One moment we celebrate. The media is present to capture the smiles. The news swamps social and traditional media. Widespread publicity. Then, the next moment we fizzle out and disappear very quietly, never to be seen or heard again. A lot of our past worthy ‘initiatives’ in Vanuatu went down that self-destructive route. Can we turn the tide and create a lasting story of success – at least for once?
In 2015 as DG MALFFB I brought in an expert from Fiji under FAO funding to assist our pineapple farmers, specifically to target our original and authentic Agri-tourism initiative. He developed and introduced a manual for our farmers which they’ve used ever since to grow pineapples, culminating in the pineapples glut in December 2020 which literally rotted at the Federation Manples area in Port Vila. Recently the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) went the exra mile to help with value-addition. Credit to the DARD Director Mr. Antoine Ravo and his team, and the patience of the Pineapple Farmers under Mr. Peter Kolmas’ leadership. Our challenge though is sustainability.
Looking Beyond the Present
I bought a few bottles of freshly-processed, concentrated pineapple juice from the DARD warehouse at Tagabe early this week. No artificial colouring, no preservatives – perfect organic drink, fresh from the farm. Special orders were placed by at least three existing big businesses in town. Very positive signs. Great optimism for our Newmafen group of pineapple Farmers. But again, sustainability is paramount.
Key question is, after the trial, then what? Who runs the business? Governments don’t run businesses. Anytime they do they fail. If the farmers run it, they need to decide who concentrates on planting and who does value-addition. Do they set up a Cooperative? Point is, if we want ‘Manples’ to venture into business, then we’ve got to equip them with capital and resources to do so. Or are we just going to process pineapples in bulk as done this week for established businesses to purchase and do further value-addition for the local and export market – given all other cost considerations: packaging, labelling, labour, VNPF, sanitization, cooling, power, storage, pasteurization, distribution, transportation, etc, as one of our private sector representatives raised on social media this week?
Our farmers need to understand pricing too. DARD and the Ministry responisible for value-addition – Trade – need to undertake special awareness sessions with farmers (not just for pineapples but all other products – kava, passionfruit, bananas, taro, cassava, etc.) and convey this message very clearly to them.
We’ve had terrible experiences in the past with this very issue – pricing. And we’re bound to repeat it again with pineapples. Bottomline is, we can’t keep doing trial or pilot projects forever. Yumi 42 finis (!!). We need to advance to commercial production and sustain those efforts into meaningful businesses into the future.
The challenges before us
In last week’s article we highlighted four burning issues that presently confront us as a country. Namely, (1) the severe aftermaths of Covid-19, (2) Climate change, (3) graduation from LDC to DC status, and (4) escalating energy costs. We raised these issues within the context of the need for institutional reforms across the public sector. It is the most appropriate thing to do under current circumstances. Our institutions have been designed for peace time. We are not in peace times anymore. We’re at ‘war’ – not with enemies carrying guns, but with abnormal and business unusual economic circumstances which are bound to worsen. So we need to step up our efforts to match the difficult economic environment we must brave.
Sadly, officials are still pushing paper, attending (some useless) lengthy meetings, writing emails, etc. In last week’s column we concluded like this. ‘If we wish to reform our democratic institutions, we should probably focus on structure rather than noise and raise up our eyes from the parts to the whole.’ In Vanuatu’s case ‘the whole’, is in a chaotic state right now. We need to address it speedily and squarly this New Year.
In my brief return to VFIPA (2020-2022) I raised the need for reforms at VFIPA to turn it into an ‘export promotion agency’ to complement its 22-years old FDI promotion efforts. This reform idea ended up at the Ministry of Trade into being a Ministry-wide reform initiative. We need to export or do something about our Agricultural produce so we can start earning new money through foreign exchange. Had it not been for the citizenship program (which is now in disarray) during and post-Covid, Vanuatu would be bankrupt as a country by now. Seems like we’ve spent more time politicking than focusing on development.
When our trade benefits end under DC status in a few years time, we will have to be ready by then to stand on our own two feet and generate revenues from our agriculture, livestock, forestry, fisheries, tourism and other non-traditional sectors. Pet and petty projects must end. Current trend with more Covid outbreaks around the globe are bound to create more problems during this “Happy New Year” onward. What are our combat strategies? What are our safeguards? What are our survival plans? Have we taken things for granted for far too long? Is it because we are Vanuatu – laid back and laissez-faire? What are we doing?
Shift the damn gear!
We need to support big commercial projects in the livestock, agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors that can create impact on the economy and that support serious exports. I think of our beef industry. We used to export prime, upmarket quality beef in the world into the very stringent and competitive Japanese market during the 1990s. Now we don’t. We’ve tried exporting taro and cassava over the past few years but these ventures are fraught with major problems. A couple or so of the key farmers have now shifted away from cassava into sugarcane because of the bad experiences they’ve faced with cassava exports.
We need to move away from petty little pilot projects that just take us round circles and focus on supporting those projects that will create real impact on the economy. Look at the big picture. Do we have those opportunities already in our midst? Yes we do: beef, passionfruit, manzano bananas, pineapples, drinking coconuts, and fish (tuna), to name a few. We need to shift away from small micro-processing ventures to production for exports. After 42 years of independence we should be exporting stuff other than kava by now. Why aren’t we? Are our policies still restrictive? Are our laws suppressing economic growth?
Our Public Private Partnership (PPP) policy and legal framework must be finalised and passed by Parliament this year. This is what’s been missing for many years. We need to create a stronger partnership and linkages between the government and private sector to support real, impactful commercial ventures if we want to make real progress. We need to shift the damn gear. We need to move forward. Now is the time.
The Distant Voice is a weekly column focusing on various aspects of life and development in Vanuatu.
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