Jamaica’s Spirit of Social Enterprise
02 July 2007
Michael Smith visits a community in rural Jamaica where a remarkable partnership has generated
jobs, dignity and development.
Not far from the birthplace of reggae legend Bob Marley, in the St Ann district of Jamaica, three young farmers are working on a pepper farm in Walkerswood village. Aston, Hopeton and Horacio are supervised by 82-year-old farm manager Osbourne ‘Apple’ Francis. If they were not farming they would have to find jobs - perhaps, if lucky, in the tourist hotels, bars or shops of the northern coastal resort of Ocho Rios, Jamaica’s cruise ship destination.
Instead it is the tourists who take the twisting road up through Fern Gulley, to Walkerswood (population 3,000). There they visit the community’s food factory which manufactures the jerk (barbeque) seasoning that has become synonymous around the world with the flavours of the Caribbean. The Walkerswood Jerk Country Tour is one of the Caribbean’s top 10 ‘community tourism’ attractions.
Walkerswood’s self-help projects aim to be a model for rural development, countering the drift to the big cities in search of jobs that plagues many developing economies. The experiment has attracted a Vice-Premier of China, Keng Piao, who visited in 1979, and Prince Charles in 2000.
At the heart of the Walkerswood experiment is the remarkable relationship of trust built between Afro-Caribbean entrepreneurs, including Woody Mitchell, Managing Director of the food company, and a white land-owning family that might have been mistrusted as members of the privileged ‘plantocracy’.
The story goes back to the 1930s. Minnie Pringle, daughter of Jamaica’s largest landowner, inherited Bromley, the big colonial house overlooking Walkerswood, where a previous owner had employed slaves.
Her social conscience touched during the political ferment of the 1930s, Minnie Pringle opened Bromley to blacks and whites alike, with villagers joining in morning prayers. ‘In the light of over 280 years of British colonial history, it was an incredible centre,’ comments Kingston journalist Martin Henry.
Minnie Pringle’s daughter, Fiona Edwards, now 91, and grandsons Johnathan and Roddy have continued Bromley’s community tradition. Fiona says she was ‘enjoying a wild life’ as a teenage socialite in Britain, when in 1936 she encountered the spiritual movement the Oxford Group (forerunner of Initiatives of Change) which transformed her life. She returned to Jamaica determined ‘to do something’ to get involved in the Walkerswood community.
Inheriting this social and spiritual ethos, Johnathan Edwards helped to develop the Walkerswood Community Council, launched in 1973, whilst his brother Roddy headed its unemployment committee. They were determined to create local jobs, Roddy Edwards declaring that, as a white Jamaican, he had been involved in ‘a grand theft from people who had not been paid properly for their part in the nation’s development’. Aware of the appalling history of slavery in the Caribbean, he says that 'the best way for people of European descent to be involved in reparations is to engage in sustainable, fair businesses.’
He and other Walkerswood villagers launched Cottage Industries in 1976, at first selling jerk pork to the eight bars in the surrounding area. It soon became the first company to bottle and market Jamaica’s celebrated jerk seasoning.
In 2005 the company, renamed Walkerswood Caribbean Foods, invested US$6 million in a 15-acre plant across the valley from Bromley, through a majority equity investment from Chinese Jamaican businessman Ray Chang. The company employs 160 people in the manufacture of 23 products, from coconut rundown sauce and solomon gundy fish paste, to chutneys, guava jam and rum marmalade. It exports 85 per cent of its output to grocery chains and shops in the Caribbean, North America and Europe, on a turnover in 2006 of US$6 million.
Equally importantly, it provides a market for some 3,000 farmers and seasonal pickers across Jamaica who supply the ingredients: scotch bonnet peppers, escallion (spring onions), ackee fruit, callaloo leaves, Jamaican ginger, reputed to be the best in the world, and thyme among them. ‘Their success has had an economic multiplier effect throughout its community,’ generating a steady income for local farmers, commented a 2005 World Bank report on the Caribbean.
At the company’s pepper farm they are growing sweet peppers, lettuces and cabbages under a 103-foot long greenhouse, in a controlled environment avoiding pesticides. The aim is to provide a year-round supply to the factory, in a project funded by USAID and the United Nations Development Programme.
The Walkerswood Community Development Foundation, the only village-focussed foundation in Jamaica, helps to support community activities: education, emergency relief for reconstruction after hurricanes—the island was last hit in 2005—and tackling HIV/AIDS. In the village’s arts and crafts building, Michael Denton and his carpentry team, Jerome and Benjamin, are making a range of products to sell in the factory’s tourist shop: tea boxes, cheese boards, coasters, jewellery boxes and key racks, all inlaid with colourful ceramic tiles. Orders come from gift shops in Kingston and from as far as the Bahamas.
‘Walkerswood is an oasis in rural Jamaica,’ says Hopeton Dunn of the University of the West Indies, who is Chairman of the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica. ‘It has helped to create a model community in which those who had privilege and prosperity are working alongside those who are dispossessed, in a sharing way, creating a symbol to the whole of Jamaica of what might be when there is a social conscience and collaboration.’
Communities like Walkerswood also counter the destructive side of globalization, says Doreen Frankson, President of the Jamaica Manufacturers’ Association. Globalization, she says, ‘has been very damaging because of opening up markets here to the world. We are struggling to be competitive. Companies like Walkerswood, that are indigenous and have a niche market, are the direction we should be going.’ She wants to see more rural companies following the Walkerswood model, providing ‘direct and indirect employment in the community’. There are a few, but not nearly on the scale of Walkerswood.
Woody Mitchell, a winner of the Norman Manley Award for ‘excellence in service to the community’, has been wheel-chair bound since a car accident in 1972. His faith sustains him and inspires him in his role as Managing Director. He characterizes his relationship with Roddy Edwards, the company’s cofounder, as ‘great partners together’. Walkerwood’s young farmers, Mitchell adds, are finding dignity in working on the land, realising that farming is not just for the elderly. And though unemployment is officially at 12 per cent nationally, there is no 'compulsory unemployment’ in Walkerswood.
As Jamaica goes to the polls this year, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller advocates a ‘community centred’ approach to development, according to the Sunday Gleaner. Her People’s National Party has been in power for 17 years and is running neck and neck with the Jamaica Labour Party in opinion polls. The contest will be as hot as Walkerswood’s spices.
A shorter version of this article first appeared in Guardian Weekly, 27 April - 3 May 2007.