Were you one of the many Pacific Islanders who spent the first few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic with soil under your nails? The introduction of lockdowns plus border closures precipitated an explosion of backyard gardening across the region last year, as people had more time on their hands and looked to feed their families and supplement incomes.
For a few weeks early in pandemic, vegetable seeds were almost impossible to come by in stores, and there were long lines for free seeds outside the Ministry of Agriculture office in Suva, Fiji. In Honiara, the Kastom Gaden Association’s Model Farm was busy. “We’ve received more than 900 visitors requesting for seeds, seedlings and information between October and November last year,” Pitakia Tikai of Kastom Gaden Association told Solomon Islands media. And the Guam Plant and Seed Share website, which has been quietly operating since 2011, saw a doubling of its membership when Guam went into lockdown.
Nishi Minoru of Tonga’s Nishi Trading said of these novice planters: “Some of them have never grown anything in their life but they’re all growing, and they’re excited about that. But the challenge with this is that when this all comes to maturity is finding the market for them, and I think this is where value adding opportunity for Tonga is to look at processing some of the stuff. The challenge there then is infrastructure. This is where I think development partners can come to the table.”
“I see a risk in that there is no real overarching policy for the whole country,” Nishi continues. “We need a 50 year roadmap.”
The pandemic also saw many people, suddenly jobless in urban or tourist centres, return to their village, something sugarcane farmer Ratu Livai Tora and chairman of Fiji’s Nature’s Way Cooperative told the Reset Fiji program, had caused disputes over land.
While people were planting at a domestic level, experienced larger scale farmers have urged governments, donors and national planners to reprioritise support for agriculture in recognition of its importance to food security, economic growth and physical health and well-being.
“Whilst the current COVID-19 situation remains dire, there are major opportunities within the agricultural sector to boost the Pacific economy,” the Pacific Islands Farmers Organisations Network (PIFON) said.
“Agriculture has all too often played second fiddle” wrote the authors of PIFON’s survey, COVID 19 & Agriculture: Pacific farmers have their say.
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For farmers and producers like Tonga’s Minoru Nishi, Managing Director of Nishi Trading Company, COVID-19 has been a double-edged hoe.
“Our exports actually increased in terms of demand from the market, and I didn’t expect that given there is a worldwide pandemic” Nishi told a Griffith Institute webinar on COVID and Pacific businesses recently.
Nishi said the problem was, while orders “were through the roof in some areas of produce”, logistics have become more challenging as time has gone on. There have been delays at borders and increased freight costs have hit the bottom line. “The good thing for us was that our exchange rate on exports was on our side but that didn’t help with imports so there’s a lot of pros and cons,” Nishi said.
Tonga watermelon exports to New Zealand-an important export crop- also hit a snag last year when fruit flies were discovered in one shipment in Auckland.
“We had 1000 tonnes confirmed orders for New Zealand alone and we were on the verge of breaking the record of exports last year and this thing happened. And government came to the table and we all worked together very quickly to try and reopen the pathway… in one week we were able to get our first airfreight commercial flight of watermelon to New Zealand.”
The level of cooperation was such that there was even a police escort of the watermelons to the airport says Nishi.
“I think what COVID has done is force the stakeholders; government, private sector and NGOs to talk to one another… and address some of these big issues.
Nishi Enterprises, which is also a diversified company, is looking at further value-added activities in its agricultural business.
There's good news for Vanuatu’s seasonal workers this week with the announcement that 170 workers will be able to go to Australia for the mango season.
The workers will go to the Northern Territory in a pilot program designed to meet industry shortages.
National Farmers’ Federation Chief Executive Officer, Tony Mahar says it’s a “pragmatic decision”. Under the arrangement, eligible workers must return a negative COVID-19 test before departing and be required to self-isolate for 14-days after arriving in Australia, before commencing work. Mango farmers will also have to show that they are unable to secure local workers.
“No one wants to see fruit and vegetables wasted and this trial will help make sure that doesn’t happen," Australian agriculture minister David Littleproud says. “This trial will see up to 170 workers under the Seasonal Worker Programme come to Australia to help with the 2020 harvest, with more workers to potentially follow subject to a review of the first cohort and approval for additional numbers by the NT Government.”
Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu are eligible to participate in the Pacific Labour Scheme. It’s unclear at this stage, which of these nations may send workers to the Northern Territory if the trial goes well and it is extended.
Labour mobility programs are a likely topic of discussion at the Pacific Island Forum Economics Ministers Meeting (FEMM) next week as both hosting countries (Australia and New Zealand) and supplying countries are FEMM participants.
The Director of the Development Policy Centre at the Australian National University, Stephen Howes says Pacific governments need to be prepared to let their workers leave for seasonal work. Similarly, New Zealand-based research fellow, Charlotte Bedford says there will be a demand for labour for the approaching season (September/October) but there are still a number of logistical questions to be addressed such as which workers will be employed (e.g. those who may have just returned or those who have missed out on deployment), and who pays for quarantine.
“When workers return at the moment, our current quarantine requires they will have to self-isolate in a quarantine facility for two weeks and employers are very keen to get in place a work bubble so that workers can go back to the work site and quarantine on the work site and start straight away,” Bedford says.
University of the South Pacific Senior Economist Neelesh Goundar believes there would be an appetite for this work from Fijians.
“ If organised well and if it’s targeted well, there certainly will be lots of workers who will be willing to go and work until the Fiji economy rebounds or tourism opens…if something can be implemented sooner [rather] than later, that would go a long way to helping households, especially those who have lost jobs here in Fiji.”
Sitting in the hot sun, Losana does not seem to mind the humidity and the busy carpark beside her as she stacks heaps of wild lemons and cucumbers.
What do you do when it rains, we ask her.
"Au dau vakaruru ikea (I seek shelter there)," she replies, pointing to the overhang of the shop behind her.
She prefers selling her produce outside the Sigatoka Market because she says that since the lockdown, customers had been hard to come by inside the market, where she used to be based.
"I pay the same rate of $1.10 to sell outside, but at least I have a better chance of meeting customers here."
Losana is selling wild lemons, cucumbers and taro leaves today.
"I don't mind paying the vendor fee because with one heap of this (wild lemons), I should be able to take care of it."
You can tell she is a veteran vendor, and she tells me that she's been selling here in Sigatoka since her son was a toddler.
Now her son has a family of his own.
Losana lives in Draiba village, about an hour's drive up the Sigatoka Valley, dubbed Fiji's salad bowl as it is Fiji's leading supplier of vegetables.
She doesn’t mind the bus travel each day to the market, as the money she earns help her look after her family.
The need for Pacific island agricultural exporters to target niche markets has long been accepted wisdom. A report produced by the Pacific Horticultural and Agricultural Market Access (PHAMA Plus) program late last year shows in figures, exactly why it’s so critical.
The Pacific Export Context Analysis looks at cocoa, coffee, coconut products and palm oil price fluctuations since 2009 and notes that in real terms, the USD prices of the major export commodities show an uptrend over the last 20 years. However prices have often strengthened during the first half of that period and softened in the second half.
“When it’s a global commodity; cocoa, coffee, sugar it can’t just be put into basically a bulk bin,” says Bronwyn Wiseman, Biosecurity and Trade Development Adviser at PHAMA Plus. She says in the scheme of things, PNG and Solomon Islands are “tiny cocoa and coffee producers, they’ve generally gone into the bulk market, so they’re totally controlled by global prices.”
Hence the need for niche markets. Wiseman says niches can be defined in a variety of ways, including product quality and marketing.
Meanwhile the challenges facing Pacific exporters have remained largely unchanged for years, although in some instances, they have intensified.
PHAMA Plus Biosecurity and Environmental Safeguard Advisor, Tanuvasa Semy Siakimotu says these challenges include the cost, accessibility and reliability of transportation, sustainability of supply, market awareness, branding, certification, verification of legal origin, issues of land tenure and land disputes, and the ongoing impacts of climate change.
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