Barbados and several other Caribbean countries are on a path to growing the coconut industry so they can position themselves to meet increasing demands for the product globally.
Through the Alliance for Coconut Industry Development in the Caribbean project, several of the region’s allies have partnered with governments and agencies here to expand and develop the industry throughout CARIFORUM. The programme which began with a phase one from 2015 to 2018, saw the launch of phase two recently in Barbados, which will continue until July 2023.
One of the farmers taking part in the project is Mahmood Patel, who operates the company, Coco Hill Forest. He received training and information on a range of topics including irrigation, pest control, management, fertilization, and best practices for the industry from planting to selling, which he said was a plus for him.
The agriculturalist said he would be focusing on the value-added aspect of the programme over the long-term. Under the scheme, Coco Hill Forest was able to plant some 500 coconut trees and is in line to plant another 300 or so in the coming months.
“The idea is for us is to do flour, sugar, oil and the other byproducts of coconut,” said Patel, who has been farming for the past seven years.
In the first phase of the programme, officials brought in what were considered some “hybrid” coconut from Brazil and shared them among farmers in 12 countries so they could maximize their yield or get started in the industry.
The 12 CARIFORUM states benefiting from the project are Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.
In all, some 5,000 farmers were able to source planting materials from more than 20 seedling nurseries. Over 2,000 farmers and 474 extension officers were trained in nursery management, pest management, crop production, processing, trade, finance and group dynamics.
Officials reported that about 48 public and private institutions have better support services and business-enabled environments for small-scale farmers and businesses as a result of the partnerships and training provided in phase one.
Patel told Barbados TODAY he was happy to see the upgrade being done to the sector, adding that the country had long been in need of more variety of the palm tree family.
“One of the issues we have in Barbados is that sometimes we think of coconut as something we can just plant and you leave it and it will grow. But it needs to have a lot more care and intervention to be more fertile and productive,” he said.
He believes coconut could be “one of the major crops” that the Caribbean could focus on developing and exporting, pointing out that the region had a flourishing coconut industry before. It is estimated that there are some 13,000 known coconut farmers in the CARIFORUM states.
“We need to own our destiny and our future and not follow what other people dictate. The coconut industry or integrated farming or vertical farming or moving away from monoculture crops like sugarcane only – we need to look at that. So the coconut industry with value-added parts to it is a positive development,” he said.
Patel focuses on regenerative agriculture in the rural parish of St Joseph in Barbados and some days works with up to four people on his farm. This means he rehabilitates lands in the Scotland District area, doing terrace farming of coconut trees, cocoa, coffee and integrated farming, which would see bananas and ginger also being planted.
“We use a kind of permaculture farming too. So no pesticides, no herbicides, and we also look at what we call carbon sequestration,” he added.
Patel, who also works in the hotel industry, hopes that his work would help towards Barbados’ quest for food security and value-added. One of the problems facing the industry, he said, was the lack of adequate financing, adding that many bankers did not know how to value a project. He hopes to scale up his Coco Hill Forest farming business, pointing out that the coconut project allows him to “network with other farmers and stakeholders in the macro industry”.
Under phase two of the project, officials are hoping to focus on providing better access to more reliable information and intelligence in relation to identifying markets for the product. They are also aiming to provide improved production capacity, better infrastructure and governance to help them scale up, while helping to attract more investment in the sector. The project doesn’t only focus on the producers, but also on the vendors and those who use the product as a value added.
Public Relations Officer of the Barbados Association of Retailers, Vendors and Entrepreneurs (BARVEN) Valentino Barrow told Barbados TODAY he is satisfied that coconut vendors would reap benefits.
“When you look at it on a larger scale, there are benefits because farmers can increase their coconut trees and thereby increase the supply of the coconut water and also look to see what other products can be had from the coconut; even the shell can benefit craft people,” he explained.
“So this initiative is heavenly because not a part of the coconut has to go to waste. It can be totally utilized. I see it benefiting us in more than just coconut water or just the coconut that we sell to the bakeries. I see it benefiting the craft people and the agriculture sector, where we can use the byproducts, some of it going to help make feed and fertilizers for the crop. This is a well-received project. I would advise all of our people who have an interest in it to pursue it with vigour because it is a welcomed initiative,” he advised.
Pointing to the growing global demand for coconut, Director General of CARIFORUM Percival Marie said he was hopeful that the region would become more self-sufficient and be in a position to also fill the gap.
“Since 2008, global demand for coconut and coconut products has increased by more than 700 per cent. Based on current data from the international coconut community organization, the gap between supply and demand is unlikely to be corrected for more than 16 years,” he said.
“The global coconut value chain is at a critical juncture with the rapidly growing demand and almost stagnant supply,” he added.
Marie said addressing the issue of declining yields and low productivity was critical to repositioning the region to satisfy growing demands, and he urged stakeholders to ensure that the Caribbean was in a better position to fill the void through the programme.
Executive Director of the International Trade Centre (ITC) Arancha Gonzalez explained that part of the project was also aimed at addressing the lack of long-term investment in the sector, and to helping small farmers and processors get more involved in adding value.
“Phase one has produced a chocolate bar that is produced with coconut from Ghana and coconut flakes from the Caribbean and you can buy it in the supermarkets,” she said, adding that it passed all the local and international requirements.
“This is what the value chain is about. It is about more value-added in the region, more transformation in the region, that helps to generate more employment in the region, more employment that is better remunerated in the region, with better working conditions. That is what this value chain development model that we call Alliances for Action wants to achieve,” she explained.
“So in a nutshell, we want to do more and we want to do better, and understanding in doing that, the private sector has to take the lead. We have to do this with the farmers and governments have to follow with the right policies,” she said.
Meanwhile, Director-General of the International Cooperation and Development at the European Commission Stefano Manservisi cautioned against bad management of the programme, saying it was critical to have good governance.
“We can have niche management that can become extremely rich if they are well-managed,” he said.
He also called for more strategic partnerships, stating that it was important to incorporate the use of technology. Manservisi said it was his wish for a fund to be established for the industry to help with its financing needs.
Phase one of the project was funded by the European Union to the tune of €4 million, and phase two will receive an investment of €6 million. Organizations and governments in the region have also pledged some US$40 million investment in the sector. (MM)