Thu | Dec 8, 2016

Are we ambitious enough? Give Jamaican innovation a kick up the behind

Published:Sunday | October 5, 2014 | 12:00 AM
A farmer trudges through a river in Portland with callaloo for the market. Jamaica must mechanise its farming industry and capitalise on food-processing innovations. - Ian Allen/Photographer

John-Paul Clarke, Guest Columnist

This is an excerpt of the keynote speech delivered at the Calabar Old Boys' Association's annual dinner on September 27.

We are in many ways prisoners of our colonial heritage. For the most part, we still farm in the same way we did centuries ago, and we have done little over the years to produce the processed foods that are increasingly valued by a busy world.

I recognise that we don't have the vast plains of the United States (US), for example, to practise farming on an industrial scale. But our researchers and engineers have not ever been challenged by Government or industry - and given the appropriate funding - to determine uniquely Jamaican solutions to the challenges of farming in Jamaica. We can certainly point to the innovations of T.P. Lecky, but what else have we done with regards to the application of science and technology to agriculture?

Food processing

Happily, there have been some recent developments in food processing, but in my view, they have been too few given the importance of agriculture to our economy.

Even though the US is considered to be an industrial and service powerhouse, agriculture is on par with aerospace and entertainment in terms of positive contribution to its economy. That parity has been achieved through the use of technology - from the creation of specialised seeds to the mechanisation of harvesting.

Our activities in mining have, for the most part, been limited to the extraction and initial processing of raw materials, as opposed to the conversion of these raw materials into higher-value products. I recognise that the conversion of ore into metals requires vast amounts of energy, and that we are not blessed with a cheap source of energy. Thus, I am heartened to see that successive governments have made cheaper energy a stated priority. However, cheaper energy is not the only solution for the mining industry.

We must be creative in how we do our extraction and how we use the by-products of mining. The efficiency of any process is maximised when the amount of by-product is minimised. So if you have significant amounts of by-products after extraction and processing, you can take the by-products and use them for other purposes.

Low-cost mix

Hence, I was thrilled to read recently that a J$7-million investment by Government resulted in a new locally produced, low-cost mix that is expected to save the country millions in road-repair costs. As you may know, the final design mix developed by researchers at the International Centre for Environmental and Nuclear Sciences under the New Material Road Repair Project includes waste gypsum provided by Carib Cement, red mud from Windalco's site at Ewarton, and terra rosa (earth) from Dovecot Memorial Park. I recall the days when the term 'red mud' conjured up images of whole cows going in and bones coming out. Now the term 'red mud' will be associated with smooth driving and long-lasting suspensions.

With respect to manufacturing, our activities have been limited to light manufacturing that require great amounts of labour as opposed to great amounts of technology. As our labour costs have increased, our manufacturing sector has contracted to the point where it is on life support.

To my mind, we have two alternatives. Either we increase the automation and autonomy of our manufacturing, or we create products with high perceived value that can, therefore, support higher wages. The former requires significant amounts of capital. The latter requires a brand.

People are willing to spend a great deal of money for brand products (far in excess of the cost of manufacturing the product). Does anyone really believe that cost of producing a Louis Vuitton handbag is anywhere close to the price? Jamaica is an incredible brand. Puma and others have proven that Jamaica is an incredibly valuable brand. The issue is that we don't truly believe it. If we did, someone would have hired those people who were making fake Clarks shoes and put them to work on a uniquely Jamaican shoe that could fetch a price that is commensurate with the true value of Brand Jamaica.

We have ignored, and in many cases forgotten, the herbal remedies of our youth in favour of purchasing processed medication from the First World, as opposed to figuring out why our herbal remedies worked and how we can create intellectual property from our herbs, plants, and trees.

My colleague and fellow old boy, Dr Henry Lowe, has done a great deal over the years in this area, but I know that it has not been an easy road for him. Why was this the case?

Encouraging research results

Happily, there have been some very encouraging recent research results and product developments, and with the imminent legalisation of ganja, many of the products derived should take off. Further, there are now many researchers at all the universities in Jamaica working on plant-based remedies for various diseases and illnesses.

But where are the investors who are going to set up the production facilities in Jamaica, and hire the marketing people from Jamaica, so that the majority of the wealth that is created stays in Jamaica? Don't get me wrong! I am all for the researchers getting paid. However, I would like the people in manufacturing and marketing to get paid, too.

With regards to getting paid, we need to ensure that the Jamaican researcher, the Jamaican manufacturer, the Jamaican marketer, and the Jamaican people (by way of taxes paid to the Government) get fully paid. One good way of achieving this is to have someone or some company in Jamaica hold the intellectual property rights. Thus, all the requisite global patent applications have to be filed prior to first public disclosure. As I have recently discovered, this can be as much as US$50,000. Who will pay these fees?

Local venture capital

Perhaps we need to encourage and create local venture capital groups to fund the patent applications and the initial development of products? For that matter, why not fund the research via venture capital? This could be a good way to involve the diaspora in the economic development of Jamaica.

Application of science and technology does not have to be limited to the areas discussed above. Entertainment is a major source of income for the US and Jamaica. However, in Jamaica, most of the revenue is accrued to the artistes because the production, promotion, and marketing are done in the US, adding value to the American economy.

Once, there was a plethora of music studios, producers, and distributors. Now, there are significantly fewer studios, producers, and distributors. Why? Is it because the marketing and distribution of music is controlled by entities in other countries that are content to have a few reggae artistes each year? My experience as a former DJ and general manager of a college radio station tells me that this is indeed the case.

However, the World Wide Web is the great equaliser! Why are we not distributing Jamaican music via a website that is marketed and recognised globally as the place to go for Jamaican music of all genres? Should we not challenge our scientist and engineers to develop a 'studio-in-a-box' that anyone with any basic understanding of electronics can purchase and use the contents to create a music studio in a room in their house in which MP4-quality music can be produced?

Why are we not creating video games and apps that leverage our uniquely Jamaica culture and experiences? Can't we all envision many video games and apps that are developed by Jamaicans, in Jamaica, and about things that are uniquely Jamaican? Of course, we can develop other video games and apps. The key to this industry is that cost of entry is relatively low. All you need are the computers, displays and some creative minds.

Dr John-Paul Clarke, a Calabar old boy and aeronautic scientist, is associate professor of aerospace engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a member of the NASA Advisory Council Aeronautics Committee, and the US Army Science Board. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.