Women’s leadership in Pacific Agriculture

The integration of women in historically male-dominated fields in the Pacific in this new decade is being realised at all job levels, including senior management. For International Women’s Day this year, The Pacific Community’s Land Resources Division (LRD) is celebrating its first woman Director, Karen Mapusua and the Pacific Island Farmers Organisation Network (PIFON) its new General Manager, Lavinia Kaumaitotoya. 

Karen assumed the Director’s role during a challenging time soon after the peak of the COVID-19 crisis in the region in 2020. Her extensive and varied career helped prepare her for taking the reins of one of SPC’s largest divisions during an unprecedented disruption in its work programming and implementation. Karen previously served as Operations Manager for the Division. She began her career as a high school history and social studies teacher in Tonga and Australia and has focused on her passion – organic farming and food – during her more than 20 years of working in rural development in the Pacific Region. She co-founded the Pacific Organic & Ethical Trade Community (POETCom), serving as coordinator for five years. 

I am here today because they were there yesterday.

– Lavinia Kaumaitotoya

Lavinia had experience in many corporate leadership roles before becoming a farmer and joining PIFON. She came on board to support PIFON’s project development as Program Manager, and has been instrumental in securing long term funding from donors and partners. Lavinia’s is also committed to ensuring PIFON walks the talk not only in its project activities but also in its event management area ensuring that their internal procurement processes also prioritise sustainability and local food sourcing. Recently, she was promoted to the role of General Manager.

We recently took Karen and Lavinia away from their busy schedules for a chat to find out from them the difference they feel having women in leadership roles within the agriculture sector makes.

Why do you think it’s important to have women holding leadership roles within the agriculture sector in the Pacific? 

Karen Mapusua (KM): So many reasons, but I think it can be summed up in representation matters, examples matter, role models matter! I was blown away by the response of young women in the agriculture field when I was appointed as Director of the Land Resources Division. Just simply by being appointed it opened up space for aspirations and ambition to grow for so many other women. I am very proud of the fact that for the first time in LRD’s history, women have equal representation in senior management roles. That said, I think it’s important to acknowledge that leadership isn’t all about the job title – there have been women leading in agriculture in the Pacific in their families and communities, starting small enterprises and so on for many years and their contribution is just as important and needs more recognition. 

Lavinia Kaumaitotoya (LK): It’s important because there aren’t many of us. In agriculture, because our sector feeds the Pacific, our success in leadership can matter to how a family can feed its family nutritious meals as opposed to just having a meal. There’s a big difference. As a mother I can see that, so I will work to make it happen. As someone who champions our role in this sector, I want to see programs in the sector have the gender lens that so women have a voice, are empowered and offered a decent and dignified living in our islands.  

Portrait - Lavinia Kaumaitotoya
Photo: Lavinia Kaumaitotoya
Do you feel as though you bring different perspectives to the table? If so, what are those perspectives?

KM: Yes definitely! I view things, including work, holistically, as a component of life. I think many women are the same. I approach work and management in a self-reflective way and value factors such as meaning, purpose, connection with colleagues and work-life integration as equally as important as “hard” technical competencies.

I’ve also been told numerous times over the years that I shouldn’t expose my feelings at work, because this represents weakness, especially coming from a woman. But I see emotion, passion and compassion as valuable assets, not things to be ignored or hidden. I also have had to step out of my comfort zone so often during my work life that I now encourage people to be bold, to try new things and not be scared of failure. This is a major contrast to the often very risk averse environment of the workplace.

LK: Of course we do as women! Naturally we are nurturers and empathetic, we bring these traits with us. We are natural listeners and when we make decisions, we cater for everyone, because again as mothers, we think of the whole family. Bringing these unique characteristics to the table allows balanced decision-making. More interesting is the fact that when we don’t get our way, we will argue to make it happen, it’s just the mother in us!  

You’ve both worked to champion the involvement of women in different spaces – the organics movement, farmer organisations, regional decision making. How important is it to you that the voices of grassroots women and communities are heard within the regional and international decision making processes? 

KM: The call “nothing about us without us” rings true here for rural and grassroots women!  Women play a prominent role in agricultural production throughout the Pacific: in subsistence farming to feed their immediate families and in growing cash crops for income, also in running agricultural businesses. Women are an indispensable part of food production and consumption practices in the region. 

Yet there have been very few women in leadership roles in the sector nationally or regionally – with some notable exceptions in the private sector and even fewer in the public sector. This means, for example, that agricultural policy is being set, training is being delivered, workplaces are being designed, predominantly by men. Women’s perspectives, needs and priorities will not necessarily be reflected and the status quo will remain. Until women are heard at all levels, we are only hearing half the story. Pacific women also have a unique voice in the international realm. We have solutions and responses and knowledge that the world can benefit from, and as part of the global community we must contribute. 

LK: I’d like to acknowledge and pay tribute to other women who also worked to make inroads to pave the way, championed and spoke up and out. They were the invisible ones, the real champions and I salute them. I am here today because they were there yesterday.

The voices of these grassroot women and communities are so important! They are raising the Pacific’s next generation of leaders, agribusiness entrepreneurs, master farmers, agronomic technicians – our future. It is vital that they have their voice heard because many of the solutions are within us, with them, we don’t need others to tell us how to solve our Pacific problems, we need to look in our backyard to find the solutions. Women touch problems and issues daily, trust me – they have the answers. We just need to listen. We need to have Pacific solutions for our Pacific problems and have our Pacific context always, many times, we are thrust with foreign concepts that don’t take into account our peculiar context. Listening to our communities and women can help us do this.  

As women, what are some of the challenges you have faced in your own career?

KM: I always feel a bit uncomfortable when asked about my ‘career’…. it makes it sound like I might have actually planned something! But in reality, I have simply followed my heart and trusted that when a door opened and it felt right that I should go through it. I’ve also only done work that fulfills me and allows me to serve. That means I’ve often been a little out of my depth, had to learn very fast and have been kept humble through making mistakes. I’ve worked in everything from education, to theatre to peacekeeping before landing in organic agriculture and apart from having to get my head around vastly different technical areas, I think the biggest challenge has been to stay true to myself and my own work and management style in different situations when others’ expectations are quite different. Working in peacekeeping, for example, I had military personnel reporting to me….and giving orders was not something I was used to, but my team expected it. I needed to learn how to do that my way, in line with my values and operating style. 

Don’t wait to be ready for the next step – be fearless.

Karen Mapusua

To be honest, as a woman coming into leadership, another challenge is that we come under much more scrutiny and criticism than a man would and much of it very personal – comments on marital status, dress, tone of voice, questions about how we might have gotten our role – it all wears you down. I guess over time I’ve developed a thick skin – but I shouldn’t have too. Women should not be held to a different set of standards. I’ve actually been asked in a phone interview if I was dressed decently! No one would ask a man that.

LK: My career has spanned several industries. My first love was aviation, I started with banking straight out of school, agriculture is just the last 10 odd years. So, I’ve been around and got the exposure that I am thankful for as a leader and many firsts – as the first women duty manager at Nadi airport; then the first indigenous women, back in the then Air Pacific Operations, to step into management. It was tough mentally so I had to grow an attitude big time. It was very competitive so I took myself back to school for my degree and masters to be on a level playing field with my peers, having risen from a strong operations and logistics background with only hard knocks certification. I moved to Fiji Ports as the first woman General Manager, then still in transportation to Airports Fiji Limited – all very male dominated areas of work and also in leadership roles, where I was the only woman many times. But, I had great male mentors who helped to shape my leadership style. If there is something that really irked me, it was the obvious disparity in salary. 

Along the way, I made sure I never compromised my values and my family was the most important. I made time to always be there for my family’s special days despite being busy and I had to put in twice the effort of work to stay relevant. That’s just how it was. It bothered me, but it didn’t deter me, it stirred me more to work to prove people wrong. That’s all one can do, is work ‘as proof of concept’.  Where my values were challenged, I said thank you very much, stood up and left. I was not beholden to the work, but to who and what I was. It was these challenges that moulded me. As I look back, I realise it made me the advocator I am today, who isn’t easily fazed. Mind you, agriculture has toned me down heaps! Working with grassroots women and their issues, brings in a contrasting set of behavioural factors on a completely different sphere altogether for me – quite humbling and subservient. 

What advice do you have for women wanting to follow in your footsteps?

KM: My friends are always a bit worried about me giving advice to their young people because I’m not likely to say all the expected things such as “stay in school”, etc. I’m much more likely to say just be true to yourself – look for work that you love and do it your way, not someone else’s. Forge your own path! It will look different than mine, but it will be amazing. 

Also, know that the work you love might change over the years and that is just fine. Find mentors and build a small community of people who will support you – and who will give you a bit of a nudge if required! Always take time to reflect on yourself, your values, priorities and needs and make sure your life is aligning and remember that what you do is not who you are. Lastly – don’t wait to be ready for the next step – be fearless.  A quote I love from Rebecca Ray sums it up: “She was never quite ready. But she was brave. And the universe listens to brave”. I’ll testify to that!

LK: First – get educated. I took myself back to school. It was tough. I had a young family, a mortgage, a 24/7 job. I didn’t have the luxury of going straight after high school. I was told to work as times were tough. But, I went back and did it, and it is what I am quietly proud of today. But, I did it with the love and support of a wonderful husband and children. They forewent family functions, events, holidays because I was ‘schooling’, so their mum could graduate. And, when I did, it was a privileged and rewarding moment for us. If I can do it, others can too. 

Second – don’t compromise your values. Today our world is very different to the one I grew up in. We grew up in an opinionated world, where there was freedom of speech and choice, there was respect and people learned to agree to disagree. Today, you have to tow the line for authorities, people do not have opinions. If they do, they cannot speak up. They trade in their values for their job security and livelihood. My advice – you don’t have to. You can be your own person, speak up, speak out because if you’re true to yourself, something will turn out for you, it did for me. 

Karen Mapusua was talking to Jamie Kemsey, and Lavinia Kaumaitotoya was talking to Illeyah Draunidalo.

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