Pacific Agriculture Sector Looks To Revive Exports

Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

News Release

Secretariat of the Pacific Community Suva, Fiji

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Farmer and Chair of Tonga Market Access Working Group (MAWG), Mr. ‘Afeaki Pousima reminisced on the heydays of Tongan exports in the 50’s and 60’s – thousands of tonnes of copra to Europe, all-year-round banana exports to New Zealand, and in the winter months fruit and vegetables to New Zealand.

"In my childhood in the 60’s, I remember there was so much leftover export bananas that even the pigs wouldn’t eat them," said ‘Afeaki with a chuckle. "All Tongan farmers in all the four island groups and their families enjoyed much prosperity from income earned from the exports."

But alas, the export bubble burst in the 70’s and going into the 80’s. It was disastrous to say the least said ‘Afeaki. The copra/coconut oil was branded bad oil by the soybean lobbyists and exports ground to a halt; debilitating diseases black leaf streak and bunchy top decimated the banana industry; and fruit and vegetable exports were crushed with the discovery of fruit flies.

"Tongan agricultural exports in all three sectors took a heavy toll and came to a stop. However, an export window in squash (buttercup and butternut) niche markets in Japan provided a glimmer of hope, reviving agricultural exports in the late 90s and going into the new millennia. Once again Tongan farmers exploited and enjoyed a lucrative market in niche squash exports. The market expanded to New Zealand in the same period bringing in much needed revenue to the Tongan economy. But alas, this niche market wasn’t to last long. Severe competition from other exporting countries like Philippines and South America ended the golden run, with Tonga squash exports dropping from a high of 15,000 tonnes per year in 2005 to 1,500 tonnes in 2009 and picking up slightly to 4,200 tonnes in 2012.

Mr. ‘Afeaki was speaking at the recent launch of Phase Two of the AusAID-funded Pacific Horticultural and Agricultural Market Access (PHAMA) Program on 16 August 2013 at the USP Oceania Centre. PHAMA Phase Two was launched after successful completion of Phase One. PHAMA’s work so far has been to develop a strong partnership between governments and the private sector to help manage market access issues, with significant ‘wins’ being achieved over this period.

The collapse of the Tonga squash industry reinforced the urgent need for diversified export markets and products.

"We in Tonga have been seeking to access export markets and re-establish our horticultural industry, in particular to re-open the New Zealand market for fruit and vegetables. We had some success with watermelon but with automatic fumigation as a pre-export treatment, and hot-air treatment allowed exports of capsicum, eggplant, and tomatoes but this was set back by limited air-freight capacity.

"The private sector efforts to re-open access of fruit and vegetables to New Zealand were sporadic and ad hoc. There wasn’t a consolidated effort amongst the stakeholders to push for market access. Besides we had limited capacity in technical and scientific knowledge and with no funds to conduct market access analysis," said ‘Afeaki.

And then PHAMA came onto the national scene and for the first time a public-private partnership was formed consisting of stakeholders including farmers, exporters, government officials from agriculture and trade. The group meets regularly to discuss and decide market access issues. "And the Market Access Working Group came to life," said ‘Afeaki. "The initial meetings were not easy – there was mutual distrust between farmers, exporters and Government officials. But goodwill transcended the group and distrust dissolved to be replaced with satisfaction and enthusiasm, as the work of the Tonga MAWG produced successful results."

Concrete achievements to date as highlighted by ‘Afeaki include:

"We are also expecting a favourable decision from NZ Biosecurity, before the end of this year, regarding our market access application to re-open exports of zucchini and pineapples. Our exporters already have enquiries regarding orders for 2014."

Mr. ‘Afeaki said PHAMA Phase One succeeded in developing a successful public-private partnership (PPP) in the form of the Tonga MAWG. The forum has allowed farmers, exporters and Government officials to talk freely and frankly and agree on priority market access opportunities. PHAMA funding has allowed for the technical and physical inputs needed to open or retain market access.

"Through PHAMA Phase 2, activities from Phase One will continue allowing Tonga to generate a diversified range of export products and markets and to retain market access. By the end of PHAMA Phase 2 in 2017, we are targeting to attain export volumes of 1,000 tonnes each of watermelon, zucchini, rockmelon and taro," concluded Mr. ‘Afeaki.

PHAMA II will see an injection of AU$14.5 million over four years. This second phase will continue to develop the necessary systems and skills for exporting countries to reliably meet the conditions imposed by importing country regulatory authorities, once access has been gained.

PHAMA team leader, Mr. Richard Holloway, said that gaining and maintaining access to markets for key rural exports is a critical, but difficult, task.

‘PHAMA has been working in partnership with SPC for the last two and a half years to help Pacific Island countries develop exports of primary sector products, including agricultural, horticultural, forest and fish products. The programme’s focus is providing practical, product-by-product assistance to help level the playing field concerning the regulatory aspects associated with exporting primary sector products. This work is highly technical in nature, and is an area that under-resourced Pacific Island countries have long struggled with.

PHAMA complements existing SPC technical programmes in the region, focusing on market access issues.

PHAMA project countries are Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands. Several new markets have already been opened up, such as the export of fresh ginger from Fiji to Australia, water melons from Tonga to Fiji, and cooked breadfruit from Samoa to New Zealand and Australia. Work is at an advanced stage on numerous additional products.

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