MAKING MONEY FROM INDIGENOUS FOOD

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By Nicholas Cornelius

SUVA, Fiji Islands (February 23, 2000 - Fiji Islands Business/PINA Nius Online)---How can dalo, kumala, cassava, uto and yam earn Fiji millions of dollars? Where can we find a market for crops that are grown in abundance yet consumed mostly on a subsistence basis? One man has the answers. He is Richard Beyer.

Most people will remember him as the former director of the School of Applied Sciences at the University of the South Pacific, who came up with ideas such as the cannibal chutney, vacuum-packed Tahiti chestnut (ivi), canned duruka and pineapple sachets (see Islands Business September 1998 issue). The university days left behind, Beyer is currently working as a consultant with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forests (MAFF) under the auspices of the Brussels-based Centre for the Development of Industries.

A Yorkshireman, the 53-year-old food scientist has been in the country for around five years. He has worked on crytonic freezing in Britain, run a food research laboratory for the Australian military, worked with food manufacturers and the dairy industry in New Zealand and won the Dairy Scientist of the Year Award. He holds a graduate diploma in management and marketing and believes Fiji has the potential to become a player on the international food markets.

Exciting time: "Frankly it’s an exciting time for agriculture and agricultural development here. And there’s more interest in foreign investment and foreign involvement in Fiji, then there ever has been," Beyer explains.

"There are several reasons for that, one of them being a genuine will to progress in agriculture. That’s within the private sector as well as the government." He says there is a demand for food in the world and that the "world is hungry for novel and new forms of food." There is also a demand for local food overseas where the Pacific diaspora are -- Auckland, Sydney, Los Angeles, Vancouver to name a few -- and who require traditional crops, he said.

"We try to accommodate that by taking advantage of what people can’t get in those communities. That’s probably the reason for the success of the cassava industry and we are looking at Viti Corp as pretty much a success story and its ability to swing into a new industry.

"We hope to build on that by increasing the volume of indigenous foods. We are looking at vutu, ivi, and duruka, which I believe is a real winner, bele, cassava, dalo and others," Beyer enthused.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Beyer believes the future of indigenous staple food lies in, wait for it, root crop-based snack food. Under serious consideration are snacks made from cassava, dalo, kumala, yam and uto (breadfruit). The reason, according to Beyer, is the international snack food market which is worth $A400 million (US$ 245.84 million) per annum and an equivalent of around $A1.2 billion (US$ 737.5 million) in Japan.

"We just need a small proportion of that market to support a very large industry that currently does not exist," he remarked. He says the idea of Fiji supplying an international snack food manufacturer with raw material has been showing promise with two large companies already close to signing contracts. However, due to confidentiality, the names of the companies were not revealed, although Beyer did hint that "it wouldn’t take a genius to figure them out."

The project takes advantage of the limited abilities of the local market, which is to produce raw material. By defining the areas wherein Fiji can excel, Beyer feels the pressure of competing with large multinationals is lifted, paving a clear strategic path upon which a local industry can be established.

"This is perfect for us because we have culled off what we are good at, which is the sourcing of the raw material and the infrastructure and extension work. We’ve recognized that others are better at those hard commercial functions," he said.

Another area to adapt a similar strategy is the fisheries sector. With a demand for red snapper on the United States market, the Agriculture ministry will facilitate by providing equipment and technical assistance through seminars, financial assistance through soft loans and further assistance in marketing.

The company working in partnership with the agriculture ministry is Trans-Pacific Seafood of Lautoka. Established in March last year, Trans-Pacific employs around 30 people and purchases fish from around 1,200 fishermen in the area. The ministry has helped this local company process red snapper for the American market through training in Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP), which ensures quality control to export levels.

Demand: Allan Waters, general manager and one of the four shareholders, says the red snapper market is very promising and the demand has prompted Trans-Pacific to contract Suva based Blue Water Craft to build them new deep sea vessels, which will ultimately be used by local fishermen to tap into new areas.

Other areas the ministry and Beyer are looking at include:

On his change from academia to public service: "I love this job. The only problem is the lack of a sufficient supply of high quality raw materials. We have to get the extension services in place."

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