Howard Aru

© Howard Aru

Interview with Howard Aru, Director General, Ministry of  Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries and Biosecurity

Background:

Howard Aru currently serves as Director General for the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries and Biosecurity (MALFFB) in Vanuatu. He was former Director General of Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health. He holds a dual Master of Public Policy (specialising in international policy) and Diplomacy and a Post-graduate Diploma in Public Administration from the Australian National University (ANU). He also holds a BA in Geography and Management from the University of the South Pacific (USP).

Howard founded and became the first CEO of the Vanuatu Investment Promotion Authority (VIPA) from 1998-2003 as part of the country’s comprehensive reform program with the ADB. He has also served as Sub-regional Head of the ACP/EU Centre for the Development of Enterprise for six years after having represented CDE as Country Rep from 1996-2006.

Howard is passionate about development (notably rural development) and the dire need to address the dual issues of poverty alleviation and health (notably NCDs).

Interview:

Since you took the position of DG for Agriculture, you have tirelessly promoted linkages between the Agriculture sector and the Tourism industry in Vanuatu. You are now designing a policy which promotes those linkages and organise multi-stakeholders consultations. Could you tell us more?

The concept of ‘Agri-Tourism’ created a huge impression on me through two major regional events in 2015. The first one hosted in Nadi, Fiji (29 June – 3 July 2015) – the Pacific Community Agritourism Week – and the second one in Bridgetown, Barbados (2 – 6 November 2015) – Agribusiness in the Caribbean and Pacific – solutions and success stories.

At this juncture I must sincerely thank the key funding agencies and programs operational in the Pacific (namely the EU, CTA, the Intra-ACP Agricultural Policy Programme, PAPP, SPC, USP, PIPSO, SPTO) and in the Caribbean (such as CARICOM, BAS, IICA and CaFAN) for their support in facilitating two very eye-opening events in both regions in 2015. CTA and the Intra-ACP program have played very key roles in bringing the level of awareness across the ACP, and more so Vanuatu for that matter.

The Ministry of Agriculture will be hosting an agri-tourism policy platform workshop from 25-27 May 2016 to specifically address policy issues relating to agri-tourism in Vanuatu and to broaden understanding as well as deepen our efforts to tackling the many agritourism development challenges that Vanuatu must deal with in the coming years.

We are expecting a total of around sixty (60) participants at this very important first ever workshop of its kind in Vanuatu. We will also draw from the experiences of our colleagues in the Caribbean through Madam Ena Harvey of IICA who is renown across the ACP region for her experience, expertise and passion for Agr-tourism. Regional contributors and participants to the workshop will include the Pacific Agriculture Policy Project (PAPP), PIPSO, FAO and the MSG Secretariat. A few resident donor agencies will also be present. (CTA is funding this very important workshop).

That workshop will help to inform the development of Vanuatu’s national Agri-tourism Strategy which I am very pleased to say that the New Zealand Government has already in principle agreed to fund – to complement its already very strong involvement in Vanuatu’s tourism and hospitality sector.

What agriculture and fisheries products do you see having a great potential for the tourist markets? Do you think the quality and consistency are ensured and if not what measures would be needed?

I will base my response largely on the agriculture side where the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) recently undertook and released (December 2015) a very interesting study entitled ‘Vanuatu Agri-Tourism Linkages: A Baseline Study of Agri Demand from Port Vila’s Hospitality Sector’. The study revealed some very interesting findings. Vegetables and fruits that can be grown locally and that have a great potential for the tourist market include potatoes, carrots, onions, capsicums, tomatoes, cantaloupes and oranges.

Quality and consistency of supply are the main inhibiting factors to forging the necessary linkages between the agriculture and tourism sectors in Vanuatu. In spite of these challenges, it is critical that we bite the bullet and start dealing with it now rather than dump this difficult situation in the ‘too hard basket’ and shy away hoping that somehow, someday, somebody will deal with it. I agree it may take a long winding road into the months and years ahead, but if we do not start now, then who will and when?

You are planning to hold in 2016 the first Vanuatu agritourism week? What would you like to achieve in the short and medium term?

Vanuatu will be hosting its first agritourism week around end of June this year. In the short term we want to further increase awareness and build stronger linkages between the Government and private sector/industry, as well as get ourselves more deeply involved in thinking about and strategically addressing those linkages in action than just making noises about the importance of agritourism in the media. If agritourism is to really create a stronger and wider impact on the entire Government and private sector and the economy at large, we need to broaden the influence and involvement of others beyond the walls of the Ministry of Agriculture and Tourism and our few private sector friends. We need the wider involvement of the Government, the private sector and civil society as a whole.

On medium term focus, as you know, Vanuatu will be playing first host to the first ever Pacific Week of Agriculture (PWA) in 2017. The PWA emulates the Caribbean Week of Agriculture (PWA) model whose 13th session my former Minister Hon. David Tosul and I had the privilege of attending in Paramaribo, Suriname in early October 2014. Again I thank the CTA here for facilitating and funding this great learning experience. It was through our participation at this event that we were convicted to do something similar here in Vanuatu/the Pacific.

In a sense, our hosting of the Agri-Tourism Week in 2016 is Vanuatu’s way of preparation to hosting the PWA in 2017.

You have exchanges with the Caribbean in the agritourism area. How can the Pacific and Vanuatu in particular learn from the Caribbean experience?

Vanuatu is already in the process of learning from the Caribbean experience through its exchanges with the region beginning in 2014 as alluded to above, and again during our participation in the Barbados event last September. Agri-tourism linkages aside, we have also learnt a great deal on how ICT can and needs to be better harnessed and utilised to promote agriculture in Vanuatu. For that reason I set up since late 2015 an ICT Unit within the Ministry to commence groundwork preparations toward establishing Vanuatu’s very own e-Agriculture strategy with the support of the CTA.

In addition, Vanuatu is already forging stronger relations with the Caribbean in the area of Agri-tourism with the active engagement of Ms Ena Harvey of IICA in the upcoming agritourism policy platform in late May 2016. Vanuatu’s visit of the Caribbean’s Agro-Parks has also sparked some internal discussions already at the Ministry of Agriculture for possible future pursuance. Vanuatu also needs to do further exchanges with the Caribbean so we can strengthen our understanding and linkages with the Caribbean which is way ahead already in its developments on agritourism.

Finally, what are your thoughts on the role of Chefs in promoting local products and local cuisine?

Chefs in the tourism industry (hotels, resorts, restaurants, bungalows) play a pivotal role in promoting local products and local cuisine. And I say this with a particular focus on Vanuatu and the Pacific at large. Apart from tourists visiting interesting places (volcanoes, diving spots, beaches, etc.), tourists must also eat. This is where cuisine plays a very important part in linking agriculture to the tourism industry. Local cuisine for that matter can serve as a catalyst to increasing the utilisation and consumption of locally grown agricultural produce within Vanuatu’s fast growing tourism industry.

The Tourism Industry can take advantage of the growing interests in sustainable food production systems by developing and using more local products. However this is not really the case for Vanuatu. Imported food items are a significant cost driver for the tourism sector in Vanuatu. With the growth in tourism and urban population, Vanuatu’s import bill rose 11% between 2011 and 2014. The food and live animal import bill alone stood at 5.9 billion Vatu in 2014, comprising 20% of the total import bill for the country.

According to the International Finance Corporation (IFC)’s 2015 baseline study of agricultural demand from Port Vila’s hospitality sector alone, there is a significant amount of customer demand (54%) that is being met by imported food (largely meat, fish, dairy produce and imported fruits and vegetables). While certain imports may still continue due to lack of very low supplies and the technology required to produce these goods, fruits and vegetables for instance made up 20% of total imports. Whilst hotels and restaurants may attribute the demand for imports to a lack of a reliable supply of high quality local produce, the glaring fact before us justifies the case for local ingredients content.

From the above analysis, it is clear that Vanuatu and its farmers are losing out on this market opportunity. In order to improve on the current situation and get more local content on hotel menus, it is necessary to improve linkages across the various value chains of local food production systems and Chefs definitely do have a role to play in the development of this vision.

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