slowing, but availability is tight;
"Inflation is increasing by approximately 10 per cent in the last 12 months. Essentially, our costs are increasing. Consumers' purchasing power is therefore down. Selling prices may need increases, but this is difficult as purchasing power decreases;
"There are pluses and some minuses to the recent tax reforms;
"The infrastructure is slipping in the areas of education, necessary services, crime."
Andrew's comment on our infrastructure is well informed from his active chairmanship of Food For the Poor Jamaica (FFPJ), where he accompanies his teams in health, education, agriculture and housing projects to identify the most urgent areas of need. He launched the current FFPJ drive to raise funds for 15,000 desks and chairs badly needed in our schools.
"Too many schools are in dire need of desks and chairs and so our children have to be standing or 'kotching' in class," he said. "That's a less than favourable learning environment. We need them to perform at their best, so we need to ensure they have desks and chairs."
"What can we do differently in our businesses to reduce our costs, develop new products, and become more efficient?" asks Andrew, and immediately gave his colleagues these pointers, which I am asking our readers to share widely:
"Tax Reform: This presents a huge opportunity. The Employment Tax Credit (ETC) offers a tax credit of 30 per cent of statutories (NHT, etc). We can reinvest those savings. Note that you have to pay on time and be compliant to be eligible.
"Low Jamaican dollar interest rates: Never before have I seen these rates in Jamaica.
"What can we invest in now using low-fixed J$ long-term loans (five to seven years) to make more products or become more efficient and cost-effective? For example, one machine to replace six.
"Look to modern technology, energy efficiency, and information systems — we must get accurate information to make correct decisions.
"Can you export? Devaluation has provided an opportunity for us to decrease export prices in order to get greater market share overseas and valuable foreign exchange.
"How many manufacturers produce on weekends? Hopefully all — JPS rates for off-peak times of day users are the lowest. They work out to approximately US 23.5c /kwh, whereas on peak approaches almost US 50c per kwh. Weekends are all off peak with partial peak 6:00 - 10:00 pm.
"DBJ [Development Bank of Jamaica] renewable energy loans [are on offer]. Review some energy-saving projects - let the savings finance your programme.
"Invest in our local stock market. There are great companies trading below book value.
"There are opportunities around us, we just need to be more optimistic, less pessimistic," opined Andrew as he referred to a Jamaica Observer editorial headlined, 'Five signs that Jamaican prosperity is now on the horizon'. The editorial highlighted prospective lowering of energy costs, construction of facilities for the logistics hub, encouraging developments in agriculture, support for the legalisation of ganja, and economic discipline as a result of our IMF deal, and the resolute leadership of Finance Minister Peter Phillips.
Tessanne's heart for the poor
We caught up with Tessanne Chin during her tour of the Food For the Poor Headquarters in Coconut Creek, Florida, on Friday. Tess was there to learn more about the charity she was supporting at the "Building Hope Gala" for Food For the Poor, which has raised millions for the needy in some 17 Caribbean and Latin American countries.
She said she found the exhibits showing 'before' and 'after' photos particularly moving. "To the left I saw these two almost skeletal little sisters, and to the right two chubby little munchkins!" she exclaimed. "There is a light in their eyes where there was none before." She said that the work of Food For the Poor showed it was "an empowering organisation, not a pity organisation".
Tessanne was happy to be a part of this effort. "If we are not standing for each other together, then why are we here?" she asked. "At the end of the day, we are all just people and we all need to look out for each other. I was happy to help Shaggy's cause for the Bustamante Hospital, because our children must have the basics — food, clean water, shelter, medicine.
The compassionate Jamaican reflected that there must be a way to end the grinding poverty that exists in so many parts of the world, including Jamaica: "There has to be a better way, and I want to be a part of that change."
Convent of Mercy — Alpha Academy standing tall
It was a special honour to address the prize-giving ceremony of my alma mater, Convent of Mercy — Alpha, celebrating our 120th anniversary this year. The McAuley Hall of my time has given way to a beautiful new building and the Monkey Tamarind tree in which we carved our names no longer stands. But the spirit of Alpha is undiminished and its standards still high. The principal, Mackran Singh, leads an orderly, disciplined school, which has seen 81.9 per cent of candidates passing five subjects, including English and/or mathematics, in last year's CSEC examinations, placing the school in the top 20 in Jamaica. The ceremony unfolded impeccably, and I believe even our legendary past principal, Sister Mary Bernadette Little, would have been impressed by the delivery of Head Girl Sherese Kerr and Student Council President Devonna Forrester.