Friday, November 27, 2009


Anyone who has taken the time to observe the local economy here in Antigua will have noted the almost ineluctable way that supply expands to exceed demand. From the moment the first boutique hotel opened its doors to guests a few years ago, you just knew that there would be a dozen or more of the damn things in no time at all.

And not only has the current global crisis failed to cull their number significantly, but a similar phenomenon now appears to occurring in the restaurant sector — for it cannot have been so long ago that 'Panzón Verde' was the only upmarket noshery in town to preface its name with that pukka little moniker Mesón. Not so anymore.

(COMO is a relative newcomer that somewhat intrigues me, as it appears quite trendy and yet offers homemade Franco-Belgian cuisine. Could this really mean that the kitchen will be full of toiling Franco-Belgians in homely chequered aprons, rather than cheap Guatemalan labour?)

It's revealing how many small businesses here advertise themselves as one of Antigua's 'best kept secrets', because the very dynamics of the market here conspire to hide almost every enterprise in a crowd of replications.

A couple of years ago I suggested to my brother-in-law that he might like to manufacture and market a certain artesanal product I had seen doing rather well in Mexico, and he responded sourly that he's need to achieve a bulk sale of 5000+ of the things in his first six months before the opportunity was siphoned away by all the copycat entrants.

Success isn't something that Guatemalans admire in quite the same way that gringos do. For example just the other day Jaime was telling me how a bloke who has been making a matanza in the market selling street snacks was widely rumoured to have sold his soul to San Simon! And another local entrepreneur once commented bitterly to me that chapin business bods would usually rather try to pull you back to their level, than compete in order to outperform all-comers.

Having spotted the fate of countless cyber-cafes and shuttle services, one friend of ours spent a good deal of time thinking very carefully about how he might structure a retail business here in Antigua so that no chapin would ever be able to duplicate the proposition. Arson-attacks aside, it's been very sucessful and is still, remarkably, one of a kind in the city.

Sometimes the only way to generate scarcity is by flogging an otherwise familiar product to which an exceptional value-add of creativity has been applied. Such is the case I believe of Santa Chivita, a shop on 4a Calle Oriente joint-owned by a colleague of my sister-in-law at USAID.

There are several other examples of negocios where quality and originality in design or concept have created some sort of barrier to entry, but not even the recently-deceased founder of Jades SA was able to monolpolise the market for the green stuff for long, and Rudy woke up one morning to the insistent knocking of his would-be doppelgänger,

Competition is usually a good thing, right? It's just that the way it seems to work here is to guarantee that nobody ever makes a decent living and innovation is comparatively difficult to either achieve or demonstrate.

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