The Honourable Edwin Astwood was appointed as Minister of Health in December 2016, and since then has managed to safely navigate several significant challenges in his far-reaching ministerial portfolio. Not only was he responsible for successfully overseeing the health sector during 2017’s two severe hurricanes, he was also innovative in finding solutions to Turks and Caicos’ underdeveloped agricultural sector, sports facilities and lack of specialised medical treatment. With a passion for forging new partnerships with foreign businesses, here he outlines solutions that are mutually beneficial for both the Turks and Caicos Islands and international investors
Agriculture is being positioned by the government as a sector that seeks fresh capital to improve its infrastructure and the food supply. Tell me more about the investment opportunities currently available.
Right now, our Agriculture sector is very under-developed. We have a government farm in North Caicos, however, it’s more of a demonstration farm at the moment, though we do grow some produce and livestock. Likewise, we have a few local producers that sell their products to some stores, but it’s not even enough to provide for the stores. Hotels are also interested in sourcing more local food, but we don’t have the supply right now to capitalise on that opportunity. There is a growing need and demand for food, but investment in farming has been very low over the last few years. However, with my Ministry, we have been promoting our “grow what you eat, eat what you grow” campaign and the public has been very receptive. In the schools we are promoting gardens and showing young people that farming is not just a dirty job. It’s a real business where you can make a lot of money.
If an investor from overseas was interested in developing agriculture here, where is the best location?
Right now, the main island for farming is North Caicos. However, we are in the process of identifying areas in Providenciales where small-scale farming can take place. It depends on the farm; if you’re doing hydroponics, you’ll need less land. We also know that you have to be close to the market to cut down on transportation costs and that Providenciales is the biggest market, so it is an ideal location. Land is available in North Caicos, Middle Caicos, and we’re looking at smaller areas in Grand Turk for livestock and hydroponics. Traditionally, you could find cows, goats and pigs on Grand Turk, and today you can see remnants of that. North Caicos has the largest amount of land to develop, but there are some logistical issues in play, even though we have all-day everyday transportation.
Are there any incentives available for international investors?
Earlier this year, our government completed the first Agriculture policy. It speaks to all the incentives and concessions involved, machinery, work permits, what can be imported duty-free, and applying for land. This policy aims to develop the sector and attract investment in agriculture. Any investor can purchase land or lease government-owned land. You can go through Invest TCI, and there are shovel-ready investment packages available for people who want to get into agriculture.
You were appointed as minister in 2016. After two years in office, what have been some of your greatest challenges?
The biggest challenges came from the two hurricanes in 2017 and managing all the sectors together in order to get them back on their feet. An immediate challenge I have has to do with the level of specialty healthcare within the islands. We want to develop a more specialised health sector here. At the moment, we have our treatment-abroad programme in which we still send a lot of patients off to other institutions abroad for further medical treatment. One way to address this is through medical tourism. We would like to get different medical businesses to set up in Turks and Caicos, where they can attract clients from abroad and at the same time, residents of Turks and Caicos can have access to that excellent care.
As Minister of Health, what were the lessons learned during hurricanes Maria and Irma, and what is the sector doing to ensure the health and safety of those who are here if another hurricane strikes?
From both hurricanes, we had no deaths or direct injuries, but we really learned the importance of backup generators and internet access. We have put in a contingency plan to have those generators properly operating. We had them before, but from our experience last year, now we know exactly what we need to run these health sectors when the power is out and how to keep internet connectivity. We have also been educating the public on proper chlorination methods for private water cisterns, food and safety awareness and proper storage of medication and medical supplies. The critical lesson learnt was the need to ensure that health messages are received by communities despite the absence of internet and telecommunications.
What is the current state of healthcare in Turks and Caicos?
Every island in Turks and Caicos, no matter how small the population, has primary healthcare clinics. There are also a number of private physicians and medical facilities, which are both locally and internationally owned. We have one hospital with two operational sites – one in Grand Turk and one in Providenciales. We have all the doctors available for basic healthcare, but our challenge is having more specialists. But we have doctors who have trained throughout the world and can address the most common issues. We want to take healthcare to the people, so our focus is on disease prevention and healthy habits and lifestyles.
What opportunities are there for developing medical tourism?
My ministry is promoting hard medical tourism, especially in orthopedics and other specialties. We are looking for people to come in and set up medical businesses here in Turks and Caicos. We are very open to it, and we think we would be perfect for it. People can come and do their procedure here, and their family can come and be on holiday, and then they can recover in this beautiful environment and go back home with a healthy mind, body and soul. The climate here is warm and mostly sunny throughout the year, which lends itself to wellness. I think location and ease of business are also key to making Turks and Caicos an ideal place for medical tourism. Our global position in the world is also excellent for medical tourism. We are close to North America, Central America and South America, and well connected by direct flights. I think that anyone who comes here can feel at home and comfortable. We have very low crime rates, as well, so someone can stay here for extended periods and feel at ease while they are recovering. In terms of cost, we are right in the middle. We aren’t extremely high priced even though we’re high end, and also we aren’t at the cheap end where the quality is low. We have a very high-quality product at reasonably affordable prices.
How do all of your ministerial portfolios overlap and complement each other?
When we look at agriculture, a lot of diseases in the body are related to what we eat. I’m a health professional and know that if you combine agriculture with health, that’s about 50 percent of the problems right there, so if you eat healthy food you can avoid many problems like diabetes, hypertension, and reduce cancer risks. We are looking at healthy lifestyles and disease prevention, so sports is also related. Instead of just using sports as recreation you can also promote it for its health aspects. We are accustomed to having children in school sitting down to learn about different subjects in physical education, but now we want to get our people moving – both the young and old. Of course, human services also ties right into that.
What does Turks and Caicos offer the traveller in terms of sports?
Right now, we’re really diversifying our sports program and are even reaching out to colleges and professional teams in North America and around to the world to come down here and do training camps and pre-season training. We do have a need to develop our sporting facilities as well. We want to reach out to bodies such as FIFA to have qualifying matches or train here. There are currently six core sports (as defined by the Sports Policy 2018) comprising basketball, rugby, swimming, football, track & field and cycling that are the key focus of the Department of Sports. In addition to re-invigorating the sport of cricket and softball, we are also encouraging the development of weightlifting, bodybuilding, beach volleyball and other sporting disciplines – including water sports like jet skiing and kiteboarding.
We are promoting diving, especially for the Island of Grand Turk, which has some of the best reefs and dive sites in the world. We are also promoting it on Providenciales, but Grand Turk has some outstanding features as a niche market. We are looking at developing more boutique hotels targeted specifically towards divers. Currently, sports tourism is underdeveloped so there are many opportunities. We are open to any public-private partnerships in all of this. Once we have the facilities here, it would not only benefit the local population, but international groups and it’s a big business opportunity for the investor. We have been approached many times to host tournaments here, but we could not do so because of the seating capacity. We would like to host an international tennis tournament next year, however. Also, we have taken on the development of a high-performance indoor facility for basketball this year and are developing our track and field facilities.
What would you like British readers to understand about Turks and Caicos?
We would like them to understand that just as the Caribbean has a diversity of countries and identities, so do we within the Turks and Caicos Islands. As a British Overseas Territory the Turks and Caicos Islands comprising 40 islands and cays, has inhabited islands each with a different way of speaking, a different history and a diverse culture. For the tourist, each has its own flavour and offerings. If you go to Grand Turk, you can see remnants of buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries and cannons that were used to prevent pirates from robbing the Treasury. South Caicos is famous for its fishing, while Middle and North Caicos are agriculture-oriented and Providenciales is known for tourism. Each island is unique so no matter what your taste is, we have an island for you. If you want to be around all the people and excitement plus five-star hotels, you have that in Providenciales. If you want to be secluded and feel like you’re going back in time, we have that in Salt Cay. If you like history and diving, you can go to Grand Turk. You like sports fishing, you can go to South Caicos. If you want to be with the rich and famous, you can go to Pine Cay and Parrot Cay. There is something for everyone, every taste, and every budget. When you come here, we want you to feel like part of our family. The Turks and Caicos is open to everyone, we are open to investment, and we would like to develop for you and with you.