Feb 27, 2021 Last Updated 4:38 AM, Feb 26, 2021

Marlene Dutta is the brains, and the heart, behind Barter for Better Fiji. She is also our Pacific Community Champion for 2020.

Early this year, as borders closed in response to the pandemic and Fiji’s tourism industry came to an abrupt halt, Marlene Dutta started asking herself, “what do you do when there is no more cash?” At the same time, she said she felt she was becoming a “horrible person.”

“I was just angry all the time. Everywhere I went, I felt no one was taking coronavirus seriously, there was little to no social distancing wherever you went…and I knew something had to give, something had to change.”

Dutta turned to social media, and specifically ‘kindness pandemic’ pages which offered positive messages and stories in response to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, looking for solutions to what was clearly an impending economic crisis, Dutta started to study barter—both the historical experience of barter around the globe as a response to crisis—and how it might be modernised.

She thought it could be an easy sell for Fijians. “People here understand barter, they claim it as part of their tradition, so there is that ownership of the concept. It is something we have continually done in smaller spaces and smaller circles. So for those reasons I felt it might be something worthwhile. I had no idea it would mushroom out to what it became but I just felt like it hit a few spots that people would resonate with.”

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InDepth with Greg Casagrande

South Pacific Business Development founder, Greg Casagrande is a “serial social entrepreneur”, founding not only the SPBD microfinance network 20 years ago, but also MicroDreams, a microfinance acceleration fund, and Transformative Ventures LLC, a microfinance advisory company.  Casagrande’s storied career has also seen him promote hi-tech entrepreneurship, and act as founding director of the Ice Angels, Australasia’s largest angel investor group.  Here he reflects on SPBD’s 20 years, and the challenges and opportunities 2020 bought the network.

Islands Business: The SPBD network has just celebrated its 20th anniversary. How has your vision evolved over that time?

Greg Casagrande: SPBD began simply in the year 2000 with the vision of providing under-privileged Samoan women with the opportunity to obtain small unsecured loans to help them start and grow tiny income generating businesses so that they could work their way up and out of poverty.    Since then we have learned that there are several other important needs that we can also address.  Today we provide a full range of financial and business development services including: affordable savings accounts, a variety of death benefits, significant financial literacy education, heaps of micro, small and medium business training including our much lauded BLOOM programme, childhood education and higher education financing, basic housing improvement financing, several different asset purchase financing programmes, solar powered equipment financing and distribution, regional seasonal employee financing, remittance facilitation, mobile money transfers and more.  Over the past twenty years we have also dramatically expanded our vision beyond the shores of Upolu in Samoa. Today we work throughout Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. 

IB: As founder, what has given you most satisfaction over this period?

GS: I always find tremendous joy meeting in the villages with our many successful women  micro-entrepreneurs.  I love hearing their stories about how they have taken charge of their lives and are working hard and making the living and educational environment better for their families and especially their children.   So many of our members have become fantastic leaders in their communities.  They are especially inspiring.    

IB: What is the biggest lesson you have learned?

GS: I read a good quote many years ago that said, “if you want to go fast, travel alone, if you want to go far, go together.”   My vision is for SPBD to be a permanent impact organisation that is spread across the region.  To achieve that has required building excellent local teams in each one of our markets.  Building a great team is critical to achieving sustained significant success.   I am enormously proud of our excellent team throughout the region.  

IB: Has anything surprised you about the way the network has developed?

GC: Building a financially self-sufficient, sustainable and highly impactful organization that serves the grass roots communities in nearly 2,000 villages across dozens of islands in five different Pacific Islands nations has not been easy.  There were many times, especially early on, that we could have failed.  I understand clearly why so many well-intentioned similar, well-funded efforts have in fact failed.  I think SPBD has great tenacity in its DNA.  When I started, I would never have imagined how difficult it would be.  But the effort has clearly been worth it.     

IB: 2020 has been a difficult year for Pacific island economies, and many families have turned to micro and small enterprises for their economic survival. How has the pandemic and resulting economic impacts impacted SPBD? What adjustments have you made?

GC: 2020 has indeed been an extraordinary and difficult year.  SPBD has made many adjustments to better serve our clients in this significantly changed environment.  SPBD adopted new procedures and policies to fully comply with all new government regulations in each of our markets.  Among other things this included adopting significant use of personal protective equipment in all aspects of our operations, suspending weekly meetings as needed and then using micro-meetings (with just 3 people, in lieu of larger groups) when appropriate.  We also helped our clients with their loans by providing them with significant repayment grace periods and opportunities to reschedule existing loans.  Additionally we are providing all of our clients with the ability to take out new rehabilitation financing to either relaunch a business or, for those who were working in the tourism industry, to launch an entirely new and different business. 

IB: You describe yourself as a ‘serial social entrepreneur’. What new ventures are you working on now?

GC: In addition to SPBD, I am also the Chairman and CEO of WaterHealth International (WHI).  WHI is a major provider and operator of distributed, affordable clean drinking water facilities located in hundreds of rural communities across India, Nigeria, and Ghana.   Millions of poor rural families rely on us each day for their purified drinking water.   

IB: What is the one piece of advice you would give someone who is thinking of going into business?

GC: My advice, to any person considering going into business, is to have a very clear vision of the specific customer needs that you are going to address and satisfy.  Figure out exactly how you are going to delight your customers by fully meeting their specific needs.  With that knowledge in hand, you can then design a financially sustainable and scalable business model that will consistently deliver terrific solutions that please your customers.  You will then be on your pathway towards a successful business.      

IB: Who inspires you- and how?

GC: My father has always been my main inspiration in business.  He is a tremendously accomplished entrepreneur.  He instilled in me most of my core values, a strong work ethic, and a disposition to tenaciously and smartly build quality organisations around terrific, tightly knit teams.   

IB: Sadly, you haven’t been able to travel to SPBD countries this year. But when borders reopen, where are you looking forward to visiting again?

GC: In 2021 I will most definitely be back in all five SPBD countries (Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Solomon Islands & Vanuatu).  I look forward to meeting face-to-face once again with all of our teams and many of our wonderful, inspired members.   

“[For] us women, there are always ways to earn money,” says Susana Silikiwai, a SPBD member from Kalokolevu village on Viti Levu.

Susana was one of the members who came to Suva to celebrate SPBD Fiji’s 10th anniversary recently. “I shed tears” Susana said while thinking about her SPBD journey. “I was looking at where I am now, the number of educated women that could [have] come here, and that God chose me to come here. I thank God.”

Susana runs a canteen and makes lovo packs. Since COVID-19 hit, she has also begun selling produce in Lami each Sunday, after 26 years selling from Suva municipal market. Lami is well known for its small Sunday market populated by Seventh Day Adventists like Susana (who mark their sabbath on Saturdays), and Susana says she can earn more on that one day than if she were to come into Suva market four days a week.

Susana is also training family to help in the business. “I’m teaching one of my children, my daughter. I told her not to go anywhere, or work elsewhere. I told her to stay in the market, for me to teach her how to buy and sell, for her to stay in Lami market while I run the one in Suva.”

Her membership with SPBD has enabled the grandmother of 25 children to care for her family, grow her income and  extend her home, adding two extra bedrooms, a kitchen and sitting room.

“I take care of my children, my grandchildren, and even one of my nephews; his parents passed away. I am supporting his education. That’s SPBD. These banks here, they can’t help us like SPBD does. Our house is a small house, I used to say. One small house with 2 bedrooms, no kitchen. We cook inside; if the weather is good, we cook outside. I thank SPBD for giving me the wisdom and the knowledge, I am really happy with SPBD; [and have] extended my house.”

Susana continues to think about how she can increase her income and diversify her business. Kalokolevu is situated on the busy road between Suva and Nadi and she wants to take advantage of this convenient location.

“I want to expand my business and do one [stall] on the highway where we live” to sell vegetables, cooked food, juice and handicrafts.

“In two years’ time, I plan to purchase a van to assist with my farm produce and lovo pack deliveries,” she says.

Susana is also keen to buy a pool table to entertain the many children that come to her home and to further improve her kitchen.

As a participant in the Fiji Bloom small and medium  business formalisation program, Susana says her coach has advised her to grow vegetables to sell, rather than buying them from other suppliers.

Like other Fiji Bloom participants, she also invested F$1000 of her own money in the training program. “This motivates me to explore other potential businesses out there,” Susana says.

 She is also grateful for the assistance SPBD has given her to navigate loans and hire purchase agreements without the complications of detailed paperwork.

She encourages other women in her community to follow her lead.

“It’s all about honesty. If you don’t have honesty, you can’t do it.

“We’re poor…but I thank SPBD for raising our family’s living standard.”

Palau President Tommy Remengesau Jr. has earned plaudits at home and abroad. Known for his world-renowned environmental initiatives, including the famed Palau National Marine Sanctuary, the outgoing leader also passed one tough leadership test this year- keeping the nation COVID- free.

President Remengesau retires from politics in January 2021. This is Remengesau’s last rodeo, having served the tiny nation as a public official for over 20 years and a respected and seasoned statesman in the Pacific.

Remengesau is leaving the world of politics, and as for his legacy; he says he wants to be remembered as the leader who maintained a ‘Pristine Paradise Palau’.

“Nation-building has been a balancing act for me, I felt with the majority of Palauan people, we needed to preserve the best, while improving the rest.”

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Fiame's new chapter

"It’s very liberating. I haven’t felt this excited about politics for a long time,” says Samoa’s former Deputy Prime Minister, and now independent member, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa.

In September, Fiame resigned from government and ended her affiliation with the ruling Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) over three controversial bills that would set up an autonomous Samoan Land and Titles Court. It means she will contest the April 2021 election with another party for the first time in her political career.

The bills at the heart of her decision have fomented political turmoil in Samoa all year. The Judicature Bill 2020, Lands and Titles Bill 2020 and the Constitutional Amendment Bill 2020  would together create an autonomous Land and Titles Court (LTC) which would operate in parallel to the existing criminal and civil courts, and have equal standing to those courts.

The bills would give official recognition to village councils says Samoa’s government. Under the changes, the Land and Titles Court system would have its own court of appeal (rather than appeals being directed to the Supreme Court as is currently the case), and would have “supreme authority over the subject of Samoan customs and usages”, including title succession. The government-appointed Samoa Judiciary Service Commission would also have the power to dismiss judges under the changes, creating concern that this leaves room for political interference.

The Lands and Titles Court was first recommended during a 2016 inquiry into the functioning of Samoa’s courts, and in particular the backlog of cases relating to lands and titles. A November 2016 Asian Development Bank Report and Recommendation of the President to the Board of Directors stated that “poorly defined property rights” was amongst the barriers to private sector development. More than 80% of Samoa’s land is customarily owned.

The President of the Land and Titles Court, Fepulea'i Atila Ropati supports the bills, however the forces arrayed against them are diverse, and include the Ombudsman Maiava Iulai Toma, who says it will have "injurious consequences" on fundamental freedoms, judges and Supreme Court Justices, lawyers, a former Attorney General, and several senior matai (chiefs). Former head of state Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi says he is concerned the bill will enable the sale of land to fill government coffers and fund government debt and infrastructure projects.

The Samoa First and Samoa National Democratic parties have called for the bills to be delayed and the Samoa Law Society has been vocal in its criticism of the Bill. There has also been international criticism from the New Zealand Law Society and the International Bar Association.

But it is within the ranks of the ruling HRPP that the bills have caused the most disruption. Former parliamentary speaker and cabinet minister, La’auli Leuatea Polataivao Schmidt quit the party in dissent. Another MP, Faumuina Wayne Fong, was sacked for his opposition.

Fiame’s concerns over the bills are by now well documented. She is concerned that it will establish two court systems and two authorities, creating “so much possibility for conflict, for grey areas and so forth. I don’t think it has been well thought out.” She is also worried that there is no Samoan jurisprudence to base a new court and system on.

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