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Former CEO and agriculture expert, Hugh O’Brien to take up challenge to revitalize and diversify the citrus industry

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Posted: Thursday, December 23, 2021. 4:45 pm CST.

By Benjamin Flowers: The Government of Belize is seeking the leadership of former Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, Hugh O’Brien, to spearhead the revival of the citrus industry in Belize.

O’Brien, a First Class Honors graduate of the University of the West Indies, and former Principal of the Belize College of Agriculture (now UB Central Farm campus), holds a Master’s Degree in Agronomy and has over 30 years’ experience in the field of agriculture. At the request of Minister Jose Abelardo Mai, who also happens to be one of O’Brien’s students at the former Belize College of Agriculture, O’Brien has agreed to take up the mantle of Program Manager for the Citrus Revitalization and Diversification Program, within the Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security, and Enterprise. Tapping his expertise forms a part of a larger, more comprehensive plan for the citrus industry, which includes Cabinet approving $15 million in loan financing to revitalize the citrus industry and the Briceño administration’s decision to declare the citrus industry as critical to the socio-economic development of Belize back in August this year.

In an exclusive interview with Breaking Belize News (BBN), Hugh O’Brien said that “the citrus industry in its current state is in urgent need of good stewardship” and that while it is not going to be an easy feat to reverse the downward trend and bring the industry back from where it is, he is prepared to take on the “herculean task”. As Program Director, O’Brien is being brought in on a contractual basis for one year.

“I am yet to sign the contract offer” O’Brien added, “but I have given Prime Minister John Briceño and Agriculture Minister Jose Mai, my commitment that I am prepared to take up the challenge and work on getting the ball rolling in one year”.

When asked about the political lash backs, O’Brien was unfazed saying “Most politicians speak with two sides of their mouth, one when they are in government and one when they are in opposition. It is these same politicians, from both political parties, but especially the UDP, who stood by the wayside and watched the citrus industry crumble from earning over $100 million per year in foreign exchange for Belize to now being an industry on life support”.

In fact, O’Brien said “the citrus industry only produced 1.4 million boxes last year, compared to 7.8 million boxes that were produced in 2005, a time when citrus was in its glory days and considered the King of the South”.

“The citrus industry is clearly facing numerous challenges and while some are writing off the industry, Minister Jose Mai believes that given the right environment and leadership, the industry can be both revitalized and diversified, and that is the bandwagon that I have decided to get on,” said O’Brien.

Earlier this year, O’Brien chaired a high-level Citrus Working Group put together by Minister of Agriculture, Food Security and Enterprise, Jose Abelardo Mai, to prepare concrete recommendations to chart the way forward for the citrus industry in Belize. The Working Group included Dr. Еugеnе Сlеlаnd rерrеѕеntіng the Сіtruѕ Grоwеrѕ Аѕѕосіаtіоn (СGА), Еrnеѕt Rауmоnd rерrеѕеntіng Веlіzе Сіtruѕ Мutuаl (ВСМ), Кеnt Неrrеrа rерrеѕеntіng Сіtruѕ Рrоduсtѕ оf Веlіzе Lіmіtеd (СРВL), Assad Magana, rерrеѕеntіng the Dеvеlорmеnt Fіnаnсе Соrроrаtіоn (СРВL), Аndу Ѕuthеrlаnd, rерrеѕеntіng the Міnіѕtrу оf Fоrеіgn Тrаdе, аnd Јоѕе Nоvеlо, rерrеѕеntіng the Міnіѕtrу оf Аgrісulturе, Fооd Ѕесurіtу аnd Еntеrрrіѕе..

That Working Group submitted its report to Cabinet and the recommendations received widespread support, including a pledge to support value adding and diversification of the citrus industry into other fruit concentrates and juices. This will include a greater focus on growing and processing pineapple, soursop, coconut, blends of citrus juices, single strength and other tropical juices.

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