Officials are reporting tremendous success in their quest to develop the rapidly growing coconut industry locally and regionally.
However, they have expressed disappointment at the slow pace at which challenges were being addressed and the lack of adequate partnerships to help propel the industry and allow regional coconut farmers to satisfy growing global demands.
With about €4 million already pumped into phase one of a special development project for the industry since 2015, officials are reporting that over 5,000 farmers in 12 CARIFORUM member states have been impacted.
The project, Alliances for Coconut Industry Development in the Caribbean, saw phase one focusing on enhancing productivity and sustainability, improving market and product development and access to finance, and supporting better risk management and disaster mitigation, among others.
Director General of the CARIFORUM Percival Marie said more than 2,000 farmers and 470 extension officers were trained to address industry challenges, more than 200 public and private stakeholders across the region were involved in national workshops and 25 nurseries were established or enhanced.
He reported that 30 agro-processers were left with improved capacity and linkages, and technical cooperation was established with more than 60 public and private institutions.
“A revised CARICOM regional standard for [packaged] coconut water was agreed and put into place. That €4 million made available through the European Union was well spent and the outcomes have justified the expenditure,” said Marie, as he addressed the official launch of phase two of the project at the George Washington House on Friday.
Phase two of the scheme will see an injection of €6 million, and will aim to replicate the successful partnerships across the region and scaling up of the impact, and is hoped to benefit an additional 5,000 coconut farmers.
Among other things, phase two should also see the improvement in private sector facilitation and investment, the building of trade capacity for the coconut industry, development of more coconut nurseries, improvement of market linkages, monitoring and evaluation and improvement in climate change awareness.
“CARIFORUM believes that the activities to be implemented through the project will position the region to take advantage, in a sustainable manner, of the opportunities created by rising global demand for coconuts and coconut products,” said Marie.
However, he said there were still a number of challenges that needed to be addressed if the region were to take full advantage of global opportunities.
One of the main challenges, he said, was declining yield and low productivity due primarily to insufficient incentives, aging plantations, old infrastructure and poor economic practices.
He also pointed to the need for more research and development, adding that other challenges included lack of investments in product development, processing and marketing; insufficient volumes of raw materials; low product diversification; and poor compliance with food safety practices.
It is estimated that there are some 13,000 known coconut farmers in the CARIFORUM states.
Prime Minister Mia Mottley lauded the efforts, but expressed regret that while Barbados and other countries continued to sign trade agreements the region has not been able to “bring our production and private sector to derisk private investment such that the kind of levels of production that must precede trade are garnered in this region”.
A part of the difficulty, she said, was that those with capital had shied away from investing in the agriculture sector.
“The reason I am concerned about production is because it is easy to have an agenda set by others in the international community . . . and I believe we have had too much of that in our region,” said Mottley.
“I say simply that we have to focus now on how we can match the preparation and production of our products be they agricultural, manufacturing or services, with the trade agreements that we have been so zealous in settling,” she said.
Mottley said regrettably, the jury was still out on whether the region should have gone into a reciprocal trade agreement with Europe.
“In a very real sense this project has shown what is necessary to allow us to benefit from the EPA . . . and the Cotonou agreement. Regrettably, as successful as this project is it doesn’t have the scale that is necessary to be transformative as a society,” added Mottley.
Insisting that Barbados and the rest of the region could not earn what it needed simply from domestic production, Mottley pointed to the need for Guyana and Suriname to become regional hubs for food production to ensure food security for the rest of the Caribbean.
She argued that this could result in the region saving some US$5 billion in food import annually.
Mottley said it was time the private sector leads the charge by investing in the production, adding that there could be a public/private sector partnership to improve regional maritime transport.