Just over a year ago Shaun Cameron stepped into the role of general manager of the Coconut Industry Board (CIB) with a mission to transform the local coconut industry using technology, scientific and market research. Over the next few weeks the Business Observer will explore in a series of Agriculture articles the challenges and opportunities in the coconut industry and how the new CIB general manager plans to address them.
Having assumed the role of general manager of the Coconut Industry Board (CIB) November 8, 2021, Shaun Cameron has since proven himself to farmers and other stakeholders in that industry.
His ascension to the role comes at a time when the coconut industry is emerging from the devastation of the lethal yellowing and bud rot diseases that have plagued the industry since the late 1970s and early 1980s. Having surveyed the landscape, he recently shared with the Jamaica Observer from his office on Waterloo Road in St Andrew his plans for turning around the coconut industry, which include capitalising on the scientific research and technology available to the organisation to improve management and monitoring of the industry, as well as working with farmers to venture into agro-processing in a bid to create value-added coconut by-products.
His vision: Vertical integration that will result in "transforming the coconut landscape to value-added products.
"Not just producing coconut water and coconut oil but we have coconut sugar, we can look at coconut charcoal, we can look at coconut milk and various other products that are coconut related. We may be able to go into the pharmaceutical and cosmetic products also," Cameron elaborates.
His goals are not too lofty, he notes, since his approach to decision-making is data-centric; Cameron depends on market research to craft a path of growth for the coconut industry. This he said will drum up support for his agro-processing initiative.
And already he has received the backing from stakeholders and coconut farmers, having received a vote of confidence during last year's annual general meeting of the Jamaica Coconut Growers' Association from Acting Chairman Nicholas Jones, standing in place for Christopher Gentles.
"He has proven himself working with strategic development and technology to improve the industry," Jones commended Cameron.
Still, with such a short time in the general manager's chair, Cameron states: "I want to create a road map in how we are able to achieve certain things throughout a specific timeline, and without a strategic direction and some significant data to make these informed decisions, I cannot move forward."
In this regard, he relates the loss of some eight million coconut trees due to lethal yellowing and another one million to natural disasters such as hurricanes. Again, with research the industry has been able to recover.
For one, the CIB has created hybrid coconut plants that are resistant to the lethal yellowing vector that has impacted an industry mainly concentrated in the eastern end of Jamaica â€” St Mary, Portland, St Thomas, and to a lesser extent St Andrew. According to CIB director of research Dr Millicent Wallace, who was instrumental in securing the hybrid coconut plants, Jamaica in 2021 received some 1,500 Pacific tall hybrids from Mexico.
This "technology transfer", she says, will improve the CIB's treatment of tissue culture.
CIB has a database of over 50 varieties of coconut trees, housed at Plantation Gardens in St Thomas, which has helped in its research to find solutions to lethal yellowing
"We have the largest coconut germ plasm site in the Western Hemisphere," Cameron boasts.
"Based on this knowledge we're better able to come up with hybrids or varieties that are suitable to our market and the research has helped us to be better able to understand the soil type that is required for certain varieties moving forward. So it's more of a scientific approach that comes with the outputs and the outcomes that are industry-specific," he explains further.
Another means of tackling the lethal yellowing disease has been using an approach known as the Black Approach, introduced by Michael Black from Lyssons in St Thomas.
Once the disease is identified on the tree, farmers then cut it down, burn it and replace the tree with a new one, most likely a disease-resistant hybrid. By doing so, farmers prevent the spread of the disease from one plant to another.
"It's a costly venture," Cameron points out, "Because you have to have someone who is an expert that focuses on lethal yellowing."
In most instances, farmers would send a WhatsApp message to a Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) agent within their parish to confirm that the tree is diseased. Once confirmed, RADA or the CIB sends a team to terminate the tree and remove it from the orchard.
The same occurs in the case of bud rot.
However, given the restrictions of movement and face-to-face interactions implemented during 2020-2021 to cauterise the spread of COVID-19, some farmers may have had to wait a longer time to get help to uproot infected trees.
Now, with lesser incidents of lethal yellowing Cameron will begin to roll-out plans for diversification through coconut by-products, having witnessed local manufacturers importing coconut oil and coconut milk from outside the Caribbean. Moreover, his plan transcends Jamaica, which has lent help to its Caricom neighbours.
"We do see a market for these by-products and I'm looking not only locally but also for the Caribbean. We're the only country in the Caribbean that has a research department that is focused on coconut," the CIB general manager explains.
"Our team has gone to various islands to support their nursery development, to support lethal yellowing management and so forth," he adds.
With these relationships, Cameron believes he will have the numbers to embark on coconut-based agro-processing.
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