Tasting local flavour at Walkerswood Caribbean Foods, Jamaica

This article by Michael Smith first appeared in The Guardian on 27 April 2007

Tasting local flavour

Jamaicans may have been gripped by cricket World Cup fever recently but in Walkerswood the heat comes from the spices of the Caribbean kitchen.

Tourists from the cruise ship destination of Ocho Rios take the drive up the twisting hill road to this village of 3,000 people to visit the food factory which makes the jerk (barbecue) seasoning that has become synonymous with the flavours of the Caribbean. The Walkerswood Jerk Country Tour is one of the West Indies' 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 attracted a Maoist vice-premier of China, Keng Piao, in 1979 and Prince Charles in 2000.

At its heart is an unusual combination of activists - Jamaican entrepreneurs and a white land-owning family that was once a member 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 built on a slave property overlooking Walkerswood. Inspired by a Fabian social conscience, she opened Bromley to blacks and whites alike, with villagers joining in morning prayers. Her daughter, Fiona Edwards, now 91, and grandsons Johnathan and Roddy have continued the community tradition.

Johnathan Edwards helped to develop the Walkerswood community council, launched in 1973; his brother headed its unemployment committee. They were determined to create local jobs. Roddy says that as a white Jamaican, he has been involved in "a grand theft from people who had not been paid properly for their part in the nation's development". Denouncing "the western model of maximising profit", he says "the best way for people of European descent to be involved in reparations is to engage in sustainable, fair businesses".

He and other villagers launched Cottage Industries in 1976, selling jerk pork to 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 $6m in a six-hectare plant across the valley from Bromley, with equity investment from a businessman, Ray Chang. It employs 160 people making 23 products, from coconut rundown sauce and solomon gundy fish paste to chutneys, guava jam and rum marmalade.

It also provides a market for 3,000 farmers and seasonal pickers across the country who supply the ingredients: scotch bonnet peppers, scallions, 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, according to a 2005 World Bank report.

Woody Mitchell, the managing director, who has been in a wheelchair since a car accident in 1972, says Walkerswood's young farmers are finding dignity in working on the land, realising that farming is not just for the elderly. Aston, Hopeton and Horacio, supervised by 82-year-old Osbourne "Apple" Francis, are glad to be working on the Walkerswood pepper farm. The alternative is to look for jobs in the hotels, bars and shops of Ocho Rios.

The company exports 85% of its output on a turnover of $6m last year. It is owned by 12 active partners and has an employee share ownership scheme. The Environmental Foun-dation of Jamaica has funded biodigesters to recycle water from the factory to farms, while Walkerswood community development foundation supports education, efforts to tackle HIV/ Aids and emergency relief for reconstruction after hurricanes.

In the village arts and crafts building Michael Denton and his carpentry team, Jerome and Benjamin, are making 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 as far away 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 . . . Jamaica of what might be when there is a social conscience and collaboration."

The experiment also counters the destructive side of globalisation, says Doreen Frankson, president of the Jamaica Manufacturers' Association. "Companies like Walkerswood, that are indigenous and have a niche market, are the direction we should be going," she says.

As Jamaica goes to the polls this year the prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller advocates a "community-centred" approach to development, says the Sunday Gleaner. Her People's National party is running neck and neck with the Jamaica Labour party in opinion polls. Both will want to study Walkerswood. The contest will be as hot as the company's spices.