Thursday 3rd August 2006


Small entrepreneurs breaking borders

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These children take a break among the craft items.

Samples of the artwork available.

The Hat Queen Cheryl-Ann Johnson checks one of her creations. Photos: Wesley Gibbings

By Wesley Gibbings

The term “CSME” will hardly ever arise in a conversation with The Hat Queen, Cheryl-Ann Johnson, but her experience as a premier manufacturer of woven caps and hats is known throughout the Southern Caribbean as part of an export thrust that thrives despite the faltering integration project.

Over the past eight years, Johnson’s favourite markets have become St Vincent and Grenada. Her frequent forays almost always yield 100 per cent in sales involving at least 100 hats per trip. How’s that for a sales record?

Like many entrepreneurs featured at the Trans-Atlantic Expo 2006, which was hosted by the Emancipation Support Committee (ESC) at the Hasely Crawford Stadium from July 27 to August 1, the Arima-based entrepreneur may also not belong to a high-profile business grouping, but she has a lesson or two to teach about creativity and resilience.

Johnson designs and assembles the hats and caps, manages the accounts and does all the marketing and sales. Her only wish is that available, affordable outlets should be constructed throughout the country to ensure more widespread exposure to her products.

Once a street vendor, Johnson said constant police harassment eventually helped move her business to another level.

Being female and African, she told Business Guardian, has never been a “disadvantage” for her. It’s a question she quite readily dismissed.

Shoemaker, Roland Warner of San Fernando, who has teamed up with Johnson also has his eyes set on an international market.

“There is definitely scope overseas,” he said of his shoe, sandal and leather-craft business.

Operating in a saturated business, further challenged by recent Guyanese competition, Johnson said the creativity bar is constantly being raised. “If you have to compete, you must be the best,” he said.

Such a designation is aptly claimed by Jesse Samuel of Caribbean Pottery. Samuel is a self-taught artist (“I born with this”) who has teamed up with Vivica Yearwood to create an outstanding array of ceramic ornaments “from scratch.”

The ten-year-old, Caroni-based enterprise manufactures high-end ceramic products commissioned by local art lovers and retail outlets in St Vincent. The work produced by this operation is comparable with anything like it anywhere in the world.

A Web site is currently being developed to promote the company and its work in international markets where Samuel believes the future action resides.

“I think Caricom has opportunities,” Samuel said, “but we are also looking at the rest of the world.”

Janice Kelly-Thong of Petrose Designs of Morvant knows the story well. After 15 years in the arts and craft business, the company launched into the “Caribbean African” garment industry and it has been smooth sailing so far.

Petrose Designs has exhibited at trade fairs in the United States, St Kitts and St Lucia and Kelly-Thong believes that the only assistance required from anyone is in the area of marketing.

She lamented the fact that official agencies here focus almost exclusively on access to finance—“which is understandable,” she said—but that not enough accent is being placed on creating marketing avenues for small, local entrepreneurs.

“By and large,” Kelly-Thong however said, “we saw the potential and we are doing this on our own.”

Kelisha Heywood, who assists in managing Pet’s African Store together with her mother, Petronilla Heywood, also had no complaints.

Business has been “excellent” over the last two years. Pet’s specialises in African wear imported mainly from Ghana.

She said the exposition provided a good opportunity to showcase the company and reported that sales were at least as good as the 2005 edition of the event.

The exposition originated from an ESC decision in 2000 to “establish a series of symposia focused on business and economic development to coincide with the annual commemoration of emancipation in the Caribbean,” according to its Web site.

“The idea is to transform this region that was once the core of a notorious triangular trade into an axis of economic growth capable of meeting the challenges of globalisation, empowering indigenous entrepreneurs and creating more equitable societies.”

Entrepreneurs exhibiting at the Trans-Atlantic Expo are not inclined to use such language. Their performance appears to speak loudly enough.





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