The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Governments and people all over the world to rethink all aspects of their lives, many of which they might have taken for granted before or which seemed to proceed without a real sense of direction.
In the Caribbean, one sector which has been the subject of much “rethink” rhetoric in terms of its future growth is agriculture. Prior to the pandemic, much of the conversation focused on this region’s efforts to cash in on what it was told was a burgeoning medical marijuana industry. Now, with most of the world shut down, which of course has had an impact on our food imports, and with the hurricane season just around the corner, the dialogue must shift not only to how we sustain ourselves meaningfully during these times but in the future.
At a recent webinar held under the auspices of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the CARICOM Secretariat, St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ Minister of Agriculture Saboto Caesar called for greater use of information and communications technology in gathering market intelligence, to ensure regional farmers got regular, consistent and good prices for their commodities when they attempted to sell them intra-regionally.
He declared: “One of the greatest problems we face is the absence of organised information and marketing intelligence. All too often, when a trader from St. Vincent ships his produce to Barbados, for example, he does not know what price his commodities will attract when it lands there, neither do the people in Barbados have any idea what the buying price should be. If there is no organised marketing intelligence framework you cannot properly calculate your return on investment, and this can turn businessmen away from the sector.”
During another discussion on CBC Television’s The People’s Business, Barbadian farmer Lorenzo Harewood, the executive director of the non-profit Farm Finders Global, made a similar point on market intelligence. “When it comes to the supply point, and issues of supply not meeting demand, one of the problems is that supply does not know demand and that is why there are imbalances in the importation of produce,” he said.
On the regional level, Harewood said: “Many countries including the UK, are seeing a shift away from state support, and more private sector and non-governmental organisations are getting involved, but a lot of the discussion I am hearing here in Barbados and in the region leans too heavily on the government. What I would like to see is governments creating a viable environment for the sector to thrive.”
At the FAO session, economic policy adviser and private sector representative, Patrick Antoine, expressed similar sentiments and made suggestions in response to a question from the Bahamian Minister of Agriculture Michael Pintard who asked about new financing options for agriculture.
Said Antoine: “We need to recognise that our capital and finance marketing sites are underdeveloped. Jamaica in the last five years has shown us the way with its Junior Stock Exchange. This is important because the people in the country who understand the market and will invest in it will be more comfortable with the risks for the nationals and the diaspora, whereas someone further away will want something more that our countries cannot accommodate. Trinidad has experimented with this and has had two successful projects so far and we think this model will work in agriculture.”
In addressing price disparities and increasing the levels of intra-regional trade, Antoine said: “It would also be good to have a regional body that will invest in commodities across the region and will cover distribution and production. We can use some of the borrowing power government has with its private sector fund. We have an example now where Government is prepared to put funding already set up for agriculture, and the private sector is putting in more to create a new entity to fund critical inputs for large industry. This is where we need to go in agriculture”.
Apart from concentrating solely on a potential “cash cow” that is still illegal in many countries and while Caribbean islands battle with how to incorporate the Rastafarian community into the equation, food is what we need to focus on. “Grow what you eat, eat what you grow,” we are admonished. Now it’s time to get food distribution right so that we can feed ourselves effectively no matter what storm or pestilence, natural or man-made, may come our way.