Farmers in St. Kitts and Nevis are losing out on more than USD $66 Million (EC$180m) in revenue annually due to their limited knowledge and skills as entrepreneurs within the agriculture sector and it is driving up the food import bill.
The dependency on imported foods to St. Kitts and Nevis – with a population of 53,000 – cost the country more than USD $74million last year. The time has come for farmers and vendors alike to be more business-orientated to ensure that they capitalize on the benefits to lower the import bill.
St. Kitts and Nevis, like the rest of the CARICOM region, still has a dependency on imported foods which is leaving the territory vulnerable to economic shocks, and health challenges. This was highlighted when the war in Ukraine started and the supply chain bottlenecks resulted in an increase in food prices in St. Kitts and Nevis.
Over the last several years, the country imported more food and livestock by dollar and cents than it produced. According to published data for 2021 from the Ministry of Agriculture, St. Kitts and Nevis imported USD $60,811,884.80 (EC $164,347,162) worth of food of varying kinds, including live animals. In 2022, the figure jumped to US$73,132, 057.74 (EC$197,618,723) million, according to Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Miguel Flemming.
The dependency was evident during the COVID-19 pandemic when lockdown measures saw citizens and residents flocking to supermarkets for food supplies and alcohol, with lines snaking for as much as two to three blocks to enter establishments. In many instances, those shelves were left bare, forcing the government to lift restrictions for supermarkets and Customs officials to coordinate the clearing of goods and restocking purposes.
The government of the day was then prompted to include farmers as essential workers so that they could tend to their crops and livestocks.
Impact of Food Import
In the broader CARICOM region, the food import bill stands well over USD $3.8 billion, according to the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture.
That figure is equivalent to more than double the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of some territories. St Kitts and Nevis GDP in 2021 stood at approximately USD $ 861 million. There is a desire by CARICOM territories to have that decreased by 25 percent by 2025 – in keeping with CARICOM’s ‘25 by 25’ initiative.
Last year (2022) Dr. Carla Barnette, CARICOM’s Secretary General, highlighted the challenges the region faces with its food import bill, telling the Caribbean Investment Forum that based on the structure of economies across the region, “we import more than 60% of the food we eat, with some countries importing more than 80% of the food they eat”.
Dr. Barnett suggested that between the period 2018-2020, the region’s food import bill was US$13.76 billion or approximately 5% of the region’s GDP.
In Basseterre, Federal Agriculture Minister Samal Duggins committed to attaining that specific goal through more investment in farmers, as reflected in his budgetary allocation.
“As members of CARICOM, we have bought into the 25 by 25 Agenda where we have agreed across CARICOM to invest in our people so that they [will] more adequately be able to participate in reducing our food import bill by 25 percent by the year 2025,” Duggins told Parliament during his budget presentation in December.
Under that initiative, the US$74 million or nearly EC$200 million import bill will be cut down by 25 percent by 2025, with further decreases expected over time. This will be done by focusing on crops and livestock specific to St. Kitts and Nevis to ensure that they are abundant in the country. Currently, the government has not identified what are the priority crops of focus.
But in dissecting the root cause of the high import bill in St. Kitts and Nevis, it was found that it is the “lack of knowledge and perception” of how to cultivate the lands to properly harness the best opportunities available, and poor business practices from farmers and vendors alike.
Outside of just the practices, farmers and vendors believe the time has come for them to be more business-oriented to not only decrease the food import bill but also to reduce wastage.
Farmers and vendors are all adamant that more can be done to ensure that the USD $66 million that has been expended on foreign food imports can be retained in the CARICOM region, more specifically St. Kitts and Nevis. One vendor who identified herself as Margret explained that she believes that the government could do more to ensure that both farmers and vendors become more business savvy.
She recommended short training programmes on the means of business, developing produce into end products to minimize wastage, and how to package products that will compete with, and attain the necessary standards that would qualify at standards suitable for supermarkets and possible export.
Another opined that the challenges facing the industry locally is the need for changes to the current standard and farming practices, stressing that the government could do more within the sector.
She highlighted that the imported produce and goods are cheaper compared with the same developed locally, and that could be due in part to the chemicals and fertilizers used to remove pests or just the machines used to churn out products faster without the need for manual labour.
“I have had people complain to me about the worms that they would find in some of the produce, which is sad,” she told us on a rainy day in the Basseterre Market as she sought to get her produce sold on a slow day.
Over the years, the Government of Taiwan has provided technical assistance in the area of soil testing and fighting climate change in the agriculture sector among other areas.
To ensure that farmers are better trained to make the best use of produce and become more business oriented, the Ministry of Agriculture is currently in the process of working with the Clarence Fitzroy Bryant College to develop a programme that will educate and certify producers in the subject area.
In their conversations with CIJN, the vendors and farmers noted that though the lines at the supermarkets were long, they did see success during the pandemic, because many people did not desire to enter the facilities due to COVID concerns. But that was also not necessarily for long periods of time.
The concern as expressed by Minister Duggins could be the practices employed by the farmers over the years. He is in support of the farmers being business orientated when it comes to the entire agriculture sector, but noted there is no quick fix to dealing with the high import bill.
“The foothold of any industry is business. Farming is not just an art, but it is an industry…The better business practices adopted by our farmers and producers, will of course, allow the productivity to increase,” added Duggins.
That productivity, which means smart farming, is expected to ensure that food is produced year-round, thus ensuring that the country can attain its food sustainability goal and reduce the dependency on imported items. Alarmingly though, farmers produce and reap similar crops at the same time, thus creating a glut and an eventual shortage on the market.
According to the import bill for last year, St. Kitts and Nevis imported a number of items that are produced locally but have run short on some produce, including bell peppers, tomatoes, cabbages, broccoli, onions and carrots.
“It is a seesaw effect where we consume what we can consume, and we import what we can’t produce. And so the more we produce the less we will have to import,” Duggins told CIJN.
Education is another critical aspect of the process of becoming business-oriented with farmers knowing what to ferry to the markets and what to utilize for the end product.
“Another part of the whole process to becoming more business-oriented is recognizing surpluses where there is little to no waste. And so going from grading the food to determining what could be used as fresh foods to what can be used as dried or tinned foods, or what can be used for other purposes and by-products, such as tomato paste, salad dressing…”
Anastasha Elliott, Vice President of the St. Kitts Farmers Cooperative Limited, lamented that the lack of business education is costing farmers a loss of revenue, and it is spilling into the cooperatives.
Compounding the problem for St. Kitts and Nevis is that since the onset of the pandemic, inflation has increased across the globe, making food prices more expensive.
In Basseterre, inflation and food prices jumped during the COVID pandemic with IMF data showing increases of 1.2 percent in 2021 and 4 percent in 2022. According to data from the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB), St. Kitts and Nevis rate stood at 3.8 percent at the end of last year. In contrast, the Caribbean region saw inflation grow to an average of 6.2 percent last year, and the world’s average increased to 8.8 percent according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Generally speaking, St. Kitts and Nevis consistently reported negative inflation for six of eight years prior to the pandemic. The global jump meant that shipping prices for a container of food moved from approximately US$5000 to US$15,000 and above; and also saw one of the major shipping agents leave the region altogether.
Recognizing the challenges of food importation and the subsequent cost to the population, both on tax payers and the health sector, successive administrations in Basseterre have sought to throw more finances behind the sector to assist farmers.
Budgetary Allocation to Combat Food Challenges
In 2022, then Prime Minister and Minister Finance, Dr. Timothy Harris allocated $10 million to increase production in the sector and boost food security efforts.
“Building on the support provided in 2020 through the COVID-19 Economic Stimulus Package, my Government again took the unprecedented decision to provide further support to the Agriculture Sector through the provision of an additional $10.0 million dedicated [to] boosting production and improving food security. Of this amount, $3.0 million was provided in the 2021 Estimates while an amount of $4.0 million is being proposed for the 2022 Estimates,” Harris told the National Assembly during his 2022 budget address.
Dr. Terrance Drew, current Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, also threw support behind efforts to increase production, telling the nation during the 2023 budget that food security is a “high priority” of the Sustainable Island State Agenda as they seek to derive the benefits of expanding the manufacturing sector.
St. Kitts and Nevis has high instances of Non-Communicable Diseases, such as Cancers, Diabetes, Hypertension and Heart Disease – with those being the leading causes of death.
In its bid to drive home eating health and more locally grown foods, the government through the Ministry of Agriculture has undertaken numerous “eat local” campaigns.
But just as they are pushing that initiative, there is growing concern that the imported foods are more accessible, cheaper and well-packaged, driving the dependency.
The dependency has given rise to concern that the government will not attain its target of ensuring the population meets the nutrition goals which fall under the National Nutrition Policy.
Over the years, the government allocated more in the budget to the health sector in order to bolster healthcare in the region.
Outlook and Plans
Over the past two months, officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Agriculture have been meeting with crop and livestock farmers to chart a way forward for the sectors. During those meetings a number of recommendations were taken onboard.
Those recommendations and suggestions will form the basis of the Government’s 25-point plan under the ‘25 by 25’ initiative where solutions will be drafted for the sector to deal with a number of issues to lower the food import bill and ensure for security within C
In July 2023 the government will launch its 25 point plan to tackle the challenges facing the sector, including water, food wastage, and loss of crops due to feral animals, to ensure that farmers and vendors are better able to benefit from the large chunk of revenue leaving the country.
Agriculture officials in St. Kitts-Nevis are optimistic that by implementing this plan, there will be ripple effects across the country. They believe it will assist the health sector by having more locally grown produce in homes and on tables, reducing the number of NCD cases. It will also assist farmers in focusing their attention on business practices to ensure that more taxes are paid to the government, while also ensuring the country attains its food security and nutrition policy goals.
The government will likely seek assistance from its allies and partner agencies to bolster its efforts.
As mentioned it has received assistance from the Embassy of the Republic of China (Taiwan). It has received funding from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in its bid for food sustainability.
Concerns have been raised though that the 25 by 25 plan, if not taken seriously, could suffer from the “implementation deficit” plaguing the region.