By Kalafi Moala
Nuku’alofa, Tonga: 18 Dec 2020. An Air New Zealand Boeing 777 flew out of Fua’amotu International Airport yesterday with 20 tonnes of watermelons on board, bound for Christchurch, New Zealand. The watermelon consignment was the first to be shipped to New Zealand after the temporary lift of the ban on Tongan watermelon shipments. The ban was imposed in late October due to fruit fly larvae found in a watermelon in one of the bins.
An attempt for the first trial shipment after the ban was lifted failed as the consignment was unable to be loaded onto the ship on time. The ship left for New Zealand without the watermelons. Despite facts of why the failure, MAFF has gone to air via their Acting CEO, Mana’ia Halafihi, laying the blame on the exporter company, Nishi Trading Co. Ltd.
But the failure was the fault of Quarantine Services of MAFF at Queen Salote Wharf (QSW). Either the leaders of MAFF were not correctly informed of the problem by their own staff or they deliberately lied to the public to try and excuse themselves by laying blame on the most successful produce exporter, Nishi Trading Company Ltd.
Some of the workers at Quarantine knew the real problem, that the trucks and containers could not fit into the shed for the offloading; the poles at the doorway needed to be removed. It was the responsibility of MAFF to do so. They knew before hand, but did nothing. The ship left. It was a failure of the MAFF system at QSW, and the leaders were not willing to front up to their failed responsibilities.
But yesterday some of the watermelon growers were at the Quarantine Services at QSW. And so were the officials of the main exporter, Nishi Trading Company. They wanted to make sure the consignment of watermelon containers will safely be on the plane to New Zealand. They did not want any problems to occur as in the previous week.
They have suffered huge financial losses from the first shipment that resulted in the ban. And so have the exporter. They also have lost money on the trial shipment that did not happen. Their loss, as it was previously, was due to a fault that was not their own. They had to get their produce to New Zealand, this time by air.
Ensuring that no problem would occur
This air cargo flight is an historical event for Tonga, as it is the first commercial shipment by air of watermelons from the kingdom. A small air cargo shipment in 1991 was only for rock melons. This first commercial shipment of produce from Tonga is expected by the exporter and growers to be the first of many. And it is more sensible as the fruit gets to the market a lot fresher than by ocean shipment.
Officials and workers of MAFF who are carrying out the quarantine services were careful to ensure there are no hiccups this time around.
Even the Minister of MAFF, Lord Tu’ilakepa was present to lend support to the effort to get the consignment to the airplane at Fua’amotu International. He was optimistic about the future of watermelon shipments from Tonga. “We are doing everything to improve the system so that problems recently experienced will not happen again,” he said.
But even assurance of improving the way of doing things from the Minister did not meet with any lesser degree of cynicism as the growers claim the fault that lies at the failure of the last shipment was entirely that of the quarantine services.
Confirmation of who is at fault
Tevita To’a from Lapaha, a grower whose livelihood is from watermelon export, says without hesitation that the main reason for the consignment missing the ship was that containers could not be offloaded to the shed at the dock.
“The containers could not be offloaded because they could not fit into the shed doorway. Two days previously officials at the quarantine services were told they need to remove two or three of the metal poles on the doorway of the shed so the containers can fit, but they did not,” he said.
Minoru Nishi of Nishi Trading said he heard that MAFF had blamed his company for the failure of the shipment granted by the temporary lifting of the ban. “But I wanted a meeting with all the companies involved so that the truth would come up before I say something,” he said.
On Friday 11 December, a meeting was convened in which Metui Falesiva, Acting CEO under Mana’ia Halafihi, representative of the shipping company (Mataliki Shipping) Alfred Cowley, Transportation, and Minoru Nishi of Nishi Trading Company were present. In that meeting it was confirmed there would not have been a problem if the metal poles by the doorway to the shed were cut or removed.
The shipping company told the Quarantine officials, the trucks bringing in the containers could not fit into doorway of the shed, “even the smallest of the trucks could not fit.” But Quarantine did not do anything about it as has been alleged.
Such were the difficulties the Nishi Trading Company with its growers were experiencing as MAFF went on media trying to shift the blame of the failure on the exporter, and not themselves.
Where there is a problem, there could be an opportunity
The failure of the shipment by sea, gave way to the idea of air cargo for the watermelons. The consignment that was supposed to be shipped could not be retained for future shipment as there is requirement only for fresh fruit to be shipped. So, the unshipped watermelons were sold locally quite cheaply, another loss to the grower and exporter.
Planes on ground in New Zealand due to the Covid 19 restrictions could be readily used for cargo. And so the idea of flying consignments of watermelons, fresh to New Zealand, was not only sensible, but also provide a possibility for Tongan watermelons to be shipped out quickly to a market that is in high demand for watermelons.
As this story goes to press, news from New Zealand confirms that the high demand has raised the price of watermelons, giving hope to growers that maybe this could help make up for their losses.
Mateo Lautaimi and his brother Kafoika from Vaini have been growing and exporting watermelons for more than 10 years. It is not only their livelihood, but has also become a business that a number of other families, who work with them depend on.
Kafoika says that for each acre of land, there are seeds, fertilizers, insecticides, labour cost that are incurred as part of the expenses in growing and exporting watermelons. “The loss,” says Kafoika, “is not only in the money we would have gotten from the sale of our watermelons, but also the expenses of production.”
Manase Pailate is a grower from Lapaha who has been exporting for the last 3 years. He talks about substantial loss from the initial ban, but also from the trial shipment. He is hopeful however, as his watermelons were being airfreighted, that this is the beginning of a turn around to their misfortune.
Minoru says that if there was no problem this year, they would have shipped up to 800 tonnes of watermelons to New Zealand. This would have brought in up to $2 million by the end of December. But looking at the problem from a different angle, the losses by the end of the month could be in the vicinity of $1.5 million.
But it is not all bad news from the Government. Latest word from Minoru is that Government will be reimbursing in full, the losses suffered by the growers. Initially there was talk of payment of only 50%, but the growers had petitioned Government for help, and insisted they be paid in full, since it was not their fault with the problem that happened. This is obviously a huge help to an industry that must be nurtured for the present and future.
There are two factors that have affected the New Zealand watermelon market: that Australia is still restricted from watermelon exports to New Zealand, and that locally grown New Zealand watermelons are not expected to be harvested until next year. Here is an opportunity for Tongan watermelons. There could be several air flight with Tongan watermelons to New Zealand for the next 2-3 months.
“We were told on Wednesday,” Minoru said, “to go ahead and pick the watermelons. And then on Thursday, Transportation informed us that two of the metal posts have been cut, thus providing room for the container trucks to fit.”
An interesting fact however is that it cost $1000 just to cut one pole. And for two, whoever was doing it, collected $2000. Such is the kind of money dished out from Government services to perform simple tasks like cutting a pole.
But by Friday the first commercially Tongan watermelon airfreight cargo was flown to New Zealand. This was a major step up for Tongan watermelon exports, and for that matter, fresh produce exports that can arrive at the market still very fresh.
There are major issues that must be addressed however, including conflict of interests and corruptive activities that are alleged to be going on at MAFF and especially in the produce export side of things. And that is the subject of our next Watermelon Story Part II: “Why this Government is trying to control the private sector?”