Bittersweet journey of a Chinese agriculture project

It has been a bittersweet journey for a team of Chinese agricultural experts, who concluded a four-year technical assistance project in May this year to benefit thousands of farmers.

Statistics show that as of May this year, 100 model farmers and over 6,000 farmers had benefited from technical assistance, including training and technology provided through the project. 

But the death of a Chinese vegetable expert based in Savai’i due to illness, was an unexpected development for a project that many see as having a transformational effect on local agriculture and farmers.

The Samoa-China Agricultural Technical Aid Project kicked off in 2017 and was a  2017-2020 bilateral cooperation project between the Chinese and Samoan Governments.

The project focused on four main areas: a seed production base; display of Chinese agricultural technology; center of agricultural training; and a platform of agricultural exchange and cooperation. 

It also looked at agricultural technology such as vegetable varieties, greenhouse cultivation, high-yield fruit cultivation, organic fertilizer and soil improvement, crop-livestock-biogas and irrigation. 

The Project Team Leader, Jim Liu, told the Samoa Observer that the project ended in May this year but they could not return to China, due to the international border closure brought on by the COVID-19 global pandemic.

He said the four-project was not easy but at its conclusion has contributed to Samoa’s agriculture development, in areas such as improving the capacity of vegetable production through the provision of tunnel houses, seed and tools.

“One of the memorable experiences we have had is the project together with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries [M.A.F.] and local farmers, produced and supplied around 30 tons of vegetables and fruits to feed 5,000 athletes, officials and tourists during the 2019 Pacific Games,” he said in the interview. 

“During the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, we also proposed the needed seeds for food security in Samoa.

“The Project’s proposal for vegetable seeds was soon approved by the Government of Samoa.” Mr. Liu added that the China-Samoa Demonstration Farm at Nuu has also reproduced a large quantity of seedlings of open pollinated vegetables, sweet potato, cassava and protein mulberry as an effort to address food security during the COVID -19 state of emergency. 

“We also helped the Tahitian Lime Export Programme of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.”

Other successes of the project, according to Mr. Liu included the registering of 16 crop varieties with the M.A.F. including watermelons, capsicum (three varieties), cabbage, lettuce, Chinese cabbage, pakchoi, eggplant (two varieties), long bean, pumpkins, cucumber, peanut, soybean and feed mulberry.

In addition, nine new agricultural technologies had been evaluated and registered by the M.A.F. and include a tropical tunnel house technology, high-yield citrus cultivation, formula feed, and the application of agricultural machinery, cocoa or coffee processing, feed processing, recycling agriculture and integrated pest management. 

However, the focus of the project has not only been restricted to Upolu but Savai’i as well with Mr. Liu highlighting the ability of famers on the big island to now grow watermelon and other vegetables. 

“Some vegetables were previously heavily dependent on import, such as watermelon, capsicum, head cabbage, but now can be locally produced.”

Local farmers have been the biggest beneficiaries of the transfer of Chinese agriculture knowledge and technology with Mr. Liu estimating over 6,000 farmers benefiting.

“We support 100 model farmers but over the years we have assisted more than 6,000 local farmers and we have also participated in the annual agriculture show for three years in a row,” he said. “We stationed two team members in Savai’i and intensive farming inside the tunnel house resulted in a historic increase in the production of vegetables in Savaii, where bulk of vegetables was imported before.

He added that the 50,000 inhabitants of Savai’i are now able to get themselves on the path to self-sufficiency in vegetable production.

“Many observers commented that the people never saw so many vegetables produced in Savai’i before but now there are big growers of vegetables that are also supplying to Upolu.”

But the success of the project in Savai’i has been attributed to the work of senior vegetable expert, the late Guoping Liu, who was stationed on the big island but passed away in April this year due to septic shock with multi-organ failure.

The Chinese national’s funeral, which was held on May 9 this year, was an anti-climax for the project and its success.

Mr. Liu said his late colleague contributed extensively to the project’s success and he was popular among Samoan farmers.

“We lost a good friend and work colleague who made a great contribution to Samoa's agriculture in which he lost his life during the process. We are very sad; we never thought that this kind of thing could happen,” he said. 

“He was known as papa Liu to the Savaii community and was popular for helping Samoan farmers grow watermelons and vegetables in open fields and using tunnel house technology and he was loved by many.

"We also cannot return the ashes of our colleague because we cannot travel due to the global pandemic."

The ultimate benefit of the project is to enable its model farmers to increase their income generation opportunities, due to the wide variety of vegetables that they are now able to grow and then sell.

According to the summary report of the project, a baseline survey and final evaluation of the project highlighted that 80 vegetable model farmers have increased their income from $1.17 million in 2017 to $2.55 million in 2019, which is an increase of $1.38 million or 117 per cent.

The report also stated that some model farmers increased their income by 200-300 per cent and while other model farmers started on small incomes, they quickly scaled up their vegetable production.

One of the model farmers, John Mapusua, earned $100,000 from vegetable production in 2019, which is doubled compared with the baseline survey in 2017. He invested in another 10 tunnel houses to expand vegetable production at the end of 2019. 

Model farmers process more than 1,000 kilograms of coffee beans and a large number of "Samoa cocoa" by utilising the processing machinery donated by the project. 

The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Lopao'o Natanielu Mua, said the project was a success and has made a huge contribution to the agriculture sector.

“The results of the project are very pleasing and I am very thankful to the Government of the People’s Republic of China for awarding the project to Samoa,” he said. “It has helped our vegetable farmers in a very big way and it is helping with our drive to introduce nutritious foods to our communities.”

Visitors to one of the many project sites have included senior Government leaders including Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi.

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