Aubyn Hill, financial gleaner COLUMNIST
When I joined National Commercial Bank (NCB) as its group managing director in August 2002, I soon found out that all the uniforms for the bank's female employees were imported.
I thought this was foolish and reasoned that we must have enough people in Jamaica who can make uniforms.
Needless to say, I was told how Jamaican manufacturers were unreliable in terms of delivery dates, produced shoddy uniforms which the banks' employees disliked, and the businesses were undercapitalised and could not handle a job size that NCB's order would be.
I respected the opinions of the NCB executives that were involved but noticed a bias toward using a foreign supplier, and there was an absence of any suggestion to work with a local supplier.
I contacted the Jamaica Manufacturers' Association (JMA) and told them of NCB's desire to purchase its uniforms locally.
They brought a uniform manufacturer to us and I sat in the first couple of meetings with the JMA, the manufacturer and the NCB team.
We worked out an arrangement whereby NCB would offer a multi-year contract to the local producer, competitive prices were negotiated and a payment formula confirmed, and NCB agreed to submit its orders with enough lead time to the manufacturer to allow for timely production and delivery of the uniforms.
The manufacturer did need some additional equipment and staff, but the longer term contract provided the security for the loans (from my recollection NCB granted), which were needed to finance the new manufacturing resources.
The JMA provided good advice and careful monitoring for the first few years and the arrangement worked out with few complications.
BOJ A JOB EXPORTER
In researching information for this article, I was very surprised to learn that the Bank of Jamaica (BOJ) issued a J$30,168,800 contract to a foreign contractor to produce and deliver female uniforms for the bank staff for the period 2012 to 2014.
My surprise was not due to the fact that the information was concealed, indeed it was not and was freely accessible on the NCC's website; my surprise was triggered by the fact that the BOJ is supposed to do every reasonable thing to keep foreign exchange in Jamaica.
Certainly, the BOJ could work with the JMA and local manufacturers to have these uniforms made in Jamaica.
Like other government agencies, the BOJ appears to have no policy to keep as many jobs as they can in Jamaica, and without such a plan the natural approach appears to be to export Jamaican jobs by default.
Earlier this week, I was reliably informed that the BOJ advised the sole local bidder for the manufacture of office furniture for the bank that it had lost the bid worth J$16m, apparently to a foreign supplier.
One hopes that the BOJ will find a negotiated route to keep such a contract in Jamaica for the benefit of Jamaican business proprietors and workers.
Alas, there are many other commodity, services and equipment imports which the Government and its agencies undertake which could be sourced in Jamaica if given a little more thought, and a lot firmer commitment to create new jobs in Jamaica and save our ever more expensive foreign exchange.
The school-feeding programme is one such activity.
There were more than 640,000 students registered in the public school system in 2009. About 62 per cent were either beneficiaries of the National School Feeding Programme managed by Nutrition Products Limited (NPL) - some 130,000 - or the subsidised cooked lunch programme, which supplied 262,000 students.
The latter included 85,000 students enrolled in basic schools which benefited from the commodities channelled through the Early Childhood Unit of the Ministry of Education.
When one checks the published data, hundreds of millions of Jamaican taxpayers' dollars are used to fund these programmes.
By some accounts, the NPL is quite reluctant to develop local foods and drinks as alternatives to imports.
Any number of challenges and excuses are proffered to keep the food-importing regime as it is. Many big and small business leaders have been frustrated by the approach of the NPL.
Government officials pay little attention and have little interest to intervene and make changes.
As far back as 2010, 'A Rationalised National School Feeding Programme' was the heading of a draft Cabinet submission which was to be 'A Catalyst for Scholastic and Health Benefits and the Recovery of the Local Dairy Sector'.
The purpose of the submission was clear: "For Cabinet to consider a policy of rationalising the National School Feeding Programme for increased support to domestic agriculture in general and the dairy sector in particular."
Well, after all these years, nothing has happened.
The milk powder used in the school-feeding programme is all imported - 100 per cent of it - while the programme has the potential to turn the production of milk into a real Jamaican dairy industry.
It is said that the amount of milk powder in the milk fed to schoolchildren is below the international recommended levels, and we do not use refrigerated trucks to provide a cold train that is required for the milk to meet normal health standards.
The 2010 Cabinet paper sought to mandate that by 2011 the Ministry of Education contract local processors to supply specified milk product. Nothing has happened.
I know the current minister of education is meeting with local food and drinks producers to find new ways to use local foods to feed our schoolchildren. That process needs to come to a speedy conclusion.
Government agencies and corporate bodies find many excuses not to use local products and keep importing foreign items. No doubt, there are sometimes real obstacles to buying locally produced goods.
Often, however, a little cooperation, a commitment not to import coupled with a determina-tion to buy locally, and sometimes even assistance to local producers, can overcome these challenges.
Sometimes government agencies even use the excuse that specifications on a brochure do not match that listed in the response to an RFP.
There are whispers that some foreign buyers provide inducements to some procurement people. Then again, some local businesses are terribly risk averse - an aversion born of their experiences with corruption and the long deteriorating economic climate.
Still, when the minister of education stretches out his neck to offer multi-year contracts to schoolbook manufacturers, some of that fear of commercial risk should fall away.
Aubyn Hill is the CEO of Corporate Strategies Limited and was an international banker for more than 25 years.Email: firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @HillAubynFacebook: facebook.com/Corporate.Strategies