Roots and tubers: A potential cash cow in the Caribbean

Innovative regional stakeholders are beginning to unlock the potential of traditional Caribbean food crops – roots and tubers – through value-added farming production and agro-processing initiatives.

Slimdown 360’s instant mash products have a shelf life of 1 year © Luke Smith

Root and tuber crops (RTCs) such as arrowroot, cassava, dasheen, eddoe, ginger, sweet potato, tania and yam are farmed throughout the Caribbean and remain a staple of traditional diets. Belize, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Suriname and some eastern Caribbean countries are self-sufficient in RTCs with Jamaica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines leading regional exports. However, with the capacity to create value-added products for local consumption and export, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has identified cassava, sweet potato and yam with the highest potential for development.

RTC crops can withstand up to 98% of hurricane disasters and have good potential even as regional climate patterns change, as planting material can be sourced locally, and farmers are familiar with RTC production. RTCs are also valued for their 'good' complex carbohydrates, which provide better glycemic indices (food’s effect on a person’s blood sugar), compared to imported refined carbohydrates; they are also high in dietary fibre and low in calorie count, which are important considerations for health-conscious markets in Europe.

Adding value 

RTC agro-processing across the Caribbean is predominantly focused on cassava, with less than 10% on sweet potato. The majority of processors are sole traders, partnerships and family enterprises offering a limited product range. However, a group of Caribbean entrepreneurs are investing in product development, intent on further commercialising traditional goods such as RTC flour and tapioca, as well as creating a diverse range of new products. These entrepreneurs are actively supported by research and development and training initiatives from the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute, FAO, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, and The University of the West Indies, among others. 

Jethro Greene, Caribbean Farmers Network chief coordinator, says that, "In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, we embarked on an integrated approach to production and marketing of dasheen. We organised several farmers into a group, and provided training in new production techniques and on packing and grading products, which increased production by almost 500% and an increase by 200% in the prices farmers were able to obtain. We are also exploring use of a joint labour pool and bulk importation of inputs, such as fertilisers, in order to increase competitiveness and profitability. These farmers were also trained in exporting processes, and they have been exporting to Europe for the past few years without any 'claim backs' [claims by the buyers that the goods were not of the required standard]. Today dasheen is now recognised [here] as the third highest export crop."

Policy processes 

While the Caribbean region has a food and nutrition security policy framework which supports the growth of RTCs, there is still much work to be done on creating an agriculture investment environment. In addition, with 15 CARICOM member states, there are multiple agricultural policies and import requirements, often presenting non-tariff barriers to intra-regional trade. In order to progress the RTC value chain, the region must bridge the price gap between farmer and agro-processors, which can be done by linking price to quality and would improve good agricultural practices across the value chain.

However, sustainable RTC farming is stymied by a combination of a lack of political will and private sector investment. Governments and ministries remain slow to implement climate change initiatives, invest in agriculture and provide access to financing for farmers. Consultants, Dr Basil Springer and Robert A Reid, have been developing a proposal for an agriculture working capital model for the Caribbean enabling farmers to finance their entire production cycle. The new model would also fund ‘shepherding’ which enhances the chances of success for the farmer and financer by coordinating all value chain activities on behalf of smallholders, including relationships with buyers. Springer says, "The major challenge which farmers' face in the region is access to advance working capital. They require funds for inputs, packaging, marketing, transportation and shipping; and they undertake much of the primary risk. Yet farmers obtain a fixed price for their goods, and often have to wait for payment when it is sold, traders consequently obtain a greater share of the profits. This corporate model needs to change."

Increasing productivity 

Analysis of regional RTC value chains identify the need to improve low productivity and increase access to high yielding planting material which is disease resistant. In addition, there needs to be more collaboration between farmers and agro-processors, greater diversification of final products and enhanced investment in research and development including mechanisation technologies appropriate for the smaller size of regional farms. Training of agro-processors in supply chain management and marketing concepts is also key to RTC value chain development. Public education and promotion of RTC health benefits to the regional public is also required in order to increase domestic consumption; in St. Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago, RTC products have been incorporated into school feeding programmes.

While cottage industries for cassava chips remains vibrant, regional market demand and private sector investment is driving innovation in manufacturing. The Trinidad and Tobago Bermudez Group Ltd. now offers a range of chips including cassava and dasheen, which is manufactured in Costa Rica. This demonstrates that, if the region can provide a sustainable, high quality supply of RTCs, there is demand from regional agro-processors. In fact, one of the most successful cases of import substitution using RTCs is from Jamaica's Red Stripe beer. Red Stripe recently begun to substitute barley with locally grown cassava, engaging independent farmers' and cooperatives in its value chain integration process.

Niche products: RTC pasta and mash

In 2010, Jody White founded Slimdown 360 Ltd., which supplies low-calorie pre-packaged meals in Trinidad and Tobago, after he encountered a market gap with respect to local food product availability. After years of trials, he developed cassava and sweet potato pastas and instant mash products with a shelf life of 1 year, with no preservatives; compared to RTCs which have a shelf life of 1-4 weeks. Since its product launch in early 2017, the firm has purchased more than 10 t of RTCs, and expects this to rise to over 100 t by early 2018. Slimdown 360 is also currently exploring export opportunities in Canada and the US, which may eventually triple local RTC requirements.

The main challenge White encountered has been access to funding, as well as a large variation in RTC size, shape, colour and taste. In the long-term, the company intends to invest in backward value chain integration by working with farmers to advance techniques for higher yields. 

Natalie Dookie

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.