Sunday, June 12, 2016

When Fiji vegetable farmers get short-changed by Auckland middlemen: Are they being cheated and exploited?

Thakur Ranjit Singh

As the NZ Airforce Hercules took off from my neighbourhood at Whenuapai Military base in Auckland, and eased and glided into a warm and damp Nausori Airport, it was a historical flight in some respects. When John Key stepped out onto Nausori Airport tarmac he became the first New Zealand Prime Minister to visit Fiji since Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama displaced Qarase. He took control of Fiji Government. However, I refuse to call it a “coup”. This is because no army commander gives 18 months’ notice to the government of an impending coup. But that is another story, some other day.

Frank Bainimarama leading John Key into into VIP lounge at Nausori Airport. In the background is NZ Air Force's Hercules.

One issue they spoke about was trade imbalance. But above that was price imbalance. From the secret dairy of FIJI PUNDIT, this is what was reported by my spy, Guru Ghantaal, who overheard the conversation between the two leaders:

Key: Bula, Frank, nice to be in Fiji from the freezing Auckland and a boiling Auckland housing crisis.  I needed to escape from that heat I created. Lack of action from my government caused this unfortunate situation. But there are some other biting problems here. My secret agents from Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) visited Suva Market. They reported on overabundance of vegetables, in particular bhindi and baigan, which are in big demand by Fijians and other Indians in Auckland. My GCSB officers (spies) tell me that your bhindi costing a dollar in Fiji is sold for up to $20 Fiji dollars per kilo in Auckland, and same applies to other vegetables. Your vegetables in Auckland now cost more than our beef, chicken, fish and lamb.

Eggplant, or Baigan, which when bought in Fiji by bag-full, may cost as low as 50 cents per kg, but they are sold for Fijian $20 in Auckland, only three hours flight from Fiji, with freight costing around $1 per kg. How does 50c escalate to  $20 is our concern. There is over-abundance of Baigan  in Fiji, and is rotting in markets, but unwarranted greed by Auckland importers is killing its demand and Fiji market potential in New Zealand.
Frank: Kia Ora, Karua John…Sa, this is no good, is that really so? Are Fijian farmers short-changed by your importers?

Key: Sure, Karua.  You see, you are selling 10 kg bags of NZ onions and potatoes very cheap in Fiji. Kiwi onions and potatoes should sell for around $150 under the same pricing formula that Auckland importers apply on of Fiji produce. NZ apples should sell at $45 per kg in Fiji under reciprocal pricing. Something is very wrong in your vegetable export market, just like our Auckland housing market.

Frank: Very frankly talking, John, I was unaware of this daylight international robbery. I hear FIJI PUNDIT blog and NZ Fiji Trade Bulletin talking about this. I cannot trust Kiwi journalist. FIJI PUNDIT is one Fijian journalist I can trust in NZ. My Government will look into this. Talking about journalist, I will save that scud missile for later use……..

And as they entered the VIP lounge, our spy lost the other part of the conversation….. But now on those uncontrolled Fiji vegetable exports to New Zealand.

Bora or Cowpeas also sell for Fijian $20 per kg in Auckland. If proper market gardening is done, and greed of importers in removed from pricing, demand can go up and Fiji exports can be increased. Some selected few importers appear to have a cartel and fix high prices, stifling demand. We call upon Fiji Government to intervene.
As somebody who studied journalism, and various models of it, I became deeply interested in Investigative and Development Journalism. In Investigative journalism, reporters intensively investigate a story over a longer period with a view to producing a report based on careful research, analysis and evaluation. Those complaining about media freedom in Fiji should know there is nothing stopping them from being smart and efficient, and probing on issues affecting economic development.

Development Journalism is something, which a developing country like Fiji should emphasise can benefit from. In the traditional press, journalists tend to report government press releases and quotes but leaving little space for analysis or evaluation of development projects. This entails qualitative analysis and evaluation of issues to reveal pros and cons of such issues for the benefit of the public. A feature on development journalism, among others, may cover issues such as economic development, agriculture and primary industry growth, export markets etc. Why do some journalist just feel that journalism is about political divisiveness? Universities in Fiji need to focus on this model of journalism. This will help improve Fiji’s economic potential. We need more stories helping economic development and telling positive people interest stories.  

Daruka in Auckland sells for Fijian $22. per kg. Perhaps Fiji cane farmers should abandon cane farming, and go into daruka farming. While sugar cane sells for some $80 per tonne, Daruka sells  for $22,000 per tonne at this price in Auckland.

With this in mind, I tried using some Fiji media to help me get to the root of this issue. However, their reporters appear to be comfortable in old divisive media, and were not cooperative. I detailed the problem to them: local vegetables were costing only a few dollars in Fiji, there was glut of vegetables in Fiji markets, but the greed of importers in New Zealand has placed these vegetable beyond our reach. Hence Fiji’s agricultural potential is curtailed.

My concern is that there is no logical progression of prices from that paid at the farm gate in Fiji to the retail prices paid in Auckland shops. Consequently, people are now buying frozen produce from India. For example, Bhindi from India sells at one-third of the price of Fijian produce. These are diced, frozen, packaged and transported thousands of kilometres to New Zealand and yet the retail price is extremely attractive to the consumer. This has brought direct competition between market produce from India and Fiji. I am eating Indian bhindi, at NZ $5 per kilo instead of Fiji imports at $15. It is possible that Fiji may be pricing itself out of market, as people opt to buy cheaper Indian produce. Comparatively, Fiji has enormous advantage over India like transport cost and delivery of fresh produce to New Zealand. However, the greed of middlemen, including retailers in Auckland may be doing incalculable harm to a lucrative New Zealand market.

This is a typical scene in Fiji markets , with an abundance of vegetable at relatively very cheap price. However, they are selling at price of gold in Auckland. In fact these vegetables are more expensive than chicken, lamb, fish and beef in Auckland.
Fijian and Indian population in Auckland is some 90,000, almost equivalent of population served by Ba and Lautoka markets. Imagine the gain to Fiji if produce rotting in Fiji markets could be diverted in an organised method by some government agency, to boost Fiji exports to New Zealand. I am to understand some Biosecurity unit at Nadi Airport has become a money-spinner for the government rather than promote farmers export, because of the exorbitant price it charges for compliance issues. Fiji government assists cane farmers, why not also promote untapped vegetable exports to New Zealand? The aim should be to replace private sector greed of profiteering with government assisted boost in helping Fiji economy while providing much-loved vegetables at reasonable and affordable prices in Auckland.

Long Beans imported from Fiji also cost some $20 Fijian Dollars per kg in Auckland.
Perhaps Fiji Government need to revive something equivalent to the disbanded National Marketing Authority (NMA), but with credible qualified people. Perhaps it can commission the Central Planning Office, in conjunction with Ministry of Trade and Agriculture, to investigate on centralising and consolidating vegetable exports to an expanding Fijian Diaspora, including Australia. They should recognise the failure of private sector, where the greed is stifling Fiji’s potential in agriculture.

And we hope some Development Journalist in Fiji will pick up this issue and explore ways of boosting income of Fiji vegetable farmers. Instead of rotting in Fiji, organised marketing and government controls has huge potentials. Hope media will report on development issues on John Key’s visit to Fiji rather than barking at the wrong tree.

[About the Author: Thakur Ranjit Singh is the principal of blog FIJI PUNDIT and Indian Media Watch New Zealand. He is a qualified journalist, a postgraduate scholar (with Honours) from Auckland University of Technology’s (AUT) and a former media personality from Fiji. He is a media commentator, specialising in social media and covering Fiji and local issues neglected by the mainstream and side stream media.]