The positive spin-off of a global pandemic in a Small Island Developing State

Emma Sale planting vegetables at Waibau Farm

I live in a small island country called Fiji, which is in the South Pacific and home to just over 800,000 people. About a year ago, Fiji and its neighboring Pacific island countries watched in horror as the coronavirus pandemic began to hit bigger developed countries with crippling effects to their economies. Fear and worries swept over smaller countries in the Pacific, which are heavily reliant on tourism and aid from COVID-19 affected countries. By the end of the first quarter in 2020, countries were closing their borders to stop the spread of COVID-19. I remember being in Tuvalu at the time, and I was fortunate enough to be allowed on the last flight out of Tuvalu to Fiji in late March.

Closure of borders between countries meant that international flights no longer operate, and the number of tourists visiting Fiji and the Pacific were drastically reduced from millions in a year to almost zero. Consequently, a significant number of jobs were lost from the aviation and tourism sectors. Sadly, small businesses in the main towns and cities could no longer operate due to considerably low demand for their goods and services. A year later, although the number of COVID-19 cases have been successfully managed, contained and reduced, the effect on Pacific economies is still being felt. The majority of working population (especially in Fiji and Vanuatu) had migrated from urban to rural areas and had to adjust their lives from one of luxury to that of survival. 

For my family and I, we had high hopes that our application for residence in New Zealand would come through in 2020. Sadly, this was not so as our ‘country of want’ was heavily impacted by COVID-19. Thus, began our journey of looking within Fiji and realizing how blessed we are for what we have instead of dwelling on our disappointment of what we had wanted. Taking onboard good practices from the wider Fijian community, I started a small vegetable garden at home around May. By July, my family and I established our agricultural farm in Waibau (Naitasiri Province) about 45 minutes drive from Suva. Through my husband’s connection as member of the landowning unit, we acquired 10 acres of fertile farmland. We mobilized resources (both financial and labour) and began the work of clearing and cutting down ‘African Tulip’ trees that are considered invasive and ventured into the laborious task of ploughing and planting. By January 2021, we had achieved our target of going into commercial-scale farming where we planted 5,000 dalo tops and 16 plots of yaqona (kava) on three acres of land. We plan to expand to ginger and cassava farming on an additional six acres of land. At a smaller scale, we planted vegetables for our personal consumption and have had our first harvest of cucumbers, beans, and lemon grass. 

Emma Sale's family at Waibau Farm

Emma Sale's husband Semesa at work in Auckland, NZ.

My husband is adjusting very well to farm-work ever since returning to Fiji in October 2020. I have so much admiration for him as it is vastly different from his profession as a Land Surveyor in a leading construction company in Auckland, New Zealand. He treats farm-work as an alternative profession and goes to ‘work’ five days a week where he spends four hours in a day. Being a former professional rugby player (in Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia), my husband is pursuing a career in 7s Rugby Coaching and recently attended a one-day workshop in Suva and is currently undertaking practical training sessions with a grassroots rugby team from his village. As for me, I continue to be employed by the UN Development Programme. I am making a habit of doing farm-work every Saturdays and while on holiday. To be a successful farmer requires commitment, dedication, perseverance, and hard work. For me, farming is looking like a viable option in life after UNDP.

Taro (dalo) plantation at Waibau farm.

Emma started her home gardening in May during the COVID-19 pandemic.

First harvest of cucumbers from Waibau farm

About the author

Emma Sale is a Programme Analyst with the Resilience and Sustainable Development Programme at the UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji.