Mon | Dec 11, 2017

Ronald Thwaites | Weak coffee

Published:Monday | October 9, 2017 | 12:00 AM

The pitifully weak state of the once-famous Jamaican coffee industry is emblematic of the condition of the entire agricultural sector. There is hardly a segment of our trade where the farmers, the primary producers, can make a decent living and have something to reinvest.

Despite agricultural commodities constituting about 6.5 per cent of gross domestic product and contributing mightily to import substitution and, when further processed, to exports and manufactured output, the farming sector is treated as the poor cousin of the Jamaican economy, compared, say, to tourism, mining or buying and selling imported goods.

Remember, too, the hundreds of thousands of usually the lowest paid workers and peasants who have no option but to till the soil and reap the sea.

Agriculture is just not sexy. But, of course, we all would like to be able to eat every day. Somehow we have lost the capacity to relate the craft of local growing to the necessity of good nutrition. More than 90 per cent of what goes into the School Feeding Programme is imported.

We ambush our hopes for sustainable growth and good health by assuming that forever and ever, amen, our food will be available by someone finding foreign exchange and bringing what we need (more likely, what we like) in a barrel or on a ship.

Until lately, Jamaica has been spending a billion foreign dollars a year importing food, a cost that is multiples of the value of all our exports - still lagging far behind 2007 quantities and value.

'Five in four', or any other cliche about development, can only succeed if our agriculture prospers. Just look at the shambles happening to this year's growth forecasts when output from the farmers has declined so precipitously because of natural and man-made disasters.

 

Fruitless begging

 

We have a Jamaican-Canadian friend who runs a market in Toronto and begs weekly, and so far fruitlessly, for our yams, sweet potato, coco and dasheen, and complains regularly when he sees, on what should be our shelf space, Costa Rican and Dominican Republic fruits, vegetables and tubers being advertised as being "Jamaica-style".

And we who can grow the finest ginger known and abundant cerassee have to aggravate the yawning trade deficit by importing these and so much more that we can grow.

Governments are terrified of resurrecting an Agricultural Marketing Corporation, and thus we waste up to 40 per cent of what we produce. The political clout of the farmers has been weakened, not least by the financially dependent state of the once-powerful Jamaica Agricultural Society. We end up looking and feeling like mendicants, always pleading for subsidies.

Last week, there was a full-page advertisement offering 4.5 per cent money available to the tourism sector. Credit for agriculture still carries a coupon of double that - around 10 per cent - if, unlikely if, the farmer can access any loan at all. How come?

Agriculture in Jamaica needs a comprehensive plan for durable growth, with targets and accountability, starting with cane and sugar.

The next Budget should provide $10 billion from the Development Bank of Jamaica for lending to agriculture on affordable terms with measures to prevent the funds being rinsed by intermediaries. That, plus an accelerated programme of land titling, will help to relieve the present cramp.

I remember the bank manager who regretfully declined finance for an entirely-for-export project based in the Blue Mountains with a wistful "if only the collateral was in Kingston 6". He was, of course, very excited about lending the same farmer to buy a Benz that guzzles rather than earns foreign exchange.

 

Blue Mountain coffee

 

Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee is among the most difficult of commodities to cultivate and is prized as the best and most expensive of world coffees. It ought to be a treasure for Brand Jamaica. Our Japanese buyers have done us an immense service, for which we could never have paid, to position our product at the pinnacle of world repute.

For many understandable but unpredicted reasons, supply now greatly exceeds demand, with catastrophic effect on investment, labour and rural sustainability. The take-it-or-leave-it approach, both in Kingston and Tokyo, by the near-monopoly of processing and marketing had best give way to a more collaborative and long-term approach to the industry.

One feasible, short-term recourse is to do what lies entirely in our remit - to market a branded package of Jamaican coffee as an essential part of the Jamaican experience for as many of our visitors and the diaspora as we can reach. This measure could absorb excess production, earn foreign exchange, provide solvency for the farmers, increase the all-important linkage between agriculture and tourism, and prevent rural 'pop-down' in St Andrew, Portland and St Thomas.

Our coffee should be strong, not weak.

- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.