JAM | Jun 4, 2023

Lost cause? Why Don Wehby is keeping faith with Jamaica’s agriculture sector while Orette Staple dismisses it

Al Edwards

Al Edwards / Our Today

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Shareholder activist Orette Staple delivers his congratulatory statement during Salada Foods’ 57th Annual General Meeting on Thursday, April 7, 2022 at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel.

Last week, the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) revealed that the domestic agricultural sector output was down 7.6 per cent for the January-March quarter of this year as the country’s food importation bill continues to increase.

Speaking at GraceKennedy’s annual general meeting (AGM) held at its downtown Kingston headquarters last week, renown Jamaican investor Orette Staple said that Jamaica was fooling itself clinging to the notion that it has a productive sector.

“We need to understand that the days of production in Jamaica are over. Young people now are going into the professions. No one is going into agriculture. Arable lands remain idle because people are not into agriculture. When they do, it is not their business, it’s other people’s business.

Farmers at the Kingston-based Rockspring Farms, a social enterprise initiative sponsored by the Digicel Foundation, discuss planting techniques. (Photo: Facebook @DigicelFdnJA)

“How many of us are encouraging our young people to go into agriculture? None. The reality is I’m not going to encourage my children to go into agriculture.”

GraceKennedy’s Food Division did very well last year contributing some J$11 billion to group revenues. Group CEO Don Wehby is committed to making further investments in the Food Division and further ramping up production.

He has called on Jamaica to reduce its food importation bill from US$1 billion a year to US$500 million by 2030.

A nation has to have the ability to feed itself and not rely on imports. The fecundity of Jamaican lands makes it able to do just that. It is a national strength and a competitive advantage.

Addressing Staple’s assertion, Wehby said: “The point you have made is a profound one, not only from a GraceKennedy point of view but from a national strategic point of view. Many years ago we imported pepper for our hot pepper sauce. We made the decision to support St Elizabeth farmers and purchase their peppers instead. We put the infrastructure in place in Hounslow and decided to process the peppers.

“I think Mr Staple we should adopt the mother farm concept where we have small farmers supplying a big farm. Our small farmers don’t have the capital, the infrastructure to supply on a mass basis. I have not lost hope in agriculture in Jamaica.

Don Wehby, group CEO of the GraceKennedy Group speaking at an October 2022 in Kingston, Jamaica. (Photo: Facebook @GraceKennedyLimited)

“I had a chat with Frank James (CEO of GK Foods Domestic) talking about the increase in raw materials. He told me that  the cost of the raw materials that go into tomato paste has gone up by 30 per cent. Then I thought about a TVJ documentary that I saw where  tomatoes were being dumped as pig feed.
Now, that is not right. Is there a way as a country where we have a facility that we can buy these tomatoes from the farmers and convert them into tomato paste. We don’t need to spend our foreign currency on imported tomato paste. This is a more efficient way to lower the 30 per cent Frank (James) is talking about. What you said Mr Staples really resonated with me.”    


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