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 and access.
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.