Trinidad and Tobago sharpens focus on value-added agriculture

Increased state investment and new incentives for the private sector to encourage expansion in Trinidad and Tobago’s agro-processing industry, while also spurring growth in primary production.

In November Prime Minister Keith Rowley announced plans to invest TT$75m ($11m) in new agro-processing facilities in the district of Moruga on the south coast of Trinidad, as well as provide support for the local fishing industry.

From peppers to pigeon peas

The Cabinet has approved an 8-ha site at Saunders Trace for an agro-processing estate able to process and package local produce, such as Moruga’s indigenous scorpion pepper, for domestic sale and export.

Potential for agro-processing will be further enhanced by a TT$300m ($44.4m) investment to develop a fishing port in the district, with work set to begin in the first half of 2017.

Development of the facilities will encourage local farmers to diversify their crops and boost domestic food security, Rowley said in his announcement speech.

Noting a need to decrease T&T’s dependence on food imports, he said farmers had a ready market for produce thanks to strong demand that was not being met by domestic suppliers. He cited the example of pigeon peas imported from Santo Domingo and pink guava sourced from Cuba, as well sorrel and soursop.

Processing and niche products

The island of Tobago is also looking to further develop the value-added components of its agriculture sector.

For example, at the Cove Eco-Industrial and Business Park – a 57-ha site operated by private firm Eco-Industrial Development Company of Tobago – one area will be dedicated specifically to agro-processing and light manufacturing.

While the limited scale of agricultural production may constrain the volume of agro-processing for the small twin-island nation, there is potential to develop a range of niche products for both local and export markets.

One example is green peppers, which are grown widely in the country. If supplies of the pepper can be expanded, industry players say T&T has potential to break into the overseas market for specialised food items, especially in areas with a sizeable Caribbean expatriate community, such as Canada.

According to the World Bank, there are roughly as many Caribbean diaspora members living in North America and Europe as in the region as a whole, indicating significant untapped potential for specialty goods.

Budget boost

The government has signalled that it considers agriculture critical to the country’s development. Soon after being sworn in at the start of the year, the new chief secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly, Kelvin Charles, listed agriculture as one of his top priorities going forward.

This sentiment was reflected in the country’s 2017 budget, handed down at the end of September, which offers tax relief for many operators in agro-processing and proposes to grant tax-free status to all approved agro-processing operations.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries aims to develop a certification process to ensure that local content benefits from this incentive. To qualify under new regulations to be enacted, at least 75% of a firm’s agricultural processing must be done in T&T, and 75% of the ingredients must be produced or harvested locally.

The aim of the measure, according to Colm Imbert, minister of finance, is not only to stimulate the downstream component of the industry, but also to expand the market for local farmers and produce suppliers.

The tax relief plan for agro-processing was widely welcomed. Soon after their announcement, Orville London, former chief secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly, said the measures would help stimulate the island’s economy and complement economic diversification efforts by encouraging local entrepreneurs.

Added value and food security

More robust agro-processing and primary production are essential if T&T is to bolster food security and reduce its import bill, according to Omardath Maharaj, an agricultural economist and consultant.

“Being import-dependent with a burgeoning annual food import bill of approximately TT$6bn ($887.7m), declining foreign exchange reserves and increasing pressure on exchange rates, and widening current account and fiscal deficits, we must focus on our food independence sooner rather than later,” he said in a statement issued at the start of the year.

Adding value and maximising the agriculture sector’s limited resources through targeted investments, Maharaj added, will strengthen links in the supply chain for food and develop competitive advantages. 

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