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Building Caribbean food security via technology - A Caribbean Export perspective

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As COVID-19 continues to lay bare our vulnerabilities, our food insecurity has become more prominent than ever. Additionally, our position as one of the most food insecure regions on the planet is now being further accentuated by the ongoing disruptions in the global supply chains. This has in turn driven up shipping costs and with it an accompanying increase in the prices for everything we consume including the food on our table. It goes without saying that everyone will be affected, especially our most vulnerable citizens as our economies continue to reel from the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, writes Deodat Maharaj.

According to the CARICOM Secretariat, the food import bill for the Caribbean Community stood at US$4.98 billion in 2018 which was more than double our US$2.08 billion food import tab of 2000. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has indicated that if current trends continue, similar exponential increases in our food import bill will take place in the coming years. The figures paint a worrisome picture of our current situation. As a Caribbean Community, by and large we import more than 60% of the food we consume, with some countries importing more than 80% of the food they consume. According to the FAO, only Belize, Guyana, and Haiti produce more than 50% of their food consumption.

Given the already high levels of debt, increasing unemployment and more of our people falling into poverty because of the coronavirus pandemic, continued heavy reliance on imported food is simply unsustainable.  This external dependence also heightens our vulnerability from a national security standpoint. COVID-19 by now has shown us that globally, countries put their citizens first as we have seen in the case of vaccines. Consequently, laying the foundation for food security must be of the highest priority for us as a Caribbean region.  

In this regard, it is good to see that Caribbean governments have set a target to reduce regional food imports in 2025 by 25% – 25 in 5 – and many countries have committed to undertake policy measures and incentives that support food production in our Region.  The obvious question is how this can be achieved when the conventional wisdom has been, that save for countries like Belize, Guyana and Suriname, we simply do not have land space to produce on the scale required to make us food secure.  However, other countries like Israel have turned conventional wisdom on its head by effectively embracing technology to build food security.  We must do the same.

For us in the Caribbean, the introduction of new technologies presents a major opportunity to accelerate food production, create jobs and attract investment. Embracing and accelerating the use of technology in agriculture or AgTech makes sense since it allows us to produce more with less, making food production more efficient.

In agriculture, innovations using technology, such as hydroponics and aquaponics have circumvented the need for extensive cultivable land, which is a major constraint in many of our small territories. The introduction of artificial intelligence, analytics, connected sensors, and other emerging technologies could further increase yields, improve the efficiency of water and other inputs, and build sustainability and resilience across crop cultivation, animal husbandry and agro-processing.

However, with few exceptions, we have been slow to embrace the widescale use of new technology in our food production systems. This is not a challenge solely faced by the Caribbean, as the World Economic Forum has noted that for its member territories, only $14 billion in investments in 1,000 food systems-focused start-ups was generated since 2010, while healthcare attracted $145bn in investment in 18,000 start-ups during the same time period. However, notwithstanding the challenges, in addition to Israel, countries such as the United Arab Emirates have been paving the way in leveraging technology in agriculture and getting the requisite investments to make it a success.

For us at the Caribbean Export Development Agency, there is a path forward. We have worked with the Caribbean Association of Investment Agencies (CAIPA) to identify AgTech as a priority sector to attract foreign direct investment as well as to stimulate regional capital flows.

Caribbean Export is fully committed to the goal of ‘25 in 5’ and we have begun our work in concert with our partners to define a mechanism to position the region´s AgTech opportunities to regional and international investors. During the Caribbean Week of Agriculture, we are convening the first-ever Caribbean AgTech Investment Summit (5-7 October 2021) headlined by the President of Guyana.  Here we will be presenting investment opportunities that are available in the region in the AgTech sector and helping to define a way forward to assist the region in improving its AgTech investment offering. More information on the event can be found here.

It is important to emphasise that to build food security, the private sector has an essential role and farming must be seen as a business that is attractive for our youth. This is precisely why we will continue supporting producers who are looking to the export market, taking advantage of opportunities such as those provided by the Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union. This is with specific reference to building the capacities of regional producers to access high value markets such in Europe. Additionally, we remain committed to using our grants programme financed by the European Union to help support our businesses across the Region access these markets. The next call for grants will be in mid-October and businesses including those in the agriculture sector are encouraged to apply. More information can be found here.

At Caribbean Export, we recognise that whilst these measures are important, an all hands-on-deck approach is required with the appropriate enabling environment in place. This means that national, regional and international partners must work in unison to help drive an agenda for Caribbean food security. We are committed to such a partnership which we believe will also deliver not only food security but also precious jobs and opportunity for our people.   -ends-

Deodat Maharaj is the executive director of the Caribbean Export Development Agency.

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CARIFORUM-UK EPA virtual summit set to boost trade opportunities between Caribbean and UK

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A high-level virtual summit taking place on 24 November will help Caribbean and UK businesses capitalise on trade and investment opportunities under the recent Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the UK and 14 Caribbean countries in the Caribbean Forum (CARIFORUM). 

The Caribbean Export Development Agency (Caribbean Export) in partnership with the UK Department of International Trade will host the virtual summit, bringing together businesses, investors and trade promotion experts to explore doing business under the CARIFORUM-UK EPA. There will be presentations from the Prime Minister of Barbados, the Honourable Mia Amor Mottley, UK Minister for International Trade, Ranil Jayawardena and Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner for Latin America and the Caribbean, Jonathan Knott.

“This event marks the beginning of a new chapter in the trade and investment relationship between the Caribbean and the UK. The agreement offers huge opportunities for businesses on both sides of the Atlantic and will help create jobs,” said Deodat Maharaj, Executive Director of Caribbean Export.

“The Caribbean Export Development Agency, as the lead regional institution for promoting Caribbean trade globally and steering investments, is pleased to support this initiative and excited with the high interest shown by the private sector across our region. We are committed to building on this foundation,” he continued.

The CARIFORUM-UK EPA, which came into effect on 1 January 2020, secures continuity for trade and preservation of market access between CARIFORUM and the UK, providing predictability and vital assurance to businesses, consumers and investors. With a bilateral trading relationship of GBP £2.9 billion in 2020, the new EPA provides a platform to deepen and forge even closer trade ties between UK and Caribbean businesses.

Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner for Latin America and the Caribbean, Jonathan Knott said: “This summit is yet another key milestone in our implementation of the EPA, as the UK strengthens our trade and investment relationship with our Caribbean partners. We want to make this a living trade agreement for exporters and investors, increasing business-to-business connections, and setting the stage for a modern and prosperous trading relationship with the Caribbean region.

“The UK looks forward to continue working with our Caribbean partners. We may be separated by thousands of miles, but we are united in our shared trade aspirations, values and friendship,” he added.

The Summit follows the inaugural meeting of the CARIFORUM-UK EPA’s Ministerial Joint Council, scheduled for 22 November. Senior officials from the UK and all CARIFORUM States held a successful first meeting of the EPA’s Trade and Development Committee in October.

Caribbean Export will present key findings of a recent study on CARIFORUM-UK trade trends and opportunities. The CARIFORUM Directorate and the UK Department for International Trade will provide an update on the implementation of the EPA for trade-related growth and development. Caribbean and UK business leaders will discuss trading goods and services under the EPA in key sectors.

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To register for the event, please follow the link: https://www.carib-export.com/cariforum-uk-epa-summit/   -ends- Download the release and imagesAbout Caribbean Export
Caribbean Export is the regional trade and investment promotion agency focused on accelerating the economic transformation of the Caribbean.  We work closely with businesses to increase exports, attract investment, and contribute towards the creation of jobs to build a resilient Caribbean.  We are currently executing the Regional Private Sector Programme (RPSDP) funded by the European Union under the 11th European Development Fund (EDF). 

 

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An innovative private sector: A prerequisite for Caribbean green economy transition

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The Caribbean has been at the forefront of the ongoing COP26 climate change negotiations taking place in Glasgow, Scotland. We have seen representation at the highest levels and our leaders such as the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley having a massive impact. The theme of climate financing has been a constant, alongside the acute climate-induced challenges faced by small islands like ours in the Caribbean. Even if some of the promised but elusive financing becomes available, key questions remain unanswered: Who will implement? Who are the essential partners? One key variable is the role of innovation, especially as it relates to the private sector which has been insufficiently emphasised. We in the Caribbean cannot undertake effective climate action and a green economy transition without partnering with an innovative private sector, writes Caribbean Export.

At this crucial time and now more than ever we need to nurture innovation in the Caribbean private sector for a green economy transition which will also create jobs and opportunity for our people. Innovation is vital since it also drives productivity and competitiveness, two areas where we need to do much better. Indeed, the ability to develop new products and services, develop and enter new markets and alter internal routines has always been at the core of entrepreneurial success.

Given the importance of innovation, how are we doing as a Caribbean? The World Intellectual Property Organization’s Global Innovation Index (GII) ranks the innovation ecosystem performance of 132 economies and provides a useful perspective. The top 15 ranked countries are predominantly developed countries, except for Singapore and China. The only countries ranked from the Caribbean Community and the Dominican Republic also known as the CARIFORJM Caribbean are Jamaica, Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago, which were ranked at 74, 93, and 97 respectively. Given that those that are on the list are in the bottom half of the 132 ranked countries, there is much room for improvement to help our private sector become more innovative. This in turn will help fast-track a green economy transition creating jobs and opportunity for our people.

A useful start will be to focus on a few high priorities starting with investment in research and development. We need to strive to improve the region’s innovation performance. The data is sparse, but it is evident our region underperforms compared to other parts of the world. During the period from 2008 to 2018, Latin America and the Caribbean’s combined expenditure on research and development as a percentage of GDP averaged 0.71%, according to the World Bank. By comparison, developed countries invested 2.41% of GDP in this important area. More specifically in terms of our Region, Trinidad and Tobago which is one of the largest economies spends just 0.06% of GDP on research and development, which though perhaps is one of the highest in the Region, is still inadequate for these times. Unless the entire Region makes a bigger commitment, we will continue to lag.

We also need to embrace technology where our micro, small and medium-sized enterprises are left behind to enable them to become greener and also take advantage of new opportunities. To address this, we must seize the opportunity to leverage the upswing of technologies and industries of the future such as artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain technology, digital platforms and cloud computing. These technologies and others have the potential to radically transform existing enterprises and create new ones including precision agriculture and generating new opportunities for the services sector in areas such as the business of music.

In fact, these kinds of technologies have cross-sectoral applicability and for this reason, they have the potential to reshape energy systems through the integration of distributed, low-carbon energy generation and new demand-side energy management services. At the same time, another key technological shift is taking place is more efficient energy systems, as countries all over the world contend with the necessity of low-carbon energy transition. The steady march of environmental, social and governance considerations as a strategic priority for enterprises is causing sustainability to be increasingly prioritised. This is expected to be further heightened in the post COP26 period.


Role of Caribbean Export

Given the imperative of a green economy transition and the critical role of the private sector in leading the charge, we at the Caribbean Export Development Agency are already supporting regional businesses in this pathway. For example, our work in the area of investment promotion focuses on attracting investors to in the green economy including the renewables sector. Our effort in agriculture is geared to leveraging technology into agriculture or AgTech to boost food security, taking into consideration the importance of climate resilient agriculture.

In the direct support we provide to firms, technical and policy support through innovation mechanisms to drive energy efficiency continues to be a signature service. We recognise that we need to provide support, where it matters, on the ground and at the level of the firm. Consequently, with the support of the European Union we have provided over Euros 12.8 million in grant financing in areas that support and foster innovation and green economy transition such as digitalisation of business, research and development and renewable energy.

Finally, we recognise that globally consumers are demanding products that are climate friendly and meet sustainability criteria. This is precisely why with the United Nations International Trade Centre, we have established a “Green to Compete” hub here in the Caribbean, which is one of seven established globally. In the initial pilot phase, we are working with firms in Barbados, Guyana and St Lucia to help them develop and implement sustainability strategies which can enhance their competitiveness in global supply chains. These strategies will involve resource efficiency, voluntary sustainability standards, climate resilience, access to green finance and international marketing. Moreover, we will leverage our ecosystem of partners to connect firms to a full range of services which support the implementation of those business strategies, with the ultimate aim of connecting them to markets. We believe this is a model for the future since it is about developing and branding a premium product for a premium market at a premium price.

Looking ahead, we recognise that much more must be done to help our private sector leverage innovation to fast track a green economy transition and build a climate resilient Caribbean. Whereas finance will continue to be important, innovation is vital and can be advanced by a Regional Innovation Facility specifically geared for the sector. We are willing to work with all partners to advance this agenda and build a truly climate resilient Caribbean, whilst creating jobs and opportunity for our people. Quite simply, too much is at stake and failure is not an option.

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Building a trade and investment partnership with Rising Africa

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Many Caribbean countries mark Emancipation in the month of August. Indeed, the CARICOM Community celebrates this historical milestone on 1st August annually. During this time, we reflect on the end of slavery which will forever remain a stain etched on the collective conscience of humanity. We use the remembrance of Emancipation to celebrate the deep and inextricable bonds we as Caribbean people have with Africa, writes Deodat Maharaj.

Thus far, these connections have largely remained in the historical, cultural and people spheres. This must change to also include translating our excellent ties into trade and investment relationships that will redound to the benefit of people here in our Region and in Africa. For those who follow developments in Africa, May 2019 marked the dawn of an exciting chapter in the continent’s continued ascent. It ushered in the start of the African Continental Free Trade Area with a cogent and compelling vision with Africa as one mega free trade area. Just in terms of countries participating, it is already the largest free trade area in the world given the number of states who are members.

Africa’s rise is also eloquently illustrated by the data. Whilst the entire world is reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and most countries and Regions like ours showing negative growth, the African Economic Outlook done by the African Development Bank noted that real GDP is expected to grow by 3.4 percent despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries such as Mozambique have been receiving record levels of foreign direct investment. Yet, whilst Asian countries led by China have been rushing to Africa, we have largely lagged behind in terms of pursuing an aggressive trade and investment relationship with Africa. The opportunities to partner with Africa and a market of an estimated 1.4 billion people are immense. As we seek to advance an agenda for a resilient Caribbean, it is not only important to shore up existing trade partnerships but to also look to new relationships on the trade and investment front.

The world is changing and so must we. In terms of trade data, according to the International Trade Centre trade map, CARIFORUM countries (CARICOM and the Dominican Republic) exported US$249.2 million worth of goods to Africa in 2018 which grew to US$601.4 million in 2019. Though this is a step in the right direction it is still a fraction of what can be realised once we make a concerted push to Africa. The obvious question is then, how we go about ramping up our commercial relationship with Africa. Firstly, we need to shift from political diplomacy to one that includes a commercial focus giving Africa the priority it deserves. Some progress has been made with the establishment of missions in several African capitals by Caribbean countries.

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We are also seeing results. Just last month, I participated in the signing ceremony here in Barbados where Caribbean companies Global Integrated Fintech Solutions (GIFTS) and IPayAnywhere (Global) signed an MOU with Nigerian giant TelNet relating to the provision of a range of payment services. What was different about this relationship is that it ushered in a partnership focused on the new economy and not the classic relationship in the trade of commodities. The Barbados High Commission in Ghana played an instrumental role in bringing this to reality hence the emphasis on strong commercial representation. Similarly, the joint mission of CARICOM countries established in Nairobi, Kenya must pursue the same objective with a focus on East and Southern Africa. Secondly, as we build a relationship with Africa and seek to also attract tourists from the continent, we must also deepen our relationship in the services sector other than tourism. We already have Caribbean expertise serving in Africa in places like Mozambique supporting the development of their energy sector.

However, this is individual and ad hoc. We need to be more systematic and look to areas such as tourism where we have demonstrated expertise and find ways of marketing our knowledge in such areas to countries where this assistance is required. Thirdly, as the youngest continent on the planet with approximately 60 percent of the population under the age of 25 and with a growing middle class, there is immense potential for our creative sector. For example, Caribbean music remains popular in Africa, but we need to be more proactive in identifying the market opportunities and support our artistes in accessing them through digital and other platforms building on initial efforts such as the successful collaboration between Caribbean Soca artistes like Machel Montano from Trinidad and Tobago and Nigeria’s Timaya. By focusing our creative sector on Africa’s vibrant young people, we will be building a relationship for years to come.

Finally, it is important to underline that building this relationship with Africa and its private sector is not only the remit of the governments across the Region. Business has an important role to play in reaching out to Africa as has been done by institutions such as Republic Bank which has established operations in Ghana. Private sector organisations such as the chambers of commerce and manufacturers association need to also establish relationships with their counterparts on the continent.

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We at the Caribbean Export Development Agency recognise the importance of helping to build this bridge. This is precisely the reason why the identification of new trading relationships is an important part of our Strategic Plan for the period 2021 – 2024. We have already started initial outreach to institutions such as the East Africa Chamber of Commerce. As a Caribbean person who has lived, worked and travelled across Africa, I have seen first-hand the seismic shifts taking place on the continent. It is time we also make this pivot to Africa investing the requisite time, effort and energy. In a rapidly changing world, bolstering our relationship with Africa is no longer an option but should be a key element of our strategy to help build Caribbean resilience.

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