Interview: Nirmalla Debysingh-Persad

What can be done to boost production and tap into the islands’ agricultural potential?

NIRMALLA DEBYSINGH-PERSAD: We are delighted to see an increasing number of farmers coming into production. According to our estimates, there are around 23,000 farmers registered in Trinidad and Tobago and approximately 35,000 farmers working in the country, representing a strong increase from 2018. Farmers markets are at maximum capacity and we are taking on additional facilities to house more fresh produce from domestic farmers. The most important step for developing agriculture is to apply a commodity approach, which focuses on commercialisation of individual crops, taking into consideration all the agronomic practices, post-harvest technologies and marketing principles for sustainable, economically viable and competitive products. We must adopt similar measures to ensure that cooperatives in T&T ameliorate the value chain, share costs and information, and move towards sustainable markets. A cooperative approach would share the burden of purchase orders and reduce reliance on imports. We will see progress when our associations have a voice and can identify where support is needed.

Which subsectors of agriculture are best poised for growth and investment?

DEBYSINGH-PERSAD: There is a great deal of interest in pepper mash and cassava flour, and countries like Canada are interested in the foods we produce. We will need new facilities and investors to make the processing of these goods more efficient. Local production offsets import demand for raw materials and also alleviates the overall foreign exchange burden.

Furthermore, making local foods easily available to the people who live here is at the heart of the government’s vision for agriculture. A crucial part of this plan is to shorten the chain from farm to table, making it as efficient as possible so that fresh produce can be readily served across the country. In line with global trends, we know that consumers in T&T care about food provenance. By linking farmers to institutional buyers, we keep costs lower and avoid unnecessary price gouging. Traceability and proximity to food are key.

How sufficient is knowledge sharing between the public and private sectors?

DEBYSINGH-PERSAD: Knowledge sharing is already very strong between the public and private sectors. There are seminars, awareness events and facilities available to stakeholders looking at technology-based agricultural production systems. From irrigation to fertilisation, we observe that private local agro-processing firms are keen to take advantage of land availability and the government’s aim of refocusing the economy. Indeed, one of the seven pillars of the government’s diversification plan is to focus on agriculture and agro-processing. The number of local people from other business sectors that are interested in farming, particularly technology-based practices, is rising, and we find that a lot of young people are interested as well.

In what ways can young people in the country be encouraged to enter into agriculture?

DEBYSINGH-PERSAD: The most significant challenge is financing. Young people who graduate from tertiary programmes, despite being skilled and ready to work, have no way to obtain funding without putting up personal collateral. It appears that the government is cognisant of this limitation and is offering grants for qualifying applicants. The funding is to be invested in modern farming techniques and will thus stimulate processes and efficiency. Interestingly, the younger generation is moving away from labour-intensive activities, towards greenhouse and semi-covered production. Government funding and investment are typically focused on technologically driven processes such as intensive farming that takes place in smaller footprints and results in large yields without much physical labour.