Economic stimulus: help for some farmers, none for others

Farmers from Aitolo village with their tools from ESP assistance
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By Brian Lezutuni

When COVID-19 brought the biggest economic crisis in a generation the government responded with an equally unprecedented package of funding –  it put $309 million  into the economic stimulus package (ESP).

Fifteen months on some farmers are happy while others are asking why they didn’t see any of the money.

A big portion of the stimulus package – $70 million – was allocated to agriculture. This included famers growing noni, kava, cassava, taro, potato, coconut, cocoa and copra.

According to the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Finance and Treasury and chairman of the oversight committee, McKinnie Dentana said the productive and resource sector is a challenging component of the whole stimulus package arrangement.

“It’s challenging because we opened it for people to apply in relation to their small projects and that takes a longer period to complete,” he told Island Sun in an interview.

While the evaluation and monitoring phase of the project is still being carried out on the implementation and impact of the funds to recipients, some communities in the country are counting their blessings and others are wondering how they missed out on such a lifeline in these trying times.

For farmers on Aitolo village, Malaita Province the Economic Stimulus Package helped expand their flourishing kava gardens in their community.

To them, the government assistance could not have come at a better time. The kava revolution on Malaita is booming and the creation of wealth in the local community in Aitolo are realised 10 years from when the first kava was planted on these rugged parts of the Island.

The Aitolo Self-Reliance Association was set up after applying for assistance under the stimulus funding in July 2020.

According to Association Secretary, Lesley Sanga, the initial application was for $30,000 but only $12,000 was allocated under the scheme.

Tools being shared

 He said the funds were made to purchase tools for the 30 farmers making up the association.

Sanga said the tools helped expand existing kava gardens for these farmers.

Walter Ara, a long-time kava farmer and member of the Association said with tools acquired he was able to expand his garden.

“I now have 2000 kava plants, and was able to expand the past year,” He added.

Mr Ara began his kava farm back in 2011. So far, he has engaged in six harvests, earning enough money to build three permanent houses in his village.

According to Sanga, the Association is on the right track in terms of its development aspirations.

While the community on Aitolo are fortunate, other farmers around Malaita felt that due to their remoteness, schemes such as the stimulus package are un-heard of.

Walter proudly showing his kava garden

Silas Su’ufua, from Gwounafou village, East Malaita can only dream of such a funding. He said there were no awareness done to his part of the Island about the availability of such a fund.

“We never heard about the ESP, but we too need some form of assistance to help us on our farms,” the softly spoken father told Island Sun after selling his Kava products in Auki.

Senior Agriculture Officer from the Malaita Agriculture Office Patrick Maesuba said over 100 recipients have benefited from the funding on Malaita.

He said the only issue is they were not part of the implementation process of the funding, hence would not know if the funds have benefited communities on the Island.

Senior Agriculture Officer from the Malaita Agriculture Office Patrick Maesuba

“Such a funding should come through the Ministry and more importantly the provincial office, as we know who the active farmers on the field are, and will identify them.

 “The government did not see those on the ground, it is the agriculture staff who go around the province and interact with farmers.

But Permanent Secretary, McKinnie Dentana said the Stimulus Package has saved the country from further deterioration over the past year as COVID-19 closed borders and disrupted economic activity.

PS Finance Mckinnie Dentana

He said the ESP is implemented in short term, just like other stimulus packages implemented by countries around the world.

“It should be a quick urgent government measure to ensure economic activity remains stable during the crisis,” he emphasised.

According to the Central Bank of Solomon Islands Governor, Dr Luke Forau the country has yet to realise the economic benefits of the Economic Stimulus Package to the economy.

He said as far as export commodities go, only copra has increased exports in the past financial year.

“All other other export commodities declined, so I suppose the stimulus package on the cCopra industry has worked, especially when they subsidized the copra freight,” he said when addressing local Journalists around June this year.

Mr Forau looks forward to the monitoring and evaluation report, adding it may shed light on the impacts of the stimulus package on the economy.

 Permanent Secretary Dentana further explained that in the productive and resources sector the government targeted copra, cocoa and timber as in the Solomon Islands trade is still operating and export is continuing.

“But people do not have money to participate to bring in their product to the market to be exported, this goes for kava as well.

“The assistance can see farmers turn their resources into money for them to use during the crisis and for export purposes to help our bilateral trade,” he explained.