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The next 50 years: Leveraging regional and logistical advantages

ID: INTERACTIVE DIALOGUE

David Mullings

Sunday, July 22, 2012    

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LAST week I said that Jamaica50 should not just be about the previous 50 years but the next 50 years. Now, G2K has invited me to speak on Tuesday evening at its 'Jamaica: A Conversation of 50 years and Beyond' event specifically about how my generation (I was born in 1981) moves the country into the next 50 years.

Each time I attend a conference with other countries pitching their advantages and why I should consider doing business there, I always picture the map of the Western Hemisphere in my head, mentally drawing lines from China through the Panama Canal to the seventh largest natural harbour in the world — Kingston Harbour — and then on to the East Coast of the USA and Europe.

Singapore was able to leverage its natural harbour to become a major transshipment hub of the world on a scale that makes Kingston look like it has not been trying for 50 years. This is about the same amount of time Singapore has been hard at work (having declared independence on August 31, 1963, after becoming self-governing in 1959).

Some Jamaicans hate when others bring up Singapore as a comparison, partially because Jamaica has a completely different cultural make-up and also because Singapore's location — right next to China — has been critical to its development. However, benchmarking is something that is key in business. How you measure up to others and what they are doing differently do matter.

Jamaica is the obvious logistical hub of the Caribbean. Port Royal became the richest city in the Western Hemisphere in the past, thanks to piracy, producing 22 per cent of the world's sugar. It was also the first British colony to establish a post office. These achievements are all in our past because we have not paid attention to what others were doing since 1962 to leverage their regional and logistical advantages.

Panama has the canal that is now being widened to allow larger ships to pass through, and the Port Authority is well on the way to being prepared to accept these Panamex and Post-Panamex ships long before the US East Coast will be able to accept them, allowing Jamaica to be the port of choice to dock and break down shipments into smaller units to then go on to the ports that did not have the foresight. Congratulations on that.

However, unlike Panama, we have not had the vision to strengthen the other aspects of logistics and transport. Panama did not only rely on the canal. At the Trade Americas conference that I attended in Miami they showed a map of Panama and proudly pointed out the railway and highway systems running from the Pacific coast of Panama to the Gulf of Mexico coast so that the canal was not the only option.

If that had been Jamaica, we would have been satisfied with the canal alone. I have simply not seen the development that speaks to what past Panamanian governments put in place to ensure economic growth for their citizens.

I recall sitting with the Hon Mike Henry while he was minister of transport to interview him for my short film on the Jamaican railway. He painted a vision for me that was so simple but so sensible: The large vessels would dock, unload their large cargo onto a waiting rail cart running on tracks directly beside the dock because they extended a spur to the docks from Vernam Field.

The containers would then move to Vernam, which would be developed to break down containers to smaller ones, put them back on a train and send them back to the dock, be placed on a ship and then be sent off to their final destination.

That alone would spur economic growth and make Jamaica one of the top 10 destinations for shipping, but there was more. He then asked me to imagine just-in-time shipping that would leverage this regional and logistical advantage. Imagine a car body made in Mexico, an engine coming from Germany, and the rest of parts from China, all landing in Jamaica at the port, being sent to Vernam to be assembled and the finished car being shipping to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale to be delivered to a car dealership.

This is not blue sky thinking, this actually makes complete sense and saves money for the manufacturer. We may have missed the first boat, but 2015 presents a real opportunity for us to take advantage of our unique geographic advantage that cannot be copied.

Some people would rather ignore a sound idea like this just because of who pitched it. If Jamaica is to progress, then the age, political party affiliation or any number of other reasons should not influence how ideas are received.

We need good ideas from anywhere and we especially need to implement them rather than spend 10 and 20 years talking about them.

Action, not a bag a mout', as Nadine Sutherland sings.

David Mullings is president and CEO of Keystone Augusta and was the first Future Leaders representative for the USA on the Jamaica Diaspora Advisory Board. He can be found on Twitter at twitter.com/davidmullings and Facebook at facebook.com/InteractiveDialogue

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