PRIME minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves has hailed Rainforest Caribbean’s investment in a new seafood processing facility in that country as the manifestation of “Caricom in action”, as the plant opened six years after the investment was first mooted for the Eastern Caribbean island.
Rainforest Caribbean has built out a 25,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art EC$10-million ($560 million, US$3.7 million) seafood processing facility in Calliaqua — a small town 8 kilometres south-east of the capital Kingstown — as it expands its footprint across the region. The facility is capable of processing live and frozen lobster, conch, sea cucumber and a wide range of fin fish. It has been in operation since January but was officially opened on July 15, 2022.
“What we see here is Caricom in action,” Gonsalves told the audience at the grand opening of the facility last Friday as he expressed pride in being able to attract investments to his island of 110,000 people. The ceremony was carried live on national TV. The audience at the facility included several dignitaries in St Vincent and the Grenadines including the country’s Governor General Dame Susan Dougan, Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves and Agriculture Minister Saboto Caesar, as well as executives from Rainforest Caribbean and the Ministry of Agriculture in Jamaica, including portfolio minister Pearnel Charles Jr.
Gonsalves, 75 — the only current head of government in the region who was a signatory to the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas in 2001, which established the Caricom Single Market and Economy (CSME) — said Rainforest Caribbean’s investment is part of the fulfilment of one of the four critical pillars of the CSME: economic integration in Caricom.
“I want to talk really as to how this fits in with economic integration,” he told the audience in his usually charismatic style. “In order for the economic integration to work, we have to make sure that the strengths and weaknesses of each of the respective units or countries, that those strengths and weaknesses are dissolved into the integrated whole, so that at the end of the day, the whole is more than the summation of the individual parts. And that is what we are having here. We have the fish, we got the conch, we got the lobster, we got the sea cucumber; but we need the capital, we need the technology, we need the marketing and we need the skill sets which we do not ourselves as yet possess, to bring together, to have this as a dimension, an aspect of the fishing industry, so that we can all do better than we did before.”
He continued: “The fishermen who sell here, they would have not had this avenue to sell, and what happens is this, the greater the demand, the more money they gonna get for their product. And, the persons who are working here in this plant, they would not have been otherwise employed. And the technology has come, the marketing is there and the skill sets which were not available here, are brought and we have something from which all of us will benefit.”
His son, Camillo Gonsalves, 50, who is the country’s minister of finance, economic planning and information technology and the parliamentary representative for the constituency of Eastern St George, in which the town of Calliaqua is located, was equally beaming about the investment and the 80 jobs the facility now provides for his constituents.
“Very often when we talk about investment, we talk about foreign direct investment and we use the word foreign to almost always mean something outside of the Caribbean. [We think] foreign direct investment means Miami or London or somewhere in South America. But what we have learnt in St Vincent and the Grenadines is that the best foreign direct investment is from the region. Which is why we have a hotel being built in Buccament with Jamaican owners, we have relationships that we are building with Jamaican financiers and we have here in the heart of Calliaqua, Rainforest Seafoods from right up the road in Jamaica again. All foreign direct investments, but from the region. So we don’t have to explain to anybody, Caribbean culture. We don’t have to explain to anybody what it takes to get something built, to work with contractors, to work with planning authorities, to understand the reality of Caribbean life, because the investment is foreign to St Vincent, but it is part of our Caribbean civilisation,” he said.
Benjamin Jardim, business development manager at Rainforest Caribbean, who was responsible for the buildout of the facility in St Vincent and the Grenadines and is now moving on to new projects across the region, including another processing facility in Belize “to go more into the value-added processing there”, said “It was a no-brainer for us to get into St Vincent.”
Apart from St Vincent and the Grenadines and its home country of Jamaica, Rainforest Caribbean has operations in Belize where it operates a shrimp farm and processing facility, and warehousing facilities in Barbados and St Lucia. The company is currently scouting other territories within Caricom for “a few other projects” and “new ideas” which Jardim acknowledged he didn’t want to get into right now.
However, regarding the St Vincent investment he said: “There were some hold backs. At the time that we were first looking [at the country for investing in 2016], there wasn’t an international airport, which would have limited our ability to get to market for particular products, but between the time of our scouting in 2016 and our grand opening in 2022, the St Vincent Government has opened up its new airport, Argyle International, which has made our investment even stronger.”
Jardim told the Jamaica Observer that the facility has three processing rooms: one for fish, one for conch and the other for ready-to-eat, value-added products.
“We also have a frozen pack out room which is where we do a lot of our frozen value-added such as steaking of fish and vacuum packing. We also have a live lobster facility with the capacity to store and export 10,000 pounds of live lobster a week. We also have our dock which we plan to extend further in the near future to accommodate larger vessels with deeper draft,” he added as he indicated that the full investment is more than the EC$10 million quoted during the ceremony.
Jardim added that Rainforest Caribbean will be buying fish from Vincentian fishermen and won’t bring its own boats to the island. “We are processors first and foremost and we would like to support the local fishing industry as best as we can, so we will 100 per cent be purchasing from local fishers.”
According to the younger Gonsalves, the Rainforest Caribbean facility aims to help his country double the output of fish annually.
“In 2012 in St Vincent and the Grenadines, we landed EC$8.9 million ($500 million) worth of fish and by 2020…we landed EC$21.5 million ($1.2 billion) worth of fish. That’s before Rainforest got here….[and since they got here in January] they have already paid over EC$3 million ($170 million) to 150 local fishers…and they are just getting started. The contract that we signed with Rainforest Caribbean says that they plan to put in the hands of local fishers, not EC$3 million, but EC$20 million ($1.1 billion) annually,” the younger Gonsalves outlined.
“We feel strongly that it will push [fishers in St Vincent and the Grenadines] to increase their fishing efforts. We are working closely with the Government to help in training and bringing new technology to the industry that will help boost production,” Jardim added in an interview with the Business Observer.
He said that the company is currently operating “at about 20 per cent” and will be pushing that out in the coming months as “the blast freezer, which is normally the bottleneck, can freeze upwards of 30,000 pounds of fish every eight hours”.
Prime Minister Gonsalves also called on his countrymen to embrace investments from entities such as Rainforest Caribbean as part of building a modern, competitive many-sided economy, not dependent on preferential market access and subsidies for agricultural products such as bananas and sugar.
“If anybody will say to you that Rainforest is making money, well, I will say to you, why you think they come? You think they are philanthropists? You think they enter some monastery and take the vow for poverty, that they come here come spend all the time, ride boat with Sabie, say the ‘Our Father’ prayer on sea water down in the southern Grenadines? They are here to make a return on their investment and we must not begrudge them that. Similarly, the fishermen have to make a dollar and the workers have to make a good dollar and the spin-off effects in the community and otherwise, and we have a win-win for everybody,” he said.
“And from what I observe, I don’t see anybody exploiting anybody, because when they come and they invest EC$10 million is a risk, and they wouldn’t have come and invest if they were not going to make a return.”
The boat ride with Sabie, the affectionate reference to Saboto Caesar, the country’s agriculture minister, was a reference to 2016 when Rainforest CEO Brian Jardim was scouting opportunities in St Vincent and the Grenadines and was taken on a small fishing boat in rough seas which brought them close to death’s door and left them praying to make it back safely to shore.
But continuing his speech Gonsalves said: “We all have to be very mature and understanding of all these things and be fair and reasonable with one another. And once we do that, this thing is going to prosper. And we are already seeing, in the first few months, the great possibilities. So when Rainforest gives the fisherman his price for his conch or lobster, he is selling it overseas. He’s not asking for any preferences overseas, enuh. All he wants is a level playing field overseas, and he has a good commodity, well-packaged, high quality, [with which] he’s going to make a good dollar. We nah go negotiate and beg anybody to give no banana or sugar preferences. The market is deciding, so that when they send the lobster from here, when they send it Miami and it transfers from Miami and it reaches Hong Kong or Singapore within 24-36 hours, when they catch it here, it on somebody table down there in a restaurant. That is what the modern, competitive, many-sided economy is about.
“And this modern economy has as an essential feature, an unlimited supply of skilled labour, priced at a particular level in the international division of labour and they are smart enough here at Rainforest, that they give incentive money for their workers to produce more.”
Gonsalves said further investments from Jamaica are being made in his country. “Down the road on the western side of the island, at Buccament, there is another Jamaican company there name Sandals. Next year December they will be opening a 350-room Beaches Resort down there. That’s also Caricom [in action], that’s also part of the many-sided post colonial economy.”
He said his Government wants to partner with Rainforest to develop the skills of his country’s fisherfolk and with the Sandals University to develop skill sets in the hospitality industry.
As for Rainforest Caribbean, apart from expanding in Belize, Jardim said the company is “also looking at doing coconut manufacturing pretty seriously”. He added that “We currently process quite a bit of beef in Jamaica and we are expanding it to be able to accommodate up to 200 head of cattle per week and at least 150 head of pigs as well.”
The company has a 1,500-acre land in Belize of which 350 acres is under shrimp production and plans to increase the number of ponds to at least 1,000 acres.
Other projects are being eyed in other islands.
Rainforest Caribbean exports products to more than 30 countries. “We have booths on the ground in the region, but we distribute our products to the United States, Dubai, Singapore and other countries in Asia as well as Germany, France, England and all over the English-speaking Caribbean and a few of the Dutch islands, and the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.”
Noting that the company earlier this year relaunched as Rainforest Caribbean, Jardim said, “We have a new look a new feel and we are pushing the fact that we are no longer just the seafood purveyors that we’ve been known to be. Approximately 40 per cent of what we sell today is non-seafood. It’s a mixture of other meats, from beef to pork, to chicken parts to mutton to fruits and vegetables. We’ve gone way beyond just a seafood portfolio, even though our core remains seafood,” Jardim said.