Early computing curiosity paved Regulator's way
Samoa’s Regulator, Lematua Fuatai Purcell, says when she moved with her family to New Zealand in 1983, she knew precisely nothing about computers.
But upon discovering that computer know-how would be a must in the future workforce, Lematua threw herself into a field then completely dominated by men, Information, and Communications Technology (I.C.T.).
Her decision to take up the discipline nearly 30 years ago has led her to numerous leadership roles in the field around the world and including as head of The Office of the Regulator (O.O.T.R.), a position to which she was appointed in September of 2020.
Speaking at the 10th Anniversary celebration of ‘Girls in I.C.T. Day’, Lematua recalled the days when international phone calls had to be made only at select locations in the country.
“I would have to travel all the way from Falealupo to Asau and if the phones there weren’t working we had to travel all the way to Salelologa to wait for our calls…people overseas used to contact the Post Office here and say: 'Okay, we want to call our family and this the name of our family’,” she said.
“We do not have official street addresses so they’d tell them ‘you turn into the village, go past the church and there’s a big mango on your left and therefore you turn left [and] you will find a big breadfruit tree and our family is behind there. That’s the address. It’s a mouthful. But now we are moving forward and I’m really happy to say that.”
In 2000, Lematua came to Samoa from New Zealand upon request from the Government of Samoa to help reform telecommunications in Samoa.
“When I came, we looked at the mobile market industry because at that time there was only one mobile company, a New Zealand telecom cellular company…but they weren’t selling mobile phones, they were renting [the phones] so you can imagine you have to rent the phone but you also have to pay for usage and it was something like $6 tala and a few cents per minute. It was really expensive,” she said.
First, she helped to develop a national I.C.T. policy and with the drafting of the Telecommunications Act 2005.
Lematua handled the technical review of the Telecom Act.
She also helped pave the way to allow overseas telecom companies to do business in Samoa.
“[It] was a long process but finally Digicel came in and launched its business in Samoa in 2006 and then the SamoaTel which is now Vodafone and the rest is history,” said Lematua.
“With the growth in technological trends, comes a growth in demand for experts in the field especially female experts…with new innovations come new online threats also known as cyber-threats…in the cybersecurity field, we need females. We need them to become national cybersecurity experts to conquer dangers that may arise in the future of our country.”
She urged young women to “make the life-changing choice” to seek out opportunities to serve in the I.C.T. sector.
Lematua graduated from Samoa College in 1973.
She holds a Masters of Commerce and Administration Degree from the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand and a Post Graduate Diploma in Information Systems Management from the same university.
In 1983, she moved to New Zealand with her family.
“Every mother and father had to find jobs to look after their family otherwise you might as well come back to Samoa. I found it hard to find a job because of one thing – that is computer experience. I do well with everything else but when they asked me what are your computer experiences I had nothing to offer and I was too proud a woman to say ‘I don’t have any,’” said Lematua.
“I would say if you tell me what a computer is, I will tell you what my experiences are. I never heard of the word computer before. I couldn’t even pronounce the word when I asked them about computers…that’s how new I was at the time and that is how determined I was because I thought if they tell me what a computer is, then for my future interviews I am going to learn what it is so I can give an answer.
"It was also difficult in New Zealand for a woman at the time because the stereotype was that everybody from the Pacific islands worked at the factory and the women go look after their kids…this woman all the way from Falealupo and Satupaitea in Savai’i was not going to do that.”
Before taking up the Regulator role previously held by Unutoa, Lematua spent 11 years in top management level posts in New Zealand, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
She served in the United Kingdom as the Acting Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisations, (C.T.O.) and Director of I.C.T. Development at the Commonwealth Telecommunication Organisation. Lematua was also the Regional Adviser (South Pacific) for the latter organisation between 2016 to 2018.
She had previously been the Head of Division and Project Manager for the International Telecommunication Organisation, in Switzerland.
“Before I moved back to Samoa, I was the first woman, first Samoan woman, first Pacific woman who headed the Department of I.C.T. Development Climate Change Adaptation and Emergency Telecommunications for Developing Countries at the International Telecommunications Unit (I.T.U.)," said Lematua.
"After that, I retired and came back home, I was appointed and I went back to London and be the Director of I.C.T. Development and the Acting Secretary-General for two years and a few months. So now I am back here in Samoa as the Regulator."
She said most of the staff in her current office are female.