Vanuatu is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. It is no stranger to shocks and disasters. When I was living there in 2010, over about 12 months we experienced floods, ash fall from the volcano, severe earthquakes, a tsunami and two cyclones.  

In 2015, Vanuatu experienced tropical cyclone, Pam, once of the strongest recorded cyclones to hit the South Pacific.

It was through that response that our current project has emerged. Our project aims to build a sustainable enterprise that can link hundreds of small holder farmers to growing commercial market opportunities, both domestically and regionally.  

I was in Vanuatu at the end of last year, along with some of our NZ based project partners.  However a lot has changed in the world since that trip last December, and since then we have become uncomfortably familiar with words like pandemic, Covid-19 and recession. For our projects and the communities they aim to serve this year has bought some unexpected challenges.  

The history of epidemics and pandemics in the Pacific is a bleak one. Particularly in the time of traders and colonists, viruses have been spread accidentally, through ignorance, indifference or intentionally with devastating consequences for local populations with no natural immunity or health system to speak of.

In the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, Samoa lost 20% of its population, after the New Zealand authorities failed to quarantine infected crew members of a ship. Covid-19 threatened to repeat aspects of this dark history. The health systems of many Pacific Island countries are woefully under-resourced to serve their populations. For example, as of April, Vanuatu reportedly only had 2 ventilators for the entire country. The region is plagued by pre-existing health conditions, currently, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) make up 70-75% of all deaths. The high level of underlying health conditions and lack of health care make the prospect of Covid-19 spreading through the Pacific islands unabated, a scary one. While Covid-19 is threatening the whole world, for developing countries in the Pacific it adds another layer on top of existing vulnerabilities. This includes poverty, unemployment, overcrowded informal settlements, NCDs, lack of access to clean water, weak health care or exposure to natural hazards like cyclones or floods.  

Some Pacific governments quickly moved to close their borders and ordered lockdowns. Keep it out was their most effective tool to stop an unmitigated disaster. This has come at a cost though. Tourism plays a major role for many Pacific Island nations. Tourism makes up 40% of Vanuatu’s GDP and employs an estimated 60% of the workforce. While the loss of life has so far been prevented, the loss of livelihood won’t be. As New Zealanders, we can relate to this although in New Zealand we have the benefit of much stronger stimulus packages and welfare safety nets that are not available in the same way to our Pacific neighbours.  Remittances will also be affected. Vanuatu sends about 7,000 seasonal workers to New Zealand every year and many families in Tonga and Samoa rely on remittances sent back from wage and salary earners in New Zealand. These income streams will also be affected by increasing unemployment and border closures.  

In the Pacific, disasters rarely travel solo and are layered on top of existing challenges. When you are working in such exposed environments, having to deal with multiple disasters is not uncommon. When Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu, in 2015, it was then followed by one of the worst El-Niño periods causing drought and making quick recovery difficult. This year, just as countries were closing their borders to foreigners, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Fiji were hit by Cyclone Harold. The severe category-five cyclone hit Vanuatu hardest and flattened villages, destroyed food sources and further disrupted livelihoods. We all know that this current season is a hard one, but it will be harder for some than others. 

There is always a reason for hope though. Just as many of us have found moments of joy, whether that has been connecting with neighbours on lockdown walks, or experiencing care and concern from those around them when they have struggled, hard times can bring out some surprising blessings.  

Tearfund is supporting a local organisation that trains farmers in organic agriculture. Your generosity enables them to be generous.  The farmers have started a social enterprise to improve market access and adding value to what they produce. On Tanna, 85-90% of the island’s population are substance farmers who are actively supporting the needs in their communities. The fact that they are local means their work can continue, and as I have described above, the need has only been amplified in the last few months.  

Our Farming and Enterprise project in Vanuatu has grown up in the context of disasters. It is because of this that we have designed a degree of flexibility in the business approach. 

Resilience is central to what we do. For example, they process a mixture of short and long term crops– coffee provides an annual harvest but trees take four years to mature. 
The enterprise also processes peanuts, buys and sells fresh vegetables and they are about to start an agritourism venture. Peanuts and most vegetables take three months from planting to harvest, so in a recovery situation, they are a good stop-gap income. In Vanuatu, we expect the first harvest of vanilla next year. It is a high-value niche crop with strong demand. This diversity of crops and markets will help soften the blows of the economic downturn.  

While the loss of the tourist market will definitely have an impact on enterprise income, we are not solely reliant on this. Some products are marketed domestically, some are exported regionally.  

Last December we were lucky enough to have Mojo coffee sharing their expertise and training staff in coffee roasting. We had just installed a brand new roaster in the recently built coffee processing building. In addition to roasted coffee, the enterprise exports raw green coffee to New Zealand (down to Wellington where it is bought primarily by Mojo).  

So, while we won’t have any tourists tasting coffee and going on tours, we plan to export about 18 tonnes of raw green bean to coffee roasters in New Zealand this year. In the absence of other income opportunities, this will provide a valuable lifeline to farmers on Tanna Island. The latest research indicates that a possible 20% contraction in household consumption across the Pacific region could result in an additional 1.2 million people sliding back into extreme poverty.  If there was ever a time to strengthen the fence at the top of the cliff, it is now.