News Date: March 25 2018

It was recently brought to my attention that the popular Sam ‘juke-bois’ Flood, of Creole Radio fame, announced on one of his early morning shows that Winfresh, the marketer of Windward Islands bananas, is about to introduce new plastic packaging boxes for farmers to ship bananas. The cardboard cartons in which the fruit had been shipped for the past six decades or so, have apparently outlived their usefulness.

Sam was critical of the CEO of Winfresh, Bernard Cornibert, whom he dismissively referred to as ‘Lord Cornibert’, for the change. According to reports, Sam is alleged to have said that Cornibert had not properly consulted and informed banana farmers about the proposed change in packaging material. Sam made no mention of cost or any other consideration that might have led to the change.

As a former Minister of Agriculture and a former Director of Winfresh, I owe it to the readers of my column to say that I find it difficult to believe that Winfresh had not previously informed banana farmers of this crucial change. I have very little information on this turn of events in the banana industry but I am prepared to wager that the proposed change was initiated by the governments and supermarkets in Europe, and not by Cornibert or Winfresh. Perhaps by banning the use of cardboard cartons, paper will be saved which, in turn, will help save trees and protect the environment. But will the new plastic boxes be stronger and cheaper?

I’ve said it before, that when we are hit with an unexpected development such as that outlined above, we ought not to panic or throw up our arms in a pitiful surrender. Instead, we ought to be nimble and to continuously think on our feet, whatever the new situation. The demand for new containers in which to ship bananas forces us to take another look at the Caribbean market for fresh fruits and vegetables.

On November 11, 2005, I wrote an article in the STAR newspaper, which was published under the caption ‘Compton/Chastanet Banana Debate!’ After I had established my interest in the subject of World Food production and hunger, and of the approach by international institutions and governments in tackling the problem of hunger, I referred to what I considered a debate between Sir John Compton, former Prime Minister, and businessman Michael Chastanet. Sir John was critical of the apparent disrespect which the Labour government had paid the banana industry which had done much to transform Saint Lucia socially and economically. Businessman Chastanet was of the view that if the European market became too competitive for the small hillside farmers to survive, then a new way ought to be found to sell local bananas and other farm produce. Chastanet proposed building ripening rooms at port Vieux Fort and Castries in which bananas would be pre-ripened before shipping to the rest of the Caribbean using the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) protocol.

That idea seems to have been superseded by the more recent move to ship bananas to France, along with our French neighbours. But wouldn’t the island’s bananas face the same demand for plastic containers as opposed to cardboard cartons in France? Faced with this possibility, a new way ought to be identified to help farmers market their bananas and other agriculture products within the Caribbean and elsewhere. Suitably designed warehouses at convenient locations at sea ports in the north and south of the island (and including port Soufriere) should be under active consideration by government and the private sector.   

In addition, those who know Michael Chastanet will remember that his first business was working small, wooden-hull vessels, ferrying goods and people from Castries to the west coast of Saint Lucia and ports in the Eastern Caribbean. The shipping business was Michael Chastanet’s forte. He has pictures of the many steel-hull vessels he later owned, as proof of his successes in that business. It may therefore be time to revisit his earlier proposals. He ought to be encouraged to do the farmers of Saint Lucia a favour by purchasing a suitable refrigerated ship in which to market local bananas and other produce within the Caribbean. Michael can go one step further and arrange for the more forward-looking farmers to eventually own the ships needed to transport their goods.

Intra-Caribbean transport can contribute more to the development of the Caribbean than the mere sale of agricultural produce. For example, small manufacturers and entrepreneurs in Saint Lucia would be encouraged to use such a shipping facility to market their goods within the wider Caribbean. Regular shipping can be a win-win situation for small local manufactures of arts and crafts. TEPA comes to mind. This may be the injection that our industrious and ambitious workers need to push forward.  With the prohibitive prices of air travel, and with little sign that this will decrease any time soon, a fast ferry within the Caribbean, with room for people and cargo, is an opportunity for wise investment in sea transport. Safe and reliable sea transportation is a money generating proposition worthy of consideration by entrepreneurs interested in the growth of the region.

Eventually, however, it is how optimally land resources are used to feed and clothe the people of the Caribbean that will determine the future prosperity of Saint Lucia and the region. That is why I believe scientific land use will remain at the centre of future plans to develop the island and region, as the push to entice more visitors to the island and region intensifies. We need to aim at becoming the country in which a great abundance of locally grown products is to be found, and from which a culinary delight for lovers of good food emerges.

To be prepared for transformative change is an effective way to better jobs, better pay and a more secure future for those who dare to change. We must therefore continue to promote and speak of excellence in agri-business, light manufacturing and cottage industries until excellence becomes ingrained in our psyche, and in our way of thinking and acting. It may therefore be a good time to revisit earlier ideas for bananas from men such as Sir John Compton and Michael Chastanet.

News Source: St. Lucia Star
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