Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Leslie Ramsammy, on Monday announced plans to establish a National Oversight Committee on the Coconut Industry which, he said, will be responsible for formulating and implementing policies to address the many ailments plaguing Guyana’s industry.
The statements were made at the Ministry of Agriculture’s (MOA) Conference for the Coconut Industry, at which Ramsammy also said that if the initiative is to work it is imperative that stakeholders such as the private sector, including owners of farms, processing plants and oil mills get on board.
He also made mention of plans to invite the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) to joint the committee. These organizations, he said, would be invaluable in terms of the research support they would be able to provide.
He added that Brazil, India and Mexico, countries with extensive experience in the production of value-added coconut by-products, will also be invited to be part of the committee.
Ramsammy said that this combination of committee members, with him as its chair, will ensure the conceptualization and speedy implementation of policies that will most likely reverse the period of hardship that is facing the industry. He said that it is his vision to have the committee meet as often as possible and every month, considering the issues that confront the industry. He also said that the committee will be producing bi-annual reports which will enable them to assess their progress, or lack thereof, and decide on the best way to move forward.
Ramsammy blamed a significant portion of the industry’s decline on the 1980’s health scare, when scientists from Indonesia, the Philippines and India blasted coconut consumption claiming that it led to increased cholesterol levels in the body. He said that ever since, the industry has faced an uphill battle worsened by high transport costs, shortage of labour, disease and other issues which continue to deal blow after blow to the already ailing industry.
Ramsammy said that since then the Government of Guyana has worked tirelessly to help the private sector, which he described as the engine of the industry, bring the coconut business to where it is today.
Minister within the MOA, Alli Baksh noted that the growing market for coconut provides tremendous potential for Guyana. Worldwide, the coconut industry is a US$6 Billion dollar industry. Guyana, Ramsammy said, currently owns about US$3Million of this market, but more can be achieved.
Ramsammy stated that these figures indicate a large demand for the product, and that prospects have never been better for Guyana to capitalize. This, he said, is why the government has devoted the third largest acreage of land to the industry.
Ramsammy said that Monday’s meeting was not the first of its kind, alluding to a similar meeting held in 2009, and insisted that it is by no means the last. He said it is the intention of the MOA to become much more aggressive in promoting the value-added aspect of the industry, and in attacking the issues facing the industry.
In May of this year Pomeroon Oil Mills, a facility commissioned by former president Janet Jagan, stated that challenges posed by labour and raw material shortages were threatening to cripple the company.
Alfro Alphonso, the company’s owner had stated that the shortage of labour afflicting the entity resulted from the increasing migration to the country’s more lucrative gold fields. Alphonso had stated that the Oil Mill was making do with a staff of 12, thought it took 40 to efficiently run its operations.
He also stated that scarcity of raw material, coconut; more specifically, copra, used in the production of coconut oil was arguably a bigger problem than the first. He said that the entity used to rely on coconut and copra supplies from the abundant coconut grants in the Pomeroon area, but eventually found itself relying on shopping from as far away as Wakenaam and Berbiece.
Alphonso said that the shortage resulted from a lack of labour to produce copra as well as the high export price of the nuts. This, he said, made it more profitable for farmers to divert into more lucrative, less labour intensive markets, which they did.
Statistics had shown that the facility, which had the capacity to absorb 600,000 pounds of copra per month, had seen its supply dwindle to about 170,000 over the preceding three months.
The result was that the mill suffered, seeing its sales restricted to two companies: Trinidad and Tobago-based Gopaul and Company and Lever Brothers of the Dominican Republic.
During Monday’s conference, several stakeholders expressed concerns which ranged from the high cost to transport their nuts from farms to markets, to affordable financing. A coconut farmer from Wakenaam said that the price he has to pay to transport his produce from his farm on the island was “exorbitant” and cut deep into his profits.
He said that if the government is serious about assisting the industry it must find a way to cut transportation costs for farmers to take their goods to their buyers, whether it be the mills or the markets.
“Right now I broke,” said another farmer who indicated that the cost to run his operations has forced him to temporarily suspend his operations. He suggested that there is need for grants or loan facilities to assist farmers with their businesses especially since many of Guyana’s competitors in the industry give subsidies to their farmers.
After hearing these concerns, the Minister promised to take them into consideration, and promised that steps would soon be taken to address them.
He reiterated however that “there is only so much the government can do,” and that if they are to succeed, the private sector must also pull its weight.