Karen Mapusua, POETCom (The Pacific Organic and Ethical Trade Community) Coordinating Officer

Karen Mapusua recently has taken on a new role supporting development of the Coconut industry in the Pacific region prior to this she served as Coordinating Officer for the Pacific Organic and Ethical Trade Community (POETCom) based in the Pacific Community, Suva Fiji. During her time with POETCom she was strongly focused on developing ‘home grown’ organic and fair trade models with relevance to the Pacific Islands region including an organic tourism standard and certification scheme.  She was extensively involved in developing the Pacific Organic Standard and the Strategy for Organic Development in the Pacific Islands region and has lobbied successfully for organic agriculture to be prioritised in the agricultural agenda of the Pacific Island states. Karen came to organics from the perspective of a consumer and began working in the field in 2006 with Women in Business Development in Samoa engaging in developing Internal Control Systems(ICS), provision of organic certification training in the Pacific region and delivering development projects focused on organic agriculture. Earlier in her career she worked in NGO management & capacity building, volunteer management, peace keeping, and education.

CTA: You led the Pacific Organic and Ethical Trade Community (POETCom) to contribute to farmers livelihoods, people’s health and the environment.  Could you tell us more about achievements of farmers and communities and improved market access (products, markets, types of farmers)?

From the outset POETCom was looking for ways to improve access for farmers to certification and markets and to improve our competitiveness. Certification is complex and costly and we needed to find ways to reduce both.

We now have 2 methods of certification, one is third party where we work in partnership with accredited certifying agents for accessing export markets. This is still expensive but due to the fact that many organic markets are regulated it is a ‘necessary evil’. What we are doing is working with our partner certifiers to train organic auditors based in the islands to reduce travel costs etc – this is a long term solution but we are moving in the right direction.

The other method is Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) which are lower cost to operate, locally managed and ideal for shorter local market value chains. The PGS can also be used to help build capacity for farmer groups and prepare them for accessing third party certification when it is required for market. The PGS has really opened up markets for small holders and remote communities, we have used this approach to certify whole islands such as Cicia in Fiji and Abaiang in Kiribati and to certify very remote producer groups such as women harvesters of the ngalinut in Baniata Solomon Islands who now export their product to organic stores in New Caledonia.

While it is hard to get data on export volumes and values we do know that between 2012 and 2015 the number of certified growers in the Pacific has increased from around 9000 to approximately 19,000 and the amount of land certified has grown from 46,000ha to 70,000ha. In this time we have seen the products certified and exported diversify considerably. For many years the main products were VCO and coffee, then noni and vanilla came on the scene, now there is also cocoa, a wider range of spices and diversified coconut products, ginger and turmeric, honey, nuts, beef, lamb and goat and value added/composite products.

You also worked on a regional certification  scheme which will promote regionally the organic products and contribute to branding local quality products. How is it progressing and what new opportunities do you see?

The Pacific Organic Guarantee Scheme is slowly but surely coming together, we are constrained by a lack of resources but the exciting thing is the demand from producers and processors for the certification and for support in moving towards organic. There isn’t a week where a new request doesn’t come in for training or to set up certification and it’s hard to keep up with this demand.

We now have a range of products certified and using the “Organic Pasifika” mark including VCO and VCO value added products, herbal infusions (teas), coffee, fresh fruit and vegetables, spices and even a rum.

For a long time the industry was focused on exports, and I agree there are great opportunities there but the scope for developing local markets is what I think is most exciting.  The scope in the tourism and hospitality sector is significant for fresh produce and also value added, but the organic movement has always held that providing high quality safe organic food for our own people is important and there is a growing awareness amongst Pacific consumers that there is a different between organic and conventional foods and a desire for healthy living which is also opening up more opportunities at home for organically certified producers.

You have promoted with many partners better interactions between the agriculture, health and tourism sectors as well as a stronger collaboration with the Chefs who can enhance the value of local products and brand Pacific cuisine. Could you tell us more of your views and achievements?

Organics isn’t just about agriculture, it really is cross cutting and can contribute to so many areas of sustainable development. When it gets really exciting is when we get cross sectoral support and engagement in developing organics – and this is developing. As an example we have now in Fiji very active collaboration between Ministers of Health, Trade, Tourism and Agriculture to promote organics – this is the ideal situation.

The links to the tourism sector – both the sector as a whole and niches within it such as ‘wellness tourism’ – are a great market opportunity but it’s an opportunity that needs a lot of support to be fully realised. One of the constraints from a farmers point of view is that often hotel menus include products we don’t grow in the Pacific or are very hard to grow – this is where Chefs are important, to develop menus that use ingredients that are locally grown and familiar to farmers, and to then take that a step further to showcase out local cuisine – raising the value of locally grown produce and products which can be integrated into our tourism brands.

To support this we have developed the Pacific Organic Tourism and Hospitality Standard which we are just rolling out, it will give a point of difference to those hospitality providers who do source local organic produce and give consumers a guarantee that what they are eating is organic.