OPINION: Indigenous Fijians in business

The Hot Bread Kitchen outlet at Butt St in Suva. Picture: JONACANI LALAKOBAU

Historians believe that indigenous Fijians (“taukei”) arrived in Fiji more than 3500 years ago.

The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sighted Fiji in 1643, followed by Captain James Cook in 1774.

About 100 years later, Ratu Seru Cakobau and other chiefs, ceded Fiji to a reluctant Great Britain. Sir Arthur Gordon, the first governor of the new colony, saw himself as the “protector” of the Fijian people, and initiated policies that were to limit their involvement in subsequent commercial and political developments.

In colonial Fiji, under British rule, indigenous Fijians were largely contained under an inflexible system of administration and laws which blocked them from being full and active participants in the mainstream of the country’s economic life.

Sir Gordon rejected the idea of using taukei labour saying, “to do so would break up the village life of the Fijian people and undermine their whole communal way of living”. Speaking to a group of chiefs in 1928, Fiji’s preeminent statesman Ratu Lala Sukuna (knighted in 1946) said: “Picture to yourself a spot on the banks of the Wainibuka (River). See there a small bamboo. It stands unheeding. Floods begin to sweep the river and the little tree is carried away. Compare such a tree to the position of the native race today.

The flood of civilization is sweeping down on us. We cannot divert it. Nor can we fl y from it”.

Some early efforts to draw Taukei into business

The record of efforts to widen taukei participation in business span more than half a century – but the results have mostly mixed, and not impressive. In the early 1950s, the Agriculture & Industrial Loans Board (ALTB) was established to promote and finance agricultural and commercial investments.

European borrowers, who accounted for only 15 per cent of the total number of loans, received 53 per cent of the total loan value; Indo-Fijian borrowers accounted for 53 per cent of the total number of loans and received 34 per cent of the total loan value; and indigenous Fijians received 25 per cent of the total number of loans but only 7 per cent of the total value (Sutherland, 1998).

The ALTB which was disbanded in 1967 having failed to meet its goals, was the precursor to the Fiji Development Bank (FDB). The figures show a low level of indigenous Fijian entrepreneurship and participation in the private sector of the economy compared to other ethnic groups. Successive governments since independence have tried to encourage taukei to enter mainstream business and become active participants in the wider economy beyond their resource roles.

These attempts were through various initiatives, including mobilizing the 14 provinces as a platform to launch taukei into commerce. The Commercial and Industrial Loans to Fijians Scheme (CLFS) started in May 1975 with support from the FDB.

It was intended to offer greater fi nancial support to Fijians (as the taukei were then called) and Rotumans to enable them to assume a more active role in commerce and industry. Eventually the CLFS folded as well because of business failures.

Addressing a meeting of the Cakaudrove Provincial Council in Taveuni on September 28, 1984, Ratu David Toganivalu, then deputy prime minister said: “Fijians who want to be successfully involved in business must face the harsh realities of commerce and industry. Commercial considerations have to take priority over social ones and those (Fijians) who failed to do this paid the price”.

Fiji’s first prime minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara has long tried to introduce initiatives to improve economic participation by indigenous Fijians. He initiated the Fiji Pine Scheme as a counter balance to the predominant role of Indo-Fijians in the sugar industry.

For a while, the Fiji Development Bank gave low interest loans to indigenous Fijians. Incorporated in 1984 with the support of the Great Council of Chiefs, Fijian Holdings Ltd, became the showcase for indigenous Fijian investment.

Fast forward to the 1990s. In 1990, the Equity Investment Management Company Ltd (EIMCOL) was established to facilitate indigenous Fijians entry into the commercial world. EIMCOL bought and ran a supermarket chain with government and the FDB injecting capital into the venture. It eventually collapsed.

Tellingly, most of the managers were out of their depth and had little idea on how to run a supermarket. The journey to encouraging Fijians in business has been sadly littered with “dead corpses”, including the Native Land Development Corporation (NLDC), the Kadavu Shipping Company, the National Bank of Fiji and others.

The anecdotal evidence indicates that middle class taukei, many of whom were civil servants, benefi ted from these affi rmative action programs, as opposed to poor, rural taukei. While there were some successes, as previously noted, there were many more failures.

They gave affirmative action policies a bad name and led to perceptions of racism and elitism. After the 1987 coup, the government drove an affirmative action policy seeking to fast track indigenous Fijians in business. Attention was focused on the need for greater indigenous Fijian involvement in all sectors of the economy.

While Ratu Mara headed the interim government leading to elections in 1992, a nine-point plan was drafted relating to fi nance, investment, incentives, and savings. Fijian Holdings acquired signifi cant additional shareholding in established companies.

Provincial Councils and indigenous Fijians were also encouraged to invest in the Unit Trust of Fiji. Former prime minister Laisenia Qarase dedicated a large part of his career to encouraging indigenous Fijians to invest and move into commerce.

He understood that if the majority in the population had a “greater share of the pie” this would bode well for the long-term stability of Fiji. Mr Qarase knew that the Fijian communal lifestyle founded on sharing and group effort, was not in itself suited to the system of private enterprise and individual incentive upon which commerce is built.

A former bank officer who worked with Mr Qarase when he headed the Fiji Development Bank related to me the following story: Lai once told Fijian farmers in South Taveuni, “These Indian farmers sitting here with us planted more yaqona and dalo than you guys. They don’t have big muscles like you. How come they produce more than you?” T

here was total silence afterwards! Mr Qarase made sure in his meetings that he related the success stories of Indian farmers and businesses to the taukei and reminded them that sweating and hard work was the key to their success. As a young officer in the Co-operatives Department, Mr Qarase preached the same sermon in village after village, and meeting after meeting: a business could not spend more than it made or it would go broke; profit was the central objective; the income that a business generated should not be regarded as profit.

He often preached the importance of savings to provide capital to start a business and keep it going. More cross ethnic business partnerships and connections between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians need to be established and developed.

Through joint ventures with seasoned business people and investors, risks can be shared and mitigated. The taukei can contribute land and land based resources, and Indo-Fijians can add capital and business skills. Such partnerships have the potential to yield a “peace dividend”, foster better race relations and develop a sense of national “oneness”.

So why do Taukei businesses fail? 

Business is business, so why should race matter? It probably shouldn’t, but it does. Last month, I accepted an invitation to be a director of Kadavu Holdings Ltd (KHL), the owner of Kadavu House which sits on the waterfront.

At my first board meeting of KHL several weeks ago, I reminded my colleagues that we had to be careful we did not end up like the Kadavu Shipping Company which went belly up because of poor management.

The Chinese in me took a quick look at the books, and I moved a motion that no director should be paid a sitting allowance until the company was in good fi nancial health. While the motion was passed unanimously, I’m sure those that had asked me to be part of the board probably regretted doing so.

The M.V. Bulou ni Ceva, run by the failed Kadavu Shipping Company, now sits in a watery grave off the island of Rotuma. Once a matter of provincial pride, she is now associated with mismanagement. It is unlikely that those that planted the idea of a province running a shipping business had the faintest idea what they were getting into – the high maintenance costs, large overheads and strict regulatory requirements.

The idea of getting the nine tikina chiefs of the province to play a major role in directing the company’s affairs, although well intentioned, was in hindsight, misguided. It resulted in some chiefs dictating the direction and decisions of the board and treating the company like an extension of their chiefdoms, complete with religious services in the morning, and drinking “grog” in the course of the day. Many of the reasons why taukei businesses fail are not unique to them, but are universal.

These included access to capital, poor bookkeeping and fi nancial records that are not up to date, turning a blind eye to clear breaches in corporate governance principles or operational rules and procedures. In a speech to the Fiji Indigenous Business Council in June 2010, the then governor of the Reserve Bank of Fiji, Sada Reddy said: “There is no short cut. Most of the successful businesses you see today did not get any government help in the initial years. It had to be sheer hard work, discipline, both at personal and family level. Business acumen was inculcated from parents to children from a very young age.”

Some Taukei success stories 

The Hot Bread Kitchen (HBK) opened its first shop in February 1981 at the Sundrajee Building (now the Harbour Centre).

About 37 years later, HBK is a household name in Fiji, employing more than 700 staff members (pre-COVID), spread over 27 shops. The business, started by Mere Samisoni and her late husband Jimioni, (a medical doctor), is today a multi-million-dollar enterprise headed by the family matriarch, selling everything from bread to cream buns. Mrs Samisoni’s early attempt to secure a loan from the Fiji Development Bank to start the business, was rejected.

Sceptical bank officers at the time asked: “What does a nurse know about running a business?” One of the directors of HBK, Dr Ilisapeci Kubuabola-Samisoni, said her mother in law had been instrumental in driving the success of the business over three decades.

“She is hard working, consistent, and follows things through. Her work ethic and discipline is amazing.” said Dr Samisoni. Uluibau Tabete is another successful Taukei businessman. Mr Tabete, 44, is the owner and managing director of TABS Investments, a fully owned indigenous business in the timber export business. The company has an annual turnover that surpasses a million dollars.

Mr Tabete is from the village of Yaroi in Matuku, Lau. TABS was established about 13 years ago as a small business making guitar parts. The company supplies timber to famous guitar brands Fender, Gibson and others. It has branched into exporting high grade mahogany, as well as servicing the domestic market. The unassuming former soldier who is the father of three sons says that there were times when he felt like giving up, but he was determined to succeed, and persevered.

“I invested heavily in relationships. I tried hard to build a reputation for reliability and integrity, so when I was a little behind in my payments my creditors knew I would eventually deliver.” This year TABS expects to produce more than 6000 cubic meters of mahogany, the bulk intended for the export market. Mr Tabete paid tribute to his family and employees for his success. “My people are my major asset. Without them, I could not have come this far.”

Panapasa Daunakamakama, 42, who is from Bau, Tailevu, is an emerging businessman, is a director of Juice Fiji. Mr Daunakamakama fi rst tried his hand in real estate, but a hugely competitive environment in a cut throat industry was not viable. Using his background acquired through a degree in agriculture, he turned to farming instead, with a keen interest in organic vegetables. “I was interested in health, nutrition, juice and lifestyle. I had seen the effects of a poor diet and the growing NCDs in the country.

Men of my age and younger were getting their limbs amputated, so I thought that getting into a business to produce health juice would be a small step towards helping get things right.” Mr Daunakamakama said “I thought about growing up and how my grandmother would give us pounded layalaya and coboi (lemon grass) to drink in the morning. But now, it’s all in the bottle we produce, and easy to drink”. His message to young people looking to start a business or already employed: “Do what you love doing and turn it into money or a career.

If you are a cleaner, then aim to be the best cleaner in the world.” An indigenous Fijian woman (she preferred to remain anonymous) who runs a successful business in the tourism industry, told me that culturally, taukei like to “hunt in packs” and found it challenging to do it alone.

She said taukei going into business must be prepared to fail and lose face. It is a “cultural” fear of failure which has led to many, being averse to taking risks. It was important for the extended family (tokatoka or mataqali) of a taukei business not to put additional pressure on its owners for social obligations (solesolevaki or soqo), and to respect those boundaries. She had learnt that “keeping the business separate from culture is important. You have to learn to say no when those inevitable requests for money come in.

Sometime people think just because you have a business card, you must be rich.”

Concluding observations The taukei continue to be generally under- represented in the nation’s economic activities and business. While there have been some notable successes like Hot Bread Kitchen, TAB Investments, Na Hina, Rewa Holdings and others, these have been the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of taukei are not major “players” in the national economy.

Greater taukei participation and success in the broad economy is essential, and will contribute to Fiji’s long-term political stability and prosperity. Temporary special measures (TSM) to assist the disadvantaged, including indigenous Fijians, must be introduced.

It is undesirable and unacceptable that 62 per cent of the population of this country should comprise close to 75 per cent of those living in or close to the poverty line (HIES, 2019- 2020). That so many indigenous Fijians are overrepresented in the recent poverty statistics is deeply concerning and has implications for taukei in business.

The taukei have occupied these islands for thousands of years long before others (including my ancestors) that today call Fiji their home, arrived on its shores.

They had complex social and economic systems and lived in harmony with the land and sea. With colonisation and western influences, came the money economy with its emphasis on individual enterprise and money. These were values that were foreign to a people accustomed to sharing, a communal existence and interdependence.

The pace of change since Ratu Sir Lala’s speech about 100 years ago has been dizzying. Fiji has experienced cataclysmic shifts, waves of emigration and political instability. A global pandemic has wrecked the economies of many countries, including Fiji. The few examples of indigenous Fijian businesses I have showcased shows that when provided the right opportunities and support backed with discipline and skills, success is possible. There is no substitute for hard work.

Nor can there be short cuts to success. Addressing a group of Pacific businessmen in Auckland in 1999, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara said: “The same spirit which brought us to our islands, which created societies where none had been before, that same spirit and the mana of the people and their leaders does not die. It is with us always.

We know who we are. We carry in our hearts the knowledge that we are the bearers of a proud legacy that surely marks us as a people of strength, courage and will”. It is this spirit of resilience that taukeibusinesses will need to draw on to face the challenges of the future.

It is that same spirit that has been responsible for the success of Mere Samisoni, Uluibau Tabete and others of their ilk. Their stories have been inspirational. Young taukei, who have aspirations to enter the world of commerce and business, can do well to take a leaf out of their stories.

They will have to remember that the fundamentals of business do not respect race, religion or culture. In a post-COVID-19 world, taukei wishing to become entrepreneurs might consider diversification, and moving up the value chain by adding value to their current products or services. The competitive world of business is often harsh and unfair, but with determination, discipline, the will to succeed and a level playing field, there is no reason why more taukei cannot succeed in the world of business.

 GRAHAM LEUNG is a Suva lawyer with maternal links to Kadavu Province. He is a former board member of the Fijians Trust Fund and was appointed as a director of Kadavu Holdings Ltd. The views expressed in this article are his and not of this newspaper.

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