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Caribbean Basin Market Profile

Market Overview:

The Caribbean Basin Agricultural Trade Office in Miami, or CBATO, hereinafter referred to as “Post” reports that the Caribbean is one of the most fragmented and diverse regions in the world. This vast geographic area is covered by two regional FAS offices, the Office of Agricultural Affairs (OAA), hereinafter also referred to as “Post” in Santo Domingo and the CBATO. The Post in Santo Domingo covers the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Haiti. The CBATO Post covers practically all other island markets. This assessment covers the markets where there is a combination of market potential, current information and activity based on overall strategic planning for the medium term.

Post reports that the United States exported over US$1.9 billion in U.S. consumer-oriented foods and fish products to the Caribbean Basin in 2017, growth of 4% from that of the prior year. The region also imported over US$1.4 billion in processed food products in 2017, 1% growth from 2016. Top U.S. processed food products exported to the Caribbean included:

  • Fats and oils
  • Food preparations
  • Non-alcoholic beverages
  • Processed/prepared dairy products
  • Snack foods
  • Beer & wine
  • Condiments & sauces
  • Pasta and processed cereals

With limited agricultural production, most Caribbean islands rely heavily on imported food products, particularly from the United States. As tourist arrivals in most islands continue to improve, prospects for further market expansion are always present.

Caribbean importers have a long history of doing business with the United States. Their strong interest in U.S. suppliers and products is mainly due to close proximity, long-standing reputation of high quality products, and superior quality of service. In fact, many local importers have noted that they are able to source a variety of products from non-U.S. suppliers, but few of these suppliers can match their U.S. counterparts in terms of product quality and reliability. There are some clear advantages U.S. food suppliers take advantage of in exporting food products to the Caribbean. They include:

  • With little arable land and food production, the islands of the Caribbean must import most of their food needs
  • The tourism sector is rebounding in most islands - This is a key factor in generating demand for U.S. products, particularly in the food service sector
  • The Caribbean is visited by approximately six to seven million stop-over tourists annually
  • The United States is the source of approximately 50% of all tourists visiting the region, boosting demand for U.S. foods
  • Proximity and frequent transportation service to the region work to the advantage of U.S. suppliers
  • Exposure to U.S. media as well as language, cultural, and commercial ties with the United States all contribute to consumers having a positive attitude toward U.S. products
  • U.S. exporters, particularly south Florida consolidators, service the market very well and are in many ways better positioned to supply the Caribbean than competitors
  • The United States has a dominant market share in the vast majority of Caribbean islands (estimated at 55% overall)
  • The regulatory environment at present is fairly open to U.S. products

As important a food export market as it is, for those in the U.S., the potential of the Caribbean also has some competitive and national challenges as well which need to be managed in order to succeed. They include:

  • In some markets, such as the French West Indies, a key constraint is breaking the traditional ties with Europe. Chefs in many islands are European trained and thus prefer European products
  • Caribbean economic well-being is highly dependent on tourism. Hence, economies remain very susceptible to factors that may disrupt tourism (i.e. the world economy, terrorism, more active hurricane seasons, the Zika epidemic, etc.).
  • Ocean transportation rates from the United States can be more expensive than those from Europe.
  • Political interest in attaining “regional food security” or “food sovereignty” has strengthened in recent years, and many islands are actively attempting to boost domestic production and diversify food suppliers
  • The nature of individual island markets requires special effort from U.S. exporters: dealing with several small accounts; consolidation of small orders; complying with different import requirements for select products; ascertaining different market characteristics in every island
  • The 2008 trade agreement between the Caribbean and the EU has set the stage for increased competition from Europe
  • Other competitors are also targeting the Caribbean. The recent expansion of the Panama Canal may open the door to greater competition from Asia
  • Certain products, particularly meat and poultry, may be restricted in certain markets due to either EU or island-specific regulations

The Caribbean market is witnessing increasing competition from Europe, Canada, South and Central America. While the United States still enjoys several major advantages over its competitors, U.S. suppliers should remain mindful that in coming years rising competition will necessitate closer monitoring of the market in order to capitalize on emerging opportunities in the region.  

Retail Sector:

Post reports that an estimated 55% to 65% of consumer-oriented agricultural imports in the Caribbean are destined for the retail sector. Most of the products stocked on the shelves of Caribbean retail stores are imported.

Smaller retailers such as neighborhood ‘mom and pop’ stores will buy most if not all of their products from local import wholesalers. These retailers have a slower turnaround on product sales and have limited space for storage, which both lead to wholesale as a preferred option for sourcing food and beverage products. In contrast, supermarket chains often have both local and U.S. or foreign-based purchasing offices. They work closely with U.S. suppliers to find the best prices for products of interest. Again, a consolidator in South Florida is still crucial to the equation in this market segment.

International retail chains in the Caribbean include: PriceSmart (U.S.), Cost-U-Less (Canada), Save-A-Lot (U.S.), Carrefour (France), Casino (France), and Albert Heijn Zeelandia (Holland). While these retail outlets do quite well, 'mom and pop' stores will continue to supply a large share of consumers’ needs for basic supplies. In addition, national and international convenience stores and gas marts play a small but growing role in consumer food purchases, contributing about 5% of total retail food sales.

Food Service Sector:

Post reports that the considerable investment in tourism infrastructure that has taken place in recent years has strengthened the long term potential of the region’s hotel, restaurant, and institutional (HRI) food service sector. For example, in The Bahamas, Baha Mar, a US$4.2 billion mega resort (the largest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere) was built largely with Chinese labor and financing from the Export-Import Bank of China. After a tumultuous year in 2015, when the original owners filed for bankruptcy, Chow Tai Fook Enterprises Limited (CTFE), a Hong Kong based global conglomerate, took over ownership of the resort in 2016. CTFE plans to open the resort in phases. Phase one, which took place in April 2017, saw Baha Mar open a 1,800 room Grand Hyatt property together with a casino, convention center, spa and golf course among other amenities. The company estimates that more than 1,500 jobs will be generated for Bahamians within this first phase. Once fully operational, Baha Mar Resort is expected to employ thousands more.

Overall, the Caribbean HRI food service sector is estimated to account for roughly 35% 45% of consumer-oriented agricultural imports. The percentage of Caribbean hotels and restaurants that are independently owned varies from approximately 90% in Grenada to 25% in The Bahamas (Nassau in particular). This characteristic impacts the flow of imports to the island. The independently-owned restaurant or hotel is more likely to source its food and beverage products from local importers/wholesalers, while larger chain restaurants and hotels have both the connections and the economies of scale to also make direct imports from U.S. suppliers.

Some of the world’s most acclaimed chefs are working in the Caribbean. Using high quality ingredients, these chefs and their restaurants often are a valuable platform for introducing U.S. food and beverage products. However, many chefs are European-trained and thus breaking their preference toward European products can be challenging. Heightened interest of chefs in the use of locally produced ingredients is a recent trend, similar to other parts of the world.

Food-Processing Sector:

Post reported that the food processing in the broad Caribbean Basin is highly concentrated in the larger countries such as the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. In their islands of coverage, which have very limited food production and practically no economies of scale, food processing is much less prevalent. In fact, bulk and intermediate agricultural products account for only a quarter of U.S. agricultural exports to the CBATO islands. Nonetheless, there is processing of wheat flour, pasta products, rice, bakery products, soy products, dairy products, and animal feeds in some countries, particularly in Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados. Food processors within the region buy roughly 20% of raw materials and food ingredients from local suppliers and import 80% from international suppliers.

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