Meet the enterprising mango farmers of Mayaro whose aim is to plant every variety of the delicious fruit on their sprawling estate nestled on the edge of the Nariva swamp.
Kissoondial Nandoo used to plant rice in the lagoons for many years but felt cheated on the price of his produce and eventually gave up and abandoned the parcel of land he had been farming at Cascadoux Road, Kernaham Village.
But a bright spark from his daughter, Lonella, 28, who took up a part time job at a St Helena grocery to help pay for her studies has now birthed his passion for planting and one day realising his dream of owning his own orchard.
Nandoo, 77, an active man, is one of many entrepreneurs in the Mayaro district to have utilised loans from BPTT's Mayaro Initiative for Enterprise Development (Miped) to help his family-owned business grow.
In 2008, Nandoo, his wife Gundai Bipram and their children started a new venture to grow mango trees after observing that the plant was fearing well in the rich outflows of the swamp and had the uncanny ability to survive flooding.
He planted 30 trees of the sumptuous Julie and favoured starch varieties at first and over four years had a total of 250 plants, mostly long mangoes.
Back then, there was no bridge to access his estate and with a loan from the Agricultural Development Bank, he was able to construct a concrete bridge.
As the trees began to bear fruit, the Nandoos were generous, giving away hundreds to passing strangers and villagers, sometimes trading their produce for vegetables, provision and other fruit.
They currently have rose, hog, Buxton spice, turpentine, doux doux, primrose, Mayaro girl, zabico, stinky or red gyul, thin skin (known in Jamaica), cutlass, Dora, Jamaican special and Kandahar varieties. In the dry season they offer tours of the estate and mango tasting ventures.
Nandoo wants to have a mango museum, where every variety of mango grown globally can be harvested at the estate.
Lonella hatched the idea to provide frozen mango already cut up for the pot while working as a data entry clerk at Aeromart supermarket when she saw merchandisers delivered pre-packaged mango for sale ideal for curry mango, amchar and kutchela.
"I said to myself 'we could do that' since we had so many mangoes at Mayaro," she said during an interview with Business Day.
Lonella, who went on to graduate with a diploma in agriculture from the University of Trinidad and Tobago, and then a bachelor's degree in food science and technology, is the brains behind the Nandoo brand and intends to expand the business, making preserved mango and wines from the vast variety of fruits on the four-acre estate.
They constructed a prep house and obtained all the necessary health approvals to be able to sell their produce.
Her employer was one of he first supermarkets to begin retailing Nandoo's product and the intention is to market the brand across TT. They also supply food caterers and restaurants with their produce.
With demand growing and a bounty of mangoes the Nandoos had to almost immediately expand their business and needed funding to install a walk-in freezer to store almost 3,500 three-and-a-half pound bags of cut-up mango. Each bag retails for an average of $31 at the supermarkets and can be bought at the farm for $25.
Accessible and affordable financing
They approached Miped in 2018, based at the Mayaro Resource Centre, located a short distance away from the district's fire station, and with the help of loans/field officer Pauline James-Williams, they got an initial loan of $20,000 to purchase the freezer compartment, similar to what is used on the back of a small truck.
Nandoo said he had approached other financial institutions but there were many hiccups in accessing funding. Through Miped the process was almost effortless, and they used the kitchen appliances as collateral for the short-term loan.
As soon as the compartment was installed and they paid off the initial loan, the Nandoos went back to Miped for additional funding to install a compressor and other components to get the freezer working and intend to approach the organisation soon to buy a generator to reduce the high electricity costs.
Like the Nandoos, other farmers, craftsmen, variety shop owners, mechanics and a host of other micro-businesses have launched their ideas into reality though Miped.
The programme was launched in 2002 with a seed grant of $1.2 million from energy giant BPTT. The company has had a close relationship with Mayaro for decades through its significant investment in the south eastern block. That initial contribution has now mushroomed to $11.5 million and has served some 5,600 clients with a loan portfolio of $117 million.
Almost half the clients are returning customers and 90 per cent of them are in good standing. There is a cap of $100,000 per loan without board approval.
BPTT's community liaison officer Matthew Pierre has been credited for creating the concept through his conversations with members of the community and the door remains open for other budding entrepreneurs to grow their business or start a new one.
Miped specifically caters to people who cannot meet the stringent requirements of a regular financial institution; its intention is to create sustainable employment and growth through relevant training in marketing, accounting and management.
Miped's general manager Rory Jitta said the initiative has helped create 5,000 permanent jobs and many of the small clients have grown to be able to contribute to the economic development of Mayaro beyond fishing.
A worthwhile model
BPTT's community sustainability and stakeholder relations adviser Joel Primus said through Miped many members of the community have been able to rise out of poverty and become self-sustainable. The aim of the programme is to help build resilient communities that can sustain themselve
s beyond energy.
Another energy giant, Atlantic has replicated aspects of Miped in its own Atlantic Local Economic Deveopment programme, which caters to communities in Point Fortin and Cedros and Primus believes that there is scope for a deeper national conversation among other corporate entities to develop similar programmes for their respective zones.
Miped's success has also piqued the interest of the United Nations, which is now exploring how more farmers can benefit from increased capacity and boost local food production.
Large-scale farmers Shaheed Khan and his wife Everlene Sookram-Khan launched their full-time careers through Miped after being rejected by other financial institutions for additional funding to expand their farm.
Using their household appliances and furniture as collateral, the Khans started off with micro-financing of just $5,000 to plant a mixed crop of ochro, cucumber and bodi. Within four months they were able to repay the loan and gradually their one-year loan went up to $60,000.
Back then the Khans did all the work themselves manually; now they employ four full-time and four part-time workers and own a tractor and other vehicles.
They grow fields of watermelon and are one of the suppliers of scotch bonnet and Moruga red hot peppers to National Canners for the Matouk's brand of pepper sauce.
Everlene said the difference with Miped was that they "showed that they cared about the people in the area and have given back to the community and the farmers."
She encouraged any farmer to approach Miped with their idea and they are almost guaranteed to get approval.
Heston Ragbir, another successful farmer in Kernaham who has acres of plantain and other crops, also endorsed the BPTT initiative.
"Miped was the only way to pull we out fast," he said after his crop of watermelon was destroyed by floods and disease.
With a loan of $25,000, he and his mother-in-law Jean Motie, were able to bounce back and invested in hundreds of plantain suckers.
Ragbir said he used his farm equipment as collateral and has been a returning client to Miped as his farm expanded.
He too encouraged farmers and other entrepreneurs to tap into the resources of Miped to help Mayaro become a beacon of the south-eastern coast long after the energy giants are gone.