Mississippi businesses see potential for trade with Cuba
By LISA MONTI
Biloxi businessman Mike Alise was among a delegation from Mississippi
who traveled to Cuba in February to look for trade opportunities.
Alise, the owner and operator of Gulf Coast Produce, said he was struck
by the lack of available food on the island and the fact that Cuba has
to import the most basic commodities from Vietnam and other distant sources.
"I met with the minister of agriculture and he said they need food they
can buy from the states," Alise said. With his business connections and
distribution network, Alise said he could help fill the gap. "I get rice
from Crowley, La., 600 miles away, and (Cuba) is buying it from
Vietnam," he said.
Another item readily available in the U.S. but in short supply in Cuba
is fresh milk. "I'd send a truck to Miami full of milk. It's 90 miles
away by ship"to Cuba he said.
Gulf Coast Produce, owned by Alise and wife Christi, has two warehouses
in Biloxi and Foley, Ala., and had $40 million in sales last year.
The trade trip Alise and other business people took Feb.19-22 was
arranged by the Mississippi Development Authority. It dovetailed with a
visit by Sen. Thad Cochran and officials representing Mississippi ports
and other interests.
MDA officials said interest in doing business with Cuba is high among
state businesses, including wood products, industrial machinery,
construction products and shipping.
"The areas holding the most potential for doing business with Cuba are
for food products such as produce, poultry, rice and other agricultural
products and for logistics in the case of our two deep water ports,
Gulfport and Pascagoula," said Rose Boxx, director of MDA's
International Trade Division. "Cuba imports most of the commodities they
consume and use on a daily basis."
She said the ports signed a memorandum of understanding with the Cuba
National Port Administration during the recent trade mission.
"Tourism and foreign direct investment have also increased tremendously
in Cuba over the past two years, creating the need for more goods to
support the hospitality industry and the infrastructure improvements to
the island from foreign capital," Boxx said.
Alise said there are opportunities for everything from hotels to
restaurants. "It's incredible," he said.
MDA hosted a seminar in October on doing business with Cuba to help
businesses learn how to capitalize on the changing Cuban market. "In
addition to our recent educational seminar and trade mission, we speak
and meet one-on-one regularly with companies interested in Cuba
regarding the current regulations, business environment and
opportunities," Boxx said. "We are also in regular communication with
our trade contacts at the Cuba Embassy in Washington, D.C., in order to
stay informed and continue to enhance Mississippi's trade with Cuba."
Alise said the first trip was a "meet and greet" exchange and that he
would like to return to Cuba in a couple of months to build and maintain
contacts there. "They like building relationships. I want to go back and
get out to the farms, see what they're growing and do some fact finding.
I've done that for years with Panama and Colombia," he said.
Alise said he's interested in bringing in farmers to teach Cubans how to
grow garlic and other products to diversify their crops. He in turn
would buy the excess crops to sell in the U.S., much like distributors
do now with countries such as Honduras. "It lets them be self
sufficient," he said. "They are hard working people but they just need
some help and we're the closest to them. And Cubans like to do business
in the southern U.S. region, which makes sense" because of the proximity
Alise said the state has a lot to gain from trade with Cuba. "It's
exciting for Mississippi if we wrap our heads around it," he said.
Source: Mississippi businesses see potential for trade with Cuba -
Mississippi Business Journal -