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Evolving demand trends and export opportunities for sweet potatoes yams and other roots and tubers

09 November 2014

Roots and tubers have traditionally been the second largest sub-category of food production in the Caribbean, with imports equivalent to around 19% of domestic production and exports around 5% of domestic production. Haiti and Jamaica traditionally dominated production of roots and tubers in the Caribbean (around 90%)

Recent press reports suggest, however, that exports of roots and tubers are growing in importance in the Caribbean. It was reported in July that in 2013 “Jamaica exported more yam than traditional agricultural exports combined.” This reflects a wider trend in growth of non-traditional exports, such as yam, dasheen, ginger, pumpkin, papaya and pepper.

This in part reflects changing consumption patterns in major developed country markets, with a number of ‘ethnic’ crops now going mainstream, and large supermarkets such as Tesco and Walmart now stocking such products. It is estimated, for example, that US consumption of sweet potato increased by 50% between 2002 and 2012, as the health benefits of sweet potato have been increasingly recognised.

Against this background, the Jamaican government is to launch an export platform framework that facilitates exchange between suppliers and purchasers in Jamaica and overseas. The initiative is being carried out under the Agriculture Ministry’s “Agricultural Competitiveness Programme (ACP), in collaboration with the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA)”. The initiative includes training for farmers on export market opportunities, market requirements, and direct support for marketing and participation in trade fairs. It is recognised by exporters and the Ministry that “Jamaica has to improve its export practices, at least in terms of consistency, if its products are to secure a spot on mainstream shelves”.

The Jamaican Agriculture Minister reported “strong interests from the Fresh Produce Consortium of the United Kingdom” (FPC) whose representatives had visited Jamaica “to explore the possibilities of acquiring supplies of sweet potato”. He also reported that a number of large farmers operating in the government-supported agro-park schemes were already “negotiating contracts with buyers in the Fresh Produce Consortium to supply sweet potato”, with these farmers now sourcing “planting material for the variety of sweet potato required by the Consortium”. The government is now assisting the farmers concerned in conforming with the “good agricultural practices” that are a critical requirement for exports to FPC buyers in the UK.

Beyond Jamaica, the government in Trinidad and Tobago is promoting the use of cassava in its School Feeding Programme, for blending with flour and for use in animal feed. This forms part of efforts to promote public–private sector partnerships to reduce the country’s food import bill. Production of yam, cassava and sweet potato reportedly increased by 15.2, 52.2 and 58.2% respectively between 2012 and 2013.

Editorial comment

A number of roots and tubers have long been central to food consumption in major Caribbean island economies such as Jamaica and Haiti, but changing consumption patterns overseas are now opening up new export opportunities. This is giving a new lease of life to farming of traditional roots and tuber crops. These are crops in which Caribbean island producers can potentially develop a real competitive advantage, given the land-constrained nature of their farming systems.

The expansion of earnings from exports of traditional crops that is now taking place could help to rebalance the growing import bill of several Caribbean island economies. (The recent WTO OECS Trade Policy Review, for example, pointed out that since 2007, OECS member states had become even more dependent on imported foods.) Potentially, exports of specific traditional roots and tuber crops (such as yam, sweet potatoes and dasheen), could help Caribbean countries to sidestep some of the structural constraints on competitive production of bulk food and agricultural products.

Central to the development of these export opportunities is the identification of profitable export markets and the initiation of dialogue between producers and importers over the market requirements, quality standards and production process requirements (good agricultural practices).

A similar process of market identification and dialogue with end users appears to be under way in Trinidad and Tobago, targeting local markets for roots and tuber crops (e.g. cassava). The international market repositioning of traditional crops could well feed back into increased appreciation of the value of traditional crops in national food consumption patterns, with the types of initiatives launched in Trinidad and Tobago gaining traction across the region.

Equally, improving quality standards for export markets could increase the commercial attractiveness of these traditional products on domestic markets, including those tourism market components which require international-level food quality assurance from local suppliers. The launch in Jamaica of government programmes to assist farmers in producing in line with international import and retailer requirements could also provide important assurances that assist in enhancing the commercial attractiveness of national and – SPS requirements allowing – regional markets.

This approach may hold lessons not only for other Caribbean island economies, but also for other small-scale producers across the ACP.


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