Introducing the General Manager, Market Access Chair and Boss blo Copra: Schola Aitora
If Schola Aitora is frank – and she invariably is – agriculture was the last thing this dynamic businesswoman from Papua New Guinea expected to become her life-long passion and profession.
“As a child, picking coffee berries and cocoa beans was just a game. All through my childhood we did it, although even back then we knew it was a way we could earn a little bit of money,” she says with one of her trademark smiles.
“When it came time for us to go secondary school, my aunty, who didn’t have any children of her own, allocated a little section of her plantation for each of us to pick the coffee and cocoa and sell the fruits for our school fees. So over time I came to realise that it is agriculture that sustains us.”
Growing up in PNG’s East Sepik province, Schola, by her own description has enjoyed a long, lively and satisfying career in Solomon Islands agricultural sector spanning four decades. The story of how this came about starts with her graduation from the East Sepik College of Agriculture, Maprik and her decision to marry a fellow Ag-student and follow him home to Solomon Islands in 1986.
These were exciting times. In a nation less than a decade old, a lot of energy was being directed into unlocking the commercial potential of the country’s agriculture sector by building up the skills and capacity of the provinces.
Basing themselves in her husband’s home province of Makira-Ulawa, the Aitoras both quickly found work in the province’s agriculture sector.
“I started to look after the Agricultural Training Centre there, working with women in the province, to assist and support their agricultural activities. It was my first real job!” recalls Schola.
Around the same time another part of the vision for creating a vibrant agriculture sector, was realised with the establishment of a Commodities Export Marketing Authority (CEMA) to regulate, promote and facilitate the country’s agricultural commodities for export.
By the early 1990s the Aitoras had started a family, and moved 250 km to the Solomons capital, Honiara where they both eventually secured roles with the new authority, Schola as the country’s first female produce inspector.
“We had a list of prescribed commodities, there were certain criteria for each produce which as an inspector you needed to look for. I did that for six years, before being promoted to be CEMA’s Information Officer, which was when I started to promote the prescribed commodities for export.”
But a seismic shift in Solomon Islands society was brewing and in 1998 growing ethnic tensions led to open civil unrest on the island of Guadalcanal, peaking with a coup in June 2000, deposing the elected government and effectively dismantling the rule of law. As armed militants took over the streets of Honiara, many residents fled to the relative safety of their home provinces; economic activity in the capital all but shut down.
The devastating impact of this rippled across the nation, as provincial and international trade and transport all but ceased, private sector operations ground to a halt and national authorities such as CEMA were no longer able to safely carry out their functions.
“There were trees out there, but the market completely halted because of the ethnic tensions,” recalls Schola who with her family retreated for a while to the safety of Makira. “People could not bring their produce to Honiara, there was no transport and it just wasn’t safe. No!”
After the arrival of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) in 2003 and the eventual return of law and order, Schola returned to her post at CEMA, throwing herself into the effort to revive the country’s agriculture sector. In 2005 she was promoted to the Commodities Development and Extension Manager.
“Things had settled down, RAMSI was still here, so we were trying to revive, trying to boost the farmers to go back to their normal routine of growing and harvesting copra and cocoa. We needed a lot of training to get them on the right track producing the quality that was expected if we were going to be able to export,” she says.
Around the same time a new player in the private sector, Holland Commodities International set up operations just down the road from CEMA’s portside headquarters and started to help rebuild the copra industry.
“Money was something that everyone needed to sustain their lives, so people started to think about going back to their plantations, especially the main crops coconut and cocoa. But at that time a lot of dryers needed to be repaired, and then the drums had deteriorated, corroded, so they needed to replace them, then they could start processing the commodities,” says Schola.
“Holland actually brought in all these agri-supplies. They came with drums, they came with dry nets, they gave impresses to some of their trusted clients and said can you go and buy the copra on our behalf, so those people acted as agents. In Western Province, Choiseul, and the Shortlands where there were long distances to cover, they even financed outboard motors and canoes. Slowly Solomon Islanders tuned into the fact that Holland Commodities had the capital they didn’t have and were willing to pre-finance them with capital so they could develop.”
Unsurprisingly, this didn’t go unnoticed by Schola who in 2015, walked 100 metres down the road to join Holland’s local company, Solomon Islands Copra Exporters Pty Ltd, where, as General Manager for the past seven years, she’s overseen the company’s thriving export operations.
Sitting at her crowded desk recently, the sounds of workers unloading the sooty sacks of copra in the background, seemingly undeterred by the challenges of COVID-19 or recent riots, Schola speaks with real passion about the very great satisfaction this role gives her.
“I see people from every level of society, some of them come to us, maybe by road, maybe by boat, often urgently needing money, wanting to sell their copra to us. These people will come in late, and we will be here to 7pm or even later, they don’t like to stay in Honiara, they need to go back home, so we stay open, I say please guys, can we help them? When I see that happen, I feel so much gratitude that I have been able to help someone in need.”
Schola clearly also loves the commercial aspects of the operations too, her eyes lighting up when she talks about markets, tonnage, prices and shipments. Wielding her calculator like a laser gun she proudly punches out the maths of an upcoming bulk break shipment, which she and her team will load overnight from a second copra storage facility, a vast shed filled to the brim with loose copra, the fruit of many transactions, harvests, sweat and labour by farmers across the country.
Recently Schola accepted a key leadership role as Chair of the Solomon Islands Market Access Working Group (MAWG) a network of government, donor and private sector representatives established with the support of the Pacific Horticultural and Agricultural Market Access Plus Program, known as PHAMA Plus, and funded by the Australian and New Zealand Governments.
Currently operating in six Pacific countries – Fiji, PNG, Samoa, Solomons, Tonga and Vanuatu – the MAWGs are influential groups within each country, networking back into their home institutions, companies, and organisations, according to PHAMA Plus National Facilitator Solomon Islands Judith Reynolds.
“The aim is for a country’s MAWG to set an export development agenda that is well targeted, strategic and relevant. Then, working with PHAMA Plus, we can help to build and sustain the momentum to achieve this, tapping into the technical support and other resources that the program can provide through our funding from Australia and New Zealand,” says Reynolds, a fellow Papua New Guinean who has also made her home in Solomons.
“Schola’s wide experience across all aspects of Solomons’ agriculture sector, combined with her enthusiasm for everything she puts her mind to means she is ideally suited to this role.”
As for the MAWG Chair herself, Schola is keen to use the opportunity to lead and foster the development, and ultimately the export, of value-added products by Solomon Islanders.
“My highest priority is value addition, so Solomon Islanders can end up with more income, that is what I would like to see. But we need more training, and the appropriate technology, that fits the Solomons context,” she says. “We need to be able to produce the quality and consistency of supply of products that the market requires. Ultimately, in the market, it comes down to that: how we can build the trust and confidence.”
And if there is anyone who can get people working together to achieve that, it’s Schola Aitora.