ST. LUCIA’S banana industry appears to be on the rebound with news that a shipment of the fruit is due to hit markets in France next month.
This shipment is a trial run that was supposed to have taken place at the start of this year but had to be pushed back due to the damaged to the fields caused by Tropical Storm Matthew in September last year and unusually high amount of rainfall during the latter part of 2016.
The attempt to get local bananas into the French/European market was made soon after the Allen Chastanet administration took over the reins of government in June last year when it held meetings with French officials while on a trip to England and other parts of Europe in an effort to turn promises made on the campaign trail into reality.
Chastanet’s United Workers Party (UWP), while on the campaign trail prior to the last general elections, promised to increase banana production and revitalize the industry.
The announcement that St. Lucia will finally be shipping bananas to France comes amid reports months ago that the banana industry had been decimated due to the high cost of production, diseases, ravages to the crop caused by adverse weather, and other factors.
Agriculture Minister, Ezechiel Joseph, announced the trial run at Tuesday’s sitting of the House of Assembly. He was all smiles announcing the surprising piece of news to the nation, even thumbing his nose at members opposite, almost taunting them for being unable to open up this new market for the industry during their tenure in government.
Joseph claimed that the new scheduled date for shipment of bananas to France was actually January of next year; however, as a result of high production levels within the industry at this time due to the impact of a programme government had established with farmers to push for higher productivity within the industry, the country was able to ship one month earlier.
The Minister had other good news about the banana industry to give out in the House and he relished this.
“Despite the many challenges facing the banana industry, the Government of St. Lucia and, by extension, the Ministry of Agriculture, considers that the banana industry is an important and critical component in our agricultural development thrust. The Ministry believes that this commodity could continue to play a vital role in the economic development of our country, create employment and ensure food security for thousands of households,” Joseph said.
The Minister, after giving the House opposition members a triumphant look, launched into some of the projects his administration undertook to improve the quality of the fruit and to create stability in the industry.
Joseph spoke of returning confidence to farmers and to the industry within the 16 months he has been in power and of plans of increasing the acreage under cultivation from 1,200 acres to 2,400 acres within three to four years.
There seemed to be pride in his voice when he spoke of the establishment of a financial mechanism for farmers which they could utilize to get financing to rehabilitate their fields and for developing the fruit to make it more resistant to climate change.
Joseph spoke of meeting investors in the United Kingdom interested in bananas from the Windward Islands, which could open more market opportunities for local bananas. Other markets beckoning are the cruise ship industry and the region. According to him, if farmers could be consistent with their supplies, they could tap into the cruise ship industry.
For this to happen, Joseph said government has in place certain things that farmers could utilize to ensure the level of consistency required, to establish new fields for cultivation and for the expansion of old fields. They will also be supported with composts, disease control, drainage works (at reduce cost) and a significant reduction in the price of fertilizers.
Farmers will also be assisted in fighting the dreaded leaf spot disease found in banana plants called Black Sigatoka. The Black Sigatoka Unit in the Ministry of Agriculture will be transformed into a technical unit with the capacity to aid farmers to properly control the leaf spot disease.
Joseph spoke of several young men getting involved in the banana industry and getting support from the Ministry, especially those in the Mabouya Valley.
Getting a reliable supply of inputs, such as fertilizers, oils and chemicals to help farmers with their post-harvesting activities, is one of the greatest challenges in the industry today, according to Joseph, who promised to provide a way whereby farmers could get their inputs in a timely manner.
Such a project will cost EC$16.1 million with Taiwan providing almost half that amount ($7.5 million) and the Government of St. Lucia the remainder.
Joseph expressed his joy that between April this year to the present, new lands amounting to 113 acres were under banana cultivation.