Rise of Lotopoha: The Story of Tonga’s Only Woman Root Crops Exporter

A Farming Pedigree

Farming root crops has always been a part of Melesisi Finefeuiaki’s life. The granddaughter of a Tongan noble, Melesisi grew up surrounded by farming, that was traditionally tendered by her grandfather and then by her father in their ancestral lands at the village of Kolonga, located in eastern part of Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island.

It was the way of life seeing her grandparents, parents and other family members engaging in farming. Apart from her family’s daily consumption, the main obligations were to produce more than enough to fulfill their Royal and church commitments – never for commercial purposes. After the passing away of her father, Melesisi, who by then was building a successful career as a public servant in Tonga, began bearing some of the financial burden of the family’s farm.

“When my father late Viliami Fonolahi Naufahu Finefeuiaki passed away, the cycle of the farming continued on. My older sister migrated abroad, so I stepped up to bear the financial commitment with my other sister.  It gave me a lot of thoughts to decide whether there was any profit potential from spending on this farming to at least help out cover the expenses or cost made.”

Still keeping her role in the Pharmacy Department of the Ministry of Health, Melesisi started researching potential markets for Tonga’s three main root crops – taro, casava and yam, especially when she travelled abroad.

Rise of Lotopoha Export Trading

Eventually this ‘interest’ in markets led Melesisi to start her own export business in November 2011. And as her business started to grow, she eventually took the leap three years later, quitting her job to throw all her energies, and considerable funds, into the development of her export business, Lotopoha Export Trading. By 2021, the company was supporting more than 110 households in the farming, production, packaging and exporting of casava, yams and taro to markets in Australia, New Zealand and the United States. 

The company was also purchasing crops from smallholder farmers on Tongatapu and the outer islands in order to help smallholders move from subsistence to semi-commercial.

Climate change and land

When Melesisi first started, climate change was already taking its toll on Tonga’s island. Coupled with the constraints tradition landowners face raising capital for the development of ‘unregistered’ land, the challenges were only growing.

“I love my culture, but it is so hard that the banks won’t recognise our traditional lands as assets against which we should be able to raise some capital,” says Melesisi.

“It was so hard when I started. You pay your workers not yourself.”

As with many other Pacific Island States, over the past decade, Tonga has recorded a significant decline in rates of precipitation as well as substantial rises in atmospheric temperatures. Coastal erosion, rising sea levels and ocean acidification are all at record-breaking highs and all are taking their toll on Tonga’s agricultural sector, impacting yield and availability of arable land.

“I think it was when I was preparing my second or third container, I just had tears streaming down my face from the stress of it all,” says Melesisi.

“If it wasn’t for my family’s moral and financial support as well as the other support I’ve got, I could not have kept going.”

Challenging the male domination

Melesisi agreed to enter Lotopoha into a partnership with the Australian and New Zealand funded Pacific Horticultural and Agricultural Market Access Plus (PHAMA Plus) Program in 2021. Since then, PHAMA Plus has supported Melesisi and Lotopoha in a number of ways including the provision of planting materials and agriculture information, supplies and services for youth groups, women-headed households and disadvantaged families.

Lotopoha partnered with PHAMA Plus to carry out root crop trials with an aim of introducing improved root crop varieties. Once these were tested, Melesisi shared the results with smallholder farming communities that she supports. Lotopoha Export was very fortunate to have been allocated 60 acres of land by the Grace of His Majesty King Tupou VI at his Royal Estate at Kauvai for the root crop trials.

In line with Australia and New Zealand Governments’ commitment to gender equality and social inclusion, PHAMA Plus has actively supported Melesisi’s efforts in challenging the male domination of both the agricultural and export sector in Tonga as well as her engagement with the most vulnerable in Tonga, women and youth.

As Tonga’s only woman formal root crop exporter, Melesisi agreed that going to the farm and exporting of root crops is not only a man’s job, “women are also capable of doing it”.  

Recently Melesisi accepted a key leadership role as Chairperson of the Tonga Central Pack house Committee, a legal entity made up of agriculture private and public sector.

“It’s a bit of new thing, normally you just see men going to the farm, but I love empowering the women, especially as it is a male dominated sector,” she says unapologetically.

“I really feel the heat in the past 3 years just maybe because I am male dominated area.”

One of the female farmers that Melesisi has encouraged is Aiona Mataele, who works in partnership with Lotopoha growing cassava for export.

“I work together with other women on this farming estate,” says Aiona.

“There’s a lot of perception that farming is for men and women are to do the household chores, but women can work on the farm if they are given the opportunity. Women can do any job if they decide to do it.”

Aiona says the support provided through the partnership between Lotopoha and PHAMA Plus, has helped smallholder growers like her to improve their productivity by learning and following good agricultural practices advice as well as growing different varieties in trial plots.

“The work has its challenges and involves hard work and involves commitment but the rewards are certainly worth it. The objective is to improve yields to help our families,” Aiona added.

The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai Volcanic eruption

Early this year, Tonga was hit by a devastating volcanic eruption, killing several people, raining hot volcanic ash down upon the islands, ravaging its crops and vegetation and triggering a tsunami that destroyed homes and crops on some islands.

The eruption, which happened just 65 kilometres from the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa, saw many in Tonga’s population of over 100,000 people working quickly, with the assistance of international donors including Australia and New Zealand, to clear away the thick layer of ash that blanketed everything, establish clean drinking-water supplies and trying to salvage something of their crops, the damage to which is estimated to be close to US$17 million or 39 million Tongan pa‘anga.

According to PHAMA Plus National Facilitator, Robert Vivili, while the ash or tephra (the scientific name of volcanic ash) which contains a lot of nutrients – rich primary minerals will ultimately enrich the soil it lands on, the initial impact has been devastating for mature crops that were due to be harvested soon.

“All of a sudden you get a big shock, an overdose of fertilizer. Ash burned the leaves, affected the plants and roots,” Robert says.

“All the crops on the ground, the mature crops were affected, the younger crops not so much, the replanted crops even…but the ones ready to harvest, they really suffered.”

For Melesisi and the small-holder farmers she supports, it was a cruel blow, coming not so long after New Zealand had finally reopened its market to Tonga root crop exports.

“It really, really destroyed our current crops – 80 per cent of the harvest of 100 acres was lost.”

A pandemic and a shipping crisis

“Straight after the volcano we had COVID,” says Melesisi, recalling how the international assistance that flooded into her nation after the eruption, although initially designed to be contactless, inevitably saw the COVID-19 virus finally breech Tonga’s shores.

Connected to this, and already brewing was the latest blow to the country’s root crop trade has been a crisis in international shipping which has not only led to huge delays, massive freight rises but means ships scheduled to drop off and collect cargo in Nuku’alofa are regularly being diverted, skipping the port altogether due to the pressure on their schedules.

“Exporters are really struggling with the shipping delays,” says Robert.

“This is especially because when they can’t ship their commodities on time, according to the schedule agreed with the buyer, the buyer then becomes uneasy and wants to find another a supplier.”

For Melesisi who has previously secured a lucrative perch in the frozen casava markets in New Zealand, Australia and the United States, the delays have been highly demoralising and financially backbreaking.

“I have no choice but to prepare my consignment ready for shipment but then if the ship bypasses us, I’m left with the massive electricity costs because if I don’t want to lose the consignment, I’ve got to keep the power on to keep it frozen,” Melesisi said.  

Looking to the future

Lotopoha is about to enter a new partnership with the next stage of PHAMA Plus which will be focusing on finding solutions for some of the sector’s biggest challenges. This will include work on improving post-production practices, exploring ways to reduce post-harvest losses, building a focus on premium markets, maximising returns from fresh and frozen product pathways, and understanding the role and opportunities for women and youth in the sector.

The program will also seek to provide complementary support on shipping and logistics to ensure consistent services are available to exporters from Tonga once again even short of empty reefers is another massive problem. As advised from the shipping agent in Tonga they may have no reefer up to the end of the year.

Certainly, for Tonga’s only female root crop exporter, there is always only one way to move and that is forward!

“When I first thought about going into the root crop export business, I thought I knew about it, I thought of it as a simple process of growing, cleaning, peeling, chopping and packing!” Melesisi recalls.

“I didn’t know what I didn’t know but that was probably just as well as if I had known, I might never have done it,” she says her laugh making clear that she has no thought of giving up just yet.

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