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By Penny Gibson-Baba

SUVA, Fiji Islands (March 8, 2000 - Fiji Islands Business/PINA Nius Online)---A lucrative new industry for women is growing literally in backyards around Fiji. From Vatukoula to Suva, 70 women have joined the Floriculture Project to grow orchids and anthuriums for an ever-increasing market of florists and hotels that can absorb all the flowers they can grow.

The project is driven by a woman, for women. Aileen Burness, who runs south Sea Orchids with her husband Don, at Saweni Beach near Lautoka, had a vision for an industry that gave women a job in their own homes, where they can still put family first.

She is an untiring proponent of the vision, which has been shared by a host of local and regional organizations whose assistance brought the vision to life. The vision is now a fully-fledged Floriculture Growers Association that makes all the decisions for the project.

Burness said she has seen much suffering by women and that motivated her to start the project: "It is very hard for single mothers, deserted wives and widows to go to work and still try and bring up a family. Floriculture gives them a profitable alternative if they are prepared to follow the strict regime needed to give the plants the proper care. It is also ideal for retired women - or women who stay at home anyway."

"The hardest thing for the women getting into small business is finance as women can not usually access loans in the normal way, so we had to find alternatives. We have helped the women get loans to build their shade houses through the New Zealand loan scheme for women, and other sources. For example, the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific has just funded 22 women in two villages to build their shade houses.

"We sell the imported plants to the women at cost price, but don’t expect them to pay immediately. We provide the training, the technical support, the grading, the packing and the marketing. Under their registration agreement with the project, they must send all flowers to us for marketing, and return any unwanted plants at cost," Burness said.

Although the project started with orchids, women in Suva found anthuriums grew better in the Suva climate. The Forum Secretariat paid for the Burnesses to visit the Netherlands to source disease free plants that have much more vibrant colors than the local varieties. Commodity Development Framework funding enabled them to buy 26,000 anthuriums and thus set up a roll-over fund where the women take an interest-free loan to buy the plants, but have five years from the second year of flowering to repay the loan. Once the loan is paid, they can get another to purchase more plants or the loan goes to another woman to set up.

"Although we can sell everything the women grow and more, we’ve put a cap on new growers at present so we can concentrate on the current growers and get them fully established. Then we will investigate export opportunities and taking on more growers."

Burness said the women who looked after their flowers could do very well. "Some of our first 15 orchid growers are receiving good money. When you consider an established grower can get a 70% return on their investment, it’s a pretty good deal. One woman, who had borrowed the money from her husband to set up, has paid him back completely after one year of flowering, so everything is now profit for her."

While most of the growers live in urban or peri-urban areas, Burness’s vision of women around Fiji becoming self-employed growers led her to involve interested villages. "In the past month we have started two villages in the project: Natalau Village near Nadi has 10 women growing orchids and Moana Village in Rewa has 12 women growing anthuriums. Each woman is responsible for -- and accountable for -- 200 plants, which should return $1,000 a year when flowering. They are starting small because this is the first time people have grown cut flowers in a village situation. However, if it is successful, it could be a major new industry for village women that could employ whole families and keep young people in the villages.

There has also been regional interest, with women from several Pacific Island countries attending the workshops. The Vanuatu and Cook Islands participants have already established their nurseries, and Samoa and Papua New Guinea hope to follow shortly.

Garden of their own: The Burnesses themselves live in a lush botanical garden of their own, surrounded by the vibrant colors of many local and imported plants. They are also growers of orchids and anthuriums and run a small ecotourism project based on their gardens and tours of their house, which was originally built by actor Raymond Burr and is packed with his memorabilia and Burness family history which, in Fiji, dates back to pre-cession.

The floriculture project is a labor of love’ for them as they do all the technical and administration support and marketing.

The project is also testimony to the way local and regional aid can work together to build Fiji’s economy. The project has received assistance from the South Pacific Project Facility in Sydney, Fiji/New Zealand Business Council, Ministry of Agriculture, Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific, IRETA, New Zealand and Australian High Commissions, Forum Secretariat, United Nations Development Program, Fiji Trade and Investment Board and South Pacific Trade Commission.

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