Top Samoan opens up about business and life

By Elizabeth Ah-Hi 12 September 2017, 12:00AM

Some say that if you can’t figure out what you’re passionate about, then follow your curiosity instead. That’s because in most cases you’ll find that it can lead you to a most interesting and fulfilling life. 

And a lucrative one at that, in the case of Lelei Lelaulu.

The high-flying Samoan is someone who personifies the definition of someone who lives life successfully on every level. Those in the field of journalism might not be surprised to hear that Harvard educated Lelaulu started off as journalist working for CNN and editor for a New York newspaper, before becoming one of the worlds most highly sought after consultants, who has worked with United Nations and the World Bank. 

He has chaired advisory boards on business, climate change, food security and renewable energy -- the list goes on. 

These days, he balances his career between being a development entrepreneur and advisor to the World Bank for agriculture and the environment. 

Last week, Lelaulu played a key role at the Pacific Islands Forum meetings, coordinating and facilitating talks within the regional private sector community, in preparation for presentation to the leaders. 

Lelaulu is a well-known face in the obscure but powerful sphere of international influence and networks, both socially and politically -- which he navigates with ease. He is someone that can confidently talk shop with presidents and prime ministers around the world, and then, in the next breath, nonchalantly solicit my beauty advice on eyebrow grooming tips. 

He is a well-informed man. 

Lelaulu talked about some of the key concerns and outcomes from the private sector meeting with the leaders, last week. 

He was optimistic about the talks that took place between the leaders and the private sector representatives, noting that the leaders responded well to the concerns of the business community and he got the impression that there were lots of leaders willing to help the private sector in the region, but it was just a matter of the private sector standing up and identifying their needs clearly.

In return, the leaders called on the private sector to produce new and innovative new industry sectors and Lelaulu pointed out there were some missed opportunities, especially to do with breadfruit exporting, that the private sector should revisit in the future.

“Prime Minister Tuilaepa pointed out that the government has spent a lot of time and effort researching the value of breadfruit export, but you know what? No one in the private sector has stepped up to take advantage of the research. So coordinating the research and what governments can do with the needs of the private sector came up for discussion.”

Lelaulu has been to countless international meetings about these same issues and one thing he points out as something that continues to haunt Pacific Island companies involved in exporting, is the issue around continuity and predictability.

“There is always that thing that bedevils the Pacific Island producers and that is continuity and predictability supply, because it doesn’t matter if you get a contract to provide one container full of say, ulu, every month for 12 months. 

“If you go for 11 months without delivering on the twelfth, your contract is gone with no excuses -- they want predictability of supply. 

“This is always a big problem, so that’s something that’s going to be addressed by the private sector and leaders together. Then also, there is a lot of talk about ensuring the domestic needs of islands are met first, before they starting looking at exporting. 

“Which is good, because that way you have a guaranteed market, no matter what happens overseas, or if the airplane or the ship doesn’t arrive, then you’re stuck with that stuff for export. However, if you fill the local demand first, then you’re always going to have a business and therefore it means that you’re not depriving the locals of their own culinary heritage.”

Lelaulu is very aware and empathetic to the business community because he understands how difficult it is for local business and companies to survive in an unpredictable market, such as Samoa. 

He is also conscious of their impression that the government places much emphasis and incentives on foreign investors over local businesses and he says it is essential that the voices of the locals are heard and given priority over outsiders, but also that people need to understand that foreign investment is key to a thriving economy in Samoa.

 “The needs and the voices of the local people need to be heard and listened to first. And then you have to look at their concerns and see how real they are, and what amount of it is based on prejudice,” he said. 

“Because if it’s based on prejudice, then it’s bad for business and it’s bad for everybody. However, if their concerns are well rooted, if there’s concerns about cultural preservation and the importance of the dignity of the community, then their concerns have to take priority over the commercial needs of the outsiders, but there’s always a middle way. 

“You usually find it’s a lack of communication that’s happened and that the local community doesn’t have an understanding of the external company and that certain companies don’t understand the culture sufficiently to fit in to the community.”

More often than not, business owners have control over their businesses and Lelaulu believes that entrepreneurs need to assess and think laterally about their businesses. There are simple ways to boost your businesses profitability, notwithstanding of the governments assistance, but it’s just about identifying them and simply looking right under our noses to find the answers.

 “There’s also the issue of branding and marketing which is very, very important. I think it’s something that should be improved a lot. 

“It’s all very well to get people to design a brand or logo, but then again, you have to promote, you have to use it , the brand or the logo itself is not going to do the work. 

“You have to carry it all over the place and keep showing it till it is literally branded in people’s brains, so that needs to be done. There’s an awful lot of things that can be used and then you use a lot of Samoans overseas, the diaspora of Samoans, some of them are pretty famous and get them to be spokes people for your products.” 

Living in a society and culture that is collective in its approach to everything shouldn’t stifle business owners from being proactive and creative because there is always a way and that includes investing in areas that business owners will sometimes cut corners on.

 “Samoan culture is so well defined and it’s a well oiled machine, for thousands of years, so it’s tough to go beyond that and do things without the approval of the rest of the community. 

“But you have Apia, you are removed from your traditional structures, so essentially you have to look at ways and uses to be proactive, creative and innovative. 

“I mean, can we have a national competition for a brand? That means everybody gets involved and it doesn’t cost very much money -- people will do it for the prestige to say they were in the top 10 of designs and it’s a great source of pride for the aiga and the nu’u. I think that a lot of companies operate on such small margins, and they have so little money, it’s maybe difficult for them to see the value of promoting something else which is associated with their own success. If you look at Air New Zealand, they sponsor as much as they can get their hands on because they recognise that in a highly competitive world, Air New Zealand’s name has to stick out.”

Speaking of branding, Lelei Lelaulu could give “the most interesting man in the world” character from the Dos Equis beer commercials a run for his money with his own colourful and extraordinary life to date. 

Naturally, we invite him to share even just a small snapshot of his life and perhaps some sage wisdom he has learnt over his extraordinary years as a writer, journalist, consultant and entrepreneur. 

  “Well, first of all, never take advice from people like me, that’s the first one and simply put -- kafao vale. Get out there, meet people and see things,” he said. 

“You have to buck the trend. People keep saying “you need to think outside the box” I’m saying -- what box? The box doesn’t exist, there’s nothing there. If you get an opportunity to do something that you’ll never do again, leave what you’re doing and go do it because you can always come back to it. 

“I was a senior producer at New Zealand Broadcasting when I was 22 and I had a chance to go overseas and get out of there. So I did. I shouldn’t say this, but you’ve got to go to places that are dangerous when you’re young and you can take it, because that’s where the opportunities lie and the people that you meet in situations of high stress -- they tell their lives to you. 

“I got shot at in Beirut when I worked for CNN World Report, I was freelancing and kafao vale around the place. You will find great opportunities in places you least expect ”

Unexpectedly, Mr Lelaulu reckons he has found the title for his next book and shares with us his last thoughts.

 “Ah yes, ‘Kafao Vale for Vales’ is a good title and come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever had an original thought in my mind until now, that reminds me -- don’t get hung up about being the original, the first one. 

“You synthesise what you come across and we become filters and deciphers and synthesisers of what we see and experience, and sometimes we end up doing very, very well.”

Indeed, not all those who wander are lost.

By Elizabeth Ah-Hi 12 September 2017, 12:00AM

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