By Brian Lezutuni
THE fog has just cleared as Walter Ara begins his steep climb up the hills behind his village.
After every five minutes he stops to catch his breath in between smoking tobacco from his pipe. He is a late starter, leaving his home around 9am to find that most of his village folks are well buried in their gardens.
Mr Ara’s working days revolve around providing for his family from his garden and tending to his kava plants scattered around the hills behind his village.
For him, Kava is gold.
From six harvests in the past 10 years, Mr Ara has built a small fortune for himself and his family.
“You see the three permanent houses over there, I built them from the money I got from selling my kava products,” Mr Ara proudly exclaimed as he pointed to three neatly placed structures tucked away in the corner of the village.
Mr Ara is from Aitolo village, located in the Highlands of Central Kwara’ae, Malaita province. He started planting kava in 2011 and since then has amassed close to 2000 plants in his garden.
In the last few years, kava planting has taken a great leap forward in the Solomon Islands. The Highlands region of Malaita was part of the revolution gripping the country.
On Malaita Island alone, local agriculture expert, Ledley Diudi estimates that there could be up to 1 million kava plants.
Mr Diudi is a recently retired public servant, who used to work with the Malaita Agriculture department. When Island Sun spoke with him he was engaged with the Provincial Government on a contractual basis.
He has seen the excitement as people on the Island got caught up in the kava hype and the benefits people in rural communities have achieved from their kava sales.
From three communities he has worked with in the past years there were up to 400,000 plants shared between the villages.
But he warned that the excitement can be short-lived if issues relating to market are not addressed in the immediate future.
“A lot of times when these farmers go over to Honiara to sell their products to big kava buyers such as Varivao and Kubonito, there would be no money to buy their products,” Mr Diudi emphasised.
There is fear in the minds of those involved in kava over the years, that the recent big increase in supply to a competitive industry will crash prices or bring the market to a halt.
And no one knows the market best than Varivao holdings. In July it suspended buying kava due to the bottle-neck demand in the international market.
“The kava famers keep coming but I told them to wait a little bit as we face market challenges overseas, we face exporting competition as well from our regional neighbours,” General Manager of the Varivao Holdings Company, Benjamin Hageria told Island Sun.
He welcomed Australia’s recent announcement that its trial commercial importation of kava could start in the latter part of 2021.
The costly journey Malaita kava farmers make to Honiara has seen local entrepreneurs stepping up to address the needs of those back home.
One such company is Solomon Organic Kava.
It was established in January this year and is buying kava for export to Kiribati.
David Mani who works as a grading officer with the company said their clients come from all over Malaita province.
“We buy gold green kava at $150 per kilo and gold yellow at $160 per kilo,” Mr Mani told Island Sun.
Mr Mani admits that despite the enthusiasm around the product, the company is taking small steps one at a time.
So far, the company has exported three shipments, the first one being 80 kilogram, then 180 kilogram and topping it off with 300 kilograms exported in July.
“Everyday people come to sell kava and with our new pounding machine and according to our boss, we are going to expand in the future,” Mr Mani enthusiastically told Island Sun.
People like Silas Su’ufua from Gwounafou village, East Kwara’ae, are thankful that companies such as Solomon Organic Kava are on Malaita, saving costs associated with travelling to Honiara to sell their products.
On the day we caught up with him at the Solomon Organic Kava shed, Mr Su’ufua was all smiles as he was $1440 richer from the 9 kilogram of kava he has just sold.
“I started in 2015 and now I’m enjoying the rewards of my sacrifice, my whole village are into kava, even the little children,” he added.
For Mr Ara and his villagers at Aitolo and similar communities around Malaita, Kava is a commodity that has helped improved standards of living.
Mr Ara had already completed two homes and was working on completing his third when Island Sun visited the village in August.
“I built the houses for myself, my sons and their families,” he stated confidently.
One of his sons, Wilfred Ara, used to work in Honiara as a mechanic before returning in 2019 after seeing the success of his father.
Now he has around 400 kava plants in his garden and is looking to expand and build a future for his family.
Malaita Agriculture expert, Mr Diudi said communities who have planted more than 100,000 kava plants are seeing the benefits.
He said nearly all the villages have permanent houses, a sign of wealth in the rural setting.
“Kava is good news for the province, people are into it but the market issue needs to be addressed,” he added.
Island Sun understands that the USA-funded Strengthening Competitiveness, Agribusiness, Livelihoods and Environment (SCALE) program will provide assistance to local farmers and that farmers on Malaita will be a priority.
Winrock International, a not-for-profit development organization, is one of the five partners in the program.
It will be looking at how best to support kava growers in Malaita to produce not only quantity but also quality as well as to access the international market.