Although I was unable to attend myself because of business commitments here in Wellington, I’ve been following developments at the Micronesian Regional Women’s Summit being hosting in Palau this week by my colleagues Assistant Secretary Tony Babauta and Ambassador Helen Reed-Rowe. The Assistant Secretary heads our Department of Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs, and I have worked with him on issues related to the Pacific Islands.
There is a lot going on at the Summit, but I thought I’d focus on one particular development. Women in Business Development Inc. (WIBDI), about which I have written several times, and the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement (CNHA) have committed to explore expansion of WIBDI’s organic coconut oil program to Hawaii and Native Hawaiian family farmers.
“Over the last 16 years, we have worked with small groups of indigenous producers to establish coconut oil processing systems to supply large markets,” said Adi Tafuna’i, Executive Director of WIBDI. “By working together with many small farming families, the Pacific is establishing itself as capable of meeting market demand that would otherwise not be possible for a single family or island in the Pacific.”
WIBDI’s existing coconut oil projects in Samoa involve approximately 80,000 acres tended by more than 700 families. To create the critical mass necessary to compete successfully in international markets, Adi and WIBDI have organized women in Tonga, Vanuatu, Cook Islands, and elsewhere. For her groundbreaking efforts, Adi was recently honored in Washington, DC with Vital Voices’ prestigious Economic Empowerment Award.
Hawaii is a promising location for collaboration. As CNHA President Robin Puanani Danner said, “It is an exciting opportunity worth exploring. Agricultural lands under our land trust established in 1920 by Congress may be a great place to pilot further expansion of coconut oil production. We are committed to exploring the feasibility, identifying homestead families to pilot the process, and working with WIBDI to enter the consortium of Pacific Islanders providing coconut oil on the world market.”
As President Danner said when she addressed delegates at the Summit, “We have more in common than differences among Pacific Island peoples. Ideas and solutions are often inter-changeable or at least have great potential for success when we share experiences and adjust to the uniqueness of each island economy.”
This is exactly the kind of entrepreneurial, people-to-people collaboration that infuses the Obama Administration’s approach to the Pacific, the President’s home region. That’s why we at Embassy Apia have focused on supporting, promoting, and assisting impactful groups such as WIBDI and SROS, and why Assistant Secretary Babauta engages tirelessly with a wide variety of Pacific Island organizations across the region.
CNHA will host a visit to Hawaii by a WIBDI team before the end of the year, and will work to establish a coconut oil pressing and processing pilot project shortly thereafter. In the meantime, CNHA will convene small groups of families to determine interest, model financial projections, analyze feasibility, and discuss project scale.
As you know from my prior posts, WIBDI was founded in 1991 and takes a strategic, diversified approach to economic development by building organically certified agricultural co-ops, seeding micro-finance capabilities, preserving and commercializing Samoan traditional crafts, providing training and mentoring to women and girls, and establishing farmers markets. Adi Tafuna’i was there at the start and continues to be the driving force behind the organization.
CNHA is a national network of Native Hawaiian Organizations committed to enhancing life in Hawaii through the cultural, economic, and community development of Native Hawaiians. It provides assistance in accessing capital and technical resources, and serves as a policy voice on issues important to Native Hawaiian communities.
I look forward to talking with Adi again after the exploratory trip to Hawaii, and I will report back as the Samoa-Hawaii collaboration begins to take shape.