The first to discover Jamaica's potential as a profitable international food and drink producer was a well travelled global player called Christopher Columbus. Yet, ironically, six centuries on from when he shipped barrels of yams back to his mentor Queen Isabella of Spain, the island has still to live up to the intrepid mariner's high expectations. True, it has long held a significant stake in the rum, sugar and banana businesses, but it is puzzling to many that more food export markets have not been conquered by products from the fertile ground which forms the Caribbean's third largest island. But all that is set to change. Encouraged by some smart solo shipping campaigns by several specialist manufacturing groups, the word among marketing visionaries in the capital, Kingston, is that the Jamaicans are finally waking up to the fact that their food and drink industry has a vast potential for growth. And the mainstream grocery market in the UK is at the centre of its sights. But as the island's food industry sets about the massive task of reinventing itself, harsh international trade implications are forming a prelude to the campaign. For it is mainly as a result of a predicted reduction in Jamaica's overseas sales of sugar and bananas that officials and politicians within the Kingston government are urging the "diversify or die" message to many parts of its food sector. The signs are clear. While those two commodities still provide the largest source of foreign exchange where Jamaican agriculture is concerned, and they are the island's largest employers of labour, international trade trends are posing massive challenges. Historically, Jamaica is the oldest banana shipper to the UK. But its business has been protected by a series of measures that have safeguarded Commonwealth sources since the UK joined the European Community. Now much of that protection may disappear under the new Lomé Round while, at the same time, competition from Central American countries has also been hotting up. And, as a result of the WTO negotiations, similar trade protection measures are dissipating the island's traditional advantages in sugar trading. The shadows over those industries ­ major employers, and therefore vital to the island's economy ­ are challenging the Jamaican government. But can a small, 144-mile-long island (population 2.6 million) really win a wider, more profitable slice of mainstream supermarket shelf space in the face of fierce global competition? Or is it destined to remain amid the niche categories targeting half a million Caribbeans living in the UK, 70% of which are of Jamaican origin? Last year, Jamaica exported some $250m worth of processed food and beverages to over 90 countries. Some of the more entrepreneurial parts of the processing sector have been on the export trail for years and have established themselves as familiar names with UK customers. Red Stripe lager, Blue Mountain Coffee, Appleton Rum and products from the formidable Grace Kennedy, Walkerswood and Busha Browne have carved significant niches on the supermarket shelves of important overseas markets ­ especially the US, Canada and the UK. And while Canada and the US, because of their easier shipping distances to the Caribbean, will remain major customers, the Jamaicans are taking encouragement from the Brits' new-found penchant for ethnic food. Robin Cook's much publicised comment that our "national dish" is now chicken tikka masala raised more than a few eyebrows ­ and made headlines ­ in Kingston. And the appearance of surveys concluding that Caribbean food could be the "next taste sensation in Britain" have spurred politicians and would-be exporters. "If the Indians can conquer British tastes, why can't we?" is an oft-heard phrase in Kingston food circles these days. Easier said than done. There are 10,000 Indian restaurants in Britain, not a bad base from which to educate consumers to that particular cuisine. But given there are currently only 150 Caribbean eateries from Land's End to John O'Groats, there is clearly some hard work ahead in the foodservice sector. However, a new central generic logo for all exports is promised for later this year, and a generic promotional effort under the Flavour of Jamaica banner for food and drink is emerging. But before that can happen, there are many commercially minded Jamaicans who are calling for a new, united approach from existing shippers and would-be exporters. Diane Edwards-Gleede, for the past five years trade commissioner for the Jamaicans in London, has no doubts: "We know we have good products ­ but we must expand their sale on a broader basis. The challenge is to internationalise our brands. "It's no use keeping our sights on the Caribbean population in the UK. After all, some 40% of the Caribbean people are in cross-cultural relationships here, and so the habit of preparing Caribbean food at home is diminishing. "In addition, 50% of the UK Caribbean population are under 30, all born in Britain, so things have moved on. The shippers' original market in Britain is disintegrating before their eyes. They must now think mainstream." But then, no-one in Jamaica is making extravagant claims about the progress of the new initiative. One entrepreneurial young executive is Novell Quest, managing director of Agriventures which has recently opened a new canning plant for ackee, Jamaica's national fruit, on the eastern corner of the island. He believes real progress will be seen within two years, but emphasises this will only happen if and when a "properly funded" strategic generic plan straddles the processed and fresh sectors of the island's food industry. But given the Jamaicans' national tendency towards individualism and one-upmanship, there are plenty of international trading cynics who warn that overseas markets should "not hold their breath". Quest adds: "People will be looking for direct bottom line benefits. But we must all work together. Jamaica has a great story to tell exporters." He is convinced, like other entrepreneurs I met in Jamaica, that there will be more evidence of the island's added value products in UK stores in two years to offset falls in export income from traditional commodity lines. Talk to economists in Kingston and they emphasise that tourism is proving to be the bedrock on which sustainable growth for the island can be achieved. There are many who believe the food industry should "piggyback" Jamaica's tourism sector, which is projecting itself confidently on world tv screens after recovering from a slump in visitors following the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York. Until the US catastrophe, tourism had been growing steadily. It earned $1.3bn in 2000 and, in an early spin-off effect, has done much to spread awareness of Jamaican food and drink among international consumers. Roddy Edwards, director of Jamaica's famous Walkerswood Caribbean Products, which already operates a sales office in Suffolk, talks hopefully about a "change of thinking" back home. "The food lobby has not traditionally been very strong as most of the business community found better returns elsewhere. "In addition, the banking sector has not had a lot of faith in food. They could better put their money into tourism rather than agri-processing. But as some of us have done well overseas, there has been a change of attitude, and they have seen the advantages of backing industries which have helped boost employment levels." This point is emphasised by economists in Kingston who say that despite the temporary shocks brought on by internal disputes last year, the September 11 attacks and flood rains last October, macroeconomic indicators are favourable, with overall growth of Jamaica's economy expected in this fiscal year. And while high finance costs still prevail, and there are still infrastructure challenges, the image builders who are working with the Kingston government on new strategy plans for the exports sector are optimistic. They argue that, ever since Errol Flynn and his high living Hollywood pals hit the area in the thirties, Jamaica has been regarded as one of the most alluring of the Caribbean's many islands. So why not use that imagery to stronger commercial advantage today? And while the social challenges caused by Kingston's all-too-obvious drugs and crime problems continue to hit world headlines, the strategists plan to accentuate the positive and project a colourful "reggae, sunshine and rum" image as a background to the exporters' efforts. Jamaica's minister for industry, commerce and technology Phillip Paulwell has no doubts: "We need something to emphasise the taste good' and feelgood' factors and thus counter the crime issues. "We want to show UK buyers and consumers, in particular, that Jamaica is a highly sophisticated business marketplace which produces high quality goods. And hopefully, with a decline in crime and violence, we will see a resurgence of that side of our story." The Jamaican government's keenness to generically project the island's food and drink is shared by some of its more experienced manufacturing executives. But they argue the much needed revolution is not happening quickly enough. Typical of the enthusiasts behind demands for a new initiative is Larry Watson, chief executive officer (export) of J Wray and Nephew, the oldest company in Jamaica. His Appleton Rum Group is growing globally at the rate of 25% annually and he is convinced of the value of generic promotion. However, he insists that, to succeed, the country's efforts must have "meaningful" financial backing from the government. Having worked in the UK for a number of years, Watson is sure of the desired approach: "Jamaican food could easily be the next big taste sensation in Britain. The world is turning away from blander food and we have products with potential. Supermarket groups like ethnic lines because they can make an extra dollar or pound more. They don't buy my white rum because they love me. They want it because it sells for £18 while the average bottle of Scotch sells for £12.65." Watson insists Jamaica must first build a wider awareness of the diversity of its products among consumers. And that, he insists, means at least a five-year plan of promotional weeks, hitting scores of restaurants and pubs to ram home the Jamaican message. "There must be a gradual process of getting consumers to accept our style." But behind the razzmatazz ambitions of the creative agencies, positive efforts are already taking place to build added value into the production programmes of Jamaica's food and drink manufacturers. New canning and processing plants are opening, not only to produce traditional grocery items like sauces and condiments but also to can traditionally local items like ackee. And at the same time, the "think generic" theme is being encouraged on other fronts as leading Jamaican industry organisations in manufacturing and exporting hold closer unity talks. Significantly, Jampro, the island's export marketing and promotional organisation, is stepping up its work with overseas embassies to emphasise the added value features of the Jamaican food industry. Michael McMorris, its executive director (markets), who heads an experienced young team in Kingston, believes that although the tourism industry dominates the country's economic profile outside the Caribbean, the food sector can "borrow from that equity". But he knows a consensus among the food processors is vital if the general overseas effort is to succeed. He adds: "We have found it is less about money to promote the campaigns overseas and more about a change of attitude." Jampro has been focusing on projecting non-traditional Jamaican products in export markets, with a special effort to move the lines from niche, ethnic sectors into the mainstream. One major constraint that has inhibited growth has been the lack of consistent supply ­ something that has proved frustrating for shippers and overseas customers alike. However, the government is working to improve the island's infrastructure with better feeder roads and irrigation, as well as improving IT services to farmers with improved market intelligence and R&D support. But Minister Paulwell is frank in his messages to potential overseas customers about the need for a wider manufacturing base: "We realise competition is the order of the day and globalisation is a fact of life. Considerable pressure will come to bear on the protected markets for sugar and bananas that we have enjoyed for so long in Europe. "Therefore, we must look at adding value to our agricultural operation. I believe there are tremendous opportunities. Our spices and condiments, for example, are the best, and we are pioneering ways of extracting added value from our basic crops." However, the Jamaicans are encouraged by the knowledge that Walkerswood has already successfully opened a Jamaican restaurant in Brixton and Island Grill, the Jamaican fast food chain with six units on the island, is planning franchise operations in Britain after successfully entering the US market in Fort Lauderdale. Edwards-Gleede adds: "There are massive opportunities for our cuisine in this market and we know that general restaurants and licensed houses are looking at our food." Her optimism is shared by Henry Amar, chairman of Bucks-based fine food importer and distributor RH Amar who handles UK mainstream market distribution for Walkerswood sauces: "We see Caribbean food, and Jamaican in particular, as an enormous growth area during the next few years." Based on his first year's association with the firm, Amar is confidently predicting "extraordinary development" for a Jamaican generic brand in Britain. Pauline Clarke, md of Welwyn Garden City based Enco Products, part of the WT Foods Group, which has a wide portfolio of Jamaican lines, says mainstream UK market interest in Caribbean foods is growing, especially in the multiples ­ a trend reflected in an increased demand for product in mainstream markets. Meanwhile Paulwell is direct in his assessment of some previous Jamaican efforts overseas, and in the UK in particular: "Our growth has been retarded because many of our firms are family-run businesses and they often do not appreciate the need to expand to become more efficient in order to effectively penetrate markets. Too many have been content to hold on to the family nature of their businesses and not set their sights higher. We are trying to convince them to get into expansion mood." He says many more Jamaican companies are taking steps to meet internationally accepted food standard management systems, including HACCP. And this has gone down well with potential overseas customers. Paulwell, however, believes the sugar business can still enjoy long-term viability, despite the competition. But he warns: " The industry must re-tool and reinvent itself. The private sugar firms are doing well, but the government owned operations must diversify into new areas like flavourings, for example." He also admits that a viable banana industry can only be maintained if the sector adds value. While new products, like banana chips and mixes, have been introduced, Paulwell believes the process must continue apace. One facility up the Jamaicans' sleeve, which has surprised many international buyers, is its powerful Bureau of Standards. This, as well as acting as a inspector of production methods and at ports, also develops new products which are then picked up by industry. Its mandate is also to promote the growth of the food industry, primarily through the utilisation of indigenous crops, develop new products and provide technical assistance to processors. Significantly, it has developed a string of formulations and technologies that have been handed over, at nominal costs, to anyone interested in entering food processing or improving their product mix. The government of the Bank of Jamaica is optimistic that the island will emerge from several years of stagnation much stronger and more resilient to fluctuations in global economics. A general election is planned for early autumn and the food industry is hoping the pledges of government aid on export promotion will not become bogged down in the politicking. Edwards-Gleede, meanwhile, remains confident that Jamaica's presence in UK stores can be increased. But she adds: "Consumers are flooded with choice. As a small player, we don't enjoy Coca-Cola-sized advertising budgets. We have to be creative in bringing the fun of the Caribbean to the British trade." n {{FEATURES }}