1. Marketing of fresh produce in the Eastern Caribbean

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1.1. What is marketing?

When we talk about the 'marketing' of fresh produce we describe the entire process of directing the flow of goods and services from producer to consumer. This process includes not only the commercial transactions of buying and selling, but also the physical distribution aspects. For fresh produce, the physical distribution itself includes all the handling and movement features of harvest, loading and unloading, grading, packaging, storage and subsequent dispersal through the markets to the consumers. In addition, marketing as an entire process also includes the vital auxiliary functions of production planning, production and dissemination of market information, financing of markets and their administration, the activities of marketing intermediaries, the provision of training and extension to individuals and groups involved in marketing, and research activities which seek to improve the marketing system in some way.

All marketing systems evolve to suit the needs of the consumers and the producers, depending who the producers are, who the consumers are, and, where they are in relation to each other in terms of distance, transport and communication links, and what the consumers preferences are and what they can afford.

The marketing process might be fairly simple where producers and consumers live close to each other in a rural reasonably self-sufficient area, and the farmer provides most of his own needs and sells the rest to the immediate community for local consumption. Under these circumstances the producers and the consumers preferences are likely to be almost the same and the consumers spending power not too different from the producer. Accordingly, there will be little delay between harvest and consumption and little need to resort to sophisticated or complex handling and distribution.

Alternatively, a small farmer in St. Vincent and member of a cooperative might be growing fresh ginger for export to England through a regional export agency with various buyers with different variety, grade and packaging requirements. Under these circumstances, the marketing of a single commodity can involve many different individuals and organizations, who are largely unknown to each other and yet mist communicate in a precise fashion if the ginger is to be grown, harvested, graded, packed and transported at the right times in the right way. If any of the people concerned do not do their job the ginger might not reach its destination in the right condition to make a sale and satisfy the consumers wants and needs.

Fresh fruits, vegetables and root crops, collectively called fresh produce, are inherently perishable commodities and their physical distribution through the marketing system often leads to considerable post-harvest losses, as shown in Figure 1.1., through quality downgrading, physiological spoilage (ea. rooting and sprouting), pathological spoilage from pests and diseases, or simply from over-supply to a market that cannot absorb the volume sent to it. These post-harvest losses frequently occur because of inappropriate or inadequate application of the correct post-harvest practices and considerations, including production planning.

Figure 1.1. Post-harvest losses during fresh produce marketing

This manual was prepared specially for the Eastern Caribbean as a basic guide and training resource for extension workers generally, and for direct use by those groups and individuals active in the marketing and distribution of fresh produce in the region.

1.2. Who is involved in the region?

Figure 1.2 shows the main activities and principal participants involved in the marketing of fresh produce. Even at a glance, it can be seen that many different individuals are potentially involved although not all will be active in every marketing channel.

Figure 1.2. Activities and participants in fresh produce marketing

The Eastern Caribbean countries produce, consume and export many different crops but they also import considerable quantities of produce from elsewhere in order to meet the requirements of the tourist industry as well as supplying the produce needs of the local population during the off-seasons when produce would otherwise be scarce. The list of who is involved in marketing therefore becomes much larger to include import agents and producers and transporters and brokers from outside the region as well.

Many people forget all of the vital ancillary services and functions from financial institutions such as banks and credit unions who supply the credit for production as well as distribution activities. Shipping and insurance agents, customs officials and phytosanitary inspectors, hucksters and traffickers all play their part in the export, import and regional trade in fresh produce.

1.3. Marketing channels in the region

The producer of fresh produce in the Eastern Caribbean is faced with a variety of different options or marketing channels for their crops. Small farmers regularly grow small volumes of many different crops for subsistence purposes and then try to sell any surplus volumes on the domestic market. The consumers in this instance could be other farmers, friends and extended family, or other purchasers in the Public Markets in the capital cities and mayor towns.

The farmer may sell his produce to a wholesaler or trader/transporter who in turn may sell to domestic retailers or to hucksters or traffickers engaged in the inter-island trade. The volumes and quality of the produce to be sold will depend on whether the farmer regularly sells his produce this way or whether the sale is opportunistic as a result of a huckster, for example, taking advantage of a temporary shortage on another island and offering a better price than other buyers.

Figure 1.2 shows typical marketing channels for fresh produce grown in the region but does not of course include the marketing channels for imported commodities which usually involve the intervention of import broker/wholesalers and or statutory marketing boards or agencies supplying retailers.

Figure 1.3. Typical marketing channels for fresh produce

The tourist industry in many of the islands of the Eastern Caribbean offers particularly good opportunities for producers who can supply particular commodities to order for the hotel trade. Most farmers that demonstrate their ability to supply the right volume and quality on a regular basis can usually enter into contract supply for one or more hotels. In St. Lucia for example, there can often be a shortage of some types of produce in the Public Market and retail outlets yet the hotels will have a good supply from local sources provided on a contract basis.

Some farmers are actively engaged in the extra-regional export industry supplying markets in Europe, or Canada, or the USA. These producers, if they are to be at all successful, must plan their marketing strategy often well before they plant their crops. The extra-regional markets will often demand a particular variety, grade and size of a commodity which is not wanted or needed by the regional and domestic markets. Once a grower has decided on this particular marketing channel, he may be locked into it for good or poor returns because the type or volume cannot be absorbed locally.

The marketing of bananas in the Eastern Caribbean is clearly the most important factor as far as most growers in the Windward Islands are concerned. However, since the production, packaging, assembly, transport and distribution is thoroughly well established through WINBAN and the Geest Organisation, little mention of this particular industry is included in the manual unless it affects marketing activities for other fresh produce.

1.4. Perishability of fresh produce

Fresh fruits, vegetables and root crops grown in the Eastern Caribbean offer the consumer a wide diversity from tropical, subtropical and even temperate commodities depending on the altitude and season in which the crops are grown. However, this diversity of type also means that the post-harvest characteristics are equally diverse. Most fresh produce is highly perishable and if it is to reach the consumer in the right condition it must be marketed properly bearing in mind the most suitable temperature and humidity for each commodity as well as appropriate packaging and handling methods. Failure to address these issues leads to stress to the produce rapidly followed by spoilage and losses.

This manual covers, in a step-wise fashion, the major activities involved in fresh produce marketing in the Eastern Caribbean. At every opportunity, emphasis is placed on the importance of post-harvest losses, how and why they occur, and what practical steps can be taken to prevent them occurring.

Figure 1.4. Causes of post-harvest losses

1.5. The need for extension and training

There are two vitally important factors involved in the post-harvest loss of fresh produce during its marketing and distribution:

  1. Economics - If cost were no object then nearly all postharvest losses could theoretically be controlled. The practical reality however is that the production, distribution and sale of fresh produce is a business which demands that any improvements in the marketing must be paid for by the consumer and still allow reasonable profit margins for the growers and distributors.
    Considerable reductions in the post-harvest losses of fresh produce in the inter-island trade could be realized by the introduction of modern refrigerated freight liners and the use of stanadardised and appropriate packaging. However, the inter-island ships owners cannot or will not make such a large capital investment, the current vessels are not appropriate for improved packaging, and the value of much of the produce limits other forms of transport.
  2. Ignorance - or a lack of proper understanding of the need for improvements, and knowledge and experience of practical measures which can be adopted, constitutes a major obstacle to the reduction of post-harvest losses of fresh produce. However, unlike the factor of economics, ignorance can be overcome by a concerted extension and training programme.
    In recent years, there has been considerable attention directed to agricultural diversification in the Eastern Caribbean and particularly towards the production of fruits, vegetables and root crops for export to the extra-regional markets. Various workshops and seminars have been held to sensitive extensionists, exporters and producers to the need for improvement in marketing and distribution skills and practices. Some of these initiatives have resulted in the production of handbooks and guides for particular commodities, whilst other training activities have relied upon standard, but often irrelevant or impractical, international texts for the training of specialists. However, what has been lacking is the production of a specific and practical training manual for the Eastern Caribbean covering all aspects of fresh produce marketing.

The aim of this manual is to supply extensionists, distributors and producers with a practical and relevant guide to improvements in marketing of fresh produce while focussing on the need for the reduction pf post-harvest losses. The manual emphasises the importance of management skills and the need for all involved to adopt a professional and business like approach to solving problems.

1.6. About this training manual

The manual has been prepared in a modular form so that different extension workers, trainers and direct users of the information and guidance can use all of the manual or just the parts they need. The manual in Just about all of its sections can only be termed an introduction to the subject. It is not intended to be used as a comprehensive manual for the training of specialists. Individuals seeking more detailed information are advised to read some, or all of the literature and references given in Section 12 of the manual. In addition, readers are directed to those individuals and nucleus-groups resident in each island and who have benefitted from specialist training in the past few years.

Section 2 gives an introduction to the natural features of fresh produce and focusses on the main reasons for spoilage and post-harvest losses. Accordingly, Section 2 is recommended to be included in all training programmes.

Section 3 concentrates on all the activities performed on the farm by the producer, beginning with production planning and production practices, before leading on to the questions of maturity, the harvest operation, and getting the produce ready for the market. This Section is particularly appropriate as training material for extension officers in the ministry of agriculture and for use by them in training farmers.

Sections 4 and 5 cover the increasingly important topics of packaging and packhouses. Both sections are fairly basic in terms of technical material and readers are strongly recommended to refer to other sources when contemplating selection of new packaging and/or designing and building packhouses. Section 4 gives an analysis of the packaging needs of the inter-island trade based on the authors experiences with FAO Project PFL/RLA/001/PFL. These two sections should prove useful to extensionists of all types but especially those working through national marketing agencies or boards.

Section 6 gives basic information and advice about transport of fresh produce by land, sea and air with a particular emphasis on the troubles of the inter-island trade.

Section 7 is particularly appropriate for training producers as well as wholesale and retail staff in the scope and purpose of the wholesale and retail industry and includes some practical advice on how to reduce post-harvest losses during distribution and sale and thus maximize profits.

Sections 8 and 9 offer more specialized information about storage and special post-harvest treatments for fresh produce, particularly that produce targetted for extra-regional export. It is hoped that all those expounding the virtues of storing surplus production without first considering the management and economic problems inherent with fresh produce storage will read Section 8 and think again before rushing into purchase of cold stores.

Section 10 is for use by extension workers and trainers involved in, or contemplating, training programmes in fresh produce marketing. Included in this Section is a review of the targets for training and training objectives, together with suggestions for alternatives to the now rather tired but still useful 'workshop' philosophy.

Section 11 lists some practical and often essential postharvest equipment for measuring environmental, chemical and physical parameters in the field - the sort of equipment needed by any organization involved in extra-regional exports. A list of possible suppliers and their addresses is included for guidance only, since many other equally reputable suppliers might be used.

Section 12 gives a bibliography of various texts, references and guides which may also prove useful to the extension worker and specialist reader. Again, the list is not exhaustive but concentrates on practical and relevant texts suitable for the Eastern Caribbean.

Finally, the Appendix gives a brief guide to some individual commodities produced and traded in the Eastern Caribbean with the emphasis on basic harvesting and marketing criteria pertinent to keeping post-harvest losses at a minimum.

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