Mon | Nov 18, 2019

Gassan Azan, partners investing $11b in agro business - Aim to revolutionise farm production with help of foreign consultants

Published:Friday | September 20, 2019 | 12:27 AMKarena Bennett - Staff Reporter

Businessman Gassan Azan has already pumped $200 million into the acquisition of 100 acres of land in Lakes Pen, St Catherine, setting the foundation for a large farming operation that will eventually span four times that land space once he can secure property that the Jamaican Government has already earmarked for other purposes.

Lakes Pen Agri-Ventures, which was officially launched on Thursday, will bring 400 acres of land in St Catherine under production.

Azan, a businessman and investor whose holdings currently include grocery retail and housewares, wants to cultivate, process and distribute fruits and vegetables using techniques that he said would “revolutionise” Jamaica’s approach to agriculture.

Azan has budgeted $11 billion towards the project and is now in discussion with consultants from Spain and Israel on setting up the facility in Jamaica. Lakes Pen Agri-Ventures will also source production equipment from the United States to package unprocessed and value-added agricultural products for distribution to supermarkets, schools, hotels, and kitchens across Jamaica.

The project is being part funded, Azan said, by a group of equity investors, whose identities were not disclosed, while the remainder will be financed with bank loans. The businessman did not disclose the mix of debt and equity, nor whether he had already secured the loans, but said that the venture should be operational by mid-2020.

The business is to be built out in phases, the first of which is expected to create at least 1,000 jobs, with an additional 350 persons being employed in phase two of the project, Azan said. Under its mother-farm concept, Lakes Pen Agri-Ventures will also buy supplies from farmers.

“I’ve felt it important for Jamaica to take steps away from importing vegetables and to grow as much of what we eat as possible. This project will help to further this objective by revolutionising agricultural production,” Azan said.

Under the supervision of Victor Cummings, a former minister of state in the Ministry of Agriculture and one-time CEO of the Trade Board, Lakes Pen Agri-Ventures will cultivate tomato, pepper, tumeric, ginger, honey, strawberry, coffee, yam, and other crops.

The project will feature five types of farming methods and will host a greenhouse, an orchard, and a shade house – all equipped with state-of-the-art agricultural technology aimed at increasing production yield. Water from the Rio Cobre River, which runs adjacent to the property, will be used to irrigate the lands.

“If you look at the [food] import bill, which is near to US$1 billion a year, this project alone can produce 17,000 tonnes per year of all the various crops which have been highlighted by Jampro and the ministry of agriculture,” Azan said during the launch.

“Ginger, turmeric – these are the core group of produce that the Ministry believes that if we planted, that entire island, you couldn’t supply the world market. If this alone is 17,000 tonnes and we imported, last year, 40,000 tonnes, you can see that this is an approximate 40 per cent reduction in the import bill if we hit our targets,” he said.

The Jamaican businessman, who founded the MegaMart Wholesale Club, says that Lakes Pen Agri-Ventures has the potential to slash Jamaica’s food import bill in the first 12 months of its operation. It will also help fill the deficiencies in the supply of agricultural produce that MegaMart has faced at times, he said.

Over the medium term, Azan will leverage his business presence in the Caribbean to secure markets for the venture before looking to sell products to the United States. The businessman has holdings in the Van den Tweel supermarket group, which operates in the ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao in the Netherlands Antilles through its investment group, Alfabet Holdings.

Discussions about Lakes Pen Agri-Ventures date back roughly 10 years.

Cabinet approved the venture in 2017, but Azan still has more hurdles to clear in securing the remaining 300 acres of land earmarked for the business as a section of the proposed site is also earmarked for the Greater Bernard Lodge Development, which is meant to become Jamaica’s next city.

The Greater Bernard Lodge project spans about 4,677 acres of land bounded by the Lakes Pen main road to the north, Portmore Municipal Boulevard and Caribbean Estates to the south, and Phoenix Park and the Dunbeholden Road to the west.

Half of the property will be used for the construction of 17,000 houses and the establishment of light-manufacturing plants and agro-processing facilities. Social services such as schools and health facilities are included.

The remaining land space will be placed into agriculture, with existing irrigation facilities relocated and established in this zone. Markets will also be set up.

“Our plan, as far as I’m concerned was submitted long before the whole Bernard Lodge master plan, and, as such, we are not particularly perturbed about it. We bought a hundred acres with a lease with option to purchase for the remaining 300 acres, and I think completion will be over the next two years,” Azan said.

karena.bennett@gleanerjm.com