The emphasis on modernizing the sugar industry and redirecting it to areas where it can generate the most value added (cogeneration of fuel, ethanol, etc) has significant merits. Greater benefit can be extracted from the expenditure in the industry, leading to greater employment, savings on foreign exchange used in importation and the spill over benefits from increased use of technology. Other countries have shown that transformation can take place to make sugar a profitable industry, with other beneficial spin off industries.
We however miss the broader question by going straight to the restructuring of the sugar sector,…as the saying goes “ask the wrong question and I will gladly give you the wrong answer”. The right question is….is sugar one of the best industries to invest in, given Jamaica’s current situation?. Given the high unemployment, especially of the youth, the high import content of any industry that uses lots of equipment/infrastructure (such as hotels), the emphasis should be on industries that can still be efficient with high labour utilization, significant skills training, a relatively short time to re-skill labour (no more than 4 years) and that can earn foreign currency. “Knowledge” industries play this role, and money should instead be spent training data analysts, computer programmers, and specialized business analysts and business process operators. A subsidy (many different ways such as building the infrastructure, or putting DBJ money as risk investment) could be put in place to entice investors to take the cost/risk of being significant first movers in these areas, and government could have special approval gateways and investor engagement to entice investors from abroad or locally. These industries are also capital light, so that the ability to scale their size is significant and only truly limited by the size of the trained labour force, maintaining wage competitiveness internationally,
Lets be frank, looking 10 years down the line would the countries best be spent on getting more cane cutters, tractor drivers or even lab technicians for the sugar factory? or would young people with technological skills and industries to utilize these skills create far greater benefits and be better able to adapt to the inevitable changes in the global economy?
We must be bold enough to take a fresh looks as to where tomorrows opportunities and be decisive enough to break with tradition, even at great cost (financially and emotionally). Improved investment in sugar would turn out to be “sweet”, but using those resources in other industries would be far “sweeter”.