Craft vendors urged to consider agriculture as viable alternative

CRAFT vendors who have lost their customer base because of the coronavirus pandemic have been encouraged to diversify because of the uncertainty surroumding the return of the island’s tourism industry to its former buoyancy.

Speaking during this week’s virtual Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange, business leaders and tourism interests, in noting that the pandemic has laid bare several areas of vulnerability of a number of sectors, called for action at several levels.

“I think even before the COVID [outbreak in March] the craft vendors in Falmouth and surrounding areas were having a very hard time; business was really down and it really shows the need for diversification; they have to go into something else [as] the demand for craft is falling from the visitors,” Florence Logan, representing the Trelawny Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told the exchange.

She was supported by Janet Silvera, president of the Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce, who said: “I think a lot of us need to diversify our businesses until the tourism industry comes back; for instance, this week alone there are only five hotels that are reopening, which means it is going to take a while for us to get back to where we were, so we have to diversify.”

There was also a unanimous pitch from the six panellists for agriculture to be given pride of place in the country’s growth strategy.

“We should really look in the west for further development in agriculture. We have very good opportunities in the Montpelier area [in St James]. From my understanding, it has one of the best microclimates in Jamaica and there [was] a lot of talk many years ago about an agro park and now is when we really need to look at doing a fully integrated-type agricultural production. There [are] definitely enough lands, there is enough demand locally, and I think this COVID virus has brought into full focus the challenges we could face as a nation in food security,” said Sharon Hislop-Holt, manager, commercial business development and marketing, MBJ Airports Limited.

“The supply chain has been affected but it could be that the same way we couldn’t get PPEs and ventilators, we couldn’t get food supplies so we really need to take an introspective view at agriculture and agro processing and look to develop our food security in the west and also it will supplement St Elizabeth. Right now there are no leafy vegetables around because of the drought in St Elizabeth, but we are getting a lot of rains here in the west,” she said further.

Silvera, in endorsing the suggestion, said there was a need for urgency. “We are yet to see a detailed plan for agriculture and manufacturing for the country and that we need to see, we must see. Just the way persons are talking about the mangoes that went away last week is enough to let us know that there is a market out there,” she stated.

Commenting on the issue, Jamaica Promotions Corporation (Jampro) Western Regional Manager Conrad Robinson said focus needed to be placed on areas where the country has an edge.

“That is definitely something we need to look at. Where do we now have our competitive advantage as a region, and begin to exploit that. We can’t continue to focus on craft and craft items; those things are being manufactured and brought to Jamaica to be sold in our craft shops. So we need to begin to look at where we have our competitive advantage and plan and strategise around that and take advantage of that and that is part of what we intend to do at Jampro,” Robinson said.

President of the Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce Moses Chybar, in the meantime, called for a joint approach in tackling the issue. “Indeed we have not been exploiting the potential that we have, being a tropical country, and can produce so many things right throughout the year.

“We are too heavily dependent on a lot of imports which we really can produce locally. We really don’t have much of an infrastructure as such as it relates to agriculture. In Westmoreland, for example, the sugar iundustry is a dying one. There are a lot of lands lying waste, we still depend too heavily on imports for fresh fruits and vegetables,” Chybar argued.

“In Westmoreland there are so many hectares of land just lying waste because sugar is not doing as well as it used to and we really have to develop some plans so that we can put these lands to use and produce enough. We are very vulnerable there and it is an area we must look into,” he said further.

Added Chybar: “What I feel is that over the years we have been looking at agriculture on too much of a small scale and we have to look at it as an industry, develop agro processing and some of those things, and I think western Jamaica is the right place for that, and it is really about time that we get together in this country, Government and private sector and develop the plans.”

President of the Business Process Industry Association of Jamaica (BPIAJ) Gloria Henry is rooting for the Knockalva Agricultural School in Hanover to be given a lead role in the process.

“The Knockalva Agricultural School sits on hundreds of acres of lands. If we really are serious about agriculture we need to throw some support around building back a kind of respectable institution at Knockalva and giving the west an opportunity for students to see this as a viable option when they leave school, not just in production but there are opportunities in nutraceuticals, too. There are [also] opportunities in health care.

“There are opportunities that we really have not tapped into and I hope that if anything comes out of this COVID-19 pandemic is that we see ourselves as being more self-reliant,” she argued.

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