“The journey after leaving the Department of Finance and spending two years on the land to till the ground and work with the farmers to understand what it is that they want, has been well worth it. I started at the farm and went on to market what was produced and found that there was still wastage involved. I realised that we could go into value addition and cooperative came in to mobilise the farmers with the same focus into one group. All stakeholders from the Productive Sector are of the same mind set”.

Vanuatu Cooperative Business Network (VCBN) General Manager Jack Loughman gives the interview on his return from Epi this week.

“Such a grouping starts in the village nakamal and come all the way to the different groupings of agriculture farmers, fishermen farmers, builders farmers and more. The Vanuatu Cooperative Act comes into place to formalise these different groupings to go into business. On my arrival at the VCBN Office, I realise the main challenge is funding for business startup. And for an individual to apply for funding at the bank to finance his agricultural project can be very challenging. And to be present at Club Hippique to see how mamas were able to produce flour from manioc for bread baking, tomato into tomato source, pawpaw into jam and 40 plus products, I am confident that this dream is on the way towards fruition”, he says.

“This dream belongs to the rural individuals because this is what they need. So after accepting my position as the General Manager of the Vanuatu Cooperatives Business Network which is implemented under the new Vanuatu Cooperative Policy from 2017-20130, this comes to rebrand the former Vanuatu Cooperative Federation under the Vanuatu Cooperative Business Network.

“This is to move the rural urban trade linkages which were not there in the past, to establish the financials of the cooperatives in the country, to start to talk business with the small people. There were trade imbalances in the country due to the failures of the ni Vanuatu to work together to plan how to deal with those objectives.

“Now after my trip to Epi with a joint delegation from the Ministries of Trade and Agriculture to witness the successful harvest of at least ten tons of onions, it has become clear after the farmers asked, ‘Who is going to buy our onions?’

“I was particularly overwhelmed when I told the farmers, “Now there is no need to look far for a buyer for your onions because we are setting up our cooperatives on Epi with you farmers who are here today, to be the first point of sales”.

The cooperative initiative also works in line with the Decentralisation Act to empower the rural settings of economic activities. And Cooperative Governance has already been introduced by the Act. “All we need is to use it in the right way. The farmers have come to realise indeed they have been looking too far for a buyer for their products. Instead, let us use our own cooperatives to buy our own products”, he says with confidence.

“Basically the farmer advances at far as his farm gate and his cooperative buys his products right there”.

Asked if he believes the message is getting through to the farmers, the General Manager of VCBN replies, “They are really excited that at last they have found the solution to their hunger to earn the sweat of their brows without leaving their home or island. So far the farmers have to pay their fare and freight for their products to the market away from their homes.

They sleep for perhaps a week or two in Port Vila to sell his products, while leaving their families back home on their own which can also promote social issues.

What VCBN trying to do now is to assure the farmers, “Please do not move. Package your products appropriately with approval from VCBN and Vanuatu Bureau of Standard and all other players will come into play, and Cooperative will buy them from you at your farm gate”.

The farmers will be taught the various marketing requirements to suit their markets such as Au Bon Marche, Dynamics and markets in Australia. “We need to empower our farmers in products packaging training”, he says.

“We blame the farmers of charging expensively but once we explain to them the costs implicated through transport and freight, they understand that it is better to sell at a lower price as they begin to appreciate that they are dealing with their own business organization from which they are going to reap more financial dividend later on.

“At the end of the day VCBN is going to declare its dividends and return them to those classification groups of poultry, fisherman, potato farmers and more”.

In order to achieve the different groups the General Manager says the farmers must be separated into their different groups. “What VCBN is going now is as the agent for markets domestically as well as markets abroad. The answer to the cries of our farmers regarding their markets rests with VCBN”, he says.

The General Manager who comes from Tanna says he received a telephone call from farmers on Tanna saying, “Sorry we are peanut growers”.

He told them to set up their Peanut Cooperative and a target to each plant a hectare each to plant peanuts.

“I explained to them that we could set up a processing facility to package their peanuts for VCBN to buy from them and distribute to the relevant outlets”, he says.

The General Manager is already looking beyond the horizon to recruit new graduates in food technology and chemists to post them to work with the farmers’ production facilities in the islands to boost local products to meet regional and international standards.

“When our young university graduates come home with their degrees and complain that there are jobs for them, those days are over as they would be sought after to fill these posts”, he explains.

Asked his opinion of his journey from Club Hippique (through his Food and Drinks Processing at home) to where he is today at the helm of Vanuatu Cooperative Business Network, he replies with his trademark smile and humility, “I am very happy and looking back at the series of decisions that I made which culminated with where I am today, I believe that it is all God’s plan to guide me on this journey to where I am now. I must say thank you that Cooperatives have come to mould me to where I am now to realise that I cannot do this alone but with Daily Post, Vanuatu Bureau of Standards, with Department of Agriculture so it is all to do with public private partnership. If we all believe in a common objective, we’ll achieve it together and that’s cooperative. So I’m really happy where I am but I need every individual in Vanuatu for us to start thinking cooperative.

While he admits a grey history of cooperatives in the past, he insists that the industry today has to learn from the past.

A popular historical phrase today of “eaten by rats”, started during the then New Hebrides Cooperatives Federation which evolved into VCF.

The story says a cooperative secretary on one of the islands reported in his statistics of shortfalls in his sales and blamed rats of “eating” a large number of Australian Corned Beef.

Unfortunately the rats allegedly involved would have to be bionic to bite through the tins to feast on the meat. The secretary lost his job for putting the blame on rats for the wrong items as he was thought to have himself to blame for the disappearance of the tins of meat.

Despite the grey history of the past, the first General Manager of VCBN says with the current joint partnership between the Ministry of Trade and the Registrar and Department of Cooperatives, he believes they are heading on a path toward economic independence.

VCBN is going back to Epi to buy over ten tons of onions from the farmers next month.

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