Among Industry, Commerce and Agriculture Minister Audley Shaw's great strengths as a public speaker is the ease with which he makes people laugh.
That talent was much to the fore recently as Shaw told a Chamber of Commerce forum how his wife had used cassava wine in cooking meat.
“I not telling you what kind (of meat) because some (Seventh-Day) Adventists might be here,” the minister quipped.
The guffaws and giggles which followed in no way masked the message Shaw was seeking to get across. Jamaicans, he said, were increasingly finding ways and means to bring “value added” to their farm produce, something which he said the Government was eager to encourage.
That approach, Shaw said, was important as the country strives to achieve sustainable economic growth.
“Increasingly we have a global market that is growing in sophistication. They are looking for unique products. Look at some of the ones we are producing: pumpkin wine, sorrel wine, cassava wine,” Shaw told a quarterly parish chambers luncheon hosted by the Manchester Chamber of Commerce.
The key to innovative agro-processing production would be the provision of support for entrepreneurs. For that reason the Government was establishing agro-processing incubators to provide training and start-ups, he said.
“Young entrepreneurs said to me, 'Mr Shaw we can't find factory space, we need factory space'. So among the things we are doing is that we are putting together (agro-processing) incubators across the country, at least eight of them right now, in RADA-supported facilities. Along with these RADA (agro-processin)g incubators, and the Jamaica Business Development Company we want to provide the kind of support that these small businesses will need in order to not just develop their products for local consumption but critically to target the export market. Additionally, I have decided that we need to have at least two or three agro-processing centres, islandwide, one in Kingston, on in the west and one in central Jamaica…” Shaw said.
He said the expansion of capacity in central Jamaica was especially important because of the multi-billion US-dollar investment planned for the Chinese-owned JISCO Alpart alumina plant in Nain, St Elizabeth, which is likely to transform this section of the country in the next few years.
“We will benefit from the technology that the Chinese will bring not only in alumina and aluminium industry but also into vertical integration of what we grow, process and export. This was the vision of Prime Minister Andrew Holness when he merged industry commerce, agriculture and fisheries because he fully recognises the integral relationship between agriculture and agro processing. …We have to stop importing and grow more of the raw materials that we need. So it's a time now for us to really get aggressive to give support …,” he said.
That recognition had also influenced his decision to stop the planned divestment of a nine-acre property housing the old Agricultural Marketing Corporation (AMC) building on Spanish Town Road and instead use it to develop agro-processing factory space.
“I said to myself, how can this be?… Nine acres of land was about to be divested. Next thing you know it would be another used car lot to bring in more imports. And we talking about moving from poverty to prosperity? Well, I have stopped it (divestment) with the support of the prime minister. We are going to turn (it) into a modern integrated agro-processing centre to target export production and to support young entrepreneurs, some of whom are graduates with multiple degrees and we as a government have a duty and responsibility to give them that support,” Shaw said.
He envisaged that “appropriate square footage” of factory space at Spanish Town Road would be rented “to our young entrepreneurs and give them that chance to grow…”
Regarding primary agriculture, Shaw said technology must now be front and centre.
“Technology can be a great part of the answer to climate change, (in the use of) irrigation for instance to increase agricultural output. Gone are the days when farmers must sit around and pray for rain and pray that when rain comes it don't come too hard and too long. We have to think out of the box now. All is not lost. Right in this parish, right now we have a company (Manchester-based Isratech) that is manufacturing irrigation systems that are appropriate for small farmers,… where we can even use the negatives of agriculture by putting your tank on the top of the hillside, streaming your irrigation lines into your fields and guess what? you don't need a pump because you gravity feed water back into the fields. … I have to get that technology into the hands of small farmers in Jamaica,” he said.
He hailed the benefits of protected, controlled agriculture, including greenhouse technology in regulating access to sunshine, rain and in combating disease.
“We are looking at the cannabis (ganja) industry and when you talking for instance about medical cannabis, medical ganja… one of the things is that you have to produce that marijuana in conditions that are sterile and that's where greenhouse technology comes in,” he said.
Shaw said he was also focused on restoring traditional agricultural crops – not least coffee — which have declined steadily in recent years.
“Twenty years ago, this country produced 700,000 boxes of Blue Mountain Coffee and… 400,000 tonnes of High Mountain Coffee”, much of it in Manchester, he said.
“Today we only have 20,000 boxes of High Mountain Coffee, five per cent of what we did 20 years ago. Today we are only reaping 230,000 boxes of Blue Mountain Coffee… one third of what we did 20 years ago,” he said.
He warned that the uncontrolled importation of coffee would have to stop.
“There are coffee farmers in the Blue Mountains right now who are trying to sell their coffee and can't sell it. That can't work. Blue Mountain Coffee continues to be the best coffee in the world. What we have to do is find the appropriate formula to make sure that we rebuild that industry for our country and for our farmers. There is lot of work to do,” Shaw said.
He insisted that other agricultural sub-sectors including, sugar, cattle, and coconuts would also be streamlined and that thousands of acres of idle lands will be put into use.
Shaw, who is Member of Parliament for Manchester North Eastern reiterated that crucial to agricultural expansion was improvement of linkages with the tourist industry. Business leaders, including those at the meeting in Mandeville, had a role to play, he said.
“It cannot be, it is painful for us to be bragging that we have record tourist arrivals and yet many of these planes that carry the tourists are also carrying the food to feed them,” he said.
“We have got to turn this thing around by starting a conversation and I have started it. …I have met with the tourism minister. There is a tourism linkages committee, I have met with that committee and I have encouraged that we should have careful discussions with all the hoteliers,” Shaw said.
He commended the Sandals hotels' group for setting up “an aggressive programme of acquisition of local products, fresh and processed. They have a marketing agent that goes around the country, communicates with (and helps) farmers … it has happened in North East Manchester, Sandals have worked with a group of farmers in my constituency…
“…an agent for Sandals helps the potato farmers with seeds, fertilisers, inputs, technology support … Sandals is setting an example and we want to encourage all the other hotel chains including the Spanish hotel chain (to follow the example).
“It cannot be that you take all of your products from the Dominican Republic or somewhere else externally… when we (Jamaica) have the capacity for production,” said Shaw.
Producers also had a responsibility to ensure high standards, he said. “We have to have reliable production, reliable and consistent output and good quality, otherwise that will be used as an excuse to continue business as usual,” Shaw said.
BY GARFIELD MYERS
South Central Bureau
Sunday, September 16, 2018