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Preparing for life after sugar

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In 2005 I had the privilege of working with the people of St Kitts and Nevis as they closed the 362-year-old chapter written by their sugar industry. I sat in their Parliament and listened to their …

In 2005 I had the privilege of working with the people of St Kitts and Nevis as they closed the 362-year-old chapter written by their sugar industry. I sat in their Parliament and listened to their Prime Minister, Dr Denzil Douglas, describe the passion and pain stirred by the ultimate decision to close down the industry.
I was funded by the Caribbean Development Bank to develop a programme to train a cadre of persons to work across the society as Change Agents. This team helped to concretize the cultural transformation. Our interaction inspired a new motto: Life After Sugar: Sweeter Days Are Ahead.
They are now reaping the benefits. When will Jamaica learn?

Published in: Business, Travel

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  • 1. Preparing for Life After Sugar By Leahcim Semaj www.LTSemaj.com Semaj@LTSemaj.com First Published in the Jamaica Observer, Sunday, November 06, 2005 NOTHING can hold back the tide of societal transformation. Either we understand it and prepare ourselves to benefit from the changes, or we can ignore the signs and become victims of the change. Change is frustrating and most often resisted, especially by those who have the most to lose the longer they resist the inevitable. The Prime Minister of Jamaica has announced the present position of the Government of Jamaica on the Sugar Industry. As predicted, there is "the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth". Leahcim Semaj The St Kitts Model This year, I had the privilege of working with the people of St Kitts and Nevis as they closed the 362-year-old chapter written by their sugar industry. I sat in their Parliament and listened to their Prime Minister, Dr Denzil Douglas, describe the passion and pain stirred by the ultimate decision to close down the industry. The St Kitts Tourism website reminds us that in the 1700s, sugar was the most important crop in the world. European settlers came to the region, cut down the islands' forests, and planted sugar cane in the hope of becoming rich. The valuable crop was used to make sugar, molasses, and rum. Any Caribbean island with arable land was used to grow sugar cane. St Kitts was the oldest and wealthiest of the English colonies in the Caribbean. This 68-acre island had rich volcanic soil, a climate of sun and rain, and an endless supply of slaves. Annually, it yielded a fortune in sugar and rum for its wealthy, mostly absentee, landholders. The plantation owners sold their sugar products to American, British, French, and Dutch customers, and anyone else who wanted to buy them. The Beginning of The End By the end of the 19th century, however, all that was gone. Slavery had been abolished and Europe's beet sugar had pre-empted Caribbean cane. Depressed market prices could not offset the production and transportation costs for an island crop. St Kitts was the last Leeward Island that still depended on sugar cane. Labour-intensive sugar production is very expensive to grow, harvest, and process.
  • 2. The sugar plantations were acquired by the state and the entire island crop processed in one government-run factory. The profitability of the commodity has seen steady decline since the 1960s. On St Kitts, sugar production began falling in 1965 and was abandoned altogether on Nevis because of rising production costs and declining sales prices. Long-standing quotas with Britain and the United States sustained minimal profitability a while longer, but by the mid-1970s the sugar industry could no longer operate profitably, and its operations were assumed by the government. The government attempted to revive the sugar industry by reorganising its functions under the National Agricultural Corporation and the St Kitts Sugar Manufacturing Corporation, which coordinated production and marketing, respectively. These two organisations were merged in 1986 to streamline operations further; the unpredictable availability and high cost of labour, however, combined with persistently low sugar prices, required that a more efficient harvesting and processing system be developed for the industry to turn a profit. Uncontrollable factors, such as weather, would occasionally aggravate already untenable conditions. The Transition Out Of Sugar Although the sugar industry required substantial subsidisation in the 1980s, the government was unable to drop it altogether because of its pervasive influence on the national economy. A long-term transition was considered the only alternative, the government developed a two-pronged strategy for replacing sugar as the leading revenue producer. First, the agricultural sector was to be diversified so that St Kitts and Nevis could enter promising regional markets, such as that for cut flowers. Import substitution was also emphasized, especially for the production of fruits and vegetables that were previously purchased abroad. Second, the economy was to be redirected toward tourism and manufacturing in order to take advantage of foreign exchange-earning industries that were succeeding in other Caribbean economies, such as vacation resorts and electronic component assembly. In addition, I was invited by Mr Gordon Alert to work with a transition team to sensitise the workers in the industry to the inevitability of the change process. They received assistance from the Caribbean Development Bank to develop a programme to train a cadre of persons to work across the society as Change Agents.
  • 3. This team will help to concretize the cultural transformation. Our interaction inspired a new motto: Life After Sugar: Sweeter Days Are Ahead Life After Sugar: Sweeter Days Are Ahead On August 1, 2005, St Kitts finally pulled the plug on sugar. The Only Constant is Change A look at the Fortune 500 list of 1955 will reveal that more than 70 per cent of them are no longer in business. In 1970, it took 108 men 5 days to unload a timber ship on the docks of London. By 1990, that same job took eight men one day. Who benefited from these changes? The entire economy. More jobs were ultimately created as the economy expanded. The only way that we can guarantee our survival both individually and collectively is by our ability to change. I for one hope that the cane farmers will step up to the plate and manage (lead) the change in the local sector. Dr Semaj is a frequent facilitator for Strategic Planning Retreats, Cultural Alignment and Organisational Restructuring. He conducts Staff Selection and Development Programmes for different business sectors across the Caribbean. www.LTSemaj.com   Semaj@LTSemaj.com