Samoa's ownership of P.F.L. has exporters in S-O-S

At the forefront of the national consciousness this week will, undoubtedly, be all things Elections.

And while citizens and eligible voters will find themselves caught up in discussions about political parties, candidates, scandals and gossip, the country must continue to function and the wheels must keep turning for those who keep the economy afloat.

The economic troubles facing the country are now well known, with Samoa in a recession and election campaigns blurring the lines between politically-motivated promises and real action.

One would think that in this pandemic reality we are in, a serious plan to breathe life in to a flat-lining economy would be at the forefront of any election campaign, and most notably from an incumbent ruling party.

Instead we have had to deal with a pettiness that should be reserved for the schoolyard.

So depending on which side of the optimism spectrum you sit, it may come as a surprise that government is staying mum about changes to shipping routes for the Pacific Forum Line, a shipping service of which 50 per cent is owned by government and the other fifty per cent owned by Neptune Pacific Direct Line.

N.P.D.L. is part of a transnational company that also owns Fiji Water, is registered to a company called N.P.T. Agency, a Fijian Shipping agency registered in Vanuatu.

Previously, Samoa had two shipping services every month from Australia, and fortnightly shipping services from Auckland, New Zealand. Under a new regime announced about a month ago, Samoan businesses were alerted to changes that could mean one shipping service every 18 days.

Once every 18 days? From a shipping service half-owned by Samoans?

How could this have happened, you ask?  You are not the only one wondering.

A story in the Sunday Samoan, “Foreign business overtaken Govt. shipping company: exporter”, local exporter Papalii Grant Percival questions how a Government-owned enterprise can cut shipping routes to Samoa.

“The reality is that right now, we own the shipping company and we have been given the really short end of the stick.

“I know ever since N.P.D.L.’s taken over it has gone downhill like a rocket, it’s as if they don’t give a damn. They don’t even care that we exist in the market, and we are partial owners.

“If they owned it completely, I would have accepted it, but as a Samoan taxpayer I want answers.”

Unfortunately, no answers have been forthcoming from the P.F.L. Director, Tupuola Koki Tuala and General Manager Jason Perry, and the usual non-response from the office of the Prime Minister.

It is understandable that we are in a feverish state of national elections, but surely public servants who have nothing to do with political parties and are entrusted to keep the executive government running, are able to provide some explanation on the state of P.F.L.

Does Samoa still own 50 per cent? What exactly is being done to ensure our export needs are being met?

Just last Thursday, on April Fool’s Day, this newspaper ran a story, “Samoa records $55.93 million trade deficit”.

Unfortunately there’s not much in the story to laugh about, and even less now we know our own taxpayer funded shipping service is being run favour of the other owner - N.P.D.L.; while our local industry plays pin the tail on the recession donkey.

As outlined in the story, for February 2021, exports to New Zealand and USA documented the largest increases, due to gains in coconut oil, taro, nonu juice and beer exports to name a few.

As reported by the Samoa Bureau of Statistics last week in their Overseas Merchandise Trade document, the total value of merchandise exports increased by 40.7 per cent or $1.7 million to $5.89 million in one month (Jan to Feb 2021).

This appears to be a glimmering, flickering, shimmering light on the gloomy economic horizon and one we should be trying extremely hard not to extinguish.

The former President of Samoa Association of Manufacturers and Exporters (S.A.M.E.), Tagaloa Eddie Wilson told this newspaper that while there may be challenges faced by Samoa’s exporters amidst the global pandemic, another key challenge is access to markets, meaning our ability to reach borders and meet biosecurity requirements.

This was echoed by new S.A.M.E. President Taulapapa Maria Leota who told this newspaper last week that too many businesses are losing international clients because of the high cost of freight, or import tariffs and she hopes to continue working with Government to improve on shipping amongst other issues.

So far we’ve heard from at least three players who are fair representatives of the private sector whose businesses are geared towards export. And in return, we have heard nothing from those in power, who are supposed to work and advocate on behalf of taxpayers and local businesses.

We understand that this is election season, and that’s probably all that has mattered so far this year, but a sizable chunk of this country’s population are not guaranteed their incomes or sitting on permanent salaries.

Lest we forget we are also in a global pandemic and in our isolation, we rely on timeliness of shipping – by sea or by air – so any delay, in or out, is the difference between staying afloat and packing up shop.

We may not be a priority to other, bigger countries within the Pacific Rim, but the least we can hope for as taxpayers, as citizens, as consumers and as voters, is for our own shipping services to work in our favour and for our benefit.

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