A response to Bodo Dettke’s media claims
BY WALTER FOLOTALU
Noni (Kikiri or Kobu) farmer
AS a local noni farmer from the province (Malaita), I wish to challenge MP Bodo Dettke’s statement over the SIBC recently, calling on all local noni farmers in the provinces to discontinue work on noni farming due to unavailability of processing equipment in the provinces.
While I respect his call, I see such views as mere political rhetoric rather than looking for a way forward for this potential industry in the country and more particularly the rural areas where more than 80% of our rural dwellers find ends to meet.
According to researches, noni as a crop is unique in many ways and is said to be robust and climate-adatable.
The tree is hearty and grows in unusually wide range of soil and environmental conditions.
It has an exceptional tolerance to heat, wind, fire, flooding, saline, and drought that make it arguably the most durable climate-change immune crop in commercial production anywhere today.
Its fruit is harvested continuously throughout the year, containing high vitamin content and potential health benefits unmatched by popular produce.
Also, unlike other agricultural exports noni is very new to Solomon Islands in terms of industry and trade.
It is unique in terms of trade, something that does not exist for other food commodities, such as a lack of market data, product standards, supporting institutions, and established markets with predictable demand.
Therefore, we need proper strategic plans to determine Noni trading rather than discouraging farmers to venture into farming.
We desperately need innovation that would create opportunities for industry growth and value-added products instead of monopoly in the industry.
Solomon Islands is way behind our Pacific neighbors like Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa, Cook Islands and Fiji, which has created a noni gold rush among producing countries, that quickly established commercial farming and processing facilities.
In the early 2000s. for example, noni alone as an important agricultural export in Samoa provided income for more than 17,000 smallholder semi-subsistence farming households and contributing more than SAT$10m [SBD$32m] annually to the country’s economy.
With this Noni production as a new potential source of income for locals should never be discouraged, also experts have predicted billion-dollar retail noni product market valuations by the end of the decade.
We must never make the mistake of over polarizing the industry without doing a good research into its trend of farming, processing and trading the crop as an export commodity.
Even if we have some experience and potential to offer noni juice and other noni products, there is the tendency that the wholesale market of trade for noni will remain very much immature without differentiating value beyond meeting minimum standards for product safety and regulatory compliance.
I strongly believe the government should prioritize this industry otherwise we will be faced with the burden of high costs of production and distribution due to remote location, inefficient traditional methods such as non-intensive smallholder farming, non-government support, unavailability of certification facilities to name a few.
Solomon Islands without proper strategic plans could be placed in the unenviable position of being a premium supplier in a commodity market where anyone can quickly be a less expensive competitor, and worse still, this will result in an unstable and unpredictable market where client-supplier relationships are purely transactional based on short term factors of convenience without long-term stability where disposable supplier relationships are low value and easily substitutable.
The turbulent environment created by these factors will present the noni industry with the need to innovate in order to protect its economic future and as noni producers, without immediate or relevant actions, we will be at risk becoming a high-cost supplier of wholesale commodities in an unpredictable market with increased competition from substitutes thus threatening its economic contribution or prospects to offer an alternative livelihood for thousands of families as highly advocated by people like Bobo for his constituency.
We must also know that we are competing against existing noni trading countries in the Pacific like Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa etc. These countries have been in this industry for many years.
Noni trees produce fruit within two years after planting and are relatively easy to maintain and any country in the Region has the potential to quickly become a noni grower, also commercial fruit juice production facilities are said to be relatively inexpensive as compared to other manufacturing industries.
With this, Solomon Islands noni producers and stakeholders must make every effort to work in collaboration with each other and with the government to take the lead and set the industry’s highest standards for quality to create value while concurrently transforming into niche specialty consumer product manufacturers.
We must strive to establish ourselves as a consumer product maker rather than wholesale ingredient supplier, and in this regard we will not only set a market message for the noni industry but build consumer confidence and geographic brand loyalty whereby noni producers will capture new value from downstream consumer sales leading to creating new manufacturing jobs, and an increasing demand for noni fruit from farmers, and better market communication unhindered by layers of middlemen.
Women and youths in particular stand to benefit from this as they will participate only in the far up-stream low value segment of the value chain, yet offer a diversity of perspectives that promise the potential of innovation to reach to new markets.
Consumers motivated by authenticity, utility, and sustainability will pay for the added value provided by specialty noni goods. Wholesale noni juice can be produced anywhere, but there will be no substitutes for a strong brand reputation that we can achieve.
Noni tree produces fruit with uniquely desirable biochemistry and while it is being misunderstood and historically misrepresented by opportunists, it offers nutrition health benefits comparable to or far better than most widely consumed fruits available today.
Encouraging commercial and semi-subsistence households throughout the country, will benefit locals and increase noni production and value.
Some potential exists to expand noni exports as a wholesale ingredient, but this strategy will be short-lived due to increasing low-cost competition and the availability of numerous superfruit substitutes.
The value of noni exports from Polynesia noni exporters has doubled in the past five years, and we must ensure we have a better strategic plan to excel in our aim to compete in this industry.
We must take a leadership role in advancing commercial interests and brand image of noni fruit, which is to our benefit. Fruit ingredient suppliers are easily substitutable hence to ensure consistent long-term market demand, we must advance into consumer markets as a supplier of innovative retail products with a strong brand identity among consumers.
I also believe that the future of Solomon noni industry is far from secure and without proper coordination to strengthen its position and consumer interest in noni, the market is doubtful and will eventually collapse.
Priorities should include setting a high standard and have in place national standards and grading system for fruit and preparations, document best practices for farming and cultivation, contribute to international standards and implement resulting safety standards. We should build such capacities and establish a national body like, Solomon noni association with innovations to participate in retail niche markets as a trade association and to provide extension training and reference tools for smallholder farmers, develop a supply chain for women produced products, and encourage women’s ownership of noni businesses, facilitate development of new range of products targeting healthy lifestyle (including natural foods and nutritional supplements), livestock and pet products industries, provide certification assistance in relevant and popular schemes (HACCP, organic, Fair Trade, non-GMO, kosher, gluten free, and others)
In commercializing noni we need to collect market intelligence, develop Solomon noni origin brand and assets, establish and implement a marketing communications plan, conduct targeted marketing campaigns in high-value markets, participate in relevant industry trade events and missions, establish trade representation and distribution partners or facilities in consumer markets, and most importantly conduct a study to ensure a better understanding of the global market for production and consumption of noni and noni-based products and to provide useful information for Solomon Islands noni industry represented by a national body in order to increase competitiveness and recommend opportunities that add new value to noni production with the main objective to improve the welfare of Solomon noni industry, particularly smallholder farming families, including women, youths and people with disabilities or special needs:
With this we can set a clear picture of the market for noni and noni products, technical and strategic advice for Solomon noni value chain based on study findings, opportunities to improve returns from sales of current products in existing and new markets, opportunities for diversification and value adding from the development of consumer products, mechanisms for Solomon noni to improve capacity:, collecting and communicating market information, and providing quality assurance services and traceability, issues affecting gender equality, disability, and social inclusion within the value chain, with suggestions on how they may address issues of relevance that occur during the duration of the study, which includes potential COVID-19 impacts.
Noni is a highly promising and potential industry and the government and stakeholders must support our rural farmers to venture into semi-subsistence or large commercial farming as well as downstream processing in order to compete in international trade and to boost the economy, with this our motto “to lead is to serve” is so appropriate now, so let’s support our rural framers, tagio tumas.