by Keith Ventour
Grenada’s economy continues to wobble as the country moves through the Covid-19 crisis.
Since the first lockdown of March 2020, our economy, like the economies of other countries, has been stifled by the global economic fallout.
In the last 20 years, the tourism sector has felt the brunt of man-made and natural disasters. A number of events can attest to this. This includes 911 in 2001, Hurricanes Ivan and Emily in 2004 and 2005, the financial collapse in 2008 and now the pandemic. These events have exposed our over dependence on Tourism and the need for us to develop a more resilient and diverse economy.
The Honourable Gregory Bowen put this problem in its macro-economic perspective in his budget presentation on 2 December 2020.
“The impact on the eight-member Eastern Caribbean Currency Union (ECCU) is particularly acute, given the small size of their economies, heavy dependence on tourism, limited resources, and inextricable link to the global economy. However, data for the first half of 2020 indicated major declines in all sectors of the economy, particularly the Tourism and Private Tertiary Education sectors. As a result, an overall double-digit contraction of 12.2% is estimated for 2020 in contrast to the 3.2% positive growth projected at the start of the year.”
In our relatively small one-sided tourism-based economy, many businesses are “catching their nen nen” to survive. Many of them continue to depend on government’s periodic economic relief. Several families have been heavily compromised as more breadwinners become unemployed. If there is one thing this pandemic has clearly taught us, is the need to diversify our economy. We cannot continue to depend heavily on the fragile “airplane and mega ship” industry. We must look to develop the much talked about New Economy. This involves the creation of an agro-industrial sector with the production of value-added products. Together with this, there must be parallel growth and development in the Livestock and Fishing Sectors. Export Services are essential in the new economy using high-end technology.
It is disappointing, to say the least, after what we experienced in 2020, that our current leaders did not seize the opportunity to correct 3 decades of political negligence, by putting agriculture back in the forefront of our economic development. Even after giving recognition to this urgent priority in the preamble to his Budget presentation on December 2020, Minister Bowen did not proceed to have this reflected in his allocation to the agricultural sector. A meagre EC$18.6 million or 1.5% of total expenditure was allocated. Neither did he outline qualitative changes to remodel and refashion the antiquated approach to our agricultural development.
I will caution our government not to make the same mistake in the 2021 budget presentation. We need to move beyond theoretical overviews into inherent policy shifts. We do not have to re-invent the wheel. What is needed, is a re-look at the 1979 to 1983 agriculture development dossier with a 21st century strategic outlook. Many of our present farmers are the product of the revolutionary period when the Mirabeau Farm School was set up to educate and train young persons in new methods of agricultural production. The recurring policy by successive governments of discarding positive initiatives and projects begun and implemented by previous administrations is backward and self-defeating. The PRG rolled out many important initiatives in the agricultural sector and, unlike, succeeding administrations had the political will to make the organisational changes needed to move agriculture to another level.
The following were positive actions taken by the PRG to develop our agricultural and fisheries sectors:
- Mirabeau Farm School was set up, along with ones at Boulogne, St Andrew; La Sagesse, St David and Victoria, St Mark at a later stage
- Lease agreements were signed with landowners who had idle lands, to put these lands under agricultural production
- Loans were secured to build farm and feeder roads to assist farmers to safely access their agricultural lands
- The Marketing Board was re-branded the Marketing and National Importing Board The new perspective sought to control to a minimum, the price of basic food items imported They included sugar, rice, milk, fertiliser and truck tyres. With this setup, farmers were guaranteed fixed prices for their fresh produce, as well as an agro-processing plant and a regional and international market to sell their fresh fruits
- Collection depots were set up throughout the country to collect the fresh produce for the MNIB
- An agro-processing plant was set up in Frequente, St George to process and can local juices for sale locally, regionally and internationally
- Separate cocoa and coffee processing plants were set up in Telescope, St Andrew for commercial purposes
- A fish processing plant was set up in Frequente
- Fishing trawlers were donated by Cuba to train fishermen in deep-water fishing
- An experimental Black Belly sheep livestock farm was established in Mt Hartman
Agriculture is and can become a more profitable and viable sector. To make this happen government must show the political will to lead from the front. Notwithstanding the varied assistance given to farmers by government, farmers need access to more technical and monetary resources. In this vein the political directorate must engage our lending institutions to release the needed capital at more favorable and concessionary terms to attract young people to farming. Investing in a robust agricultural sector, will in a profound way, achieve for us a platform for employment creation, new opportunities in agricultural research, higher foreign exchange earnings and increased food security for all.
We need a short, medium and long-term plan in order to elevate the agricultural sector. Our education curriculum must be reset in all areas to reflect the country’s need in the 21st century and beyond. Young people must be taught to see agriculture as a business. Their focus should be on production and attaining higher yields, but management and marketing must be important development components. The availability of agricultural land is a critical asset for young persons to realize this dream. We need a serious land policy in this regard. Government must be steadfast, dutifully firm and unwavering when making decisions to sell Crown arable lands. They must seek the assistance of foreign countries in unlocking scholarships, technical support and training.
There are some persons who have tried without success to diversify and set up agro-processing factories. In my humble opinion, the main reason for their failure was the absence of sufficient backing from government. The required infrastructure was not in place for the survival of these ventures. This included raw materials, marketing and financial support. There are individuals involved in cottage industries, which involve the use of agricultural products to make items to eat and drink for sale. A private sector-led initiative with full government backing, can ensure all necessary material, financial, legal and other support, are readily available to these entrepreneurs.
It would be remiss of me not to highlight the positive aspect of the ‘79 – ‘83 era, where wasting fruits were collected by individuals, sold to the state-run agro processing plant, processed, canned and retailed as mango nectar and juices, locally, regionally and internationally. This was undoubtedly a proud national moment. In hindsight, the question is, where would our agro-industrial sector be today, if the powers that be did not sell/give away our plant machinery to Dominica after the collapse of the PRG in 1983?
However, there is a negative, a distraction, a disincentive to agriculture, in praedial larceny. It is unconscionable for farmers to do the hard work and then suffer the vandalisation and theft of their products. Our legal system must ‘watch no face’ in using the law to deal with those perpetrators. We are in the 21st century. We must step up our game and use the available technology to protect the blood and sweat of our famers.
It is therefore incumbent on our present Minister of Agriculture, to get on the ground, use all the necessary resources, use his past experiences, pull out the old agricultural master plan, massage and refine it to achieve a 21st-century agricultural productive sector.
It is time we stop the talk and walk the walk. Let us adopt and implement policies that will transform our agricultural sector.
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