FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Agriculture – Fiji’s Next Economic Powerhouse

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Agriculture – Fiji’s Next Economic Powerhouse

FHTA, 13 July 2023 – Well, why not? We do after all, have acres and acres of land lying idle.

In the face of adversity, farming communities across Fiji have consistently demonstrated remarkable resilience despite the impacts of climate change which Pacific Island Countries do very little to contribute to but must bear the brunt of in any event.

Following devastating tropical cyclones or floods, these local farmers have shown incredible strength in rebuilding their lives and the often-gruelling livelihoods that depend on consistently conducive farming weather – sufficient rain for crops, enough sunshine and fertile land.

Farmers remind us that even in the darkest times, hope and sustenance can emerge from the soil, but often even they need to reconsider what they have been doing for decades to capitalize on changing demands both domestically and internationally.

Fiji’s tourism industry has experienced an impressive rebound since reopening its borders in December 2021, not least because it has reviewed its offerings especially post-pandemic when demand for specific types of holidays changed.

By June 2023, visitor numbers had surpassed historical levels from 2019 because we took advantage of this changing demand for all things related to nature, culture and wellness, which in turn has led to a surge in demand for fresh produce and local food experiences that are far too often well-kept culinary secrets known only to locals.

The increased fresh produce demand and slowly emerging exposure to local culinary delights in tourism hot spots poses a significant challenge for the industry. How do we get more local fresh produce, where do we access these supplies and how do we convince farmers that they can and should plant more for an industry that needs this?

To meet the growing demand for fresh produce in Fiji’s vibrant tourism sector, a collaboration between the Sugar Cane Growers Fund (SCGF), the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA) is taking place as part of efforts to address this. Small steps, but the vision can be enormous with the right support and information.

Through the identification of suitable crops for medium to large-scale farming, this collaboration can establish a consistent year-round supply chain of fresh produce, ensuring hotels can cater to the needs of both domestic and international visitors. If you think this might be impossible – think back 20 years and how seasonal pineapples, watermelons and pawpaws used to be. Now all 3 fruits are available almost year-round and can be found on breakfast tables in every hotel, almost every single day of the year. And the demand is for more. Local, tropical and deemed exotic fruits like guavas, mangoes, soursop, bananas, mandarins, oranges, etc.

What changed? Demand changes everything.

But what about other produce like duruka (asparagus), ivi (Tahitian Chestnut) vudi (plantain) and uto (breadfruit) amongst others – that often currently grow wild – so are left to remain seasonal? This also means the less we get, the more we have to pay for it.

Demand is definitely high but are these being grown commercially yet? Not that we know of.

Like fresh bu (young coconuts) that most roadside sellers help themselves to from trees, they don’t actually plant themselves; at some point, there will be a reduced supply of these because we are not factoring in increasing demand by planning for future supply needs by planting more coconut trees. So we can expect prices to go up, and keep going up as supplies dwindle and demand keeps increasing. Insufficient local supply of fresh produce has long been a challenge for Fiji’s tourism industry in this same way.

Hotels and resorts have consistently faced difficulties in meeting the demands of their guests due to factors such as seasonal production issues, quality inconsistencies, and inadequate quantities.

The fluctuating availability of certain crops throughout the year makes it challenging to ensure a steady supply of fresh produce, while variations in quality can impact the dining experience for visitors; because you cannot promise something on menus that cannot be delivered accordingly. The reputation of that restaurant, resort and/or executive chef is on the line.

With more visitors arriving, the demand for fresh produce has significantly increased, placing even greater strain on the limited availability of local supplies that are already spread between addressing domestic demand and the smaller, but extremely lucrative export of these same produce. Increasing Fiji’s export production in this area to directly impact our heavy reliance on imports has not been sufficiently addressed, despite the opportunities that quite evidently exist.

Fiji’s tourism industry relies far too heavily on imports to meet the demand for fresh produce, including fruits, vegetables, dairy products, meat products, seafood, and pork.

This reliance on imports has cost and sustainability implications. Transportation and logistics involved in importing these items contribute to overall expenses, affecting the profitability of hotels and increasing costs for consumers.

Additionally, long-distance transportation raises concerns about environmental impact and carbon footprint, but what are the alternative options given the strict demand for hygiene on meat and seafood products for hotels?

Chefs and food service establishments must ensure that imported meat and seafood products meet stringent quality and safety standards, and this is often simpler to do when dealing with sophisticated overseas supply chains that can provide the required data to confirm manufacturing, packaging, storage and transport information.

The challenge of insufficient local supply of fresh produce for the tourism industry has persisted for years, prompting consistent appeals to the Government.

Stakeholders in the industry have emphasized the importance of addressing this issue, highlighting its impact on meeting the growing demand for fresh produce.

By understanding the specific needs of hotels and restaurants, some farmers have tailored their production to meet market requirements, but we need to increase this awareness to include farmers that are looking to diversify their produce options and take better advantage of seasonality issues and climate change impacts. There are now longer, hotter seasons and heavier rainfalls, but also better transportation and market options, with access to digital apps that can support improved land and soil management, crop production data and weather information. Areas that the sugar industry has been proficient in since colonial times but not deemed relevant to be used at the same scale as other crop productions.

The point is; tourism has been actively trying to include local cuisine and the use of more local produce as part of the visitor experience for a long time and the current self-supportive roles that many resorts have adopted are still at a minimum level, despite the extremely positive results they are wielding.

Visitors increasingly seek immersive experiences that include local flavours and ingredients, aligning with the industry’s push for sustainability. However, the limited availability of local produce hampers the consistent delivery of authentic Fijian dishes to our guests.

A more robust utilization of local produce would yield economic, environmental, and culinary advantages that would go well beyond just supporting the industry’s current efforts. But don’t just take our word for this. The IFC’s “From Farm to Tourist Table” report from 2018 offers valuable insights into the demand for local produce in Fiji’s tourism industry, with a clearer picture of the opportunities that exist for the Fijian economy if it were to tap more aggressively into this area.

Expanded cooperation and knowledge exchange between agriculture stakeholders can lead to innovative farming practices, enhanced productivity, and improved supply chain management.

The quote by Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plough is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the cornfield,” serves as a reminder that farming is a hands-on, demanding endeavour that requires expertise, hard work, and an intimate knowledge of the land.

It cautions against underestimating the challenges faced by farmers and urges a deeper appreciation for their vital role in ensuring food production and sustainability.

We have put up our hand to help progress this, but many more hands are needed to get those fallow fields planted.

Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 13 July 2023)