The agricultural sector in the OECS region continues to play a critical role in our efforts to reduce poverty, ensure food security and sustain livelihoods for large numbers of persons in our rural populations. This sector has been plagued with challenges in recent times, however, with the removal of preferential treatment for goods exported to traditional markets – particularly the United Kingdom, the absence of consolidated marketing by OECS producers for export, and the debilitating vagaries of climate change. It is against this backdrop that the OECS Commission, working with Ministers of Agriculture in Member States, farmers, exporters, ship owners and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), has formulated an Agri-Export Strategy to facilitate greater intra-regional trade of agricultural commodities. This initiative is expected to reduce our sub-regional food import bill and create a sub-regional market for agricultural produce from Member States. It is the intention that countries establish production platforms for their agricultural commodities that have a competitive advantage and, applying the banana export model, consolidate agricultural commodities produced in the sub-region in order to occupy greater market share in extra-regional traditional markets.
Traditional shipping in the OECS is characterised by an informal sector, defined by small vessels serving the island states in an inefficient and unreliable manner. An ad hoc and unregulated schooner system operates in the region, trading in roots, tubers, fruits and vegetables. This service must be transformed in order to facilitate a sustainable intra-regional shipping mechanism as unreliable and inefficient shipping arrangements affect both production and marketing of agricultural produce, thereby making the sector uncompetitive. In an effort to create a more effective and efficient system, an OECS shipping study was undertaken in 2010. The results of this study informed the creation of an Eastern Caribbean Shippers Pool (ECSP) as a legal entity, which was supported by Compete Caribbean and the Caribbean Development Bank. The ECSP was registered in 2014 as a regional organisation of small vessel owners with the express purpose of improving the viability and competitiveness of their business operations. The response of the private sector at the time halted continued progress of the project. The current shipping initiative builds on previous efforts and has incorporated new elements, such as direct involvement of private sector buyers, shippers and farmers to ensure concrete results.
Currently two vessels are being utilised for the movement of agricultural produce in the sub region – the MV Sea Rambler and the MV American Liberty. These vessels have facilitated the movement of agricultural produce from as far south as Trinidad, to as far north as St. Maarten.
To date, the OECS Commission has recorded success in key areas, including: 1. A commitment from ship owners in the US and the British Virgin Islands to embark on a pilot project for the movement of agricultural commodities throughout the region. This has started with St. Vincent and the Grenadines being the hub and six voyages have been successfully completed. 2. A completed analysis of the supply, demand and prices for agricultural commodities within the sub-region. 3. The establishment of point persons within the Ministries of Agriculture in each Member State to provide current marketing information. 4. The pilot study has already led to the re-establishment of agro-packaging facilities in St. Vincent and the Grenadines which were hitherto closed (Lauders Agro-processing Centre). 5. Fortnightly shipments of agricultural produce from St. Vincent and the Grenadines to Trinidad and Tobago and weekly to St. Maarten. 6. Development of a web-based application to connect farmers, traders, hotels and supermarkets through a virtual platform. 7. A private sector agreement between a Trinidad-owned company, Bunny Imports and Exports, to create intra-regional linkages for marketing and shipping of agricultural commodities. 8. The FAO has established a framework to enhance the working relationship between stakeholders in the agricultural sector in the sub-region. The OECS Commission is excited about the potential of this initiative and arrangements are being made for all Member States to fully participate in this movement to reduce poverty and create wealth in the OECS countries through strengthening and utilising opportunities in intra-regional agri-exports.