By Kalafi Moala
Nuku’alofa, Tonga – The watermelon growers, the export company and MAFF officials are hopeful, now that the first ever shipment of watermelons to be commercially flown out of Tonga last week has safely arrived in New Zealand.
But while Government officials were self-congratulating themselves for facilitating this first shipment after the ban, Tonga’s biggest and most successful produce export company, Nishi Trading Company Ltd., as well as growers are bracing themselves for the long haul tinged with cynicism.
It is not that they have a problem with the export market, or with their production capabilities. And even if there were, they could be sorted out quite easily, says a leading grower. The grower is speaking quite confidently about the capabilities of the exporting company, Nishi Trading, not only in organizing export shipments, but following strictly a best practice work process that ensures the best possible outcome.
Government can be the real problem
But it is often the Government that is the problem! And it is not that there is just a lack of commitment to best practice, but there is already an inordinate amount of time spent in finding out how things went wrong, when they do go wrong. And in almost every case, it is the fault of someone or something to do with the services that Government is responsible for.
This has created a strained relationship, that has been blamed on areas of serious conflict of interests by workers of MAFF at the Quarantine Services.
Minoru Nishi of Nishi Trading confirms there is a strained relationship in working with Government, and there are roadblocks they sometimes encounter, that should not be there. “There is always the curious feeling whether Government is really committed to work with the private sector, let alone encourage our participation in building the economy,” he says.
For starters, the Government has its own exporting company operated by the Ministry of Trade and Economic Development. It was set up by Tu’i Uata when he was the Minister of Labour and Commerce but failed to do what it was set up for. It was expected to be closed, but the new Government came in and continued the operation, now under the ministerial leadership of Samiu Vaipulu.
The Government export company has become an obstacle to the overall produce export operations in Tonga, as it is alleged to be receiving selective favorable treatment in competition with the bigger and privately owned Nishi Trading Company.
The feeling is they are trying to compete with Nishi Trading, and as one grower says, “I’ve heard directly an official at Quarantine Services boast, they are going to ‘kill this little company’ referring to Nishi Trading.”
The same grower also says there have been active recruiting by the Government export company from the Nishi Trading growers to ship with them, and to abandon Nishi Trading.
He refers to the same official that threatened to ‘kill Nishi Trading’ as the same person actively recruiting growers to ship with the Government. It is a case of huge conflict of interest, as an official from Quarantine Services, which inspects and fumigates all the watermelons to be shipped, is the same official that is practically an active part of a group of competing growers that either ship with the Government export company, or trying to set up their own.
Conflict of interests practiced so normally and without restrain especially in this Government is one of the cornerstones of corruption, that is not only prevalent here in Tonga, but also in any society that ignores conflict of interest situations.
Nishi Trading Company has a legacy of exporting produce
With 30 growers committed to shipping with Nishing Trading, it is the biggest exporter of agricultural produce, especially watermelons. “Our growers must register and attend weekly meetings and training that we provide throughout the year,” says Minoru.
In 2019 there were 82 metric tonnes of watermelons exported, and in 2020 there were 357.6 metric tonnes. “Our aim is to reach 900-1000 metric tonnes in 2021,” says Minoru. And so, there is no lack of vision or commitment to this growing exporter that was registered in 1999, but Minoru said: “We have been exporting since the early 70’s as a sole trader business with my father. He first exported a host of fresh produce such as zucchini, tomatoes, capsicums, all via airfreight mostly to New Zealand but also Pagopago.”
“My father then grew bananas and exported mixed consignments that included taro, sugarcane, coconuts, yams and of-course watermelons in the 70’s which continued to the 1980’s,” Minoru said.
A pack house that is one of the best in the region
It is not until you drive up to the Nishi Trading pack house in ‘Utulau, a 20 minute drive out of downtown Nuku’alofa, that you realize you are dealing with a company that has huge plans for the future. And they believe unapologetically that agricultural exporting could be a cornerstone of economic prosperity for the kingdom.
Nishi Trading has invested over $2 million pa’anga into building the pack house and equipping it with what would make their services one of the safest and best anywhere. They are the only certified pack house in Tonga for watermelons.
Minoru says, “The pack house is licensed under the international HACCP food safety system and it allows us to process and pack squash, butternut, pumpkin and butterkin, all part of the cucurbits family. We aim to include other crops in the near future such as frozen root crops, and so on.”
Why Government is trying to control or compete with the private sector?
Minoru Nishi, the chief force behind Nishi Trading was asked this very question, of why does it seems Government is either trying to control or compete with the private sector? “I do not know why Government is competing with the private sector,” he answered.
“There are far more important trade issues they should be focusing their efforts on such as lobbying foreign governments to reduce tariffs on our exports, facilitating discussions amongst PIF leaders on ways to improve freight logistics both sea and air within the region which includes Australia and New Zealand.”
Minoru also says that Government should “invest in research and development, innovation through adoption of long-term policies in education to bring qualified students in targeted areas identified through collaboration and listening to the private sector.”
“Such initiatives,” he says, “through policies will result in creating new job opportunities and industries which will go a long way to reducing international trade deficits.”
“The country as a whole is disadvantaged when Government is not taking the initiatives discussed here,” Minoru says. “If clear guidelines for employees are not set in concrete, the result will lead to corruption in all levels which results in a disaster and failure of the system in the long run.”
“Our overall exports would improve significantly if their policies were to truly support the private sector. A good example is Samoa where their government is very much pro-development through the support they provide to the private sector,” Minoru says.
“Through greater integration and support to the private sector, outcomes such as improved efficiencies, innovation, improved and increased production in the productive sectors become a reality. Success only stems from good, strong leadership with a clear vision in mind. This success can only be achieved though, if the culture (attitudes) within the institution is in line with the vision set by the leaders.”
Government officials who are involved in businesses themselves, particularly in areas where there are issues of conflict of interest. It is obvious in some areas like sea-cucumber export and whale watching, there are those officials who hold licenses. Minoru says that it happens in all sectors. But why is this allowed to happen, and how can it be corrected?
Minoru says that it only happens “because our leaders and CEOs who advise our Ministers allow it to happen. He said: “To correct it, the Government needs to go through a significant restructuring of its operational framework.”
“We also need to review our Parliamentary election system because I believe a great deal of the problems of corruption and conflicts of interests stem from how we select and appoint our leaders into power as well as all other civil servants.”
Minoru said: “Public servants need to understand what it means to be a ‘Public Servant’ and ‘why’ they chose to be one before they are employed. It would be a significant challenge to create the structure we need to build a better Tonga, but it is not impossible.”