CUP OF JOY

Jamaica 2018 | AGRIFOOD & INDUSTRY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Sylburn Thomas, President of Coffee Industry Board, on promoting the attributes of Jamaican coffee, diversifying its export markets, and key areas for growth in the sector.

Sylburn Thomas
BIOGRAPHY
Sylburn Thomas is an agricultural economist with specialization and experience in international business, commodity markets, and trade and public policy analysis. He has an extensive mix and depth of experience in the public and private sectors. On top of his role with the Coffee Industry Board, he is also the CEO of the Agro-investment Corporation, Jamaica’s national agribusiness institution, among other positions. He graduated from the University of the West Indies with a degree in agribusiness and economics.

How do you help the coffee industry in Jamaica grow?

The Coffee Industry Board has been the regulatory agency for the industry here for more than 50 years. We work the entire value chain, from seed selection, producing the material, and quality assurance; we take custody of the product and handle the shipment arrangements, provide the licensing and ensure that we build equity in the world's best brand of coffee, Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee, and its close rival, Jamaican High Mountain Coffee.

The Blue Mountain Coffee brand is strong internationally. How do you promote the High Mountain brand?

They both have unique attributes; however, Blue Mountain, by virtue of its unique location and careful selection of materials, communicates a different kind of attribute in the marketplace. Still, there will be consumers for both, with Blue Mountain at the higher end of the marketplace and High Mountain in the next tier, which rivals products like Kona from Hawaii.

Can you tell us about plans your for diversifying markets for Jamaican coffee?

The Jamaican coffee supply will always be relatively small in the global context, so we will work to retain that special boutique appeal in the marketplace. We target the higher end of the coffee market, which is generally small and specialized. Japan has been a traditional player on the demand side for Blue Mountain Coffee, a longstanding relationship the entire industry and board appreciates. What has happened is not a reduction of demand in Japan per se, but a pricing issue since supply constraints in Jamaica resulted in higher prices of our product in Japan. However, we also need to diversify our effort into other markets, and the board has been proactive in supporting producers and processors in Jamaica to source markets in the US and Europe. We are promoting companies in those markets to acquire licenses to handle the brand in these regions and make strong inroads with large corporations in the US.

How does it also relate to the blending regulation?

We try to work in the industry to ensure that Jamaican manufacturers and exporters can position their products at the correct price points to appeal to their market segments. The board retains that flexibility, even though we impose a minimum requirement on blends. Once we fulfill this, we encourage entrepreneurship to move forward and use their own innovation to create blending products that appeal to consumers.

Do you want to develop tourism around the fact that this is one of the best coffee-producing places in the world?

We have been contemplating that to a certain degree. For example, people who hike in the Blue Mountains and enjoy the coffee, climate conditions, cultural practices, and traditions that go into it are interested in that element of ecotourism, which we hope to expand. However, the board is also conscious that this is a fragile ecological zone. The sustainability essential to ecotourism must be managed in a particular way. Just as the coffee is boutique, so must the ecotourism.

How do you target tourists coming to Jamaica?

We take a differentiated approach inside hotels, where we expose guests to Blue Mountain and High Mountain Coffee and provide the opportunity for it to be distributed in specialty stores inside the hotels. We are also trying to get coffee festivals in the hotels to expose tourists to the 100% pure variants of our coffees rather than merely the blends they find in the store.

Is there still room for quantitative growth in the coffee supply?

Our forecast is that demand will generate our supply in Jamaica. Given our size, we will never be a large producer. However, if the product is appropriately positioned, we could easily increase production by 80 or 90% without having any adverse effect on prices. There is room for us to significantly increase production without negative repercussions in the marketplace, though we will never be a large player like Brazil.