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Getting the groundwork right

Published on 15th March 2017


To grow a successful export market, you need a steady supply of product and consistent quality. It’s something that Tonga’s agricultural sector was struggling to achieve, but with the care and persistent work of VSA volunteer Bruce Johnson, and the backing of the Nishi Foundation, that’s quickly changing.

 

Working with Nishi, Bruce has spent the last year implementing a model for training and educating fruit and vegetable farmers in everything from basic bookkeeping to animal welfare and soil science. The project, the Farmers’ Field School, includes a series of handbooks produced by Bruce. It’s already had success with students improving their farming practices and, in one instance, opening a nursery growing and selling vegetable seedlings.

 

One student, Leopino Lakalaka, says the course has been a revelation. "I am 65 years old and what I knew about farming in the past was just to provide food on the table for the family, friends and relatives," he says. "I've learned that this knowledge I have from this training will help me be a good farmer and that I can make money from the crops I plant."

 

Bruce Johnson Bridget Kerry Fiji

(left to right) VSA Partnerships Officer Bridget Cassie, volunteer Kerry Killorn, Minoru Nishi and volunteer Bruce Johnson in Tonga

 

That’s the kind of result that has led to plans to expand the programme from its homebase of Eua to every part of Tonga. Bruce says this is the legacy he wants to leave from his time as a volunteer. "I’ll be pleased to see these farmers’ schools rolled out throughout Tonga. I think it’s a really good programme and it really fits Tonga, and that will happen – every farmer should be able to access one of these schools."

 

The project has not been without challenges, though. "There’s some difficulty in working on an offshore island: we had to be really organised and coordinated in terms of the back and forth, and of course there were transport and weather difficulties, and we had to do a lot of work in Tongan – it was difficult for me as I didn’t read or speak it."

 

This is Bruce’s third assignment as a VSA volunteer, and with his now extensive experience he’s got very good advice for people wanting to volunteer in Tonga. "It’s a very easy place to volunteer, there’s always electricity and water, and you can generally get what you need when you need it."

 

As straightforward as Tonga can be for an assignment, there’s still a lot of good work that can be done to grow capacity and make meaningful change. Another student of the Field School, Malia Feleti, says the project has been a great opportunity. "I would like to thank everyone for this opportunity to participate in this training because it will be useful for my family, society and me in the future."

 

Tonga’s vet, Kerry Killorn

 

Kerry Killorn’s assignment has crossed over with Bruce’s a few times, and they’re great mates. Kerry’s currently the only vet in Tonga, and in the course of his time there he’s not only helped out with the Field School, but with two Tindall Foundation grants provided through VSA's long-standing partnership with the Foundation, he’s been able to upgrade the veterinary clinic he’s been working out of, start improving pasture for feed, and training for pest and animal management.

 

"The Tindall Foundation grants have been of enormous importance," he says, "and the results of these grants will be present for a long time to come."

 

Kerry Killorn Fiji

Tindall / VSA volunteer Kerry Killorn at the vet clinic in Tonga

 

"Along with some assistance from local business people and concerned residents, the first grant has enabled us to turn the veterinary clinic into a functional small animal hospital which cares for hundreds of animals each month. Volunteer vets and vet nurses from SPAW (South Pacific Animal Welfare), who provide week-long veterinary clinics to Tonga and other Pacific nations, now base their clinics at this site and have a really good relationship with the staff. They’re talking about making more regular visits because they have been so successful."

 

As with Bruce, part of Kerry’s success has been patience and persistence. His advice? "Don’t get excited about the big projects that are planned to happen and the large-scale changes you would be able to make. Just concentrate on working with the local people at their pace and with what they have available to them at the time."

 

It’s an approach that has seen Bruce make some significant changes and build strong relationships with locals.

 

"Providing support, training and mentoring to staff and watching them grow in self-esteem and confidence as time goes on has been a huge highlight of my time here," he says, "and I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with some people whom I greatly respect and admire."

 

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