The Western Division of Fiji is the main tourism hub of the country - it hosts the Nadi international airport and the inter-island ferry terminals, numerous upscale resorts and backpackers’ hostels, travel operators and transport companies, popular retailers and restaurants. It’s not a surprise that when the COVID-19 pandemic led to border closures and all tourism activities were ceased, the once bustling part of the island country slipped into economic depression. Even those who were not employed by the tourism industry directly felt the negative impact of the crisis. Many workplaces closed or shifted to reduced hours, resorts stopped buying fresh produce from farmers or engaging local artists and artisans, taxi drivers, hairdressers and the service industry in general saw a dramatic decline in customer numbers. Overall, reduced income of a significant part of the population led to a spiral of declining revenues for local businesses, which in turn resulted in further decreased wages and more unemployment.
Many people had to change their lifestyle; moving to rural areas, changing careers or starting their own businesses. To provide relief to those who were left with no or reduced income in 2020 and onwards, the Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprises & Development (FRIEND) established a Sustainable Enterprises for Economic Development (SEED) project that was supported by the UN Development Programme (UNDP). The programme ran training on income-generating activities - mushroom farming, charcoal and soapmaking, urban gardening and business skills.
Rajneesh Lata Charan had a good job in Lautoka before her position was made redundant. She decided to apply her skills in an entrepreneurial way, becoming a consultant and trainer for Information Technology (IT) and business programmes. However, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led to cancellation of most activities.
Natural skincare has been Rajneesh’s passion due to her own struggles with skin health. She researched ingredients and methods to come up with a healing soap formula customised to utilise locally available plants. Most of the ingredients, including coconut, guava and aloe vera, grow organically in Rajneesh’s garden, and she learned how to make her own activated charcoal.
In fact, Rajneesh leads a self-sufficient lifestyle, getting most food from her backyard and making her own products. For example, charcoal is also used in home-made dishwashing paste, and coconut husk is made into sponges. This lifestyle supports her resilience to economic crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, when income was drastically reduced.
Initially, the soap experiment was simply a way for Rajneesh to find relief for her skin, and after perfecting the recipe and using it for a while, her condition dramatically improved. Seeing value in her product and getting more and more requests from family and friends, she started making soap for gifts and sale. After the pandemic led to a decline in her usual business and income, Rajneesh had more time and motivation to develop the soap and charcoal enterprise. Eventually, she designed training modules to teach others about the benefits and technique of making natural soap and coconut charcoal. Now, in addition to producing her organic products, she is a facilitator for soap, charcoal and business training with FRIEND, including the training under the Sustainable Enterprises for Economic Development (SEED) project funded by the UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji. Several participants of Rajneesh’s training are making their living primarily from selling soap, some even exporting it overseas. Rajneesh also includes costing, budgeting and marketing in her training modules. The micro-entrepreneurs get good return for each piece of soap that itself is not expensive to make as it utilises locally available ingredients. Activated charcoal is a food-grade versatile product that can be used to make detox drinks, toothpaste, spa products, and more. In addition to theory and demonstration parts of the workshops, Rajneesh runs Facebook groups for the training participants where they can ask questions, share success stories and get support. Some of the attendees started teaching their own local women’s groups.
Not stopping at her consulting and organic skincare activities, Rajneesh attended the mushroom farming training organised by FRIEND through the SEED project in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Fiji Juncao Technology Demonstration Center. Ever since, she’s been cultivating oyster mushrooms in her backyard garden both for personal consumption and for sale. Mushrooms are a growing market in Fiji, and local farmers have just started to get into it. Prices go up to as high as FJ$40 for a kilo of mushrooms. Since mushroom farming is still new for Rajneesh and she is trialing the best methods for her garden’s soil, humidity and other conditions, she sells her excess mushrooms for at a wholesale rate to a trusted network of customers.
“When COVID-19 came and business was really down, I realised I had to look at multiple sources of income to be able to live sustainably. When you are running your own business, you don’t have a constant stream of income, so you need to have several sources in case one is down,” Rajneesh said.
She received 20 mushroom substrates through the training, then got another 100 and later 200 from the Ministry of Agriculture. Rajneesh plans to expand the mushroom farm to a larger scale as she found it to be a profitable business, and to possibly do value adding such as drying, pickling and packaging to increase shelf life. As for the soap and charcoal making, Rajneesh hopes to train for people.
One of her students through FRIEND’s training programme, that was supported by UNDP Pacific, is Nisrat Nazeen, a single mother in Nadi. Before the pandemic, she had been working from home for a family member who lives overseas. However, since 2020 her hours were significantly reduced. Searching for an alternative livelihood, she attended the soap and activated charcoal making workshops organised by FRIEND.
Her home-based business is called Aromas Fiji - a few years ago Nisrat registered it to try selling soy candles but the enterprise never went ahead. After FRIEND’s training, she decided to focus on soap. Soapmaking requires some initial investment. Luckily, Nisrat managed to get support from her family. She has also been able to locally source unique ingredients to add into the basic soap formula, and she makes her own activated charcoal. The soap has a Halal Accreditation Certificate from the Fiji Muslim League. Packaging design and marketing is done entirely by Nisrat. She started soapmaking process in December 2020 but is already thinking about reaching a larger market and potentially exporting in the longer term. Since February 2021, she has been selling at community markets and through Makete online shop.
Through the SEED project funded by UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji, 197 unemployed and underemployed individuals were assisted with income-generation training, and 50 received tools and equipment for their micro-businesses.