Prioritising food security and local value chains in Tonga

Two years ago we interviewed established, thriving agribusinesses in Fiji, Vanuatu and Tonga, hoping to identify the key ingredients in their success, measured not solely by growth or revenue, but by longevity. The 15 businesses involved notched up a combined 200 years experience of highs and lows. The resulting report, documenting lessons and success factors, was appropriately titled, “Learning from the Survivors”.

COVID-19 has brought hardship, loss, and suffering to people around the world on a human level and economically. For agribusinesses, like many other types of business, supply chains have been disrupted, workers have been forced to stay home, markets have been closed. 

In many of the Pacific Islands, as we adapt to the world as it is now, and weave a path through the uncertainty, it is worth remembering that even during ‘normal’ times, the agricultural sector exists in an environment of uncertainty. Cyclones, floods, droughts, pests and disease can be devastating for farmers and agribusinesses, who manage this risk perpetually. 

This makes the lessons from the ‘survivors’ as relevant to the current crisis as they have been for agribusinesses day-to-day.

Nishi Trading is a family owned, operated and limited liability company in Tonga. Operating for over 40 years, they would ordinarily be distributing produce to New Zealand, Japan, Korea, Samoa, American Samoa and China. Over the years, Nishi has grown to include an array of complementary services, diversifying into the supply of farming inputs, pest management and most recently, building Tonga’s first international standard, food processing facility.

As the COVID-19 crisis grew, Nishi experienced a drop in sales, problems with their distribution channels, and a drop-off in support from extension services. Compounding this, not all staff were able to work due to travel restrictions put in place. The construction of new facilities was also put on hold, and Nishi had to adjust to delays in the arrival of replacement machinery parts, which now had to come by sea, rather than air.

Faced with uncertainty about the future, including concerns about shortages of seedlings and planting materials, transport constraints, a shortage of fertiliser and chemicals from overseas, and the prospect of food shortages for their work force and families, Nishi’s immediate response was to strengthen their local networks and outreach, as they sought to shift focus to more immediate livelihood and food security needs. Through their networks they moved to increase the supply of planting material, and raise awareness using social media to reach their outgrowers.

As noted in Learning from the Survivors, Nishi has a strong community focus, working with their employees and outgrowers in partnership with regular meetings to discuss the value chain, and roles within it. This work is bolstered by their training centre, a community support foundation and a strong partnership with a community development non-governmental organisation, the Mainstreaming of Rural Development Innovation (MORDI) Tonga Trust.

In a crisis it can be all too easy to look inwards and to focus on your own needs. But, Nishi has taken an opportunity to build trust within their networks, and strengthen the personal connections that are so important in the Pacific context and underpin the success of Pacific Island agribusinesses.

Learning From The Survivors

Key Lessons

#1: Being Consistent #2: Balancing Business and Culture #3: Reliability

Success Factors

# 2: Transparency across the value chain # 3: Strong relationships across the value chain # 5: Good staff management and employee satisfaction # 8: Provision of quality support services for growers

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