Island products must leverage their backstory

At a major international trade show last year, the representative of one Pacific Island company that was displaying and sampling its wares for the first time at such a level was ‘gobsmacked’ at the overwhelming response to their product. I clearly recall their words: “If even if a fraction of these enquiries turn into orders, we will have to scale up our production at least tenfold.”

This company was not alone. At least two others from different island nations expressed similar surprise. For all of them it was the first time that they had exposed their products at an international platform. They had modest expectations of finding an interested potential buyer or two – not businesspeople who would offer them an advance and ask them if they could supply many times more than what they imagined they could ever supply.

One of the participants said they didn’t know whether to celebrate or become worried. Their predicament is completely understandable: how does one deal with a situation like this, where the potential demand for what one is producing appears to be far higher than the production or growing capacity (as some of these items were natural products). These are questions with no easy answers and each company will have to find different answers going by what they produce and how they do it.

But then there are a few factors that are common to most small Pacific Island businesses. One of these is scale. It is difficult for these businesses to scale up in the face of a potential increase in orders. This may be because of a variety of reasons from limited available raw material or growing capacity, limited manufacturing capacity, inadequate skilled human capacity, financial constraints, environmental and seasonal reasons besides others.

While some of these like manufacturing and financial constraints can be addressed fairly easily, other factors are relatively difficult to deal with. For instance, the company that was surprised with a flood of orders at last year’s show is limited by growing constraints around its natural products. If it tries to expand without the right approach to producing the quality product it already grows, it runs the risk of greatly compromising on quality. If it takes that tack, its business will go nowhere. There is no merit in expanding for the sake of expanding.

Scale will always be a problem for Pacific Island producers, especially when it comes to global markets. There is no point in going after volumes, especially for niche, natural products that might be greatly valued in specific, well-identified markets. ‘Niche’ and ‘natural’ are two of a few other attributes that Pacific Island producers must use to their great advantage. Pacific Island businesses need to generate more bang for their buck from these attributes. Revenue and profit must come from quality and uniqueness rather than volumes. Leave the volumes to businesses in cutthroat markets where price sensitivity is valued much more than quality and uniqueness.

Pacific Island producers need to better leverage the range of the region’s well-known attributes. Uniqueness, pristine, natural environments, traditions, people and so on need to be better packaged into their value propositions. In a world of mass produced tat, these attributes have increasing value. They stand out. Customers are paying more attention to this and valuing it more. Products that can demonstrate these attributes, therefore, have the potential to deliver more bang for the buck, if promoted astutely.

Niche product marketing is all about the backstory. The Pacific Islands and peoples of the Pacific have plenty going for them in terms of building neat backstories for their products. Actually, it’s a marketer’s dream: there are huge dollops of exotica, there are enduring pictures of pristinely pure environments in consumers’ collective mind’s eye, there is the knowledge of natural traditions of an ancient people – and so much more. These are powerful elements in any backstory and have been used to great effect by businesses in other parts of the world. No reason why more Pacific businesses should not put this rather successful formula to better use.

In fact, the Pacific Islands tourism industry has used these elements well. Fiji, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Vanuatu have all successfully used these elements to promote themselves while at the same time differentiating themselves from one another. Small Pacific Island producers with big export ambitions need to emulate these instances. Niche, if portrayed well, can not only sell better, but also deliver much better value and generate demand. A few Pacific products have achieved this with great success. Bottled water and vanilla are two that come to mind immediately.

There are a few encouraging examples of success in the making, too. A boutique New Zealand chocolate manufacturer is creating an engaging backstory around chocolate that it is making from naturally organic cocoa grown on the island of Bougainville. It has successfully built similar stories from several faraway exotic places in Africa, South America and Asia. Quite naturally, the product sells on the basis of its backstory and delivers better prices than famous factory made brands. If successful, this backstory has the potential to build a whole cocoa growing initiative in Bougainville, bringing much needed incomes to local people.

This niche product will never ever match the volumes of branded, mass produced chocolate. But it will deliver better profit per unit sold, while creating warm fuzzies in the hearts and minds of the customer who buys into its backstory. That feel good factor is what growing numbers of discerning customers are after.

But then the backstory is only half the story. While it will create a platform for the a sought after niche product, the backstory will have to be backed up by consistent quality and production volumes, timely deliveries, alluring packaging and requisite technology to seamlessly blend in with global supply chain requirements such as barcoding. These can all be put in place by following sound business practices with the right kind of mentoring.

It is time Pacific Island producers and manufacturers seriously took on board the growing importance customers are according to ‘country of origin’ and exotic but credible backstories while making their buying choices, relegating the price factor to the background. Never underestimate what great stuff a good backstory can deliver – as long as it is credible and the product around which it is built delivers on its promise. The proof of the pudding is in the eating – backstory or not.

Dev Nadkarni is Stakeholder Relationships Advisor at Pacific Islands Trade & Invest based in Auckland, New Zealand.

First appeared in Islands Business Magazine, March 2015 

 

Farm to table – the Tao of Kai

Having raised the profile of Samoan cuisine to dizzying heights, chef Robert Oliver is transforming traditional foods at the grassroots.

Dev Nadkarni

Award winning chef and author Robert Oliver is not one to rest on his laurels. The two-time winner of the world’s most prestigious cookbook awards for his Pacific-themed cookbooks (see box), the celebrity chef who grew up in Samoa and Fiji is passionate about leveraging this success for Samoa and other islands of the Pacific.

Robert Oliver with volunteers sorting organically grown veggies to be delivered to participating hotels of the farm to
Robert Oliver with volunteers sorting organically grown veggies to be delivered to participating hotels of the farm to table programme in Samoa. Pic: Dev Nadkarni

“The awards have sparked a genuine global interest in Pacific cuisines,” says Mr Oliver, who will be showcasing some of these at a major event on the margins of the SIDS conference. “Cultures around the world take pride in their cuisines. Take French cuisine, for instance. People travel all the way there to try it out. That’s what we need to do in the Pacific – make cuisine a sought after part of our tourist offering.”

Oliver is not just a chef and author. He is also a thinker and philosopher. While talking of the importance of packaging Pacific cuisines as a part of the general allure of Pacific destinations, he also values the role of local produce, smallholding growers and their traditional methods of farming, which are inherently natural and organic. He is also deeply concerned with the alarming incidence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Samoa and the Pacific.

“Cuisine is about people, identity, health, nutrition, livelihoods, the economy and of course the well being of the community,” he says passionately. “Many foods have deep traditional significance, which is also related to specific stages in the life of men and women. There is a whole of list of foods that facilitate lactation, rejuvenation and so on. We are in danger of losing that knowledge.”

The chef is working intensely on a project that touches all these aspects of food and cuisine. Along with the well-known Samoan NGO Women in Business Development Inc (WIBDI), he is working with a range of organic farmers to grow and supply produce to popular hotels and restaurants around Samoa. He is also working with chefs of five of these establishments to develop unique recipes inspired by traditional Pacific cuisines. “The idea is to get tourists to taste local, organic produce prepared traditionally with a twist that appeals to international palates,” he says.

The ‘Farm to Table’ project is gathering steam. More establishments are joining in the run up to the SIDS events. “It’s about building enduring relationships through the value chain,” he says. “From communities, to farmers, to chefs, right through to the consumer. Ultimately it is the whole country that benefits – not just in terms of realising tourism potential but also healthy eating and cultural pride.”

‘Samoa arrives on world cuisine stage’

“I didn’t win the award. Samoa won the award,” Oliver said when his second book based on the cuisines of the Pacific islands, ‘Mea’ai Samoa: Recipes from the Heart of Polynesia’, won one of the world’s most prestigious awards earlier this year.

The book, along with its associated television cooking show, Real Pasifik won the Gourmand Award for Best TV Chef Cookbook In The World 2013 at an award ceremony in Beijing. The globally sought after accolade is considered the Oscars of cookbooks, coming from the well-regarded house of Cointreau, the family that brought to the world the famous Cointreau liqueur, as well us the Cognacs Frapin and Rémy Martin. “It signals Samoa’s arrival on the world cuisine stage,” he says.

For Oliver and the Pacific, winning this award was a bit of de ja vu. For in 2010 his earlier tome titled Me’a Kai, the Pacific Island Cookbook was named the Best Cookbook of the Year at the 2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris. The European media called it the gastronomic upset of the year. “We’d won the big one before so this year’s award was wholly unexpected,” says the passionate chef.

The book beat 187 participating countries. Of a shortlist of 94, 61 made it to the top three. Finalists were from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Winning the award a second time in such a short period of time only means there is something special about Pacific Island cuisine.

Natural ingredients, simplicity of preparation and cooking processes and a range of clean, subtle flavours directly reminiscent of the origins of the ingredients – the ocean and the pristine land – have proved a winning combination for the chef and Pacific cuisine.

– DN

First appeared in Islands Business magazine, September 2014

New magazine shines light on Pacific’s health issues

Dev Nadkarni

It has been known for some time now that people of Pacific island origin living in New Zealand find themselves overrepresented in health-related statistics – particularly around lifestyle ailments. Three in every five Pacific Islanders is obese, three times more islanders have diabetes and markedly more Pacific people have oral and mental health issues than other groups.

This is a major worry for New Zealand’s health authorities and while the concerned government ministries have continuing information dissemination and awareness generation programmes across different media, there has not been a regular, periodic media vehicle to address Pacific health concerns aimed at the general Pacific Island audience in the country.

A new quarterly magazine titled ‘Pacific Peoples Health’ launched in January 2014 plans to change that. Oceania Media, which has published the popular and successful six-issues a year Spasifik magazine for a decade now, is the team behind this new, more specialised offering. Publisher and editor Innes Logan says there has been a growing demand for covering more health stories over the past few years.

“I think there has been a general acceptance with the way we cover health stories – we don’t shirk from the stats but provide stories which our people engage in. For Pacific people, the lack of engagement and access to the health system has been one of the barriers,” Logan told Islands Business. Planned as a quarterly, the magazine also has an online edition.

Asked about the wisdom behind a conventional, paper-based magazine in the age of the tablet and smartphone Logan said, “I believe print still has its value. People spend more time reading print rather than online where it’s easier to get sidetracked. It’s amazing how many people who have seen it online have requested a hard copy.”

The magazine is distributed at retail outlets nationwide without a cover price and is available on subscription. “The sheer size of the [health] problem meant we needed to engage with more of the population. So we increased the print run and have calculated on gaining more advertising to cover the costs. Like all such ventures, there’s risk, but the initial response has been great and we’re confident it will pay off,” Logan added.

The first issue covers a mixture of key health issues that affect the community (the recently published Child Poverty Report, aged care, dangers of fizzy drinks); personal stories (Samoan rugby player Peter Fatialofa’s untimely death); inspirational people (48-year-old Auckland father of six Andrew Fifita-Lamb, who ran the 160-kilometre round the mountain race in Taranaki wearing only homemade jandals); statistics; healthcare tips; key contacts related to healthcare and fitness besides other content.

At present, Spasifik’s small editorial team puts together the new magazine along with a couple of contributors. “But we’ll look to have more specialists providing their contribution is suitable for a mass audience,” Logan said.

Pacific organisations in the islands as well as from the growing Pacific communities in Australia and the United States have contacted Oceania Media since the launch of the new magazine. “They don’t have access to the in-depth health stats New Zealand accumulates for its population but they say the stats in their country would be even worse – particularly the US Pacific community. The stats are still relevant to the islands. I’d like to see it available in the islands,” Logan said.

Though it is early days, Logan said the magazine has been received positively. “Readers generally like the mix of content, and they’re generally more responsive to a ‘by Pacific, for Pacific’ approach.” Stressing the importance of the ‘by Pacific, for Pacific’ approach he said, “For a variety of reasons many Pacific people have an instant expectation that mainstream media coverage on such issues will be generally negative and brown-beating. That expectation isn’t always justified but such perceptions will prevent worthwhile engagement from the outset.”

Logan is confident the new magazine will go some way in making a difference to Pacific people’s attitude to healthcare issues. “With the initial feedback and our longstanding track record with Spasifik, I genuinely believe it can and will make a difference. Providing attractive, engaging, accurate and relevant content and making it free and accessible, which is key,” he said.

Alarming stats

Sixty-two per cent, which translates to three in every five Pacific island adults being obese. It is a rate two and a half times as high as non-Pacific people. With one in ten diagnosed with diabetes, three times more islanders have this debilitating lifestyle disease than the non-Pacific population. Importantly, almost half of the at-risk Pacific population remains to be diagnosed. So the real scenario could be far more alarming.

Poor choices in food and drink and a lack of preventative dental care measures cause both Pacific adults and children to have a higher rate of teeth removal due to decay or other factors than non-Pacific adults and children while Pacific adults have a higher rate of mental health issues. Dwellings of Pacific island people have also been found to be of a poorer standard in terms of insulation and air circulation leading to more allergies and respiratory tract infections.   

The problem is compounded by the fact that Pacific Islanders also find themselves among the lowest earning segment in New Zealand’s income pecking order. Costs and transportation issues are the reason why nearly a third of Pacific adults cannot have their primary healthcare needs met over a 12-month period, studies show. Pacific people made up 6.9 per cent of the total New Zealand population in 2006. Their numbers are estimated to grow to 10 per cent by 2023.

Pacific Peoples Health can be accessed online at www.pacificpeopleshealth.co.nz

First appeared in Islands Business Magazine, February 2014

Pizza worth coming back to Fiji for

Dev Nadkarni

You might not associate pizza with Fiji the way you would a Bula shirt or a tanoa, but we’re talking of the very special Mama’s Pizza here – one that’s as iconic of Fiji as the colourful shirt and the distinctively carved wooden bowl.

And perhaps the only reason it’s not as well known to visitors as the Bula shirt and tanoa has more to do with the humble, understated and soft spoken style of the amazing Mama who created the first, authentically Fijian pizza way back in 1984. Yes, Mama’s turns 30 next year.

IMG_3423

Mama’s Pizzas are different. If you’re the type who thinks a pizza is a pizza is a pizza, Mama’s will make you think again. You notice the difference the very moment you dig your teeth into your first wedge. Though you will be sitting in a typical pizza eatery setting, you will happily notice that what you are eating is not the run of the mill, mass produced product – but one that’s been made with fresh ingredients with some characteristic flavours and with great care.

After all, Mama or Robin Ragg first began making pizzas for her own little kids when they were growing up. Robin (“It’s with an ‘i’ not ‘y’ because my parents wanted me to be a boy,” she says) loved to cook for her two girls and a boy. But that pleasurable activity turned into a small business to support the family, when she had to go through a divorce in the early 1980s.

“My father put his house on the line to borrow the funds for our first pizza restaurant which we started in 1984 on Nadi town’s main strip,” Robin says. The first few weeks were spent trialing her fare and collecting feedback. “I made a note of every comment and tried to use it to make the pizzas the way people wanted them.”

Mama’s big break came when she was able to tickle of the palates of the wealthy local Gujarati Indian community. “The would come in big groups on Sundays and order different pizzas. A couple of times I noticed they carried some condiments from home to sprinkle on the pizzas before they ate them,” Robin recalls. “It was like BYO toppings for my pizzas.” She got talking with them and noticed that they were a mix of assorted herbs and Indian spices.

Offering to experiment for them, Robin through much trial and error came up with the perfect topping mix to produce the popular ‘Nadi Special’. The pizza is the most popular on the menu even after 30 years. Interestingly, it remains popular despite being a completely vegetarian pizza (many in the Gujarati community are vegetarians, for whom the original recipe was created).

It’s not just with the Gujaratis or Indians that the Nadi special is a hit. Tourists – especially the growing ranks of vegetarians – adore it and come back for more. Taking a cue from the success of the Nadi Special, Robin experimented with other flavours too and came up with some other all time favourites – The Big Bird and the recently launched Tandoori Chicken.

Of course, Mama’s dishes out most of the regular all time favourites like Mozzarella, Hawaiian, Meat Lovers, Napolitano and others. Her other innovations include the Pacific Rim, which is a seafood delight, the Super Vegetarian, which takes the Nadi Special to new heights and a Prawn and a Tuna topped pizza with Mama’s special sauce.

Mama has fine tuned the flavours of her fare to such uniqueness, that an entire generation of Fijians, no matter where in the world they live, long to dig into a Mama’s Pizza whenever they come to Nadi.

Mama’s makes its own sauces and spice mixes. “We make most of the ingredients ourselves and have a trusted set of growers for good produce,” Robin says. She puts the success of Mama’s to strict quality control and listening to customer feedback. In all these years, Mama’s has grown from a single restaurant to three – Nadi town, Namaka and Denarau. Robin has assiduously kept away from big commercial ambitions despite franchise offers from Suva, Sigatoka and even as far afield as Auckland and Sydney.

“Locals who have migrated come back to eat Mama’s Pizza whenever they are in the Nadi area. Why, some of them even take back our pizzas to the US when they go back,” says Rebecca Hughes, Mama’s Pizza Duty Manager. Robin is particular of the value for money proposition that her pizzas deliver. “She wants to use the best ingredients and even if their prices go up, she is reluctant to change the price tags of the pizzas,” Rebecca adds.

True to her brand name, Robin is mama not just to her pizzas – she cares greatly for her staff. Several of the 38 people who work at the three restaurants have been with Mama’s since the first pizza was sold. “You’re only as good as your staff,” she says.

If you’re in Nadi, don’t miss the Mama’s Pizza experience. You’ll probably return to Fiji just for it.

First appeared in Discover Fiji magazine, December 2013

The Fourth Estate stoush

What is it that incites Pacific media owners, journalists, media academics and students to go ferociously for one another’s jugular every so often? The short history of journalism in the Pacific Islands is littered with numerous episodes of media proprietors, scribes and tertiary teachers lunging at one another’s throats, polarising the student community at an enormous cost to their study.

These confrontations always tend to begin with ideological differences, which is not a bad thing at all, given that the raison d’etre of journalism is to question the status quo in an informed and collegial manner, but the debate quickly degenerates into unabashed personality clashes.

Before long, the quality of the discourse spirals out of control into petty name calling, questioning of credentials and antecedents, abusive comments—right down to racist remarks directed at all concerned.

In years past, such quarrels were restricted largely to the print medium and points and counterpoints were to a large extent reasoned and measured. But the popularity and accessibility of the online medium and the lack of editorial control, particularly on blog sites, reduces the level of debate to little more than the raucous, expletive filled exchanges in a bar brawl.

The latest episode in this continuing sordid saga involves Marc Edge, the current head of the University of the South Pacific’s Journalism Programme; David Robie, one of his predecessor;, Graham Davis, the twin hat wearing journalist cum consultant to the PR company rendering services to the Fiji government; and a bunch of journalism students hopelessly divided across the continuing unseemly stoush that is spreading to all sorts of Pacific centric websites—all at the cost of their study.

At the Pacific Islands News Association’s biennial meet earlier this year, questions about journalistic ethics were raised and inconclusively argued between Edge and Davis resulting in frothy debates on websites for several months following.

Then again at last month’s USP hosted media freedom symposium, what started out as a an extremely interesting debate about what style of journalism is best suited for the region’s realities, quickly deteriorated into another unseemly spat with the washing of copious amounts of dirty linen in the public domain.

Last month’s debate began around something that has been a subject of discussion among media academics in the region for some time now: whether journalism in the Pacific should be based on the ‘social responsibility’ or  ‘deliberative’ model—which Robie favours—or whether the more libertarian ‘western style’—which Edge seems to prefer—suits it better. Associated with the former are what go by the labels ‘peace journalism’, ‘development journalism’, ‘guided’ and ‘collaborative’ journalism.

The discussions around this interesting debate would have been collegial and conducted in an atmosphere that would churn some great ideas one would think, but if one goes by the posts on a range of websites and blogs one can see that the discourse has moved away from this topic and degenerated into name calling, accusations and even unbecomingly petty racist remarks.

Parties slugging it out on these websites and blogs have cast aspersions on one another’s credibility, exhumed past skeletons going back decades, accused one another of impropriety, reproduced leaked work emails and correspondence, and have even called for people to pack up and leave, to say nothing of all sorts of veiled threats and counter threats.

Students have waded in to the controversy and added their own bit of venom to the arguments. In the process, the debate has veered light years away from where it began, resembling a street fight rather than an informed collegial discussion.

The no holds barred highly personal exchanges have exposed the poor regard these journalists and academics have for one another—which, reading through some of their vitriolic responses, is probably justified.

For instance, prolific Fijian affairs commentator Davis is hard put to defend his work as a consultant to an overseas public relations outfit engaged by the Fiji government while being a journalist at the same time. Small wonder then that his arguments in defence of juggling two hats and justifying the charade look like the proverbial fig leaf.

Such obvious as daylight conflict of interest would scarcely, if ever, have gone unchallenged in the country where this commentator lives and works from. But apparently, as we have known all along, everything is fair game in the Pacific. This only goes to show the poor regard that these sparring individuals have for the people of the region.

Edge, on the other hand, has been accused of using western, developed world yardsticks to instruct and evaluate his students.

He has been criticised for insisting on punctuality and discipline, which according to his opponents are rather harsh given the “realities” in the Pacific islands region.

On an unrelated matter, his integrity has been questioned for not adequately explaining the arrangement about his involvement in an endorsement for a commercial entity in Suva.

In another raging controversy with Fiji journalists, which also gained currency during last month’s symposium, Edge insists that self-censorship is rampant in Fiji, which Fiji’s journalists rather unconvincingly refute.

Again, this is an important topic for wider discussion—but the fact that it quickly descends to the level of personal attacks and even abuse in the form of comments written anonymously, many times quite obviously the same person assuming multiple online identities, robs the region of healthy, informed debate.

In Samoa last month, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi gratuitously offered the services of his head spin doctor and former scribe Terry Tavita to his former employer, Samoa Observer publisher Savea Sano Malifa. Malifa publicly refused spewing out a range of reasons why he thought it was a bad idea, while going over Tavita’s employment foibles in great detail.

That a prime minister can even think of suggesting that his PR man should work for what is truly the nation’s truly independent newspaper speaks volumes for how poorly regional politicians think of the national and regional media.

And why wouldn’t they when regional media stalwarts, academics, journalists and media organisations continually indulge in ugly and very public stoushes as is now being played out in Fiji?

The media’s role is said to be to hold a mirror to the government and to society without fear or favour. But Pacific media practitioners and academics are doing a disservice to their professions and to media consumers at large as they continue blackening one other’s faces putting their narrow egotistic interests above the greater good, reflecting the rot in their lot. And in the process, only fuelling politicians’ proclivity to ride roughshod over themselves and the powerless public.

First appeared as a “We Say” in Islands Business October 2012

Geopolitics may be a bigger headache for islands than climate change

That the Pacific islands region will be the theatre of action in the next big global race for geopolitical hegemony is not a question of if as much as it is of when. And that when may be soon. Once it breaks out, the race could stay a cold war for a long time, with all sorts of posturing from all parties, or it could escalate into a full blown battle. No matter how it finally turns out, the next big theatre for the big powers’ global machinations will be the Pacific and its epicenter could well be Fiji’s capital Suva.

At the turn of the millennium, this twenty first century was touted as the century of the Asia Pacific. The promise was great: the Pacific Rim countries’ confidence brimmed powered by their blitzing growth rates, the Asian tigers were on a roll, the Pacific islands were redrawing the extents of sovereign oceanic territories as new mineral discoveries were being made on land and the seabed.

The first decade of this century saw sustained forays by the Asian giants into the Pacific islands region, establishing new outposts in tiny island nations, helping build infrastructure and doling out loans and grants with a firm eye on the vast natural resources that the islands are thought to possess. All this happened as the Pacific islands’ traditional western world partners were progressively downsizing their long held commitments to the islands.

Throughout the first decade of this century, China had a fairly open run of the Pacific Oceanic region. It upped its financial assistance and infrastructure building programmes around the region in schemes and arrangements that were different from the ones Pacific island governments were used to when such assistance came from Western friends.

Pacific islands leaders spoke approvingly of China’s ‘no strings attached’ approach to aid, in marked contrast to the West’s more structured and highly conditions-based manner of dealing with assistance programmes. This was enticement enough for most Pacific island countries to happily get into bed with China for several ‘development’ initiatives in return for poorly documented (at least in the media) concessions in tapping natural resources and fisheries.

Simultaneously, political developments like those in Fiji forced leaderships to evlove strategies like Fiji’s ‘look North policy’ where almost every new realm of economic and developmental activity became closely aligned to China, Korea and several other countries of the Pacific Rim, gaining precedence over traditional ties to Australia and New Zealand.

China has played its game in the Pacific cleverly. It has employed what commonly goes for ‘soft power’ to win influence. It has extended the hand of unconditional friendship and one cannot say that there has been coercion or threatening of any sort. That is one of the reasons why its influence has grown so rapidly over such sweeping swathes of the Pacific – under the radar as it were.

Meanwhile, the United States was busy with its endless war mongering in the Middle East for the better part of the past two decades and all but ignored China’s growing influence in the Pacific islands region. As if awoken suddenly from a deep slumber, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made a knee jerk statement during one of her Pacific whistle stop tours a few years ago that the US would not “cede” territory to anybody – obviously implying that it wouldn’t take China’s machinations in the region lying down.

As the world now progresses towards the middle of this century’s second decade, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this is the century of the Asia Pacific for many more reasons than those that were touted at the turn of the millennium. And some of these reasons are undoubtedly a cause for worry – not just for the region but also for the world.

China has already begun protesting against the US’ planned joint exercises in the Pacific this year that involves some 22 nations including several of the Pacific Rim including Australia and New Zealand and even distant powers like Russia. China has pointedly been excluded from these exercises that will include a range of nuclear submarines besides other sophisticated naval hardware and armaments.

China is also dealing with a number of more regional geopolitical and territorial problems – particularly the one involving the Philippines in the South China Sea. The Philippines has a strong US connection for historical reasons. This is one instance of how these local problems have the potential to polarise the region across the two superpowers vying for the region’s favours.

The joint naval exercises are obviously a bold and firm statement directed at China that the US wants to make that it well and truly means business in the region. In including 22 nations in its exercises including South Korea and Japan, it has thumbed its nose at the Asian superpower. In fact the US started this sort of posturing when it rebuilt its embassy in Fiji’s capital Suva.

In ages gone by, kings and emperors announced their hegemony by building towers and monuments on the territories they conquered. In modern times, countries can’t conquer and can’t build towers and monuments. Instead, they build embassies in the countries they want to win favour from in helping them expanding their influence. So when China rebuilt its embassy into a bigger facility in Fiji, the US decided to follow suit almost immediately.

For both countries realise the strategic, geopolitical importance of Fiji, just as colonial powers in bygone eras had. In any aggression that takes place in the Pacific Ocean in the near future, Fiji will undoubtedly catapulted into centre stage because of this.

What has begun as benign posturing could quite easily escalate into a cold war but could a cold war result in a full blown conflict? Consider this: the arms industry is the engine of the US economy. With action in the Middle East all but over, there are few places left for war mongering. The Pacific Ocean is an extremely suitable candidate to kickstart the arms industry and pull the country out of the recession. The development of a whole new suite of weapons suited for vast stretches of ocean would be a challenge worth pursuing and investing in. And thanks to the sparseness of the population, collateral damage would be negligible.

Fanciful though this may sound, the possibility can scarcely be discounted. Unfortunately for the Pacific islands and their citizens, they have already been reduced to pawns. Geopolitics may well grow to be a more pressing worry than the ravages of climate change.

First appeared in Islands Business, July 2012 as an opinion piece in ‘We Say’

The great Fijian Paradox

By Dev Nadkarni

Ever since Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s December 2006 action in which he toppled the Laisenia Qarase government and established his military backed administration, Fiji has been turned into a pariah – at least in the western world.

Next week, heads of government of all the Commonwealth nations will gather in Perth, Western Australia, for their periodic jamboree. Fiji will miss the event because it remains suspended from the Commonwealth. Just as it was absent from last month’s fortieth Pacific Islands Forum in Auckland – because it stands suspended from there as well.

Interestingly, the headquarters of the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum is in the Fijian capital of Suva. The country’s suspension from the Forum, therefore, is quite like what it would be if the United Nations (which is headquartered in New York) were to suspend the United States from its membership.

The Forum and the Commonwealth are but two of the world’s international and regional clubs that Fiji has been suspended from. But despite being thus ostracised and in spite of the negative publicity perpetuated by governments and media in the western world – not to mention the continually ranting activists demanding its isolation – business is putting more and more faith into Fiji.

It’s quite counterintuitive, really. Consider this: first, we have had a relentless campaign in the western media about things progressively going pear shaped in the tropical island nation. There have been warnings against doing business in Fiji, investing there or even travelling there for holidays. There has even been an incredibly pigheaded campaign to shun Fiji Water, which has little to do with the government.

Then, the world has been in a recession. Real estate prices the world over have tumbled and are still scraping rock bottom. Credit is hard to come by and most economies seem to be in a tailspin.

Despite so much going against it, things are looking up in Fiji. Or so indicate news reports from Australia and New Zealand, where criticism about Fiji in official and government circles has been the most stringent.

According to a report about property investment in New Zealand’s leading business publication the National Business Review, successful real estate professionals are reporting increased sales in properties around Fiji.

Australian-born Fiji-resident Bob Lowres is quoted saying, “There are definite signs of improvement, with new buyers coming into the market from other countries.” He is advertising the latest stage of his Naisoso Island development – a NZ$500 million gated community off the coast of Fiji in Nadi Bay, scheduled for completion in 2014. He has already sold 73 of the 112 residential lots, of which five were sold in just the past month for NZ$3.9 million.

A whopping 85% of the land and house packages that start at half a million dollars has been sold to Australians and New Zealanders and the balance to North Americans. Which indeed goes to show that investors don’t quite buy into their governments’ stubbornly rigid stand on Fiji. Lores dismisses the scaremongering about investing in Fiji’s free hold real estate – and he is being proven right by the increasing sales.

And Naisoso is not an isolated case. The magazine says Fiji-born Auckland-based real estate agent Rick Kermode “is targeting the world’s wealthiest people for his listings. Mr Kermode’s listings include a $US6.95 million house on Wakaya Island … not too far from Mago Island where he sold a large area to actor Mel Gibson.”

A couple of years ago, media in New Zealand including the National Business Review raised concerns about repatriating funds from Fiji – particularly proceeds from time share revenues and the sale of property. But rules and procedures are far clearer now, say marketers. For instance, a new 10% capital gains tax has clarified obligations of investors.

Also, Suva based lawyer Satish Parshotam told the magazine, “There’s no written policy [about length of time in repatriation of property sale proceeds]. Inland revenue authorities are pretty ruthless anywhere. But if you have your records in order and you’ve completed the necessary forms there isn’t a problem I’m aware of. Time share income is only taxed once.” According to Mr Parshotam, tightening tax rules have resulted in the growth of government reserves – now higher than they have been for years.

The Anzac nations’ isolationist policy has compelled Fiji to increasingly look north and several resource hungry nations in the Pacific rim and beyond have been only to happy to oblige. Chinese investment in Fiji has been growing by leaps and bounds and Fiji had more Chinese tourists this year than ever before, boosting overall tourist numbers to record highs.

It’s not just China that is investing. Malaysia, Indonesia and even Russia and the Baltic states are showing interest. Russia’s Rusal, the world’s biggest aluminium company, is investing big into Fiji’s natural resources sector.

But that’s not to say tourist numbers from its traditional markets – Australia and New Zealand – have declined. In fact quite the opposite has happened. Fiji’s flag carrier Air Pacific is looking at nearly doubling its services between Sydney and Nadi. The airline plans to operate 13 flights a week to Nadi from next year. This will give visitors a choice of morning and afternoon departures as well as same-day connections to Fiji’s outer-island resorts.

A representative of Australian online travel company travel.com.au has been quoted in the media saying, “[Fiji is] trying to demonstrate that they are a destination for all travellers, rather than trying to pin themselves to one market.” Which is extending its appeal from a traditional family holiday market to the highly lucrative weddings and honeymoons market as well as the whole gamut from adventure tourism to backpackers.

It’s completely counterintuitive.

Families on holidays, brides and grooms, industries, real estate investors and speculators all seem to be flocking to a nation where a coup is supposed to be in place; where for five years an unelected government has been presiding over a nation suspended from virtually every international and regional grouping worth the name; a country that a slew of aid agencies have summarily blacklisted.

As the world waits to see if the Fijian administration will ultimately carry out its promise of holding elections in 2014, the big question is who has got it wrong: the western governments who have painted the country and its people into a corner – or the growing hordes of common people who continue to flock to Fiji in ever bigger numbers despite all sorts of warnings from their own governments.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, October 21, 2011

Big brother making a case to control the internet?

By Dev Nadkarni

Nearly every major historical event has at least one popular conspiracy theory that fires the public imagination and lingers long enough to form the leitmotif of alternative lore, which manages to cast its telling shadow on some aspects of the generally accepted “official” record.

The assassinations of US presidents Lincoln and Kennedy, the “real” reasons for the sinking of the Titanic, the raft of UFO (unidentified flying object) sightings in the 1950s and 1960s, the moon walk of 1969, and nearer our times, the September 11, 2001 incident – all have the choicest conspiracy theories woven around them.

These theories have been preserved in hundreds of books and magazines – many of them bestsellers no matter how crackpot they may sound – dozens of films and television shows and of course countless YouTube videos and digital files on the internet.

The latest major event to spawn a juicy conspiracy theory is the WikiLeaks saga. Amid reports that catalogued the unfolding of the 250,000-document leak – more a torrent than a leak, really – and their publication by the media across the world, a convincing theory, as in the manner of almost all conspiracy theories, has surfaced.

There is a school of thought that believes that the whole WikiLeaks saga was a planned operation of a consortium of the big, bad, super secretive, completely opaque and ruthless, faceless intelligence organisations of the Western world.

A ploy to find the strongest possible justification to control the free flow of information in the world via the bugbear of all manner of secrets – the internet.

The argument here is that it would not have been possible for a disgruntled, lowly-paid soldier, now held in solitary confinement in a prison in Virginia, USA, to have had access to such a cornucopia of classified documents on such diverse matters at his station in the Middle East without help from higher officials who were responsible for the secrecy of the documents.

Like the 9/11 conspiracy theories or for that matter even those about the lunar landing and others, this theory too is sure to have its diehard believers and defenders.

The ingredients for a choice, spicily juicy recipe are all there: The internet has grown at the speed of light into an unbelievably big, amorphous beast.

In its wake it has dissolved political and geographical boundaries and is all but out of reach of brick and mortar jurisdictional authority, challenging every statute in every country’s ‘book of authority’ as it were.

Like nothing else in history, the internet has enabled the convergence of the flow of ideas, two-way communication, mass communication as in publishing, sound and visual broadcasting as well as commerce, besides much else in one single hand-held device, often independent of location.

The high barriers to the power afforded by the ownership and control over traditional media have not only been lowered but have been destroyed.

One does not need to have millions of dollars to become a broadcaster – any blogger will vouch for that.

Why, the man at the centre of the WikiLeaks saga, Julian Assange, is an acclaimed homeless individual with none of the trappings of a traditional media magnate or the halo of a celebrity editor.

Suddenly, the individual has been placed on an even keel with traditional big money, big power, big muscle authority.

Doublespeak

It is undoubtedly a nightmare for everyone that has something to hide. And governments and politicians everywhere have the most to hide, no matter how much democracy, fair play and transparency they may profess.

Doublespeak is the stuff of politics and it is abundantly evident in the leaked documents.
In fact, few of the documents would take the informed citizen by surprise.

But journalists, commentators and citizens who follow events closely, all along suspected what has been released. For instance, Fiji had been saying all along that New Zealand and Australia were spying on it. That has now been confirmed.

Last year, I wrote a piece in a New Zealand newspaper that the US was worried that Pakistan’s nuclear devices could easily fall into the hands of Taliban terrorists who were lurking ever closer to the country’s nuclear installations.

The US officially denied this saying the Pentagon was in close touch with Pakistan’s chain of command and there was no question of a worry.

The leaks though tell the real story. The US was worried as hell. And still is – as it should be.

So there is every reason for the authority to worry about the burgeoning, completely individualised, hard-to-pin-down, on-the-fly power of the internet.

It has the potential to leave governments bereft of the clothes they wear, exposing them for all to see.

There is a very good case, indeed, to clamp down on it in the name of national interest, sovereignty, security and peace.

Regulating the internet

Whether the conspiracy theorists are right or wrong in their contention that governments initiated the leaks to gain control of the internet does not really matter.

But their belief has a grain of truth and that is what matters – rather disturbingly: we are beginning to see early moves in the world’s governments towards toying with ideas about, yes, you guessed right, regulating the internet.

There have been media reports that the United Nations is actually considering a consortium of an inter-governmental working group “to harmonise global efforts by policymakers to regulate the internet”.

The meeting, which took place in New York days before Christmas, discussed the possibility of forming a global body consisting of government representatives to create standards for policing the internet.

And it clearly states that this is specifically in response to the WikiLeaks phenomenon. At first instance, the world appears divided on this. There is one group of countries that is openly eager and another appears to be more cautious.

No prizes for matching the countries to their respective groups. Their reputation or the lack of it – for upholding liberty, equality and egalitarianism in both letter and spirit is a dead giveaway.

India, South Africa, China and Saudi Arabia seemed to support the idea of a new inter-governmental regulatory body to police the internet.

The US, Canada, the UK, Belgium and Australia, as also community and business representatives, have raised the cautionary flag.

So, conspiracy theories notwithstanding, Big Brother does want to control at least some of the gates to the internet – the simplest, biggest and most potent purveyor of freedom ever known to mankind.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, January 2011