Putting the 'Rita' into export-driven Carita

RITA Hilton's journey to being the sole proprietor of Carita Jamaica Limited has been a long one, not just in terms of years but also distance, her accent a clear indication that she's not from Jamaica but her presence speaking volumes of her love of the island.

Born in Mombasa, Kenya, to Goa Indian parentage the tiny but sprightly Hilton shared that she received her high school education in Nairobi where she, with the help of a principal, secured a scholarship to study at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, United Kingdom. There in the highlands, while pursuing a master's in geography, she met a Jamaican and soon changed her last name from Simes to Hilton and adopted Jamaica as her home.

Recalling her education in Kenya, she told the Jamaica Observer, "Boys were getting more education than girls but I guess I was a rebel from the beginning."

Settling in Jamaica, Hilton took a job as a geography teacher and spent 14 years at St Hugh's High School for Girls in St Andrew and Mount Alvernia High in Montego Bay, St James. It was while getting an "intimate knowledge of the island" on her field trips with the young women the spark was lit for the switch from teaching to agriculture and exports.

In 1984 Marketing Development was registered as a company. However, the name of the company would often betray the company's true purpose, leaving customers wondering about the mismatch.

"There was a brief time…where we suspended the activities of the company and I took a job, but it wasn't fulfilling and so I came back into the company and continued the business," Hilton explained.

"People were having the perception that we are a marketing company and not a physically exporting company. So, in 2010/2011 we took the decision to change the name of the company to reflect more of what we were doing," the CEO clarified, adding that the name "Carita" is a combination of the Caribbean produce for which the operation is known and her first name, Rita.

In its initial stage Carita bought produce from farmers for export to North America and Europe while operating its own farm. However, as demand began to grow Hilton thought it best not to divide the focus of the company, her decision evidenced by exiting the farming business.

"We prepare produce for export and make sure that we are maintaining food and safety protocols as well as quality standards," she said, describing Carita's current modus operandi.

At present the company exports yellow yams, white yams, sweet potatoes, dasheen and cocoa to Miami and New York in the United States. In Canada, Carita's biggest market is the Greater Toronto Area with smatterings of sales in Montreal, Calgary and Winnipeg.

Plans are in place to "resuscitate" the Vancouver market, Hilton disclosed, noting that with the company's efforts to ramp up its revenues, re-establishing connections in that locale are geared toward that end. Just across the border in the US, Carita has sent a few shipments to Oregon, where there is heavy demand for breadfruit products by South Pacific islanders for whom it is a staple.

Yet, for both markets Hilton has highlighted challenges with transportation of produce. In the US the primary trans-shipment point is Florida, from where it may be challenging to get produce to the Pacific Northwest; while in Canada produce must first go through Toronto before being flown to other cities.

On this note, she said the challenge of delivering produce to overseas markets was exacerbated during the early stages of the novel coronavirus pandemic when flights had ceased. Another challenge is the lack of cold storage at Jamaica's airports and on some airlines to prevent spoilage of produce.

"We don't have the volume on the cold chain to maintain that," Hilton informed Business Observer, adding this limits the ability of the company to fulfil the demand for agricultural produce such as thyme, scallion and Scotch bonnet peppers.

"We don't have enough cooling facilities at the airport to store perishables so you're gonna get a lot of spoilage, and this is one of the things we have to rethink — how we are going to capitalise on our flavour," she continued.

Still undaunted by the difficulties, the CEO has her sights set on other new markets.

"We're looking to go to Houston [Texas] with an African market that is currently bringing in bananas from Kenya and Uganda," Hilton revealed, noting that the target population also has a palate for both aramanthus callaloo prepared in Jamaica as well as cocoa and dasheen leaves.

Across the pond in Europe, while Carita enjoys market presence in London, England, it is pushing to break into the Netherlands market with sweet potatoes.

"The potatoes produced in Manchester on the bauxitic soils are heartier, firmer and last on longer journeys," Hilton outlined.

Her aspirations for Carita, however, are not limited to produce. Within the last three years or more the company has embarked on the production of value-added items such as gluten-free flour, nutraceutical teas, and packaged soups without MSG and meat.

Convinced that Jamaica continues to devalue its products by exporting them and then importing the value-added finished goods, Hilton questioned the practicality of growing turmeric for export but importing turmeric pills, powders and paste.

"So this is why I got very involved in breadfruit and so we started with breadfruit flour," she asserted.

And there is room to produce cassava flour and sweet potato flour, as much as there is potential for breadfruit fries and cassava fries.

"These are some of the things I'd love to see happening, only I don't have the capital to invest in the equipment to get these," Hilton stated.

To this end, the CEO is now in the process of updating the company's financial records to secure financing from the Development Bank of Jamaica, which has expressed an interest in supporting the company. In the same breath, Hilton lamented having had bad spells with staff members at senior management level.

Notwithstanding, she candidly admitted culpability for the company's financials not being up to date, explaining that her forte is marketing, customer relations, and new product development.

"I've been a bit neglectful keeping the financials current and operational; that has been my downfall and I'm not ashamed to tell you," she told Business Observer.

"I think if there are businesses you have to get your numbers up to date, and that will make you a more interesting proposition to any investor," Hilton added.

A previous participant in the NCB Capital Quest and Jamaica Promotions Corporation's (Jampro) Export Max, Carita has benefitted from exposure in both programmes. Commenting on the latter, Hilton said that while it did not provide an opportunity for market expansion, it allowed the company to assess its position in the marketplace.

When asked what's next for Carita she said the company has started a food safety and traceability programme. So far, auditors from the United States have gone to review the procedures used at the warehouse in the Waltham Park Road, St Andrew, vicinity as well as observed the processes of farmers who supply the company.

"We are trying to do contracts with these farmers to understand why it is critical to observe these protocols, and it has to be a mindset of all farmers in Jamaica because that is coming," Hilton argued, pointing to instances of product recall when there are breakouts of food-borne diseases.

Though exploring appropriate packaging to reduce spoilage, the businesswoman expressed that for a small business, packaging can be a huge cost to bear. Moreover, while the company champions post-harvesting treatment of its produce, which includes cold storage, she said the cost of energy is another challenge the company faces.

Currently Carita employs mainly women in administration, packing and preparing. Operating "in some sense" as a social enterprise, Hilton said that every effort is made to "lift them to a sustainable living wage" — however, it has become even more challenging given the tight and competitive labour market.

"We have some of the men to do the heavy lifting but the women do as well," she further explained.

Cognisant of her age, Hilton said she is exploring options for venture capital and other types of investments in the business. Still, concerned about the legacy of Carita and her love for work, she conceded that she is willing to give up 80 per cent of interest in the business. In addition, she would also want to return to the farm to ensure food safety and biosecurity.

Hilton, a former president of the Jamaica Manufacturers Association (before its merger with the Jamaica Exporters Association), now sits on the executive team of Jampro.

Rita Hilton questions why Jamaica should produce turmeric but import valued-added by-products such as turmeric paste, powders and pills. (Photo: Josimar Scott)
Carita Jamaica Limited CEO Rita Hilton inspects sweet potatoes that have been prepared for export. (Photo: Josimar Scott)
CEO of Carita Jamaica Hilton with a forklift loaded with products for shipment. (Photo: Josimar Scott)
Carita Warehouse Supervisor Andre Brown (left) watches as floor workers Odane McDermott and Delano Davis prepare a shipment. (Photo: Josimar Scott)
Carita Warehouse Supervisor Andre Brown (second left) assists floor workers Delano Davis (left, partially hidden), Paul Peaches (second right) and Odane McDermott stack boxes on a pallet. (Photo: Josimar Scott)
Carita's value-added products.
Carita Jamaica Limited's all-female administrative team share the frame: (From left) Accounting Technician Shanique Simpson, Administrative Assistant Otiwa Floami, Export Coordinator Nakada Grant, CEO Rita Hilton, and Executive Assistant Bernadette Wong.
Josimar Scott

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