Cornelia Wyllie arrived in Vanuatu from New Zealand over 30 years ago. The daisy chain hugging wild child turned hard-nosed businesswoman has always been a fierce advocate for organic self-sufficiency. She started Rainbow Gardens with her husband, Bob, while raising their large brood of nine children.

Rainbow Gardens successfully bloomed into an internationally recognized botanic garden and was later sold, abandoned, then under Cornelia’s green thumb, started thriving again under the name of ‘Rainbow Botanical Gardens’.

Nowadays Cornelia spends most of her time focusing on the numerous business ventures, namely Vanuatu Direct Limited (VDL) and Fine Foods, which have branched from her humble family farm.

From growing local flowers to exporting high quality products that meet international standards, including honey, chilli sauce, juice, tuluk, simboro and kava, Cornelia’s vast experience provides valuable insight into how Vanuatu can make the most of its natural and organic resources through innovative approaches to create self-sustaining jobs and meaningful long-term economic growth.

Cultivating growth through mentorship and assistance

Let’s go back to Independence. What was the intention of taking back leases? It was to give it back to the people. Now we have given the land back to Ni-Vanuatu but we haven’t helped them develop it.

You can’t just say, ‘Here you are, off you go.’ You can’t do that in politics, you can’t do that in business, and you can’t do that with land either.

To turn workers into businesspeople takes time and mentorship. Sowers and Growers is not a new idea. (Sowers and Growers is a not-for-profit program designed to educate local farmers to effectively manage their own businesses while providing mentorship from private sector and work closely with the government)

Look at the history of England and its societal structure. Families and communities would work and pay their dues to the landlord but in return, the landlord offered a market, protection and benefits, which generated sustainability and growth.

Right now we have Ni-Vanuatu who know how to grow crops but cannot sell it. I’ve taken my skill base and thought, ‘I will help farmers do what they know best – growing – but I will help them get better.’

We took in a Tannese group and allocated them a 100m by 100m plot. We said, ‘You grow it how you like to grow it. But I want you to try this method right next to it.’ So we did a raised bed version and from our method, they got 1.2 tonnes of kumala and from theirs, they got 800kg.

Talk to people but don’t just give them books and preach to them. Get them doing it, and they will go away and do it how they were taught.


Branch out and think big

Fine Foods exports tuluk, mostly aimed at RSE workers missing the taste of home, but I can’t buy enough local pepper. It can be easily grown in Vanuatu along with many other spices, which are a high value commodity and lightweight. Unfortunately Activ Association has withdrawn some of its products because there aren’t enough spices to meet demand.

Terry from Tanna Coffee needs coffee beans to make coffee. He has to think like a nurseryman and will distribute seedlings for free to coffee bean farmers. He wants to make sure there is always enough coffee.

Over the years, people have come together to develop the industry. As more people come onboard, you get this passion and fervor – it’s not a threat to anybody. It’s actually everybody trying to work together to develop an industry, which means developing the country.


Spread the seeds of knowledge

In Australia and New Zealand, there are young farmers clubs and fruit growers federations who meet to share information. The weeklong Mystery Creek agricultural show in NZ is an agricultural mecca in the southern hemisphere where businesses attend and seminars are held for information sharing.

For a long time in Vanuatu, people have not been sharing despite it being such a communal society. Someone will go overseas and learn new information but where does it go? Into the drawer! If he’s got information, he thinks he’s smarter than everyone else and wants to stay on top of the pile.

We need a change in attitude. There is a difference between sharing your intellectual property and sharing information. One is your bread and butter; the other is to help develop an industry. We have to cooperate and learn to band together. There is enough work for everyone and we will never flood the market.

Take honey for example – we took it from 180kg to 12 ton per annum. When we got to 12 ton, we found the market for 100 ton. I don’t care how many people want to jump on the bandwagon; I think it’s a healthy thing to do.


Sow the ground we’ve got and reap the possibilities

Vanuatu has tremendous potential. Our food taste better and is nutritionally better than anywhere else in the Pacific and we can prove it by science.

There is something about our longitude, latitude, climate and soil that creates perfect growing conditions. The same variety of noble kava just doesn’t grow the same in Fiji or Solomons. Our quality is much higher and that gives Vanuatu an advantage.

With new technologies such as geotagging, we can now even identify the appropriate areas to grow crops suitable to its geology. This allows us to recommend what crops that farmers should grow, whether it’s potatoes or onions, or whatnot.

By also identifying health benefits in vegetables and fruits, we can increase its value. Mangosteen was once valued at $6-8 a kilo and once its nutritional benefits were discovered, its value went to $84 a kilo.

Did you know that island cabbage is natural product to moderate the hormone balance in women who are having their period or going through menopause? Ni-Vanuatu women don’t suffer menopause the way expatriate women do and it’s because of island cabbage. This is another way to market our produce – it is not just tasty but good for you!

Our roots are in agriculture – it’s time to grow our profile

If we take the ordinary and find the extraordinary, that’s where you value add. Let Fiji and Bali have the cheap destinations and lovely beaches but if Vanuatu positions itself as the health capital of the Pacific, we can brand ourselves as something other than a tourist destination.

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