President Dr Irfaan Ali—a man on a mission

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President Dr Irfaan Ali at a press briefing held last Friday in Trinidad and Tobago

August 21 (Trinidad Express)- “I end on a good note for my friends in Trinidad and Tobago—whether it is curry chicken or chicken curry, we will have ¬curry.”

These were the words of Guyana’s President, Dr Irfaan Ali, 42, at the Agri Investment Forum on Friday.

What he did not say is that he cooks very good curry, and when he is not working to transform Guyana and pursuing his mission of food security for the region, he enjoys turning a good pot.

In a one-on-one interview with the Sunday Express at the National Academy for the Performing Arts, Port of Spain, on Friday, the President, who returns to Guyana today after a five-day state visit to T&T, shared his vision for Guyana and a bit of his personal life that has made him the man and leader he is today.

Asked how he spends his free time, he said, “I read a lot, but I love to cook and I love to play a good game of cricket.”

His best dish? He replied, “I can cook anything, duck curry and cook-up.”

Ali said he was not born into wealth, but learned the value of hard work, education and service to people from his parents, who were both educators.

“My mother retired as a deputy chief education officer. My father was a school principal so I grew up in a public service environment. My grandmother was heavily involved in politics, my whole family, so I was exposed to public life at a very early age,” he said.

His family made many sacrifices, just like other families in Guyana, to ensure he was educated and he pursued his academic career, and today has many letters of honour behind his name.

Ali said as a child he was well rounded, with focus on both academics and also having fun playing 

cricket and volleyball.

He said he spent most of his holidays as a child in a rural island called Leguan, where he learned lifelong skills in terms of fishing, ¬agriculture, working in the rice fields and understanding how agricultural society works.

After writing the then-Common Entrance Examination, he went to school in Georgetown—St Stanislaus College—and from there, went on to pursue tertiary education. 

He is the holder of a doctorate in urban and regional planning from The University of the West Indies, a Master of Arts degree in manpower planning, among other academic achievements (see sidebar).

Meeting wife Arya

As for love, the President met his wife, Arya, at a function in Guyana’s capital of Georgetown.

They have been married for five years and have a young son, Zayd.

Questioned on whether it was love at first sight, Ali replied, “Immediately I knew she was an -interest to pursue.”

He said as a father he hopes for the best for his child, and he wants to work to ensure all the children of Guyana have a brighter future to look forward to.

Asked where he sees himself in the future, Ali said, “I just see myself as the servant of the people as long as the people would have me there. I believe strongly in democratic principles, I believe in building a One Guyana in which we can bring prosperity to every Guyanese, we can develop Guyana in a way that is socially just, that leads to sustainability and a resilient future.”

His vision, he said, is to build a transformative Guyana in a low-carbon development context, “a Guyana in which transformation means human resource transformation, social transformation, financial transformation and economic ¬prosperity”.

Guyana’s abundance of natural resources will be instrumental in its development.

According to the President, the South American nation can also lead in addressing the issue of climate change, as he noted Guyana has 19.5 gigatons of carbon that can earn substantial revenue once deployed in the carbon market.

He said other natural resources such as gold and diamonds also have markets to develop in a low-carbon strategy framework.

Guyana is on a path to becoming an oil-rich nation and, with all of its resources in other areas, the President said he wants to ensure there is unity and equitable distribution of this prosperity across Guyana for all its people.

Ali said the physical infrastructure of Guyana will also be transformed and it will be a country where there will be state-of-the-art hospitals, housing for the people and an overall development of the land space, including a new city connected to Georgetown.

“What we will see over the next few years is a comprehensive build-out, rebuild of our infrastructure landscape to meet the demands of the future and to ensure we create efficiency in the system itself, tremendous investments in new highways, water treatment,” he said.

“We want to position Guyana to be a major health service provider for the diaspora and for the region itself, so we are investing and we are supporting investment in state-of-the-art facilities,” he added.

Infrastructure and development

Ali said four private hospitals are under construction at present, as well as six new regional hospitals and one children’s and maternal hospital.

He said the government was working with Mount Sinai on developing the ecosystem to support these health services.

The President and his government are also working on a programme to achieve 50,000 new house lots by 2025, and having every young professional owning their homes.

He emphasised the importance of education and noted that with the changing modern world there is also a need to modernise the education sector and ensure children at the primary and secondary school levels learn coding.

“We want to position Guyana in the cutting edge of technology. To do this we have to invest at a very early age. We are working on a programme that would see every primary school child leaving primary education with at least elementary training in coding, every secondary school child having intermediate training in coding and software development, we’re building a national training centre that will train not only for the oil and gas sector, but will train human resources to meet all the new sectors that will come,” he said.

Energy sector

The President also spoke to the Sunday Express about Guyana’s booming energy sector.

Questioned about the possibility of Guyana investing in Trinidad’s refinery at Pointe-a-Pierre, given the country’s access to oil, Ali responded “at this stage in the development of the oil sector, we have reviewed numerous requests and proposals for investment in a refinery in Guyana. We have not yet formalised any arrangement in this direction. Our oil is now marketed through a bidding process whilst Guyana will not invest at this stage in the building of any refinery in or out of Guyana, as we see this as a private sector investment. Therefore, options to refine Guyana’s oil, especially for our regional energy security, can be examined. However, at this point, Guyana’s policy position is not to have government investment in these facilities.”

Asked whether Guyana has decided on usage of its natural gas, Ali said Guyana has already made a decision on the first pipeline which will be built 225 kilometres long, with the capacity of bringing to shore a minimum of 120 million cubic feet per day of natural gas.

He said the initial output for this pipeline will be 50 million cubic feet of gas per day, which will be used primarily to power a 300-mega¬watt power plant that will reduce the cost of energy by at least 50 per cent, the development of a natural gas liquids (NGL) facility, and lay the bedrock for the building of an industrial estate.

Simultaneously, he said the government is working on a national gas plan which includes discussion with other regional partners so as to determine the most optimal utilisation of its gas for the benefit of Guyana and the region.

Local content

Questioned on what stage Guyana’s GTL/power facility has reached, Ali said the responses to the Request For Proposals (RFPs) will be submitted by the middle of September, with the expectation that an Engineering Procurement Construction (EPC) contract will be executed and commenced by the fourth quarter with a target completion of the power plant at the end of 2024, and the Natural Gas Liquids facility by fourth-quarter 2025.

Guyana has also implemented a policy that local content must be utilised in investments in Guyana.

He said this policy facilitates investment and creates an even platform through which the local private sector can develop, and a minimum carve-out can enable the building of capacity and provision of services by the local private ¬sector.

Additionally, he said the local content policy allows for the building of partnership, transfer of technology and fostering greater integration and collaboration with local, regional and international companies.

“It is, therefore, not a hindrance but a facilitator of private sector development, capacity building, technology transfer and human ¬resource development,” he said.

Exchange rate

Questioned on whether he was satisfied Guyana’s exchange rate is appropriate for its stage of development, the President said Guyana’s exchange rate cannot be determined by a singular sector.

“Our future will be built on a balanced and diversified economic system in which various sectors will integrate to meet the developmental aspirations of the country. Our monetary and fiscal systems must therefore reflect this delicate balance.

“We are not pursuing ‘look good and feel good’ policies but, rather, policies that are appropriate to the holistic development of our economy. It is in this context that Guyana’s exchange rate must be viewed. This balance will include managing trade and investment within the context of our balance of payments,” he said.

Asked about the future of Cari¬com, Ali said Caricom has the potential to become a stronger group.

“What the world has taught us through this pandemic and this supply chain crisis is that we cannot ever think that we can do this alone, we need a stronger community, we are stronger together, we need to coordinate more our policies, we need to more strategically align our objectives to fulfil the dreams and aspirations of the people of the ¬region,” he said

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