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The Colombian business experience
The Lok Jack GSB recently undertook a study tour to Bogota, Colombia to allow its students and alumni to experience first-hand the culture and to give total exposure to what this now thriving South American nation has to offer by way of trade and commercial interest. Dubbed “Latin American Cultural Insights,” the group spent seven days in Bogota, where we were hosted by the Universidad Sergio Arboleda, and had the opportunity to learn about Colombia through a series of classroom conferences and onsite visits and discussions with key industry personnel and decision-makers. Prof Miguel Carrillo, executive director of the Lok Jack GSB, remarked that the trip was not geared to increasing trade with Colombia but to be able to do business in Colombia.
Colombia is still considered to be a place of serious security threats and civil strive by many outsiders. However, the country has come a long way since 1999 when it was marred by the preponderance of drug cartels, guerilla warfare, kidnapping and murders. While these issues have not disappeared, as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerilla group is still active, they have settled to the point where they have been able to make economic strides and build industry. The economy has seen constant growth in recent times and is diversified across oil and gas, nickel, coffee, cut flowers and palm oil. They have negotiated a free trade agreement with the United States pending Congressional approval and their currency, the pesos, have experienced a steady appreciation against the US$, currently trading at US$1.00 = 1,800 pesos (1,000 pesos is like $1).
Visible police presence
There are some useful insights from the Colombian experience that we in T&T can learn from as we move forward. Firstly, from speaking to many persons on the ground in Colombia, the crime situation has improved a lot since the late 1990s. What is very noticeable, however, is the visible police presence that is is virtually everywhere you go. Police are on the streets, at the bus stations and even on the buses. Along with the success in breaking up the drug cartels and weakening the FARC group, many attribute the safety of the street to having policing on the ground. One of our presenters, an American consultant working in Colombia, confessed that Bogota is now safer than southern Los Angeles and Chicago, and said that he feels safer on the public transport in Bogota than in some American cities. This is something we can draw from as we seek to fight our own crime situation. Of course, like any place in the world, there are areas that you are advised to stay away from. In Bogota, that area is the south side.
Public transport: a success story
The public transportation system in Bogota is hailed by many in the city as a success story. In a city of close to ten million inhabitants the traffic situation in Bogota is one of constant congestion—there is traffic everywhere. Without some form of mass transit system, there would be utmost chaos. The public transportation system called the Transmilenio is based on a large fleet of articulated buses operating 24/7 throughout the city. There are stations spread throughout the city with a constant stream of buses. The stations are complete with turnstiles and ticketing personnel and linked to overhead walkway for crossing. The core of its success is that there is a dedicated lane alongside the highway that only these buses use. These lanes are demarcated with a small curb wall or in some cases double lines.
You would not see any private individuals “taking a chance” to enter that lane. For one thing it would be unsafe given the frequency and speed of the buses and the police would surely be harsh on them. Granted it is very crowded at peak hours the authorities boast that the Transmilenio cut travel time by 32 minutes and moves approximately 1.8 million people daily. The Transmilenio had proven to be an innovative transportation system based on buses rather than a costly rapid rail system.
Cut flower industry
The cut flower and coffee industries are two agri-based industries that have enjoyed much success and growth. Colombia is the second largest produced of fresh cut flowers in the world. Many of the flowers here in Trinidad are imported from Colombia. While the country possesses the primary factors of climate and land space they have taken the process a step further in developing their competitive advantage. Through private enterprise they have been able to develop a vast infrastructure of greenhouses where the flower-growing process is down to a science. The stems are nourished through computer controlled hydroponics systems and there are uniform processes to be followed in term such as handling, timing and cutting.
In this way they are able to consistently produce a standard quality of flowers in a wide array of varieties and colours. Most of their flowers goes to the US and Europe. The National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia has also worked hard in making Colombia coffee a world brand and not just another commodity. Since 1959, the Juan Valdez character has been developed as an ingredient brand, to specifically denote coffee beans that are only grown and harvested in Colombia. Part of its advertising campaign is about educating consumers about the merits of Colombian-grown and harvested coffee beans, highlighting soil components, altitude, varieties and harvesting methods so as to create good flavour. The National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia is entirely owned and controlled by Colombia's coffee farmers, which number over 500,000 persons, and the brand is managed with their interest in mind. Today, the brand is well recognised in the major market of North America and the federation has now embarked on establishing high-end coffee shops in Colombia under the Juan Valdez name.
In case you plan on doing business in Colombia or would just like to visit Bogota, you should be aware of some things. It is pretty cold (average eight to 12 degrees Celsius), so a jacket is a must. Driving in Bogota is, at best, heart-wrenching, given the speed and closeness of the traffic amidst the congestion.
The people are very friendly, even at immigration and customs. They value punctuality, which can be a challenge for some who operate on “Trini time.” Also, if you are lactose intolerant, food may be a challenge as they use lots of cheese and milk. Should you visit the country, you would be pleasantly surprised by how different it is from what you have heard about the country. Maybe then, your only risk would be wanting to stay!
Balraj Kistow is a member of faculty, Arthur Lok Jack Graduate School of Business.
He can be reached at: email@example.com
Arthur Lok Jack Graduate School of Business
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