Heads of various investment promotion agencies in the Caribbean met in the Bahamas for a two day conference aimed at increasing collaboration between investment promotion agencies and fostering a regional approach to attracting investment.  The meeting of the Caribbean’s Investment Promotion Agencies (IPAs), hosted by Caribbean Export, will run under the theme “Strengthening our Foundation, Expanding our Reach.  Business Monday discusses the agenda of the meeting and surrounding issues with CAIPA’s president Lestroy Sammuel. Sammuel is also Executive Director of Antigua & Barbuda Investment Authority.

Business Monday: So tell us Mr. Samuel, what will be the main focus points of CAIPA for this week’s conference?

Lestroy Samuel: As the theme alludes to, we are, as an organisation, trying to solidify a brand new organisation to expand the region’s reach so that the world knows the Caribbean is a place to do business, a place to invest and that we are serious… we can meet their needs. [Admittedly] we have a long ways to go in terms of sound infrastructural development but in terms of the human infrastructure, ideas and passion for getting things done we already have an attractive investment to offer. The conference itself aims to re-enforce the importance of us working together to strengthen the region. The rest of the world, particularly investors tend to look at us as a single region. By facilitating networking to build a strong organisation that speaks as one, we can achieve significant economies of scale, developing the capacity to deliver strong promotional incentive programmes to investors, so that our business climate can be pooled. We are working together to do that so that we have common legislation… that contributes to doing business in the region…where one investor coming into the region in one territory can easily access another territory without the large amount of bureaucratic processes we have now.

Business Monday: You alluded earlier to the importance of regional integration, a phrase thrown about for many years. How easy has it been to sell the region integration agenda to the various territorial investment agencies?  Has there been issues arising out of the perceived discrepancies between the economies – big 4 versus the others – and their own investment objectives be it manufacturing, gas and oil exploration or financial services?

Sammuel: we have recognised the diversity in our levels of development and capabilities. Notwithstanding that we can say that we are and will remain in a competitive position. Each IPA will have its own focus. However the general membership supports the aspect of working together recognising that if something is in their interest we are all individually at will to pursue that ardently just as if we did not have a regional body.

Business Monday: But let’s be more specific. When you have countries like Trinidad and Jamaica with strong manufacturing sectors, Guyana with its mineral and agriculture, Barbados and its services, how does one find a marriage to promote a regional agenda?

Sammuel: we seek to work with those countries that are already strong and existing in certain areas and ask them to share their approaches to things while working with the lesser developed ones to build their capacity to do business up to the level of the more advanced. Trinidad is intrinsically well off in oil… Guyana in precious minerals… [but] marketing is key, being able to establish leads in attracting foreign investors. We try to assist, more that usual the smaller jurisdictions that are not able to afford the development resources that they need so that they can come up to that standard we seek across the board. We will not hold back from them but will assist. We have to be considering how broad our membership is.

Business Monday: So we can assume that the “weaker countries” have fair representation on the board?

Sammuel: Yes, each country is equally represented. We have one vote per member in electing the board.

Business Monday: You spoke earlier about the need to have a regional policy framework for investment. What exactly would this look like and have you made any recommendations to heads of governments thus far?

Samuel: No we have not put forward. But one of the example is a policy towards the level of competency that we need to be a successful investment promotion officer. And we do extensive training for that we have standards that we are establishing for that. We have just formed a regional investment promotions committee (comprising of members of the CARIFORUM). We met I Guyana in august to put that together and we had our first board meeting in St.Kitts last month. That body will be coordinating a regional development policy and develop strategies and finding best practices for investment promotion.

Business Monday: in your opinion, what are the priority areas of investment on which the region should be focusing now?

Sammuel: We need to develop our services. We are well endowed in this area with our superior competencies in various disciplines. We have a high intellectual capacity so we need to look at developing this area. That’s why we place such a heavy emphasis on training and development. We like to see a push in the creative industries – film… Tourism is and remains one of our priority areas. We need to reach a level of excellence in this sector not just in building the tourism plant, but in enriching the experience the tourist has when he or she comes to the region… [this will certainly involve the establishment of ] more hospitality schools of excellence.  Capacity building in these sectors is a priority for us. We want also to be able to market properly, to do well in terms of our in terms of our investment promotions, being able to convert our leads. We have to be able to demonstrate that we have both the physical properties as well as the soft infrastructure (human capacity). And even with the existing physical infrastructure, those need to be developed.

Business Monday: Let’s pick up on the issue of being able to market our investments appropriately. Barbados has been recently criticised by several tourism pundits, for what they perceive to be a declining ability to successfully market its tourism product. Collectively they have said we run the risk of being pigeonholed into a brand which was strong in the past, but now offers little to be competitive with our regional counterparts and those emerging players who have eaten up quite a share of the market. We struggle to remain unique some say, we fail to aggressively and strategically market to our target sources.

Sammuel: I tend not to agree. The country is fairly strong. We look to it as one of the stronger economies in the region. Admittedly we’ve had some difficulty with working with Barbados in that they have not been attending our meetings. We’d really like to get them involved. Through the international resources available to us we can work to identify where the gaps are (if they do exist) but certainly Barbados, from where I stand, is not any worse off to some of the other economies.

I’d add [generally speaking that] marketing is important to us in two aspects. One, we must have our house in order and be able to deliver the product and the service at adequate levels. Secondly, we must build an easily recognisable brand. We must be sure that we can go out there and find out the needs of the investor so that we can draw the parallel between what they are looking for and what we’re able to offer and where, informing them of the resources in the various jurisdictions. One of the issues we face is a lack of timely information gathering, this is critical for investors. One of the things we are seeking to do is to establish a database which can be accessed by all the membership, a foreign investment pipeline many of our membership cannot afford to pay for this. But as a group we can put this together, we are already negotiating to get this up and running so that the information be used as the basis of planning and decision making and monitoring.

Business Monday: We know that this conference and the work of CAIPA is being funded by the 10th EDF Regional Private Sector Programme. With that fund’s primary focus facilitating EU market penetration, will CAIPA be only targeting investors from the usual traditional markets; EU, USA?

Sammuel: The EDF, though with a primary focus on EU market access, does not restrict us to any one particular market. Certainly we will continue to search for investment into our traditional markets but we also recognise the significance of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia India and China). Brazil has been an interesting prospect for us and we will be looking to forge ahead with them to gain technical assistance and know-how in the area of agro-processing.

Interview by RuthMoisa Alleyne, Business Monday, The Barbados Advocate, November 26, 2012