The Packer / February 1, 1997
By Larry Luxner
Barbados, one of the Caribbean's top tourist destinations, lures visitors with its luxury hotels, white-sand beaches, calypso music and premium rum. Never in the island's 300-year-old history, though, has Barbados been known for fresh vegetables.
One Delaware businessman, Andrew C. Durham, intends to change that.
Durham's Barbados-registered corporation, West Indies Fresh Produce Co. Ltd., aims to produce high-quality salad greens and gourmet vegetables and herbs -- competitive in price with imported fresh produce -- and sell them to cruise-ship lines, airline and yacht caterers, hotels, restaurants and supermarket chains throughout Barbados and nearby Caribbean islands.
"People think of the Caribbean as very lush, and for certain things like mangoes and coconuts, it is, but not when it comes to lettuce," said the horticulturist-turned-entrepreneur in a phone interview from Wilmington. "Americans are particular and very salad-conscious, and this is where the demand from tourists comes in."
Durham, 38, has a bachelor's degree in plant science from the University of Delaware. His company was conceived in 1991 as an idea to make profitable a privately held estate in the neighboring island of St. Lucia. In 1992, he purchased a "significant quantity" of used Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) hydroponic equipment and five growing houses in Pennsylvania, which were dismantled and stored in a shipping container. By late 1994, Durham realized his St. Lucia venture wasn't going anywhere, and he decided to focus instead on Barbados. His company was incorporated there in March 1995.
"Like most Caribbean islands, Barbados is a large importer of foods for both tourism and domestic needs," writes the entrepreneur in the introduction to his company's 72-page prospectus. "Lettuces, in particular, are difficult to grow locally: supply tends to be of low quality, and availability is erratic and seasonal. High imports result to satisfy demand with over 439,000 pounds of lettuce imported in 1992. Even with this source arriving by air and by sea (99% from the United States), major purchasers complain of price and quality fluctuations, extensive spoilage, shortages and poor varietal selection."
Hydroponics involve soil-less cultivation and minimal pesticide use -- which translates into little or no cleaning before packaging. The growing houses provide shelter to delicate plants from winds and heavy rains, and allow all-weather care and harvesting. Finally, efficient utilization of space and continuous cropping allows much higher yields than normal, not to mention more predictable harvest planning and scheduling.
Durham says that using NFT hydroponic techniques, West Indies Fresh Produce "can capture a significant share of and expand the existing market by offering consistent quality and supply, competitive pricing and distinctive varieties." The best-suited crops for the venture, he says, are gourmet-quality lettuces such as buttercrunch, romaine and red-leaf, as well as garnishes such as parsley and herbs; additional supplies could lead to cultivation of higher-value staple salad vegetables like tomatoes and peppers.
Initially, Durham's venture capital-funded company wants to raise up to $320,000 to purchase a site of four to six acres, in order to establish the business. Among potential customers: the island's top 10 hotels (including Marriott, Hilton, Trust House Forte, Divi Resorts and Sandals), which together buy 140,000 pounds of lettuce a year; Barbados Flight Kitchen, which purchases over 28,000 pounds of lettuce a year, and island supermarkets and restaurants that serve not only British, American, Canadian and Scandi-navian tourists but also 256,000 locals -- whose per-capita income of $9,200 gives the English-speaking island one of the highest standards of living in the Western Hemisphere.
"Barbados buyers are very receptive to sources of better quality and supply. Lettuces cannot be frozen, canned or processed, ensuring their regular demand, while fresh tomatoes and peppers are in strong demand," he said, adding that "limited quantities of lettuces are being grown with drip irrigation by one grower, though local production is not known to exist on any large scale. Most comes from numerous small plots grown during the wet season. Reliability of these sources is generally poor, and proper handling and packaging often non-existent."
Durham -- whose company will have six to 10 employees -- expects to begin operations six to eight months from now in the parish of St. Philip, in the southeastern part of the 166-square-mile island. He estimates production at 290,000 head of lettuce, 15,000 pounds of herbs, 65,000 pounds of tomatoes and 32,500 pounds of bell peppers. If the project is successful, Durham says he'll export the veggies to neighboring countries.
"Once we get started, we're aiming at a conservative $500,000 a year, hopefully doubling or tripling that in the next three years," he said, noting that hydroponic ventures have proved successful in other Caribbean islands such as Anguilla, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Puerto Rico.