The mood of optimism about opportunities for Caribbean producers, many of whom attended the conference, was summed up by Sharon Ffolkes Abrahams, state minister of Jamaica, who delivered a keynote speech on behalf of the Jamaican prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller.
“I believe we can make winning deals at CARIFORUM,” she said, adding that Jamaica was keen to look “beyond the hemisphere to trade with the EU,” which is now “a major trading partner and grantor of aid.”
Jesus Orús Báguena, head of cooperation in the delegation of the EU to Jamaica, Belize, The Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands, and Cayman Islands spoke of the “substantial opportunities,” both for Caribbean businesses and for ordinary citizens, in a closer relationship between the region and the EU. He described the Economic Partnership Agreement between the EU and CARIFORUM as a “state of the art highway offering substantial trade opportunities to access the EU market.”
Since the signing of the CARIFORUM-EU partnership agreement in 2008, the EU has provided over 165 million euros in development assistance, which has strengthened regional authorities, civil society and the private sector, expanding the scope for cooperation.
“It is my hope and expectation that, with the business reforms being undertaken, and more expected to come, with donor support and with your audacity, we will see a more diversified and competitive Caribbean economy, to the benefit of all its citizens,” he added.
The conference provided an opportunity to showcase some of the Caribbean’s diverse range of top quality products – herbs, spices and cocoa from the agricultural sector, as well new opportunities provided by the region’s rich cultural heritage, particularly in the music sector.
The scope for increased cooperation in higher education was also explored. Greater mobility – helping more Caribbean students to study abroad and bring their expertise home, as well as allowing more international students to come to the Caribbean – could help to enrich the region’s higher education sector and create a strong basis new partnerships.
Abrahams was keen to stress the importance of education and training in the partnership.
“We must adapt to rapidly changing global competition…” she said. “For Jamaica to be and remain competitive, we must explore new markets and give our workers new skills…”
Percival Marie, director general of the CARIFORUM Directorate in the CARICOM Secretariat, pointed out that, despite the mood of optimism, many important matters were still outstanding, including an agreement on customs duties and improving tourism and cultural links, as well as operational challenges presented by factors such as limited human and financial resources.
Abrahams also spoke of outstanding problems, describing the response of the region’s private sector to the new opportunities afforded by the EPA as “less than stellar.”
“There is room for improvement,” she said.
The conference, which continues on Thursday with sessions on opportunities in the music industry, agro-processing and higher education, provides an unparalleled opportunity for networking between business people from Europe and the Caribbean, as well as a forum for high-level policy discussions.
“The CARIFORUM-EU Business Forum has the potential to provide a wealth of information on trends and opportunities in export markets. It is often in these environments, where buyers and key contacts from around the world come ready to explore business opportunities, that linkages and relationships are formed which can help our producers and service providers to reach new markets,” added Pamela Coke Hamilton, executive director of the Caribbean Export Development Agency.