With TT being awarded a gold medal at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show in London by the Royal Horticultural Society, team leader Anthony Tang Kai and corporate communications for the team Franka Philip appealed to the relevant authorities to see the business aspect of it and how it can boost our economy in its own way.
Tang Kai said while exhibiting their display This Our Native Land, many people asked them about a supply of the local flowers, plants and tropical fruits displayed in the piece. The team’s design was done by the late Bernard Beckles who died on May 3, two weeks before the competition.
Beckles was a florist and owner of La Tropicale Flower Shop, Patna Trace, St James and was responsible for the local floral pieces for ministers and even late presidents like ANR Robinson.
The team was made up of Tang Kai, Simone Taylor, Melissa Lee Foon, Andre Crawford, Shane Valentine and Neave McKenzie.
Tang Kai said, “They saw it and they fell in love with it. It is not something that you can just go and plant out in your backyard. You would have to have a conservatory.”
How flowers and plants can be an industry
Philip, who Tang Kai described as the “corporate backbone” of their team, said, “I think it is really important for people to understand the opportunity that this (the gold medal) gives TT from a business perspective. People who see the plants are interested in them so that gives us visibility and it gives us an opportunity to be a part of that wider plant and floral industry.”
She said TT imports a lot of foreign plants and though that caters to people’s tastes here, sees the need to expose them to the local flowers as a way of reducing imports and gaining foreign exchange through the exports.
Tang Kai added that there needs to be a balance when it comes to the importation of flowers. In 2013, TT imported US$923,981 worth of fresh flowers and live plants from Colombia compared to 2021 in which the imports stood at US$576,650 as reported by the UN Comtrade database on international trade.
He said at one point in time in the late 80s, TT was exporting topical cut flowers to the foreign market, but the numbers dwindled seeing as though there was no more access to direct airlifts to the importing countries.
Tang Kai said this is a still a problem to date and it should not be, especially when trying to export within the Caricom.
He asked the relevant authorities, “How do we strengthen our local partners in terms of how best do we make things to import?”
Philip added, “I think we need to be probably a little more assertive in the way that we put ourselves out there with regards to horticulture and forestry, so that we can start rallying producers to grow for a foreign market. I think that’s really important.”
Tang Kai said aside from boosting production, there needs to be more garden tours like that of other countries.
“Unfortunately, we do not offer that here and it’s something that we need to look at because it could be – while small in the initial stages – a source of earning foreign exchange,” he said.
Philip added that there needs to be policies in place for an initiative like this where gardens are planted and people are welcomed. They both agreed that it has the potential to boost tourism and generate more income for the country from their experiences with people from all walks of life at the Chelsea Garden Show.
Philip said the culture of going to see gardens needs to be revived again.
Along with displaying local flowers in the gardens for all to see, Tang Kai suggested that the use of local flowers at events should be ramped up.
“We do have people who use it, but we still have the mindset of roses, hydrangeas, and chrysanthemums. When you walk into some of the churches, you’re blown away by the designs put together by the florists, but it is all money going out and nothing is coming back,” said Tang Kai.
He said, in addition to that, in grocery stores there are bouquets with foreign flowers for sale.
“Why are we seeing the mixed bunches of roses and sunflowers and so on, but not one bunch of tropical flowers? That is something that we should try and promote.”
He added while florists and churches take up the flowers from the Flower Market hosted by the Horticulture Society of TT on Lady Chancellor Road, people should be able to see at least one rack of tropical flowers in the grocery stores as well.
The Flower Market is opened from Thursday to Saturday at 6 am to 12.30 pm every week.
Philip said the team also has a role to play in this step, especially with the recent achievement of a gold medal for the local flora, to boost conversation around it and increase the number of people involved to keep TT earning those gold medals.
She added that in the future, the plan would be to try and get courses offered to teach people how to make any arrangement using local flowers and plants.
What the Chelsea Flower Show is like
Focusing on the Chelsea Flower Show, Philip said the budget the team works with is $250,000 which they gather from sponsorships, fundraisers and even their own pockets. But the idea now is to boost local flowers and plants so that the reliance on sponsorships can be less and it can also be a way of showing corporations the benefits of sponsoring a project like this.
Tang Kai said the budget covers airfare, accommodations, meals, materials, flowers, plants and anything else needed for the competition and the team members. He said with such a small budget, a stipend cannot be given to the team members, so he really relies on them having a passion and being willing to give up their time.
Tang Kai has been representing TT at the Chelsea Flower Show since the late 70s and early 80s on and off, but was consistent in exhibiting between 1988 and 2013.
He also described being at the show as an experience with no other words that can quite cover it.
“The Chelsea Flower Show is not like anything any Trinidadian, unless they have been there, would be able to say, ‘Okay, yeah, that’s nice.’ You have to live it. It is not a small thing, you have hundreds of exhibits and I’m not talking about a 10x10 exhibit either. There are large gardens created under the pavilions – a large covered area.”
He added that the show is held at the Royal Hospital grounds in Chelsea.
Philip said one of the aspects the Chelsea Show brings, aside from the large displays, is the fact that there is a theme every year throughout the exhibit.
“This year it was mental health and the environment. The garden that won best garden was actually for people who were suffering from spinal injuries who would see gardens from a wheelchair or bed,” she said.
They once again appealed to people with a passion and love for agriculture to seek out different ways of displaying local flora and to work with them in upcoming shows. Tang Kai reiterated that their time, talents and skills are all that is needed to take part.