Vanuatu, Republic of: Interview with The Hon. Matai Seremaiah Nawalu

The Hon. Matai Seremaiah Nawalu

Minister of Minister of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries and Biosecurity (Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries and Biosecurity)

The Hon. Matai Seremaiah Nawalu

Introduction by the Hon Matai Seremaiah Nawalu:

When Vanuatu was founded in 1980, the founding father of the independence was Father Walter Lini (whom became afterwards the first prime minister). In his discussions for Vanuatu to get the independency, he specifically pointed out that Vanuatu’s strength was in the Agriculture sector. When Vanuatu was established, there was some support towards agriculture but then it drifted away to Tourism. And over the last decade, we have seen that plenty of effort was put into tourism and lesser effort into agriculture, which is mainly driven by the private sector.

Last year, our infrastructures were destroyed upon being hit by cyclone Pam (we had the problem with the airport), and the economy was stagnated. When this Government was elected in February, it was decided that we need to refocus on agriculture. Paying more attention to our productive sector.

Upon becoming the Minister for Agriculture, I have started real hard working towards creating a lasting impact, for although in the past, the agriculture minister did lots of pilots and trials; at the end there was no effective impact.

Agriculture wise, Vanuatu’s potential is huge. I mean niche markets! Not as a major player within the region but focusing on niche markets. For example, the beef; we do not have enough land to produce like Australia does, but since our beef tastes (as you have experienced) wonderfully, we can try and address the high-end market (in China). So, we must make sure, while trying to develop the productive sector, that we do not jeopardize our organic status, because that is where our strength lies; supplying top organic agricultural products.

Additionally, having growing tourism requires our agriculture to follow, for we need to feed more people. If we invest in tourism and do not develop our agriculture, all the revenue from tourism will eventually go back to Australia and New Zeeland to pay for the food that we shall be importing to feed the tourists. Therefore, agritourism is very important and that is where our main focus is now. We are targeting crops which can be produced locally, since currently to support tourism needs, we import: potato; onion; carrots; alone representing 45 million (about USD 450.000).

Besides the beef industry, coffee is also one of our strengths as “Kava”, which dough not produced in France or America, its consumed there.

Another constraint we face in the agriculture sector is the lack of mechanization. Our agriculture is labor-intensive/ subsistence farming based, and that mentality as to change. We need to transform our farmers from semi-commercial to commercial farmers. That is our challenge, but with limited resources it becomes a little bit harder; still we hope we get support from our government as also aid partners, assisting us towards that goal.

The potential is huge, we have investors coming in lately to look at the beef industry and coffee industry, so I think the future is bright, it just requires coordination within the ministry as well as towards the private sector.

You are also keen to see a national organic policy completed as soon as possible to help advance the work of organic agriculture in the country. Once completed, how do you expect this policy contribute to foster meaningful areas such as economic development and employment creation?

As I have mentioned, one limitation we have is the available farming area. So, within such constraint we need to add value (not being able to increase land), and one way is the “Organic Certification”; which is quite an expensive program if the private sector does it on its own. We have attempted “Organic Certification” together with a couple of private companies but just for some specific areas, for it is too expensive.

It is crucial that the Government creates a nationwide “Organic Policy”, which in one hand makes certification easier to achieve, as in the other hand controls the import of substances that jeopardize our “organic status”.

We can sell our organic beef in china for USD 200 per Kilogram whereas, here we are selling it for USD19 per kilogram, so just by investing in “Organic Certification” and having it ruled by concrete Policy we may raise our revenue by ten-times. The potential is huge, not just for beef but all crops; from potatoes to coffee to Kava…

In your short time as Minister, you have expressed your strong commitment to mitigating climate change through sustainable forest management in Vanuatu. Could you tell the readers of HBR more about this commitment that you’ve expressed and your plans in order to mitigate climate changue?

I just had a meeting yesterday with Redplus, about climate change and reducing emissions and we need to link the re-habilitation and conservation of our forests with tourism for, to be stimulated towards preservation, resort owners need to get something out of it.

I was at the Brunei’s rainforest-alliance meeting (region Asia-Pacific), having stressed that we small-nations, are now carrying the burden of getting Carbon Dioxide out of the air, from emissions created by the Industrialized Nations.

We are the ones facing the consequences, like sea level rise; our islands are getting underneath the water.
I must conserve (the environment), but my Ministry needs land, so I am required to reach a balance between conserving and clearing forest areas for agriculture. It is a big challenge for me, and I have stressed it yesterday during the meeting, asking for advice on how to.

We have a big conservation project (around five thousand hectares), where having the land owner given up the land for conservation (apart from saving the earth from CO2 emissions), which economic value will he get out of it? The tourism approach needs to comprise conservation but also revenue, like paying to visit the park and watch the birds.
Otherwise, I do not see how we can sustain it in the long run.

There have been talks about “Carbon Trading”, and we are getting support to prepare for it; not sure dough about how it will turn out (eventually it will be good).

Our challenge is how to sustain conservation?! A big one, especially for a small island.

I was in Brunei (you know one of the richest countries there is; they have oil and gas), and they have been promoting eco-tourism (conservation wise) so, I have asked the minster if it is paying and his answer was: “it’s not paying, but we have the money”. In Vanuatu, if it doesn’t pay what else do we have? Only agriculture.

In order to achieve a satisfactory level of food security, Vanuatu must be prepared to find new ways of doing old things, to improve on the skills and creativity of our forefathers through research, innovation and new technologies. What is the level of technology in the ni-Vanuatu agricultural sector? What are you doing in order to modernize the infrastructure supporting production, processing and distribution?

We are way back technology wise (especially when compared to China or Europe), but our current focus is rehabilitation instead of conservation, given that we must clear the land enabling needed work, and then afterwards, one rehabilitates by planting trees.

We have declared this year to be our re-forestation year, having distributed seeds everywhere and trying to target high value trees (like sandalwood). By doing so, in 10 years’ time we will have a tree that is worth USD20.000, so adding value to our economy.

We conserve some areas, but we mainly rehabilitate. Can’t conserve all of them, for we have more water than land.

Apart from organic agriculture and agritourism, what other business innovative opportunities has Vanuatu to offer international investors?

Foreign investment is critical for an island nation like Vanuatu, being that although for the time being most investment is arriving in the form of Tourism there are other potential areas like our EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). Currently all boats, fishing in our waters take the fish for processing in Fiji; since I became minister I said: “by the end of this year, all fish catch in our waters must be offloaded in Vanuatu”, so in the case of Bumblebee (an American canned tuna company, which is now an investor in Vanuatu), the 10.000 tons of tuna that used to go to Fiji won’t go anymore.

Despite our challenges, if we concentrate, work hard and address issues that hinder investment, we will take a step further. Most of our products are exported as raw materials, so getting the “organic status”, means potential for having investment towards processing these products prior to exporting them.

With the new airport, tourism will ramp up for sure, so I see no reason why not to focus in producing and processing locally goods (potatoes as an example), which otherwise will have to be imported.

Currently the most interested ones seem to be the Chinese, beef production wise (being close and having the technology); but if Chinese are tuned on that, most likely other countries would pick up that opportunity as well.

The agricultural sector is perceived as one of great economic and social importance to Vanuatu, (with a critical role in ensuring that an acceptable balance is achieved in terms of food imports and domestic food production and enhancing foreign exchange earnings, providing the necessary sanitary and phytosanitary measures are met). Nowadays, to what extent does agricultural sector contribute towards the economy?

I come from the private sector and believe in maximizing the return from whatever is being managed. In my case, it’s to manage our agriculture resources, so my objective is to maximize the return from our limited resources towards Vanuatu and its people. Which is why I have taken the stand towards the on-site fish offloading. Instead of just getting fishing licensing fees, I want to empower the creation of local jobs.

The similar case being the one of the Sicocomba (the market for it is colossal). Our ocean being clean adds huge value to our Sicocomba, so whereas in the past, within an open market context the Government was merely getting 18 million vatu per year, currently with the new policy I am promoting, by establishing a PPP (with the private sector), we will make a 160 million return.

My central objective is to maximize the return for the people of Vanuatu.

Minister, you were appointed this role in early 2016 after being elected as an independent from the Santo Constituency. Apart from you political career, you also have run a successful shipping business, and you were a former CEO of the Northern Islands Stevedoring Company. What are the most valuable lessons that you have learnt over the years that you incorporate today into your role as a Minister of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries and Biosecurity?

I believe the private sector experience was missing in the case of former cabinet officers (ministers), for it is where you want a return out of every cent you put in. A public servant usually is only good at making politics, getting money from somebody else and “splashing it out there”. Coming from the private sector, when you put in one cent you want to turn it into two cents, and that is what has been missing.

Having been the CEO of a company where the political pressure was heavily felt, has prepared me for this position. You know, I am not a politician; in fact, I was elected as an independent candidate, nevertheless having got the second highest voting in the hole country.

Workload wise, the beginning was quite frustrating, for while in the private sector when you manage your business if you say “Moses, it is Moses”, in the Government you need to undergo several procedures and wait (one project took 9 months). Nevertheless, I want to make the best of it and even if I stay in this Government only for 4 years, I want to make a difference and then I can go back to my old life.

As you are well aware, the readers of HBR include many of the world’s most influential business and political leaders. Which final message would you like to send them about Vanuatu and your Ministry?

Vanuatu is open to new ideas and if you want to invest in agriculture, I am here to help you.

We need foreign investment and there is no longer any kind of political instability whatsoever.

I can vow for it, having been a minister for 8 months now, and not once having to lose focus on my task over checking if someone (in the political arena), was attempting anything on my back.

Over the last 10 years, everyone had to take care, and the prime minister was permanently looking for who would stab him in the back.

There is huge potential for foreign investment and we are committed to creating a good investment-friendly environment.