Brush with COVID, travel restrictions delay Gassan Azan's $11-billion Lakes Pen Agri-VenturesThursday, July 22, 2021
ST CATHERINE, Jamaica – Prominent businessman Gassan Azan has revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic has set back the development of his $11-billion Lakes Pen Agri-Ventures orchard farm by at least one year.
In fact, Azan also revealed that he was hit by a severe case of COVID-19 which saw him hospitalised in a Miami hospital for two-and-a-half weeks and sidelined for another six months last year.
Added to that, the coronavirus prevented technicians from travelling to Jamaica thus delaying the setting up of the greenhouses for the Lakes Pen venture.
“Basically we're one year behind schedule,” said Azan, when contacted by Observer Online this week.
The MegaMart CEO disclosed that Lakes Pen Agri-Ventures did get its mother farm concept off the ground whereby it buys produce from other farmers across the country while putting in place a customised programme for the retail shelves. He said Lakes Pen Agri-Ventures will actually start growing by the end of July in its mesh houses and in the greenhouses by the end of August.
Among the crops to be farmed are broccoli, cauliflower and hermetic herbs. Azan said the hydroponic houses will also come on stream in August. These will grow lettuces and other green vegetables.
“So we've started a lot, a lot is happening out there. We have also started our orchard farms, we have mango orchards, papaya, avocado and lime.
“The delay has really been on the greenhouse side because the technicians with the requisite knowledge could not travel to Jamaica last year because of COVID-19 restrictions and I also got COVID so I was out for about six months,” said Azan as he revealed his brush with the deadly virus.
Meanwhile, the MegaMart CEO said the company has started its programme to buy from local farmers. He said that apart from providing a steady market for the farmers, the programme will also help them to improve their efficiency.
“What used to happen is that you have some farmers with a five-acre plot of land who plant 10 different crops on the five acres. By the time they deliver tomatoes to me for example, they can't even fill the order for one of my stores because the volume is too small.
“What we have done is that we have said to the farmer, 'You're going to grow just tomatoes on your five acres and we're going to take it all from you so it fulfills our needs and provides a sure market…' for that farmer”, Azan explained.
Azan recalled that he described the undertaking as a "game changer" that could significantly reduce Jamaica's food import bill when it was officially launched in September 2019.
“It is even more relevant today based on what is happening in the world,” he told Observer Online on Tuesday.
“What you find happening now is not only a shortage of containers but the predictions are for food shortages worldwide by October. So I believe that it is a very timely project right now,” said Azan.
At the time of the launch, Azan said the state-of-the-art agricultural development will directly employ 1,000 people in phase one, and an additional 350 in phase two. The company plans to spend $9 billion in the first phase of the project, and another $2.2 billion in the second phase.
The hi-tech venture will boast the latest in agricultural technology and will feature five types of farming. It will consist of an orchard, a greenhouse and a shade house.
In terms of the savings that could accrue to Jamaica, Azan pointed out that with the country spending between US$850 million and US$1 billion annually to import 40,000 tons of food, Lakes Pen Agri-Ventures could cut that amount significantly.
“When you look at the numbers, how they stack up, this (venture) will produce 17,000 tons each year and we import 40,000 tons; you can see that this is an approximate 40 per cent reduction in the import bill if we hit our target,” Azan said during the project launch.
Among the crops that will be grown are tomatoes, peppers and lettuce which are sold in large volumes in Azan's MegaMart stores. The reliability of imports in part drove him to launch the venture.
“Because we have so many deficiencies in the agricultural produce that we have for sale, the idea was to find some kind of food security or supply-line security for the MegaMart stores.
“We want to build some kind of linkages back to the farmer straight to the retail shelves. We would end up producing better quality, better supply lines, and a more farmers' market appeal rather than a supermarket appeal,” he said at the time.
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