TIME FOR AN UPGRADE

Panama 2017 | AGRICULTURE | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Axel Villalobos Cortés, Director General of IDIAP, on the growing investment in the tech side of Panama's agriculture industry, the need for younger blood in the sector, and strategies to deliver growth.

Axel Villalobos Cortés
BIOGRAPHY
Axel Villalobos Cortés has focused his career in veterinary studies. He has studied in Costa Rica and Mexico and obtained a PhD from Universidad de Córdoba in Spain. Currently he is the General Director of IDIAP, the Agricultural Research Institute of Panama. He has authored several publications and has been a speaker at several conferences in Panama and internationally.

What is your assessment of the agro industry here in Panama?

Panama, in the past, did not invest seriously in developing a solid agricultural system, especially in R&D. Our mission is to boost the agricultural performance of the country. We are interested in self-sufficiency for the people of Panama, and our vision is to establish ourselves as the best agricultural research institution in the country. This segment of the national economy is one of the most challenging, and in the past, the government appointed many politicians to solve the scientific issue. However, the industry does not need politicians; we need producers and experts who can address and solve the issues related to the current crisis that the sector faces. We are fully operative and all our departments work tirelessly to implement a new strategic vision to be achieved by the end of 2030. We would also like to promote a new law to be applied to the industry. We are currently investing over USD15 million in infrastructure, including new laboratories. We are building new factories for seeds and a new research institute in Azuero, as well as five new laboratories in the district of Divisa in the center of the country. We are currently planning the construction of a new plant for seeds in the region of Darién. An Electron microscopy laboratory is another focus, and we are currently implementing new solutions, in particular in the area of Chiriquí.

There is a lack of qualified people in every segment of the national economy and agriculture is no exception. How is the institution working to address this issue?

We work with the Agricultural Technology Fund (FONTAGRO) to address this issue, and collaborate extensively with many institutions. The greatest problem and issue, with regard to research and knowledge transfer, is that when we develop new products and new solutions in Panama, producers are not willing to accept them. We need to educate producers about new solutions and be viewed as a reliable partner for the community of producers here. The solution is to work with international institutions to develop a new center of excellence. That is what our neighboring countries are doing, and we do not want to be the exception. We have grants for students to promote the agricultural curricula among local students. This is part of our mandate; we have to improve the quality of human capital in Panama not just for the other segments, but particularly for agriculture. Without human talent, the sector cannot develop. We work with National Secretariat of Science, Technology and Innovation (SENACYT) on a specific program to promote knowledge transfer in the development of highly qualified researchers to be employed in the agricultural sector. The average age of all the people employed in the sector is 50, and we need to convince the young to start working for the development of the agricultural segment. Another challenge is related to internal migration. As the capital grows economically, it becomes more appealing for people living in the outskirts; no one is willing to work to develop the agricultural segment in the country. Something must be done to solve this issue.

What are your priorities for 2017?

2017 will be a challenging year. By law, the country has certain limitations to build infrastructural projects and these will be stuck until 2018. Our target is to conclude all our current infrastructure projects in Panama. By 2018, all our facilities under construction today will be fully operational, at least on the R&D side. One of the priorities for 2017—and probably one of the most important projects in the agro industry—is the establishment of the Panama-Israel Center of Excellence. As a result of our collaboration with Israel, we will be able to impose ourselves as a hub at the regional level. This is something that is extremely important and I want to develop it starting from this year.