PEOPLE OF 2020: Tagaloa Eddie Wilson
Tagaloa Eddie Wilson is a born exporter. He has been at the helm of the Samoa Association of Manufacturers and Exporters for the last several years and has stopped at nothing to improve the market for not only Samoa but the entire region.
Since the 1980s, Tagaloa has been driving Samoan products around the Pacific and as far afield as they will go. And countless barriers have popped up like whack-a-moles, but he has overcome each one to keep his business, and everyone else’s too, alive.
First, the focus was taro. In Samoa’s heyday, the country was exporting 45 containers of taro every three weeks, Tagaloa says. Then came the painful arrival of taro blight in 1993 and the entire industry came to a halt, with recovery only just on the horizon.
Undeterred, Tagaloa’s fledgling business Wilex turned to koko. He built a factory in Moataa to process koko for export and to make chocolate in 1994, and just a few years later hosted a Royal visit from Prince Andrew where he presented a box of Samoan made chocolates to send to the Queen.
Not quite satisfied with koko alone Tagaloa turned his attention to ava. But instead of building up a product for himself, he bought ava from Fagaloa in bulk and distributed plant materials all over Samoa to establish an industry.
“It was a phenomenon, one of the few agricultural success stories I have ever seen in my life,” Tagaloa said.
Serious demand for ava grew internationally and soon ava farmers in Samoa were building houses and buying cars because of their exports. But when someone got sick overseas after drinking badly processed ava, Europe came down with a ban swiftly until standards could be ensured.
“When the kava trade was booming, nobody cared about anybody; it was every man for himself. When the ban came in, we realised the way we should have done it is as a community to make sure nobody is left out, and that the mana of the kava is protected.”
That community effort was led by Tagaloa, and in many circles, he is still known as the “kava man.”
He became Chair of the newly established International Kava Executive Council, and later became the President of the Pacific Kava Association.
In 2019, the industry marked a major milestone. Ava reached the Codex Alimentarius, with just a bit more research to be done before it could receive international approval for use.
That finally happened in October this year, when the Codex Alimentarius Commission officially signed off regional standards for ava, and allowing trade to hopefully reach pre-2001 levels.
“It definitely encourages farmers to invest in the industry but also [lets] consumers know it is a commodity that will be safe for consumption,” Tagaloa said.
Speaking to the Samoa Observer earlier this month, Tagaloa said he probably spends more of his time on the industry as a whole than on his own business.
“I look at it as an investment into my time and I know it’s a lot of hours but to me, it’s a good cause that I believe in,” he said.
“I have come to the conclusion that, as the saying goes, on your own you can run faster, but together you can go a lot further.
“If we work and push the S.A.M.E. members and work together, the government, donors, financial institutes should listen. If they don’t listen there is something absolutely wrong somewhere.”
Tagaloa has been involved in his family business from an early age. He left for a spell to qualify and trade as a chartered accountant, but eventually left that line of work to join his father, start Wilex, and eventually lead the entire industry towards development.
He said he doesn’t measure his success by the money in the bank, but by how sustainable a business is and if it can weather the storms it faces.
“It’s difficult, challenging, I don’t know why the hell I am stuck in it. I think I a passion I have for it,” he said with a laugh.
“When you are in agriculture or agro-processing, or export, you won’t measure success based on dollar signs only. If anything, you measure in terms of sustainability, and your ability to stay in that business.”
At the same time, he continues to develop his vision for Samoa’s manufacturing and export sector. He wants to triple exports out of Samoa by 2025 and wants the country to move away from bulk exports to creating retail products that go straight to market.
“One of the God-Given gifts of Samoa is the high quality of its goods. We have very good tasting, quality items. All these items can be promoted as superfoods,” he said.
“Samoa is a perfect COVID-19 free source of superfoods. To us, that is where the future lies in the foreseeable future.”
He plans to get more training for S.A.M.E. members on how to handle and develop their small businesses, and to get a radical stimulus proposal off the ground in early 2021.
The Government is currently looking at his proposal for a concessional lending scheme that would see successful businesses eligible for a loan and tax credit to expand their export capacity.
“It will address a significant part of the member needs to improve and enhance their capacity for value addition and export,” he said.
When talking to association members from all aspects of the export and manufacturing world, the same concern always comes up. There is little to no access to competitive finance.
“The clear need that comes through is access to competitive finance for investment to either increase capacity or adjust current production facilities and enhance competitiveness.
“Hopefully if it is supported by the Government we can work together with other private sector partners and with the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Labour in implementing the scheme.”