More than a fistful of soil
As his fist cautiously presses together a handful of soil he just collected from the ground of the cabbage plantation, it falls apart to a certain extent when he opens his hand again.
“That’s healthy soil,” declares Edwin Tamasese with a smile on his face.
The ground he is standing on is a cabbage plantation used by his company, Soil Health Pacific, to train future farmers in Samoa.
Edwin’s family has always been farming. But when the time came for Edwin to choose a career, working on a plantation was in fact the last thing on his mind.
“I hated it. It was really hard work and I couldn’t stand it,” he says.
“All the time, I would ask myself: Why do we have to face all these challenges in farming?”
Farming is indeed a much more difficult thing to do in Samoa than in other countries, as Edwin points out.
“A lot of the technology that is used in Fiji, Tonga or New Zealand cannot be applied to Samoa. The soil is just very rocky, so for instance the usage of tractors in farming has to be excluded.”
All these difficulties forced Edwin to find something else to do in his life for the next 15 years, something that “would bring him as far away from farming as possible.”
Education provided him with an escape from the family business.
“Initially, I was studying Science, but when I realized that I would never get a scholarship, I switched to Arts, studying English and Education.”
From there, Edwin made an important decision.
“I wanted to change the education system to achieve better outcomes in that. That was my dream.”
But this did not work out as planned.
“At that point, this seemed like a hopeless exercise to me,” he says now. So he pulled up the stakes, not knowing, that later, he would instead turn upside down a completely different field, one that he had tried to avoid – the process of farming in Samoa.
Before Edwin went back to his roots, he first had to dabble in yet another field of work after turning his back to the world of academics.
“I changed to manufacturing. With my job in a factory, I worked my way up in high-end manufacturing and that’s where I learnt never to be afraid of numbers.
“We were turning over these [huge] amounts of money and when I came back to Samoa, I knew, these are just numbers. One and one will always make two, there’s no other thing about that.”
Back to Samoa and farming, Edwin said his interest aroused again.
“I relooked at agriculture. It was Adi Tafunai’i of Women in Business who introduced me to the work of Dr. Arden Andersen and his book Science in Agriculture..”
It’s a book Edwin seems to believe in with an almost religious zeal – as far as this can be claimed for such a work of Science - indeed became his reference book.
“It is really difficult to understand. I have to read some pages three or four times to understand the meaning, but it is perfect.”
The arduous process of understanding Science in Agriculture paid off with knowledge in a field Edwin Tamasese was completely new to, but what would define the future of the family business and farming in Samoa: Biological farming and fertilizing.
With this knowledge, Ediwin was able to understand the difficulties that once had forced him to reject farming.
“I learnt that in regular farming, just like in modern medicine, everything’s about killing and destroying. Once you understand a problem’s reason, you can solve it.
“If a coconut beetle eats a coconut leaf, you have to know that it does so because of the leaf’s high level of carbohydrates. And if these sorts of carbohydrates are in the leaf, it means that it’s not photosynthesising properly.
“To fix that, you could start killing beetle after beetle with pesticides, which would certainly not solve the problem in a long run, or you could change the fertilization to guarantee a successful photosynthesis for the leaf and not have to worry about beetles at all.”
Even though spurred on by this valuable knowledge, the success Soil Health Pacific, that is run Edwin and two equally entitled partners in Fugalei, was not yet predictable.
Only manufacturing the right fertilizers and knowing how to use them did not generate customers. That is why Soil Health had the right idea.
“We knew, that if we can create successful farmers, then everyone wins. The problem we have in Samoa is that we’ve got a very underdeveloped value chain. The link to the Ministry [of Agriculture and Fisheries] is not as strong as it could be and possibly never will be. Therefore, we went to the villages and started training people on fertilizing and farming.”
The content of these trainings offered by the company covers the process of farming as a whole, with a test farm for visualisation based near Vaitele.
“[We share] three laws of farming: you’ve got to have the right environment, the right varieties and the right nutrition. If you have a foreign crop like market garden vegetables, especially here with the high temperature and humidity, you have to control the environment. Everything else would be like going to Alaska and not wearing a jacket”.
Within the training programme provided by Soil Health Pacific, which now also is subcontracted by the government, more than 4000 people have so far learnt about biological farming and the right ways of fertilizing.
Understandably, only a very few of a training’s participants finally end up with the profession of being a farmer.
“[They can buy our fertilizers] if they want to pursue it, but everyone gets an equal opportunity, and out of thirty people, we’re lucky if, one or two become a farmer.
Because the reality is, when you’re going to a village, you’ve got fishermen, store owners, lawyers, schoolteachers – simply a wide range of people attending this farmer training.
“I think most of them come to us out of pure curiosity, because everyone here has a background in farming somehow. In Samoa, you are a farmer sort of by default. But not all of them can actually be farmers, and that is a good thing. Because if all of them were farmers, no one could make an income out of farming”.
Having changed the agricultural situation in Samoa from its foundations with new approaches in the area of fertilization and biological farming since 2010, there is still no reason for Edwin and his company to stop looking out for new areas of sustainable farming.
Just recently, Edwin had a new intuition: coconut oil.
“It regenerates your brain and they use it for Alzheimer patients or certain forms of dementia. I’ve seen it potential for years,” he explains, taking a sip out of his mug, in which he mixes tea and, of course, coconut oil.
The industrial processing of the oil could, according to Edwin, generate a turnover of about $1.2 billion tala for Samoa’s economy.
He has already started a coconut oil manufactory in a backyard in Vaitele.
“But that is a different story to tell,” he says with a grin.