By: Yolanda Pawar (CCO of OEF & CTI)

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) – COLEAD’s Caribbean Agri-food Online Business Series. It was a timely presentation as we prepare to observe International Women’s Day on March 8th by celebrating equality and embracing equity. Themed “Successes from Caribbean Women-led Businesses/SMEs in the Agri-food Sector,” the series featured a selection of leading women from the region, sharing their stories of struggle and triumph in overcoming barriers to successfully pioneer and scale their unique agri-food businesses and value-added food product lines.

As expressed by this group of under-40 women entrepreneurs, reaching beyond local borders to leverage new and lucrative international markets is pivotal to growth but requires an ever-changing arsenal of new tools, skillsets and technology.

Health is Wealth

It was inspiring to see the resilience, passion and tenacity demonstrated by this group and the intentional integration of locally sourced, natural ingredients used to create each of their authentically Caribbean, and mostly health-focused product lines.

The array of creative, palatable products infused with delicious Caribbean staples was impressive and included a wide range of exotic sauces, seasonings and food products like Flauriel’s Mango-Ketchup and Vegan Salad Dressings in Ginger, Avocado, Guava, Mango and Sorrel varieties. The mother-daughter team behind the brand hails from St. Kitts and Nevis and is headed by the younger, Anastasha Elliot.

They have been able build their export channels throughout The Caribbean, USA, Europe, the UK and Taiwan. Handmade by Jeanette is an agri-processing company based in Trinidad and Tobago led by Chef Jeanette Marcelle. She produces clean granola, and unique spices, sauces and spice rubs in small batches using 75% locally sourced ingredients. Products include a savoury Chocolate Steak Sauce infused with Tamarind, Matcha Masala Chai Tea, Cinnamon Chai Granola, Coconut-Pineapple Peri Peri Sauce, various dry rub seasonings and an innovative shelf stable Cocoa Powder with dried mushrooms for an extra antioxidant punch, just to name a few.

Notably, each woman’s story had the common theme of turning life struggles into life change through entrepreneurship and using the resources most readily at hand to do so. For many of them the global COVID-19 pandemic was the catalyst to either diversify their business model or think more creatively, collaboratively and expansively about new opportunities in the agri-food business in order to continue supporting themselves, their families, and communities.

Women Entrepreneurs are Blazing a Path

By doing the work to grow their small businesses into big brands, they are helping to carve out a niche and demand for authentic Caribbean-inspired flavours and agriculture-based products in the region and around the world. This series was of particular interest to me, as part of One Eleuthera Foundation’s strategic development plan includes the establishment of a Food Hub and food processing plant at the Rock Sound campus to expand the agriculture industry and assist local entrepreneurs in developing their own value-added products.

You only have to scroll through social media to see the proliferation of emerging and established women entrepreneurs in The Bahamas who are also innovating around agri-food and added-value food products using our own

indigenous ingredients and creating amazing, quality products with unlimited potential. Imagine the possibilities if these individuals could more easily access revenue for scaling their businesses, staffing and production, and the tools, training and education needed to shorten the learning curve. Add in, the right technology and digital marketing to reach our existing 7 million annual tourists as well as tap into new and lucrative international markets. Imagine how their success could open pathways and remove barriers for exponential growth and invite more women to venture into entrepreneurship and potentially achieve financial independence.

Speaking at the series on Economic Empowerment for Gender Equality for the Caribbean, Tonni Ann Brodber, Representative of the UN Women Multi-Country Office (Caribbean) highlighted that in the region, the female self-employed segment comprises a very small share of total employment at only 8% in comparison to 19% of men that are self-employed. This disparity is also reflected in The Bahamas. According to the 2019 Dept. of Statistics Employed Labour Force data 10% of women were self-employed whereas 20% of men were self-employed.

Brodber further revealed that Caribbean “women-owned businesses tend to have no employees, use less technology and be concentrated in the textile, food, retail, hotel and restaurants, and transport industries.” The bottom line here is that there is very limited growth potential for these self-employed women to scale up their businesses and embrace opportunities for significant expansion, wealth creation and succession planning.

Statistics show…

The implications of this model suggest there is more instability, a greater propensity for personal burnout and the risk of the business failing should the sole proprietor be removed or suffer adversity. The data points to the fact that there is work to be done not only to lessen the gender gap, but to increase capacity, and access to knowledge and resources and proactively support women in their entrepreneurial pursuits to bring greater balance and social, economic and personal empowerment.

Why is this an area of importance you might ask? For starters, the IICA business series noted, “poverty is prevalent among female-headed households that make up nearly 40 percent of all households in some Caribbean countries.” 2013 stats indicate that 62% of births in The Bahamas were attributed to single mothers under the age of 30. Many households in The Bahamas are led by women who are the primary breadwinners, single parents to more than one child and facing substantial financial challenges.

Rising unemployment, inflation, and the escalating cost of living drive home the need to foster entrepreneurial development for women to improve their quality of life and that of their children. The IICA series reiterated that “when women earn and control additional income, they tend to spend more of it on health, clothing and education for their children, resulting in positive implications for immediate well-being as well as long-run human capital formation and economic growth.”

The development and acceleration of women in the agri-food and products sector can be a gateway to create self-sufficiency, greater household earnings, and economic growth while also working towards reducing The Bahamas’ staggering $1 Billion food import bill.

But There is Good News!

The good news is that there is a growing demand for Caribbean spices, jams, condiments and value-added products in the global market. According to a report on the Caribbean Export Development Agency site titled Unlocking the Profit Potential of the Caribbean, “there is a growing consumer demand for Caribbean foods, with huge potential across Europe, especially in the UK.” UK Food industry expert, Jane Milton adds, “There is a strong interest in authentic Caribbean food in the UK, not just from the ex-pat community, but now also from those who have holidayed in the Caribbean and tasted the cuisine and now want to enjoy those flavours at home.

Things that work well are often ingredients that can be added to food we are already familiar with, for example a sauce or rub you add to chicken, or a seasoning to add to rice.” The report identifies the UK, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands “as key markets with tremendous opportunities” for Caribbean sauces and condiments. “In the UK alone the total sauces and condiments segment including pickles is valued at 1.09bn.”

Last but not least, as listed on the US International Trade Administration website, “The Bahamas is a member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), a beneficiary under the Unites States’ Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) and the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act (CBERA), and Canada’s CARIBCAN Program. The country is also party to the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the European Union and the countries of the Caribbean Forum CARIFORUM and the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the United Kingdom and the countries of CARIFORUM. These agreements provide preferential access for goods purchased in The Bahamas to most major markets, which benefits American investment in the export economy.”

I believe that there is definitely room for more women entrepreneurs in The Bahamas and The Caribbean to take a seat at the table and begin innovating, formulating, learning and selling authentic agri-food and value-added products both locally and abroad. This International Women’s Day and beyond, make it a point to find and support a woman-owned business in any sector. Your purchasing power helps to close the gender gap, strengthen the local economy and promote equality and equity.

About One Eleuthera Foundation

Founded in 2012, One Eleuthera Foundation is a community-based non-profit organization dedicated to transforming our local island communities into thriving, self-sufficient ecosystems. We do this by focusing on five key areas: economic ownership, meaningful educational advancement, pathways to wellness, and environmentally sustainable communities centered around our island’s unique cultural identity. We run a number of social enterprises, including CTI, our vocational school; the Retreat Hotel, a training hotel for hospitality students; and our farm and Cooling House, which trains future farmers in the best sustainability and food production practices. Through OEF’s consistent dedicated efforts, the tenacity and resourcefulness of our legacy community, and the support of donors and partners, we are creating change in Eleuthera.