COOK ISLANDS LIFESTYLE FOR SALE: CHEAP. BEAN SPROUTS ‘R’ US?

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand (December 11, 1999 – Cook Islands Star)---Is the Cook Islands about to enter the exotic, high risk, big profits international trade in fresh bean sprouts, or is the Development Investment Board of the Cook Islands rubber stamping every papaa who walks through the door no matter how unbelievable their proposal?

Not so long ago, if a papaa wanted to do business in the Cook Islands, he or she applied to the Monetary Board, which was really just Cabinet wearing a different hat for a couple of hours a month. That system was rife with unhappiness, from the potential investors who reckoned it could take months to get a decision, to the lawyers who were trying to help them, to the locals who in some cases were sponsoring the papaas and hoping to set up business with foreign investment.

Having high-ranking politicians in control with the inevitable charges of favoritism and nepotism made the system problematic at least.

A BETTER IDEA

So a couple years ago PM Sir Geoff Henry scrapped the Monetary Board and set up the Development Investment Board (DIB) with a few locals as Board members and Rohan Ellis as Chief Executive.

The new set-up was supposed to be a "One Stop Shop" for aspiring foreign investors. Not only could they get approval to carry on business, they could get exemptions on import taxes and effectively eliminate the need to go through Immigration channels to bring in papaa workers.

The idea was a good one; make it easier for legitimate investors to get in the door and stimulate the economy, creating new taxes, new jobs, and new opportunities for locals to get into business. Months on, it appears the DIB may have become no more than a rubber stamp for anyone and everyone who wants to settle into the island lifestyle.

BEAN SPROUTS TO RESCUE ECONOMY

The local TV guide on Rarotonga a couple issues back made mention of a new business on Rarotonga, approved by DIB (The TV guide’s pet name for the DIB is ‘Dumb Investment Beaks’), for the purpose of sprouting beans.

Bean sprouts, for those of us who can’t be too concerned with so-called healthy food, are just what they sound like. Take a jar, pour in a few mung beans, soy beans, or alfalfa seeds, add some water, leave for 24 hours, pour the water off, rinse the little buggers twice a day for a few days and your jar is soon full of vitamin and mineral rich sprouts.

Again for those of us not used to such fare, every grocery store of any size here in New Zealand will have a good selection of sprouts to choose from. But back home, anyone hungry for some sprouts on their sandwich or in their salad might or might not find an imported package for sale at one of the three main grocery stores on Rarotonga.

So, where there is a demand for a product and no one is filling it, there is a business opportunity and if a Cook Islander hasn’t grabbed onto it, why not a couple of expert bean sprouters from America willing to invest in the Cook Islands?

That’s just what the DIB was set up for, to process just such an idea. And that is just what DIB did, and, no surprise to those watching the DIB record to date, approved a Yank couple’s application to carry on business in the Cook Islands, as well as instructing the Department of Immigration to issue Residency and Work Permits so that this enterprise could start sprouting the local economy.

BIG MONEY IN SPROUTS?

But wait, what could the total market potential be for bean sprouts in the Cook Islands? We are talking about a product that 70% of locals have never eaten, and even if the other 30% were suddenly to go sprout crazy, just how much money would be spent on bean sprouts by locals? That leaves the tourism sector, no doubt a bigger market, but again, just how big? And isn’t the "I" in DIB for Investment?

Given the most generous possible current and future market for alfalfa sprouts in the Cook Islands, what are we talking about in investment in sprouting equipment? How hi-tech is this industry? Beans in a jar, that’s how hi-tech.

What’s the minimum investment to buy your way into New Zealand? Right around $500,000 we reckon. Is DIB approving investments in the Cook Islands that could be made on the average punter’s credit card limit?

LOCALS NOT QUALIFIED SPROUTERS

So why would DIB approve such a scheme? Hardly had that question been asked, when the papaa sprouters apparently decided they couldn’t handle the beans all alone, again apparently decided there weren’t any Cook Islanders capable of learning to hold a jar under a tap, and so went back to DIB to ask if a couple of mates from America could pop on down, get Residence and Work Permits and join the fun.

Of course DIB suddenly woke up, saw the whole thing as a life-style exercise, denied the application for two more papaas and told the original Yanks to pack up and go home, right? Wrong. DIB approved the application and the new sprouters are on the way!

WHERE’S THE SPROUTS?

If all of that isn’t enough to make us here in New Zealand wonder when Avarua will be changing it’s name to Honolulu, guess what? Eight long months after the first two Yanks arrived to start sprouting, there isn’t a locally sprouted bean or seed that our shoppers could find in any shop in the Cook Islands. That’s right sprout lovers, if you want a sprout in Rarotonga, you either search for that lonely imported pack or you get out the old sprout jar and sprout your own.

Our hard working Yanks have apparently been spending all their time and money renovating a house overlooking Muri lagoon. Probably they have also been busy searching for a house in a choice spot for their soon to arrive mates. Never mind that DIB is required by it’s own legislation to monitor the businesses it approves every six months to see if they are doing what they came to do. One can only guess that the DIB Board is so busy sprouting at home that they haven’t a minute to attend to business.

Cook Islands Star has only just scratched the surface of the record of the DIB. We will be treating you to the story of the journalist who got an approval to live in the Cook Islands to invest her ‘time.’ Of the video producer who has produced perhaps a few minutes at most of video footage in two years, of the major New Zealand publisher who got approved to carry on business, then told the tax man he had yet to start carrying on business, then when DIB challenged him after a couple years he decided he had been carrying on business after all but still didn’t owe any taxes.

We’ll bring you DIB’s side of the stories, and let some locals have their say on the influx of papaas. Stay tuned to Cook Islands Star.

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