The fisheries sector of Seychelles has long been a pillar of the country’s economy, and innovations such as aquaculture are now creating new opportunities. Agriculture, however, has traditionally been a challenge for the island-nation with limited land space. Charles Bastienne, the country’s new Minister for Fisheries and Agriculture, is promising to strategically transform the sector. Here, he explains his results-oriented approach to securing the country’s food security and economic growth and why China could be a key partner
You have recently been named Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture, after having served as Minister of Housing, Infrastructure and Land Transport. What do you see as the key priorities and challenges in your new post?
My new portfolio is quite challenging. It’s challenging because agriculture in Seychelles is struggling and we must realize that that food security is paramount. We rely heavily on imports – almost 90 percent of everything that we consume is imported, and we must work on that. In terms of fishing, there is almost unlimited potential, but at the same time we must ensure we achieve sustainable fishing. We’re part of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, a subsidiary of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which does research and sets quotas. It is an organization that we respect a lot. We’ve got a vast ocean and almost 1.4 million square kilometres of exclusive economic zone (EEZ) waters. Presently, we have around 44 purse seiners operating in our waters and the surrounding areas. The opportunities are already vast but there are still more to come. Together with the Blue Economy department, we exploring the potential in aquaculture. With our pristine waters and climatic conditions, Seychelles is an ideal place for aquaculture. It will be the way forward for us. We want to enjoy sustainable fishing, but be careful not to overfish, so aquaculture will provide us with additional opportunities for investment in Seychelles. We are a bit late in entering the aquaculture market, but there’s an ever-increasing demand for food around the world. So this is the next big investment that the government is working on and I would expect that by the end of 2018 or in early 2019 there will be some big movements to attract investment into the aquaculture sector.
During your time as Minister of Housing, your ministry was the recipient of grants from the Chinese government to build housing projects. What scope do you see for partnerships between your new Ministry and the Chinese government?
Definitely, in terms of infrastructure, China and the Seychelles have a longstanding relationship. As we speak, we’ve got one or two ongoing projects operating from Chinese grants. Soon, I will meet with Her Excellency Yu Jinsong, the Chinese ambassador to Seychelles, to explore avenues for greater collaboration between the two countries in terms of fishing and agriculture. I do not believe that there has been that much cooperation in the past in these areas, but I’m here as a new minister to venture into new areas and find out where we can have more win-win collaboration. We have great collaboration in fishing with the Japanese government, so why not have more involvement with the Chinese?
The Seychelles National Agricultural Investment Plan was launched in 2016. How has it progressed and will you continue to follow it?
The investment plan was very ambitious but not much has happened since then. This is why I’m taking a new approach and setting more realistic goals. I’ve only been in office for two weeks and already we are working on a plan that will be ready shortly, and which will relaunch the agricultural sector. It will be a five-year plan that is ambitious but achievable, based on finding our optimal solutions. The National Agriculture Investment Plan proved to be very costly, and I suppose that was one of the deterring factors in making it happen. But now we’re moving in a direction where we can have quick, efficient wins as far as agriculture is concerned. We have our targets set for every type of local production that we want to tap into. Let’s take poultry, for example. Today, we are producing only 14 percent of our local poultry requirements, and the balance is imported. That’s something we can improve, so we have to push to do something fast. I would expect that by the end of this year we should be able to double that figure. This is what we’re working on now – a very specific, target-oriented approach in agriculture. In my previous ministries everything has been very target-oriented, and that is what I will do here. We need results that people can see – results that can be measured and verified. This is our work.
Thinking of the next three to five years, what are your plans to bring down the ratio of imports?
There are a lot of items that will be difficult for us to have in Seychelles, such as rice and potatoes. But we can increase poultry, pork and vegetables. I will discuss with Her Excellency the Chinese ambassador about how they can cooperate with us to help bring in the technology that can improve our yields, and help us achieve our targets faster. I think that if we collaborate with friendly countries, especially China, we could reach our goals much faster than one may expect.
The Seychelles Agricultural Census of 2011 found that 6.5 percent of land was dedicated to agricultural use. Do you plan to increase that?
It may not seem like much, but 6.5 percent of land for agriculture is a lot. Almost 50 percent of our territory is reserved for environmental protection, so that means around 13 percent of the usable land is employed for agriculture. So we need to think about maximizing what we have and making the industry more efficient. First, we must examine possibilities on the main island, and once we’ve done that, we can explore more possibilities in the outer islands. This will be the next phase of our assessment – first we want to understand what we can do most quickly on the main island and then we’ll look at the other opportunities. But our initial objectives could be achieved with what we have at the moment.
Are there any particular agricultural products where you see a potential to export?
I can honestly say that for the local products, it’s difficult as far as agriculture is concerned. Once we meet our basic requirements, which will be geared to food security, then we’ll be ok. As far as fishing is concerned, we already have our products on shelves all over the Europe. But also with fishing, we are putting a lot of emphasis on more value addition, so hopefully, we will soon see factories that will be preparing items such as tuna loins or pâtés. When value is added to product, they can be sold for five times more. There is a lot of potential for increased revenue, and that can only be achieved by adding value to the resources that we have. So instead of being known just as a tourism destination, where everyone wants to come for our beaches, environment and climate, we can also have our brand recognized through products that we sell around the world.
How are the country’s agricultural products working alongside the tourism industry?
We’ve started something new. We’re now talking about agritourism. We have tea plantations where tourists can go and have a cup of tea and visit the plantation. And then there are other products being developed now to go hand in hand with tourism. Tourism is culture, and we want to make local food a more important element. It’s something that’s becoming popular across the world, but there’s still work to be done.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Very soon, before the end of this year, we will be releasing a document on aquaculture to invite potential investors to come to the Seychelles to explore this investment, either with the partnership of the local Seychellois, or possibly on their own. This is being finalized right now. Aquaculture is the next big thing in Seychelles. We have the framework and several committees working on this issue, so our expectation is that it will happen sooner rather than later. With regards to agriculture, it is a very fragile sector for the time being, which is why I want more collaboration with the government of China before we invite foreign investors into the sector. If you come back in three years’ time, you will see a totally different agricultural sector. That I promise.