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By Alan Ah Mu

APIA, Samoa (Samoa Observer, May 3) – Nonu juice beat out fresh fish as Samoa's top export for the first time in February this year, according to new Central Bank of Samoa figures.

Nonu is on the rise in revenue and market outlets, thanks to some hard work by producers. But the uncertainties that plague agricultural exports hover constantly and prevent farmers from plunging into all-out planting.

Exported nonu juice surged twofold in earnings, to $632,000, as volume also doubled and prices rose 3 percent, the Central Bank of Samoa (CBS) said.

Nonu fruit also rose strongly in export earnings in February - by $179,000 - to $269,000, thanks to an increase in volume that was nearly threefold, the CBS said.

Managing director of CCK Trading Ltd., Ken Newton, a leading producer of nonu products, said exports are obviously increasing, but it is unclear if that is due to more exporters entering the fray.

"There may be some new companies involved," Mr Newton said.

The main exporters he knows of are CCK, Nonu Samoa Enterprises Ltd., and Richard Keil.

"But as far as we're concerned we're seeing a big demand for dried nonu now," he said.

Overseas buyers are turning them into capsules and "reconstituting" them into drinks, especially in the United States - after adding fruit, syrup and other ingredients.

Mr Newton said he didn’t know why they went to all that trouble instead of just making a drink from nonu powder. He has tasted a sample of the drinks made overseas and his verdict is, it's "bloody terrible."

"But that seems to be happening."

Mr Newton would like some help from Government, something they haven't been getting much of. He has read a magazine article about all the incentives in tax Government is trying to attract overseas companies with, especially the ones in tourism. But try to get the same for his industry, like some help with the duty on processing machinery - nothing, he said.

"You seem to run into a brick wall," Newton said. "You can't seem to get an answer to anything," he said.

Producers like him know the potential of their product but say there appears no discussion about it within government.

Said Mr Newton: "I mean you just don't hear about it."

Perhaps Government officials are a bit hesitant to encourage nonu production because of what happened to the ava industry, he said. It collapsed, as is well-known. Producers writhed in financial pain.

"I lost $500,000," Mr Newton said.

Actually Treasury and the Agriculture ministry audited the ava stranded at CCK and valued it at $498,000, but to Newton, it was so close to $500,000 it didn't matter much.

"That just sat in the shed and rotted," he said.

There was no chance of it being sold locally - it would have taken years.

"Not that quantity, no," said Newton. "The local market is too small."

But the heavy losses then showed how risky exporting agricultural products can be.

Mr Newton said ava was booming then vanished as an industry suddenly.

It's suspected major pharmaceutical companies seeing sales of their products threatened by ava substitutes whispered - quite wrongly as it turned out - that the Pacific product was dangerous to livers and what not.

Germany's Ministry of Health imposed a ban that spread to other European countries.

Pacific companies producing nonu juice took note of that disaster and tried again to enter the European Union market.

Some 30 companies took the initiative of grouping themselves into the Pacific Islands Noni Association (PINA) and set out to meet the stringent and multiple requirements imposed by EU's standards people.

CCK joined PINA.

"I'm vice-president," Mr Newton said.

An EU aid body, the Centre for the Development of Enterprises, helped PINA get nonu juice accepted as a product for sale in Europe.

"They were helping us get approval from their food standards people," Mr Newton said.

After 18 months, they got the approval in December last year.

Some 20 companies had to first meet a standardised plan for production, equipment, hygiene and a host of other requirements for the production of an herbal product such as nonu juice - including pasteurisation.

CCK is scheduled to get its pasteurisation machine at a cost of $NZ 25,000 next month, Mr Newton said.

He suspects supplies of nonu would not be enough if there is any "real explosion" in the industry.

Nearly all the fruit being harvested at present are wild ones.

Farmers do not know how well the market will treat them in the future, so hold back on all out planting.

Exporters like Mr Newton, also unsure of what the future holds, hold back from promising growers their fruit will have a market come harvest time.

"So it's a bit of a Catch-22, that one," Mr Newton said.

May 10, 2005

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