Published on June 17, 2015
Sparkling waters teeming with whales, seemingly endless powder-white beaches and verdant palm forests spiced with the scent of tropical flowers: at first glimpse, Tonga projects a postcard-perfect image of Polynesia. But life for many outside the tourist resorts is plagued by hardship that is rooted in a lack of job opportunities. The self-styled "Friendly Isles" are sprinkled over an area roughly the size of Japan and even today, the country's small, isolated and scattered
population limits private enterprise and investment. There are more Tongans living overseas than in the kingdom itself and money sent back by this diaspora dominates the economy.
COCONUTS POWERING CHANGE
A new venture is aiming to reverse the cycle of poverty and unemployment by putting money into
farmers' pockets and transforming lives, giving communities in Tonga hope for a brighter future:
Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO), produced by a local youth organisation, is already driving impressive change in this sleepy corner of the South Pacific. Nicknamed "the tree of life", the fruit of these
statuesque trees are a mainstay of the Polynesian diet. In recent years, Westerners have woken up to the coconut's many health properties and today, virgin coconut oil is wildly popular among the health conscious of Australasia.
The team at Tonga National Youth Congress (TNYC), a Tonga-based community organisation
that receives funding from Oxfam New Zealand, and the New Zealand and Australian governments, recognised the opportunity around them and sought help to tap into the growing demand for VCO. Oxfam New Zealand supports local development initiatives across the Pacific and with funding from the New Zealand Aid Programme, worked to build
the coconut oil processing sites and provide TNYC with equipment and expertise to get the programme off the ground. The endeavour's profitability hinged on finding a market for the oil. This is where Heilala Vanilla, a specialty food company based in the Bay of Plenty, stepped in.
CRAFTING THE OIL
Wisps of smoke rise from an inconspicuous hut just a few blocks from the opulent royal palace in
Nukualofa, Tonga's capital city. The VCO site at Kolomotu'a is filled with men and women busily
husking, grating, drying and pressing coconuts. This is one of TNYC's busiest processing sites, where coconuts from Tonga's biggest island are deposited and transformed into crystal clear oil.
The entire production process for the oil, from palm to plate, takes just a few hours.
TNYC's field officers buy and collect coconuts from farmers and the nuts are taken to one of 15 processing sites. Locals are employed to husk and remove the coconut flesh using electric graters. The flesh is dried on large stainless plates that are lightly heated by embers
from wood-fired ovens for three hours before it's pressed hydraulically to extract the oil. Impurities
are removed and buckets of oil are shipped from Nuku'alofa to Tauranga, where it's packaged for
retail as Heilala Virgin Coconut Oil.
"It's made using fresh coconuts, not dried copra, and grown using sustainable, organic
agricultural methods. Oil is extracted using the cold pressed method, not heated or fermented," explains Heilala Vanilla CEO Jennifer Boggiss.
Valu Tui'nukuafe is classed as youth in Tonga, despite being 54. This is because he lives alone. He's been working here at Kolomotu'a for a year and enjoys the camaraderie. His eight-hour shift involves husking the coconuts freshly arrived from eastern farms.
Perched on a stool among piles of coconuts, he strips the hard shells of their fibres. Each coconut has to be husked, macheted, grated, weighed, dried and pressed, the whole process taking around four hours. Tui'nukuafe used to earn money as a wood carver but it was hard to make ends meet. He jumped at the chance of a better paid, regular job: "I enjoy working here; it's good, fair wages and 1 have a lot more money now. This kind of project in a small country like Tonga is going to help us for the long term."
NEW GENERATION, NEW OPPORTUNITIES
Nakolo village sits high atop a windy ridge overlooking the ocean. Ramshackle houses are
fashioned from bits of wood and corrugated iron. Small scrappy dogs guard open doorways where
men, tired from working their taro patches, rest from the heavy midday heat. Women hang washing on trees and shoo pigs. Silaiti and Napole Laiseni live in a brightly painted breezeblock home set among 24 acres of tropical taro, tapioca, sweet bananas and coconut
palms. Rural families like theirs face tough choices, as high school fees and other monthly bills can push people to the financial brink. Primary school in Tonga is free and compulsory,
but secondary school is costly and optional. Parents have to choose which of their children to send to school. Children have to miss classes because they can't pay their fees, or can't complete homework because they don't have exercise books or pens. School fees are often cited as the main family expense, but Silaiti believes it's worth the cost.
"Education is so important; it changes people, the community. It makes a stronger Tonga."
"With 300 coconuts I could earn P$7 ($4) selling copra as pig feed. But it was hard work, especially during the wet season because the copra needs to dry out," says Napole.
Now, he wanders down a muddy track each day to collect fallen nuts, or if the winds haven't been
strong enough, he'll climb up and hack them off with a machete. The nuts are piled high in the yard, ready for sorting. TNYC's field officers visit the farm to collect the nuts and pay 40c each for the biggest ones, handing over money to Napole at the farm gate. Working with VCO, 100 coconuts can now earn Napole and Silaiti P$40 ($27) - a basic office job in the capital typically pays P$75 ($50) a week. Napole says the VCO work is a lot easier than copra - it's "picking
money from the ground. The coconut oil has made a big difference - it has made life easier".
Communities like Napole's and those throughout Tonga have embraced these opportunities and
consumer demand in New Zealand and Australia is delivering real change - higher incomes, new jobs and better prospects across generations.
"Communities in Tonga have traditionally struggled to become part of the cash economy, so the
experience of earning cash right at their doorstep is something truly welcomed. The people of Tonga are keen to maintain and grow this," says Kamilo Ali, Oxfam's Pacific Livelihoods programme officer.