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NUKU‘ALOFA, Tonga (March 28, 2000 - Islands Business/PINA Nius Online)---Taholo Kami, 32, believes that the Internet could be the salvation of small, poor, out-of-the-way places like Tonga. It puts them on a level table, not that there is really one, for selling their products direct to buyers they don't otherwise have the financial muscle to effectively reach, he says. According to Kami, a website he fixed up for a small Tonga-based charter boat business now produces 80% of its bookings. Other businesses report the same statistics, he says.

The Internet could be critical to Tonga's future in another way, he forecasts. It could keep overseas Tongans, particularly first and second generations, interested in Tonga, thus hopefully preserving the annual flow of millions of dollars in remittances the country now so heavily depends on.

Kami began his career as an auditor and then got a Fulbright scholarship to a university in Tennessee, USA, where he picked up a degree in commerce and marketing. "The first time I saw Internet it blew my mind," he says. "Suddenly distance for small countries is not an issue. We can talk directly to customers."

He's just quit a United Nations Development Programme job to work as a website operator because "in countries like Tonga it is the only hope we have." It includes launching an online magazine for Tonga, edited by his sister, a former senior reporter with the Tonga Chronicle. Kami will be working between Tonga and Fiji, where his wife is finishing a degree.

"What fascinates me is that we talk about level playing fields. In the small islands we don't have a choice, but to participate. Unfortunately, in the islands it has been ad hoc. It has been led by expatriates for tourist business because that is the obvious market. I think if a country embraces a clear information technology strategy there are clear opportunities for Joe Blow and his canoe tours; the same opportunity the Outrigger hotel chain has, instead of letting him swim and wait to get computer skills and buy a computer some day. A clear strategy would allow several people to step in the middle for that purpose."

Kami has formed Kami Communications and has "what I consider to be the number one site on Tonga – http://www.tongaonline.com/ (Also see: http://www.itonga.net/). 

"It should be as easy as possible for anyone who comes on to a Tonga website and who is looking for something, an experience. It should be as easy as possible to find what is available, and then it should be as easy as possible for that person to make a booking or get in touch with someone who will make it for them. Or to buy a product. I am looking at an accommodation directory, a trade directory, and a medical service, things Tonga should have been looking at three or four years ago.

"With my website, the Kava Bowl (http://www.pacificforum.com/kavabowl/), on line we have maintained the Tonga community overseas; we almost have a monopoly on the Tonga community overseas. And again I think it is a niche market worth working on. They are the people most interested in what is happening in the country so we are looking at an online publication addressing issues in the country. Again this will feed into things like the business directory and eventually a webstore."

Obvious market: With the Tongan overseas communities there is an obvious market for Tongan products; they are also an obvious user group for information about things happening in Tonga. "In terms of when a country depends on the overseas community for a major part of the budget, there is some obligation not only to keep them informed. But you are also looking at first and second generation Tongans growing up overseas who have role model knowledge from outer space, or the ghettos of New York. But they still have this inkling that they are Tongans. They don't speak Tongan; they speak a language that everyone here wants to keep away from. But at the same time they are very much fia Tongan. They are a market there to be lost. If we let it go for another generation we have lost them. If you can strengthen the sense of identity there is something to be said for it.

"Agriculture is very close to my heart, but for many people it has been like a flip of a coin. Every time they decide to put in a new crop of squash it's flipping a coin on success. Internet is the key to finding niche markets for quality processed food products," he says. "Internet does give us access to markets that go far beyond local communities beyond traditional markets. We can start looking at five to 10 percent upper income markets overseas. Change has to come. It is quite exciting having a new prime minister. He is very aware of what is online. He is a web surfer and replies to e-mail quite promptly. Some of the early decisions he has made show a real concern about people.

"I think our future probably lies in how we can find a niche that utilizes our people. In the long run it has to be something quite daring, but it has to be something beyond agriculture."

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