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Rahid Doekhie, President of ASFA

Interview - October 18, 2011
ASFA is committed to boost the production in Suriname, and to foster the development of the country creating a better atmosphere for the entrepreneurs.

Suriname has come a long way in the past decade. Inflation has stabilized and the economy experienced tremendous growth, which peaked at 7% in 2008, and has remained buoyant ever since. Furthermore, investments from both the private and public sectors have supported growth across all sectors of the economy. Could you please give your opinion to our American readers on the state of the economy in Suriname and what is your valuation about the objectives achieved up to now?

I won’t go too technical, first looking back I think our view on the outlook of the economy is that we had some rough times. We had a few periods in our history with  high inflation rates, but I think for the past ten years we’ve been trying to get it stabilized, get the economy going. And there are a few simple factors doing that, job creation of course, a stable rate for the U.S. dollar is very important as well, and of course inflation must be kept down, and so the government debt, this is very important.
And if we look at it, there is another very important factor that we as manufacturers look at, which is the level of production, of production exports, this is very important.  We’ve had the same government for ten years with very little interest in production and export, and that’s not so good. Although they had a very high emphasis on stabilizing the economy, stabilizing the exchange rate, getting resources up, which is also good, you have to do that side by side with increasing production, increasing exports, stabilizing exports and balancing your economy. You can’t do them one after the other.

So at the moment our economy is relatively stable, but fragile as well. That’s because production levels aren’t quite high enough. Our exports aren’t high enough, so of course we need to work on that. Now we are in a good position that our government has pledged to invest a lot in production to facilitate manufacturing and exports, and I think the ball is in our field now, because we have to see what we need and having this choice is a good thing.  I think whenever a country or economy reaches that point that the ball is in the field of the manufacturers to just say what they need to be done, then it’s a good point, then you have a good outlook. Most of the time you get scared because you might not see what should happen to increase this economy, to benefit from it, but we’ve produced some documents, we’ve done some research, we’ve looked at the economy and looked at potential manufacturing sectors. We think that first things first, don’t try to do everything at once, do first things first. Look at which sectors we’re going to develop, which sectors need more attention, and how we’re going to facilitate exports. We’ve set some goals and we’re working on them. We have achieved some of the things already within a year now, some of the small things like expediting export time, shortening the time to export, shortening the time to import, making documentation easier, improving on software for customs, for example.

Founded in 1980, ASFA is the most representative producers association in Suriname. With more than 125 members, ASFA is committed to boost the production in Suriname, and to foster the development of the country creating a better atmosphere for the entrepreneurs. What has been the development and evolution of ASFA since it was created, and what are your main goals in the short and long term?

I’ll send you the main goals by email because I don’t know them by heart, but the most important goals are actually the development of ASFA just like every other organization. We started off very entrepreneur-wise, being always eager to fight the standing organizations. We had a situation in Suriname in the 1980s where we were very import oriented and although ASFA members and manufacturers were part of a bigger organization, the focus was not on manufacturing, so for the start of ASFA, we needed more focus on manufacturing. We’ve experienced development, as every organization we’ve matured over the years and I think we are quite professional now. We’ve moved from being very hands on organization to the better more professional organization now.  We represent most of the manufacturing in Suriname, almost 90% of the GDP, that’s a big representation. In fact, it’s the most representation, we have members in the State Council, the Social Economic Council, the Business Forum of course, the Tripartite Overlap which is another advisory council, we have representatives in Banks, in Steering Committees, etc. Today we are refusing to represent some others, because tourism sector for example is requesting to send a representative, but we are to focus on our core business only, that’s what ASFA is.  Actually, we represent the manufacturers of course, and we’ve our main goals in our policy plan, which is not too long, it’s for two years.

The last goal was increasing exports by 100%, a very simple goal because we have everything needed to do that.  So we try to get manufacturers to manufacture again, instead of doing all these administrative tasks, waiting for licenses, filing documents, etc. We think if you’re corporate manufacturing, you should focus on manufacturing, and actually we do everything that is necessary to get that done.  We have a very big lobbying role and lobby a lot with the government.

We can observe that ASFA collaborates very closely with other institutions like SBF or the Chamber of Commerce. How would you consider the importance of creating alliances and collaborations with other national organizations, and how would you evaluate the relation with the government?

Our relationship with the government has always been and still is very critical with the government, but we have developed one thing with ASFA for the last years, namely that we never complain without offering a solution. When we complain, we say we think something is not good, but we think you should do it like this, instead of just complaining and running away. Positive complaining, that’s what we do, we always work out solutions for problems we think we have. We do that as it is done all over the world, at a very high level of lobbying, I think my role is very clear in that, we need to move around like officials, we do the official stuff, we lobby and we have contacts. Our networks are very good, we have big networks and we’re a very professional organization. And we are also consultants, the Minister of Finance will not move without consulting us when it comes to the investment law, since ASFA plays an important role. I think whenever you consult us  you cover an import part, 90% of the GDP.

There is a growing interest and effort in promoting the Suriname’s exports towards the international community, and therefore the ASFA is creating a quality standard named “Made in Surinam”, that is going to imply a strong impulse for the country branding. Considering the intention of Suriname to be the leading producer in the CARICOM region; how do you evaluate the importance of creating a country brand, and what could the role of ASFA be in contributing to enhance Suriname’s products at an international level?

You are very well informed.  
Actually “Made in Suriname” is already in our layout as a separate section, I think it’s something very important to speak about.

We think that image is everything. We need to enhance the image of Suriname. We have developed from being the manufactures and producers of basic products without any added value, from basics you need to eat and drink. We’ve moved forward from that, and we’re competing on the market in the CARICOM region and the rest of the world. So we think that ASFA’s role is to add a positive image to that, and the Made in Suriname quality mark is not just something that ASFA gives, it’s an official quality mark registered with the Bureau of Standards here, also registered with the Caribbean Standards Organization, and ultimately we will be registered internationally with ISO. We have HACCP certification in the company, you get a certain level of quality mark, and we did it explicitly to relate it to the official standards, international standards, because we need to enhance the Surinamese image, the products of Suriname. We act as an advisor of the government, but as well as advisors for the producers that want to reach this standard of product.

Your country and the United States engage in mutually beneficial relations, based on the principles of democracy, respect for human rights, rule of law, and civilian authority over the military. Thus, the US remains one of Suriname's principal trading partners, being the largest import provider to Suriname, accounting for 30% of all imports, and the third largest export market for Suriname. In fact, Mr. Caldeira said the United States is one of the most important countries in the economic development of Suriname. How would you evaluate the overall state of Suriname-U.S. relations today and what role does the US play in Suriname’s economy?

I think the United States plays a very important role in our economy. For instance, in the speech of the Ambassador from the United States to Suriname in the beginning of this year, he emphasized that. Although we always think that the Netherlands has a very important role, I think the Netherlands has a more family oriented role, a more emotional role in our economy. The U.S. has a very important economic role, looking at raw materials, and of course our Surinamese dollar is closely related to the U.S. dollar, it’s almost hand in hand, if the dollar moves up, we move up, and if they move down, we move down, it’s really very strictly related. And you see that below the surface of a lot of U.S. humanitarian missions, we export also to the U.S. You can see that we are currently working on the CARICOM/Canada agreement, and although it says CARICOM/Canada, it has a lot to do with the U.S. also, because of the U.S./Canada relations. I think it’s a very important role. 

A few years back we had some problems with imports from the U.S., and looking at simple numbers you could feel it instantly, that there was something wrong with that relationship, but I think the U.S. has taken politically a very mature approach to our political and economic situation, much more mature than European countries. That’s good because when you can say that you are supporting democracy, then you’re supporting it either way. And we can see as well that the cultural relation is on the street, it’s on the radio and the TV, people from U.S. will feel like home here.

In cooperation with the Caribbean Export Development Agency (CEDA), the Caribbean Association of Investment Promotion Agencies (CAIPA), a few months ago took the initiative to conduct a study on attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to the region, including Suriname. This study is intended to improve the investment climate. As our report is going to be read by the main top leaders and decision makers in the United States, which will consider investing out of their frontiers, ¿could you tell us what are the main advantages of the country in order to attract FDI, and what are the main sectors of economic activity that present the most potential in this sense?

To start with the main reason to invest here, it is that luckily our government has a very open mind for investors now. There are some preparation on completely new investment laws, investors can invest here and get their revenues easily out without any limitation, that’s also very important.  What we have here is a special facility, whenever you invest above a certain amount; you always get a special law. Actually, we now already have enough energy supplies, the infrastructure is being upgraded, telecommunications are slowly being upgraded, the internet connection is close to being good, etc. But I think that the most important advantage to attract foreign direct investment is that we have a safe environment. I think I can safely say that we have a safe environment here, we have some crime, but if you measure it in relative terms, you see we have a very low crime rate. People can move around freely, and for investors of course it is important that they can have revenues and move them out of the country. Of course they need documenting and acquiring the necessary licenses, but there are no problems or limitations to that. The government now with the Minister of Finance, has an open minded reception to investors, so that even if there are no rules or regulations on something, they are willing to work with you on anything, I think that is important.
Regarding the most important sectors, I think mining of course, but in agriculture production there are opportunities as well. I think we have a lot of potential for agriculture here and we do a lot in agriculture. That is a sector that’s going to develop very fast.

We know that the President wants to be a food supplier for the region with so many virgin lands. 

So do we, so do we, we are focusing on that, focusing on the added value chain for agriculture.

How would you evaluate the importance of attracting FDI in order to boost the national strategy?

No, no, no, it’s almost impossible to develop an economy without FDI.  It’s mandatory, absolutely, no question about that. Actually, focusing on attracting the investment, we’re doing a new investment law which will facilitate foreign direct investment as a domestic direct investment, so we are not distinguishing any more if you invest 100 million or 50 million you get the same rights, same facilities.
Suriname is the undiscovered gem of the Amazon. Bearing in mind the strong media impact that this campaign is going to have, and that all our interviewees have been acting as ambassadors of Suriname’s image at an international level, how would you like your country to be perceived by the US community?

I think we would like to be perceived as a friendly and open economy, being democratic. We have very liberal views, you have talked to a lot of people, I think you must have seen we are quite liberal in our perspectives.. An open economy, friendly, and one important thing here is if we look at our diverse cultures, you see that we adapt to new situations quickly and in a good manner, and that goes as well for the economy and doing business in Suriname.

You have to look at our culture and religions, the way we manage that is expressed in how we do business, because we manage to find the right balance in culture and religion here, and we use the same ability to do that in business. I think it is very good, for example in the Netherlands there are too many regulations regarding religion and culture, you have to learn Dutch, etc. Sometimes it’s good, but never with religion and culture, it’s too fragile. We go above that, and you must have seen here that we leave religion to the side and all get along well.

We actually think that Suriname is like a futuristic country in the way that, so many cultures living peacefully together, is an example to the rest of the world.

Now that is exactly the way we are, we have to live together and not just multicultural, the Netherlands is multicultural, we are multi religion. That is exactly it, we are very easy going with religion and listening and learning from each other, and I think in 50 years we won’t have separate ethnic groups anymore, two generations from now I think it will be one Suriname. 

In your position, taking advantage of this opportunity to talk directly to the heart and soul of the first trade partner, the United States, what final message would you send to the international investor community, in order that they decide to come to Suriname?

I think that when you look at Suriname, we have pledged to a very simple standard, a measurement standard in the workplace, and even in doing business, we have pledged to go up almost 100 places in the upcoming years. I think that explains a lot of our drive to go forward in the ease of doing business, and you know the ease of doing business has a lot to do with 10 or 12 of the things we need to improve. We have pledged to do that, we will do it in two years, so in 2014 we must be below 50, and bearing that in mind, it’s a good way to understand we’re moving forward.