Published on 29th June 2015
Pauline Webber joined Vanuatu volunteer Grace Savage to see how residents are rebuilding after Cyclone Pam.
When Grace Savage tells me she has been working with a “group of farmers” on Espiritu Santo and Malo islands, I imagine she means 10 or 20. In fact, there are 632 of them.
VSA volunteer Grace is a Grants Field Officer with World Vision on schemes designed to increase income for farmers from their cash crops. “We introduce them to ways they can add value to their produce and get better access to markets,” she tells me. The produce in this case is copra – dried coconut flesh, valued for the coconut oil extracted from it, and the residue, coconut-oil cake, which is mostly used for livestock feed.
“All these farmers are using organic farming methods already so the first step was to get certification. That put them in a better price bracket as there’s high demand for organic.”
Organising themselves into an economically effective group is a key component of the scheme. “As a group, they can use techniques like collective selling,” says Grace. “Together, they have been able to get all their produce collected by one truck going from village to village. A huge reduction in costs.”
This new collective was an attractive proposition for factories producing organic coconut oil. Once the factory could guarantee it would get a certain amount of produce, it sent out its own truck to collect the copra, reducing the farmers’ costs even more.
The World Vision team, which is based on Santo, next turned its attention to the production process. Trainers from Vanuatu Agricultural College and from the Vanuatu Agriculture, Research and Training Centre shared their expertise with the group. “Copra is made by drying coconut flesh,” says Grace. “Assessing the moisture content is crucial or the copra will spoil. The specialists have helped the farmers improve their drying houses so spoilage is reduced.”
The farmers also were able to visit the factory and see how it worked. “These visits gave farmers first-hand knowledge of the next stage of the process,” says Grace. And, she adds, the organic certification had another positive side effect – it gave the farmers confidence to maintain their traditional practices because the higher prices fetched by organic copra meant they were under less financial stress, and therefore felt less pressured to push production.
Grace has no doubt about the effectiveness of the scheme. “The farmers have really seen the value. It’s about getting the best information to them and helping them to form connections.” And it’s had an effect on her, too. “I never realised coconuts were so technical. I know an awful lot about them now.”
While Grace has been on a steep learning curve, so too has her colleague Vomboe Molly, an area programme manager currently working on food distribution to more than 2,000 households on Pentecost Island. “It’s been a challenge for me to lead a group of staff, particularly one with men in it. Grace’s guidance has given me confidence with that,” she says. “I plan to study more, to enhance my leadership capacity and advance my career.”
“To see a young Ni-Vanuatu woman, a mum too, in such a management role is very exciting,” says Grace. “She is so smart and picks up things so quickly. It’s been an absolute privilege to work beside her.”
Read more about VSA's recent work in Vanuatu: