From Tourism to Agriculture: Addressing Our ‘Markets’ Challenge

We will very likely be ‘Food Secured’ from 2021 onward which will greatly help in reducing our imports bill and the harmful effects of NCDs. But our single most serious and greatest challenge is that of ‘Markets’.

Marketing and exports will require the tripartite efforts of Government, the Private Sector and our Development Partners (in particular New Zealand and Australia) and the New Caledonian Government to help us effectively address the challenges that lie ahead of us. Farmers will grow whatever we tell them to. They’ve been doing that ever since Independence.

Looming Market Glut

In the 1980s Port Vila was flooded with ginger and the produce literally stockpiled at a warehouse in the capital. If we’re not careful we are doomed to repeat history. There is a certain misconception imbedded in the minds of farmers that ‘Port Vila’ is the destination market and that it will absorb everything they grow. Our challenge now will be far worse than in the 1980s as not only ginger is involved here but other agricultural produce as well. Now that tourism is down to zero, processing, packaging and exports will have to play a far more significant role to avoid or to reduce a glut in the market. We’ve actually been faced with this market issue for a while, such as with pineapples, mangoes and watermelons during their peak seasons, not to mention the container loads of taro that our Tanna farmers have recently commenced shipping to Port Vila.

Food Security, the Pacific Islands Food Revolution and Agri-Tourism?

To me, food security becomes a pressing issue only during and after the annual cyclone season (Nov – April) and a few months thereafter. Beyond that it’s about livelihoods: school fees, medical services, transportation, household needs and other necessities. People need money. Food security is not an issue all-year-round. We need to seriously think about markets. The Pacific Islands Food Revolution – the new season of which is about to commence, is a fantastic program aimed at influencing consumer behavior toward local foods over processed stuff.

But changes in consumer behavior take time. I advocated heavily for Agritourism during my few years at the Ministry of Agriculture (2013 – 2016) and I’m very pleased that this is now a program that is likely to attract serious funding from the Government from 2021 and beyond. Sadly though, the tourists aren’t here anymore. Hopefully they will return when borders reopen via the ‘Tamtam Bubble’.

Fiji and Vanuatu – on the Marketing Question

Three months ago Fiji launched its ‘Fiji Forward’ initiative, amid a COVID-19 environment (!) to open new markets for their ‘Fiji Made’ products with the assistance of the US Embassy in Fiji. They’ve had confirmed COVID-19 cases and they were also badly devastated by TC Harold. Vanuatu on the other hand has been Covid-free ever since March. But it appears that the difference between us and Fiji is that they are far more aggressive than us when it comes to driving the marketing and exports agenda, while for us we’re still talking about our products lists, how hard it is to obtain HACCP standards, etc. How hard this, how hard that. Of course Fiji has a very strong private sector and they have more export products and volumes. But that’s beside the point.

We need to be systematic about getting things done, and we need to do so effectively, and fast. Time will not wait for us.

This week Fiji commenced the loading for the next shipment of sugar export for the US and Spain markets, 11,500 tons to America and 30,000 tons to Spain.

Translate that to taro here in Vanuatu, we need to start seeing this kind of news in the media too. It encourages farmers and all of us to at least know that things are moving. We need good news stories to kill the negativity that surrounds us, especially after the Yumi 40 celebrations.

The Case for a Vanuatu Exports Council

It is high time Vanuatu considered setting up an Exports Council for itself. The body would focus on our exportable products and its core mandate would be to consistently follow up on every single line item that we are able to export, address the hurdles and barriers, and do all that is necessary to pave the way for produce and products to leave our shores for markets overseas. Of course we have some exporters already doing that, but we need to open doors for new and more products to actually leave the country.

Though I attended policy school, like a senior Minister whispered to me two days ago, ‘I am tired of hearing too much about policy’. If there’s a case for doing something and you know it is plain common sense, why not just get it done? At times we love our paperwork and can’t be bold and daring enough to get things done. We also need to think outside the box a little bit more. We’re in a war zone and yet we still discuss things like we used to do yesterday, in the same old ways.

The Exports Council would be manned by a small team that works systematically, constructively and productively with the Government and other stakeholders including development partners to address issues as hinted at above. By having a dedicated team on this matter, I believe we will see greater progress with opening up of markets. Despite having written to defend the private sector before, I will say this for once. The private sector must cease the spirit of whining and complaining against the government and rather work cooperatively and more systematically with it and development partners to help export the produce and products that we all wants to see exported. Then, back to our ‘looming market glut’ issue, the Ministry of Agriculture’s mechanization policy will make more sense and I believe we can encourage farmers to plant more taro and other exportable produce, and get our exportable ‘Vanuatu Made’ products out overseas. Somehow, somewhere, we need to stop the talk fest and excuses, and see some real, tangible actions. We can, if we really want to.

Howard Aru is current CEO of the Vanuatu Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (VFIPA) and former Director General of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries and Biosecurity, and the Ministry of Health.

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