Our Readers' Opinions
April 28, 2006
Development fundamentals

by Cedric B Harold 28.APR.06

What does SVG have in common with Singapore? Singapore is a city-state with no hinterland of agricultural acreage. SVG, on the other hand, is a slightly larger land mass with rich agricultural soil and a tradition of farming. In the late 1960s, its leader, Lee Kuan Yew, visited Jamaica to ascertain why that country was so much more prosperous than his own. Today, Singapore is for all practical purposes a First World Country. Its asset was its position on a major trading route for ocean liners travelling between the Americas to its East and Asian, African and Australasian ports. To the visionary leaders of that country, the sea became the equivalent of an agricultural hinterland, and they treated it as such. The ships came, the Singaporeans added value to their operations, and they moved on – having traded, as it were, their inputs for Singaporean outputs.{{more}}

We were both small countries with certain potential assets. What we did differently lies in the nature and focus of such technology as we both brought to bear on our problems. Their question was: how can they transform what arrived at theirports from across the oceans? Our question was: how can we transform the potential of our land and labor to create a substantial surplus and develop from there? To the first, the answer was to develop computerised port operations that would have two attributes: fast turnaround, and efficient load and unload operations bearing in mind a ship’s schedule of ports to be visited next. All trailers for the next port would be at the top; those just below were for the port after that; and so on, until you got to the bottom of their cargo, which was destined for their last port of call. Nor was it just a matter of rearranging the cargo it came to Singapore with. Some of that would remain in Singapore, and a number of other trailers, brought by other ships, would be put on board, so the computer system had to track and pack these appropriately. The visionaries of Singapore did not ask how the rest of the world was doing this – nobody was doing it very well. They saw an opportunity, trained a generation of computer scientists, and tossed the problem to them. And they answered the call.

To my way of thinking, the most important variable in national development is the role of technology in agricultural production.

I was at pains to explore what technology was available to farmers who worked hillside land, usually on plots of less than 2 hectares. Every textbook showed examples of what could be done on level or gently sloping land. Students at agricultural colleges were dumbstruck that I could be asking about technology and hillside land in the same breath. Nothing in their curriculum had prepared them to answer this. And yet, this is the heart of the problem. In Rwanda, every slope is terraced, from its lowest elevation right up to the highest peaks, and there was a time, in the 1950s, when SVG was famous for its terracing practices.

More than terracing is needed however. We need to follow the hillside farmer up and down his land as he works, and design mechanical equipment to facilitate or take over the tasks he performs. As things are now, he reasonably advises his children to leave the farm and head for the towns, which explains why “agriculture contracted by 5.2%” in 2004. It is long hours in the sun, back-breaking work, and, chances are, they can earn more with less effort in the town.

My contention is that it is possible to raise productivity through:

• A reconsideration of how the land is used (terracing depth and slope, height between terraces, terrace boundaries, attention to drainage);

• The use of drip irrigation mainly to deliver nutrients, so we do not have to move heavy bags of fertiliser up and down steep slopes;

• The use of mechanical transport and other equipment within the depth of a terrace; and the ability to move that equipment from one terrace level to another;

• The use of conveyor belts and containers to transport produce from the field upwards or downwards to despatch points;

• Adequate provision for surplus rainfall to run off.

The precise pieces of mechanical equipment will have to be able to clear the land between crops, prepare for the next crop, assist in replanting, harvesting, and moving the harvested crop to the conveyor belt. A given farmer need not have all of these, but, the more sizeable his land, the more of them he will need. The one area I cannot see him getting any help is with respect to weeding.

It would seem to me that a single farmer can manage 3-5 hectares of hillside land mostly on his own, with far less effort than he currently expends, and with larger returns. Terracing will be a sunk cost, and mechanisation and drip irrigation will have to be amortised. What we need to establish is the amortisation cost. All a farmer needs after this is a system that gives current and future market information so he can develop a proper production strategy.

Only a genuine surplus from agriculture can form the true basis for a leap into some other sphere of economic activity, and its first charge must be to enhance agricultural productivity. cbharold@cwjamaica.com