St. Vincent and the Grenadines has made overtures to neighboring economies of late, and it is reaping the rewards. Although St. Vincent’s off-shore banking industry has adopted international regulatory standards in recent years and begun to grow, the country’s national economy still depends heavily upon a handful of industries, including tourism, and on overseas remittances. Now, due to the work of the government and its partners in the Agri-Export Working group of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) over the past year, farmers in St. Vincent and the Grenadines are seeing first-hand the benefit of a well-planned regional trading strategy.

As part of its work to transform the Eastern Caribbean’s agricultural sector, the OECS launched the Agri-Export Working group last year — member states regard the group as crucial to the goals of the OECS overall. The aim of the working group, and of OECS at large, is to create collaborative forms of production to boost regional trade within the Caribbean while also increasing international trade with development partners like the European Union (EU) and other countries such as China, Singapore and the US.

As a member of the OECS, St. Vincent and the Grenadines stands to gain much the bloc’s efforts to improve its members’ agricultural sectors output. The Hon. Saboto Caesar, the island nation’s Minister for Agriculture and a member of the Agri-Export Working group, said local efforts towards increasing regional trade were an excellent way to lower all OECS nations’ food importation costs through increasing their economic self-sufficiency.

“At all costs, we should try not to import goods which can be produced on the island — whether from the OECS or extra regionally,” he said in a statement this month.

With the joint production of crops increasing across the region, the minister also believes that boosting the region’s agriculture sector could one day see St. Vincent and the Grenadines farmers producing a marketable surplus for export. The Agri-Export Working Group’s efforts have already allowed St. Vincent and the Grenadines farmers to fulfil some shipment quotas for international trade that would have been impossible alone, he revealed.

By working with other farmers in the Dominican Republic, his own country’s farmers successfully met a quota of dasheen ordered for shipping to the United States, with St. Vincent and the Grenadines sending 3,325 50lb boxes of dasheen (also known as taro) to the US while the Dominican Republic exported a further 425 50lb boxes more of the same produce, its own first such shipment.

Initiatives by the Agri-Export Working group aimed at boosting inter-regional trade during the last year have included identifying high value crops for OECS member states to increase production of, in order to produce a marketable surplus for regional and international trade, and organising the arrival of three refrigerated cargo ships which now criss-cross the region’s island states transporting agricultural goods and livestock.

The Director General of the OECS, Dr Didacus Jules, said in a statement that the working group was aiming to fulfil the economic aspirations of the OECS farming community as a whole. Agricultural production across the region is set to increase soon according to projected figures, as smart production causes efficiency and competitiveness to surge.

“Agricultural prosperity remains paramount to the OECS, not only in terms of economic advancement and reducing the unacceptably high food import bill, but ideally […] to move to a stage where we, as a region, can produce a marketable surplus for export markets,” Dr. Jules remarked.

Local exports got another boost this year with the purchase of a Boeing 767 cargo plane that can transport some 220,000 lbs of goods across the Caribbean and beyond.

But the Agri-Export Working group’s efforts to booster inter-Caribbean trade are not just good news for St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ farmers — it is also encouraging news for other business sectors in the tiny Caribbean country. The working group has pushed for the improvement of local sanitation standards for goods destined for the export market, and the development of an app that connects local producers, traders, supermarkets and hotels, helping farmers’ goods reach tourists’ plates that much easier.

This is all a boon for St Vincent and the Grenadines’ economy; although it is relatively diverse, benefitting from the region’s first international airport, St Vincent and the Grenadines’ ability to invest in social programs and respond to external economic shocks like the Zika virus remains limited due to its relatively high public debt burden. This stood at 67% of GDP at the end of 2013 — although it is considered quite low by the standards of the Eastern Caribbean as a whole.

Although exports have risen from $49.8 million in 2015 to $50.5 million in 2016, imports rose much faster, reaching $327.1 million last year, up from $320.7 million the year before. A boost to the country’s regional agricultural exports and an increase in local consumption of local products by hotels, restaurants and retail businesses would lower imports and raise revenues for Kingstown.

Attempting to improve regional links and integrate St Vincent and the Grenadines with its neighbors’ economies and international markets will undoubtedly reap dividends over the long term. However, the government in Kingstown must continue to develop the islands’ burgeoning service sector, particularly in ensuring its banking sector fully complies with international regulatory regimes, as well as encouraging its OECS partners to replicate the Agri-Export Working group’s achievements in other regional sectors such as tourism and transport. It’s a good start, but it’s just the start.