An interview with the Honorable Ian Douglas who serves the commonwealth of Dominica in leadership over the Ministry of Trade, Energy and Employment.
Dominica is considered to be the Nature Island of the Caribbean. With that standard, the government, the business community and the people are committed to developing a nation that is sensitive to sustainability principles. Around the island you will find solar panels on homes, street lights and other buildings; I even saw some photovoltaic panels over a Save-a-Lot grocery store and a KFC. You will also find hydropower, wind-power and the early stages of geothermal power. This opens up a great opportunity for USF students interested in sustainable energy to come to Dominica and experience firsthand the work conducted by engineers from Iceland and the development to come. There are high hopes that the geothermal project will reduce electricity prices, provide jobs and encourage more business development. I was able to interview the Minister of Trade, Energy and Employment to discuss how these three areas contribute to Dominica’s overall Green Economy.
With the demand for organic agriculture rising, how is Dominica fulfilling that demand and ensuring that these products are making it to market in good condition?
Because of the shelf life of many products, getting to the market in good condition can be a challenge. So we are working with the boat owners right now to equip them with refrigeration, cold storage and capacity onboard their boats to get the produce into the markets and on the shelves in the condition that the customer would want it. We have also invested in multi-purpose stock houses. All the stuff leaving Dominica, must go through these stock houses so that they are properly washed, sorted and packed properly. This is a multi-pronged approach. We are an agency committed to raw standards. Another thing that we are doing is certifying the farms to make sure that the farming practices of the farmers conform to this kind of conveyor belt system from the farm to the market. We are looking at all of the aspects up and down the product chain to ensure that what eventually ends up on the market is what the brand says it is.
Are there any plans for marketing to the U.S. or other nations?
Our exports are more or less targeted toward the regional, Caribbean markets. There are a lot of requirements for products entering the U.S. from Dominica, so initially, our export strategy is to grow our smaller markets like Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin, and Anguilla and then eventually move on to some larger markets. We have our eyes set on expanding to places like St. Thomas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico which are U.S. territories but we will need to grow incrementally and get more transportation involved. As we open more markets and create more demand for Dominican products, then we can encourage our farmers to produce more. Creating the demand is important. If we ask Dominican farmers to produce more now, but we cannot get those products to the market, then we will consequentially create a glut which will discourage the market because the farmer cannot sell. Therefore, we have to grow slowly and do it right.
We have to be able to enter the market and sustain it because what the supermarkets are looking for is consistency, regularity and reliability. We cannot send 10,000 pounds of ripe bananas today and then the following week only send a box; that just doesn’t make sense. So, we also have to stagger our production. Farmers have typically planted around the seasons, but now they will need to plant non-traditionally to ensure that they can sustain regularity on the market.
What challenges in trade have those in the agriculture sector faced in Dominica?
Back in 1998, Dominica made over a hundred million dollars sending bananas to the United Kingdom. We, along with some other small island nations were given preferential treatment because of the 400 years of exploitation that England had engaged in throughout the Caribbean. For those in the U.S. and around the world who supported Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte bananas, they believed that Dominica and other small islands had an unfair advantage and that they should compete on the same level as all other nations of the world. Consideration was not given to fact that small islands had less arable land, and smaller population sizes that could not compete on the level of those nations with hectares of agriculture bigger than the whole size of Dominica and which could easily out produce the island nations in quantity. When Dominica lost preferential treatment on the U.K. market, the price of bananas dropped, the farmer couldn’t produce for the price that he was getting, the boxes used to contain the bananas were costing more than its contents and many had to abandon their fields. This disillusioned some farmers, but we are determined to find our way in the market.
What other commodities will Dominica export and to what other destinations?
Bananas, both green and ripe; ground provisions including potatoes, sweet-potatoes, dasheen, yams; vegetables, especially those that have a longer shelf-life like cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbages, teas, spices, fruit and others. We just spent about 5 million dollars (XCD), developing two new buildings in both Portsmouth and Roseau and equipping them with a conveyor-belt system for washing, sorting, spraying, weighing, packaging and preparing produce for export.
The government had considered investing in a transport vessel for export, but it was determined that the issue wasn’t so much a lack of vessels but rather upgrading existing vessels and organizing them with better direction and more efficient trade routes. Some boats were traveling to St. Martin and back, but in between Dominica and St. Martin are other islands like Montserrat, St. Kitts, Antigua, and Anguilla among others, which are not being serviced. Those vessels traveling to Martinique, for example, could easily add Barbados as an additional stop on their trade route. There is a bigger market out there and we need to be more proactive about helping these vessels expand their routes and providing the facilitation that they need. The regular markets for Dominica, right now, include Martinique, Guadeloupe, Antigua and St. Martin. The next step would be to market to the greater Caribbean region and then grow from there. We hope to expand into Anguilla, Tortola, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Thomas, and St. John.
There are some things that are produced here in Dominica that would certainly be of interest to other economies. Two in particular would be coconut oil and bay oil. Producers of these products are doing very well. The Ministry of Trade is requesting some funding for them so that they can improve their packaging and labeling and so they can purchase more machinery which will enable them to supply more volume to the market.
How could marketing better reflect what Dominica has to offer?
We could definitely improve our marketing on the internet; I don’t believe we do enough web based commodity marketing because it takes a lot of funding. Even with tourism marketing, we only spend about 4 million (XCD) per year marketing the country and about half of that goes to trade shows leaving very little for e-marketing. This is a lot less than other competing small islands like Grenada and St. Vincent who spend about 10 million per year in marketing. Barbados probably spends about 20 million in marketing which enables them to capture even more of the world’s attention. This is not even considering the larger island economies like Jamaica and Trinidad. We are increasing our marketing budget to about 6 million for next year and are very hopeful for the future. The same goes for commodity marketing, we are going to have to put more into it.
Recently, eight representatives from Dominica, including a member from the Dominica Export Import Agency (DEXIA), a farmer, the manager of the multi-purpose packing houses, the director of training and others went on a trade mission within the Caribbean. The team traveled to around six or seven different islands and they returned saying that there is definitely a demand for Dominican produce which has developed a reputation for being fresh and tasty. The challenge facing Dominica is the ability to enter the market with the necessary quantity and reliability necessary to maintain those trade relationships.
Do you have high hopes for Dominica’s new coffee industry?
Absolutely. I believe that Dominica’s coffee can rival Jamaica’s Blue Mountain Coffee easily because we have the elevation. Dominica is one of the most mountainous places, per square mile, on the face of the earth. Dominica also has the volcanic soil and tropical environment that have also proven great for growing coffee.
Ultimately, what we would like to do is brand Dominica as a totally organic, sustainable, renewable energy island. That is why we are going after the geothermal so much, because it presents so much potential for us to be able to reach that goal. Already in tourism, we are marketing the island for the ecotourism; if we can do that in other aspects, then the entire island itself can, in fact, become a showcase for sustainable living.
I’ve heard that in the long run, geothermal energy is the most affordable, most renewable source of energy but that the initial investment can be very expensive. How has Dominica financed their geothermal project and what is the present state of development?
Yes, it is true, the project has cost us an arm and a leg up front but the outcome can be very beneficial for Dominica. We have drilled about five holes so far, tested the power, purchased turbines and spent about 100 million, 40% of which has been made up of local funding. We also received some assistance from the E.U. Engineers from Iceland assisted us with the drilling and testing and now we are ready to move on to the turbine stage which again will cost us around 70 to 80 million. It is believed that up to 120 megawatts of power can be generated from the wells. Dominica only needs between 10 and 15 megawatts, which allows for the potential to export energy to neighboring islands. Our geothermal wells are not just dry heat or wet steam either, they spring up hot water. We pump the hot water up, separate the steam from the water, and then re-inject the water back into the well.
Initially we were working with the French because we knew that viability of the whole project was in the export of the geothermal power to Martinique and Guadeloupe. We believed that a partnership with a French Consortium of companies could assist with this project, but they are holding out for now. Nevertheless, we will pursue our small plant on our own because our government has a particular agenda and a commitment to the people for the reduction of our light bills and we need to be able to deliver that. We are putting together a geothermal development company to move the project forward. The government will have a majority of the shares but we are going to open up the opportunity for other companies and individual investors to buy shares and have some equity in the company.
Would you be open to university students coming out to learn and volunteer with the geothermal project?
We would love that.
How does the geothermal project open up opportunity for job creation?
If we drop the price of electricity, more companies will be able to come here for manufacturing. Businesses will be able to allocate funds for expansion and new hires. Hotels will be able to offer more affordable room rates. The price of electricity right now is just prohibiting. For many of our hotels, the price of electricity makes the room rate uncompetitive and for that reason, some our hotels right now are self generating with off grid energy systems. All of this puts the need for the development of a renewable energy source as a top priority. If too many people are self generating, it could threaten the viability of the grid system and compromise the ability to make electricity available to everyone at a fair price. Geothermal energy will allow us to drop the price of electricity by more than 50% per kilowatt hour. Right now the price is around 55 to 60 U.S. cents per kWh and we need to drop that to around 15 and 20 cents per kWh to be competitive. One of the other spinoffs of geothermal is hydrogen gas which can potentially be used to power our vehicles. Even electric cars could plug up and be charged through our geothermal power generation.
What are some recommendations going forward for anyone interested in getting involved?
For the geothermal it could be investment into the geothermal company. For trade it could be marketing and getting Dominican products out on the shelves of other countries. Dominica can readily produce ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric and other spices and herbal remedies that are gaining popularity. Dominica also has a brand new coffee production facility which needs some investors and farmers to realize that potential. Dominica could also export various teas which are not limited to the black and green teas but also include the basillic, sorrel and other gourmet teas. Pureed fruits like mango, guava, pawpaw, and sweetsop could also be made ready for export.
How can village communities benefit from regional/international trade?
There are agents here called hucksters who go into the villages to buy produce for export from local farmers who on their own cannot reach the regional/international markets. The hucksters handle all of the shipping details and often times serve as agents for their local governments for importing particular agricultural products. Though the local farmer does not deal directly in the trade, they are benefiting from the additional sale of products beyond their local area.
Dominica is such a wonderful place that the world needs to see. What else would you say is advantageous about your green economy?
Being the Nature Island of the world, we are at a comparative advantage and we have the resources like fresh water, geothermal energy, and quality produce coming out of our soil to prove it. Using sustainability principles to our advantage, we can bring about economic stability in Dominica.
Mr. Douglas and I had a great conversation and some good laughs too. Looking to the future, I believe that at the Patel College of Global Sustainability, we have a world of opportunity in partnering with Dominica and their sustainability initiatives. – Jerry John Comellas