Published on 29th June 2015
Pauline Webber joined Vanuatu volunteer Jill Greenhalgh to see how residents are rebuilding after Cyclone Pam.
It’s the container of DiPel that does it. VSA volunteer Jill Greenhalgh has been patiently explaining the complex operations of the Farm Support Association (FSA) but my lack of a green thumb means I’m slow to catch on. It’s only when she tracks the route of one single product that I begin to get the idea.
DiPel is an organic pesticide manufactured in New Zealand. Farmers living and working in Vanuatu’s outer islands don’t know about it. FSA conducts tests and trials to see if the pesticide will work in local conditions. Once it gets the okay, SAPV (Syndicat Agricole et Pastorale de Vanuatu) will import DiPel in bulk. Then one of FSA’s field officers takes the pesticide into the field to introduce it to farmers.
“DiPel controls the caterpillars that attack island cabbage as well as Chinese cabbage and other brassicas,” Jill tells me. Cabbages are a Vanuatu diet staple. “An effective organic pesticide will extend the growing season and improve the quality of the crop.”
What makes the FSA so important is its tried and tested knowledge of everything it supports. “We are farmers helping farmers. That’s the strength of the FSA,” says manager Julie Beierlein. “Here every officer has to have a sound knowledge of farming practice.”
In the wake of Cyclone Pam, many farmers are starting over, and Jill has been working with farmers to re-establish crops and livestock.
“We have to have absolute confidence in the product we are offering,” says field officer Olivier Iato. Tanna-born Olivier runs his own farm on Efate and works closely with Charles Rogers at FSA’s research facility near Port Vila. Charles, one of four associate directors at FSA, won’t work with anything that’s not been rigorously tested for local conditions. Ni-Vanuatu farmers with limited resources cannot afford to take risks with a seed that might not grow well.
“Our job is to prove the product, not just speculate,” says Olivier. “My advice to farmers when I’m with them in the field is guaranteed by that research. Once the farmers have confidence, they can step away from our help and work independently.”
One great success story is chickens. Fourteen years ago, SAPV began importing chicks bred for commercial production to develop the local egg and meat market. “Farmers pre-pay for the chicks so there’s a commitment to the project,” says Olivier. FSA supports the farmers with advice on how to work with hens (the egg layers), and with roosters (the meat). But the crucial element that has made this project so successful is the chook feed. Imported feed is prohibitively expensive but Charles was able to develop a feed from local products: copra meal, a by-product of the coconut industry, and meat meal.
But there is yet another hurdle to be jumped. “Transport is the big issue,” says Jill. “Boxes of chicks are loaded onto boats, then the boats can’t leave because of weather and the chicks must be unloaded and taken somewhere to be fed and watered until they can be shipped again. It’s hard.” Despite these obstacles, FSA and SAPV manage to regularly deliver 6000 chicks to more than 200 farmers.
Leith Tamat is a chicken farmer on Malekula. Before she developed the business, Leith’s family depended on their small cacao and copra cash crops, casual jobs and seasonal work.
“Leith began with 20 chicks. She slowly built up her stock of roosters and egg layers and now has 300,” says Olivier. “And she grows every kind of vegetable. The market return on her veges and chickens has allowed her to pay school fees so her four teenage children are all getting an education – something that is very important to Ni-Vanuatu.” And, Olivier adds, because she is now able to mainly work from home, the family’s quality of life is much improved. “Leith’s husband is very supportive of her business. The chickens have made a great contribution to that family’s well-being.”
Read more about VSA's recent work in Vanuatu: