Agro-exporters grapple supply, quality issues
General Manager of Dominica Import Export Agency (DEXIA), Gregoire Thomas said the lack of planned production is pulling down Dominica's agro-exports.
"The problem we have right now is that production is ad hoc … exporters find themselves in a situation where everybody is trying to grab the few tons of produce available," Thomas contended.
"[Farmers] are not meeting the demand," he pointed out, therefore, whatever agricultural produce is available goes to exporters who can pay the highest prices.
"There is a gap that we need to fill ... We have spoken to exporters, and we ourselves have experienced that difficulty," Thomas said.
However, over the last two years DEXIA has countered this trend with the planned production of dasheen for overseas markets, he disclosed. According to Thomas, DEXIA is now running a Production Support Programme to maintain consistency in the supply of dasheen relative to the international demand.
"So the programme that we have…every month we would establish eight acres of dasheen working with farmers under contract.
"And we do that for 12 months. So we know for a period of one year we have 100 acres of dasheen planted…and it is staggered," Thomas said.
Thomas added that DEXIA would like to establish similar programmes for other crops to ensure reliable supplies and boost exports.
Thomas said it is hard to determine the current level of agro-exports. The last published figures were in 2010 and the Statistics Bureau has not provided his office with updated information.
However, since the hiatus in banana exports, Dominica's main agro-exports were root crops with dasheen topping the list followed by yams, tania and ginger, he said.
According to DEXIA's GM, the unreliable supply of agricultural produce is worsened by crop diseases afflicting major export crops like banana, citrus and mango.
Exports of citrus were substantially reduced because of crop diseases; in particular, grapefruit exports were cut almost by half since the 1980s and 1990s, Thomas said.
Additionally, Dominica's mango exports were disallowed by Barbados and some parts of the United States because of fruit flies, he noted.
In relation to Dominica's competitiveness on the international market, Thomas said this requires consistent effort in order to maintain.
He said competitiveness is not a static process, "You have to find niches. You have to find areas that will allow you to be competitive…" he said.
"I want to believe that there is nothing we are producing that other persons cannot produce … even at a lower cost. But you have to have that match, that relationship between quality and price."
DEXIA always tries to pay farmers a fair price as an incentive to produce, Thomas said, which is balanced with expenses like packaging and transportation for the agency to remain competitive.
Referring to quality standards, he said, "We have had some improvements in terms of the quality of produce exported … [we] demonstrated the ability [to] comply…we have the ability to do it."
However, Thomas acknowledged lingering issues with quality, which Government has attempted to address through the 2009 Fresh Produce Export Act.
This Act requires official 'inspection for quality' of fresh produce prior to export, licensing of exporters and registration of pack-houses.
It also stipulates that all agro-produce be exported via facilities certified to process agro-produce for sale overseas, two of which are in the development phase. Thomas disclosed that one is a DEXIA-managed facility at Portsmouth while the other is in Roseau.
Therefore, all agro- exports will have to go through a DEXIA facility or one certified by the Bureau of Standards.
Meanwhile, DEXIA urges exporters of agricultural produce to use the pack-houses.
"What the fresh produce legislation is doing is [it allows us to be] proactive…anticipating what will happen and preparing ourselves for it," Thomas said.
This gives Dominica more control, "instead of having the importing country imposing restrictions on us because we are not complying."
Former Agriculture Minister Matthew Walter reported in 2010 that Dominica's agriculture exports were criticized in the region because of poor quality.
In 2015, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Harold Guiste exhorted exporters to use pack-houses.
"The current situation where persons grab anything they can get, place it in any box or bag at any quantity and takes it out of this country is not giving us a very good image," he said.
"It is my wish that all agricultural produce destined for the export market would go through a pack-house …" he declared.