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Saturday 20 July 2019
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Sandals is gone: but we can still bet the farm

Kiran Mathur Mohammed


Steaming mud, blazing sun and the darker shadow of our history weigh heavy in the imagination. This are the images of farming in the tropics.

Enticed by oily promise and eager to forget the past, we abandoned agriculture. It now comprises just 0.4 per cent of GDP, according to the Finance Ministry. And with Sandals gone, we must look elsewhere for growth.

Farmers are plagued by thieves, pests and pestilence. They battle with soil erosion and illegal chemical dumping on arable lands. They cannot get workers. And managing water is difficult.

Yet according to the World Economic Forum and Bain & Co, 54 per cent of food loss in the developing world happens because of inefficiencies in handling, storage, processing, packaging and distribution.

Simplifying and communicating complex EU and US rules alone could make a big difference to hopeful exporters. As anyone who has attempted to smuggle a mango off a plane will tell you, agricultural exporters must navigate a thicket of regulations. Ten per cent of Kenyan avocados are rejected at European borders simply for being too small.

This is worse for smallholders who lack technical knowledge. Some add several more spoons of pesticide than manufacturers advise, because they think they’ll kill more pests.

This is exciting. It means that tremendous growth can come simply from education, collaboration, integration and technology. We don’t have to rely on the heavens.

As for solving these problems, education has the biggest impact. China recently undertook the largest ever outreach programme to convince farmers to adopt best practices. The project, which provided on-site demonstrations and high-quality seeds and fertilisers at some sites, cost US$54 million. It increased crop production by 11 per cent, reduced fertiliser use by 15 per cent and created US$12.2 billion of value.

If more farmers shifted to strategic, lucrative crops like cocoa and pepper for export, they could make piles of cash.

The government already runs training programmes. It can increase its investment in them and take them to the farmers themselves.

Growth will come from larger farms. Yet new technology is allowing more collaboration. Smaller farmers can come together to pool transport, administrative and marketing costs, like sharing truck and container space, or paying for security.

A single “Brand TT” can advertise quality: Trinidadian cocoa and peppers alongside Colombian coffee. Industry bodies can co-ordinate common quality and packaging standards. This is where the government can help: by funding such a body and playing a catalytic role.

Its members must be policed for standards to be credible. Grading or certification can help. Consumers (especially millennials) increasingly value authenticity and quality (as organic as possible) and are happy to pay more for it.

It is policies like these that allowed Kenya to double avocado exports in four years.

Of course, far more value is created up the chain: when we move from cocoa to chocolate. This is integration. Pathmanathan Umaharan and Naailah Ali at UWI (formerly the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture) have already demonstrated this.

Our farmers already recognise that. The planned establishment of a pineapple processing plant in Moruga motivated farmers this year to increase production by 41.3 per cent.

When farms mechanise and link together with value-added ventures like chocolate or pepper sauces, they create jobs that people actually want. This could help relieve the current shortage of workers not keen on backbreaking work in hot sun for a small wage.

To bridge the gap until we can get there, we can issue more work permits to Venezuelan refugees, following on the momentum of Caricom’s recent reforms for agricultural guest workers.

As economist Ricardo Hausmann has pointed out, it is such connections that help an economy transform from a subsistence base to a manufacturing hub.

The next green revolution is upon us. Sensors, automation and drones are rapidly allowing farmers to monitor and maximise yields. Apps like Agripredict use phone pictures to detect pests or diseases. It can forecast the probability of invasions by pests and the possibility of droughts, floods and cold fronts.

In the bio-tech space, researchers in the Dominican Republic sterilised male Mediterranean fruit flies and released them into the wild, eradicating the pest in a year without any chemicals.

The government already supports the industry with a swathe of incentives, including a $100,000 grant for technological investments. The land-lease programme is being made more efficient with electronic land cards. Farmers can invest in technology to support growth.

Our past does not have to carry the weight it does now. We can own our history, and turn it into fertile ground for our growth and ambition.


Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh.

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