Nadia Kanegai’s story is one of a social entrepreneur. A people-centred individual, Kanegai not only likes building her social networks, she is also always seeking ways to help create opportunities to empower people regardless of their gender or social standing. Kanegai claims politics only has a secondary role in all that she does.

“I’ve been involved with the communities for a long time now. I owe everything to my old grandmother who used to tell me, ‘if you want to excel in life (and live a satisfactory life) you have to help people to make a difference in their lives.’ One can’t just walk past someone who needs help. (If) you have a heart; they have a heart (too) — you need to touch their hearts by helping them live better lives.” Kanegai remembers the wise counsels of her old grandmother vividly.

Kanegai’s philosophy and general outlook in life are deeply rooted in her own community upbringing and cultural values — values that taught her to esteem others and to respect them regardless of their social status. “I learned so much also from my elders in the community while listening to all their stories. They gave me great advice and insights, which have remained with me all my life”.

Since the 1990s, she estimates that she may have trained well over 15,000 people from all over the country, but especially from Santo, Ambae and Efate. Recently, Nadia became involved in up-skilling over 2,000 mothers from Luganville in how to value-add their cuisine so that they could earn more from their cookery.

“I believe in training. Not for the sake of training, but to make a real change in how we do business. Most ‘20 vatu mamas’ (market vendors on the side of the streets who sell cooked food for 20 Vatu) think that what they do is nothing. But once they go through training and you share with them the knowledge and skills needed to take that next step, they begin to realise how important their activities are to the overall economy,” she says.

Most recently on July 9th, Nadia helped launch the constitution of the first ever umbrella body of handicraft making in the country. The body is called Vanuatu Handicrafts Association — taking in five different groupings within Port Vila alone, and looking to branch out to Luganville and other provincial centres. The Handicraft Association operates out from the Port Vila main market house and its president is Rebecca Bule. She herself spoke glowingly of Nadia Kanegai and the impact she has had on their members. It was this same group that tried admirably to get Kanegai elected into parliament on March 19th this year.

Rebecca Bule said, “In 2016, we weren’t too involved in politics. We did not see the need to be involved. But when Nadia came in and started to touch our lives with her support, which she gives voluntarily, that was then we started to see the importance of working together towards something.”

And the thing that impressed most was Nadia Kanegai’s down-to-earth attitude and easy-to-understand style of trainings. “Nadia puts herself in our shoes,” she says. Rebecca Bule has 63 mamas in her association — all now members of the Port Vila Handicraft Association.

With Kanegai’s input, Rebecca Bule says her members are starting to appreciate their worth as equal contributors to the economy. She adds that the handicraft market (as part of the tourism sector) has been before independence. “In 2002 we established the handicraft organization. When I came in in 2017 all the women were merely working for their bread and butter. Most of their earnings were going into school fees. They did not have any savings.” With Nadia’s help, members were encouraged to think ‘outside the box’. Nadia sacrificed her own time, effort and money.

“I am happy that we are now well organized structurally. We have seen a lot of positive change, thanks to Nadia’s involvement,” says Rebecca.

Nadia Kanegai’s desire for change and passion to be engaged in an empowering process and to impact other people’s lives goes way back.

“When I came back from Australia in 1990, the push for women to get into the workforce was just starting in Vanuatu. There weren’t that many women employed in the formal workforce. So I decided to start a day care centre. We knew mothers needed time off their household chores to go to work,” she recalls. She remembers that one of the arguments for keeping women at home then was that because most fathers were the breadwinners, women must remain at home to look after children.

“It was a completely new concept. Lots of people did not like the idea but I applied and got approval from the Ministry of Education. Childcare Centre was established in 1990, with the underlying aim that it would result in more women getting into the workforce,” Kanegai reveals.

Today, the privately run institution has prospered from those very small beginnings — from being tucked away in one of the most obscure and restrictive locations for a school, to where it is today in the centre of Port Vila town. A premier education establishment in Vanuatu, the Childcare Centre currently boasts an enrolment of over 500 children and offers places from nursery through to grade eight. The school has since expanded its school grounds by taking on the properties vacated by Port Vila International School (opposite the more established Central School). Though Nadia is no longer involved in the school’s daily management, the Childcare Centre remains her insignia of success and one that probably epitomizes her role as a social change agent.

So how did Kanegai get acquainted with politics and come to be considered three times as a political candidate? Nadia says it goes back to her childhood days. Nadia grew up in a home where everyone was accorded the freedom to have whatever political views they might have. Her mum had a strong Presbyterian upbringing and was a Vanua’aku Pati (VP) supporter, while her dad was among those who founded the Union des Communautés des Nouvelles Hébrides (UCNH), which later became Union of Moderate Parties (UMP). But since then, she has leaned more towards her mother’s side.

“So since my childhood days, I have always been in the middle of two different extremes of politics. But my home was where everyone came, regardless of their political leanings. When the UMPs came, they came to our house. When the VPs came, they too came to our house. I was exposed to both extremes of party politics,” she says. It is little wonder she does not see any major differences with many of the current splinter groupings from the VP of old.

Kanegai adds, “I learned about the two different viewpoints. I appreciated them both because I saw my dad taking the lead, spending his own money to develop their ideologies and my mother — she was free to think for herself. Nadia’s father, Antoine Kanegai, was a well-known boat builder from Nduindui, Ambae at the time.

“My very first involvement was when I was at Malapoa College prior to the days leading towards independence in 1980. I actually got myself involved in the first independence committee. I was the youngest member, and I was privileged to be working with people like Charlot Longwah, the very first Chairman,” she says.

After finishing up at Malapoa College, Kanegai studied in Australia before returning to Malapoa College where she taught English and Social Sciences. Nadia went back for further studies, returning in 1990 and began working at the Radisson Hotel.

Out of her love for helping others, during her time with Radisson, she helped recruit young school drop-outs known for causing social disorder within Freshwota. “We brought them in and trained them in various skills suited for the hotel industry. We placed them in different jobs, about 30 of them. It’s very rewarding to see,” she warmly smiles.

Kanegai is an accomplished career women who has served in many capacities both in the public and private sector. After ending a 20-year-long career with the former telecommunications company, Telecoms Vanuatu Ltd. (TVL), for a time she held the executive position as People’s Progressive Party (PPP) treasurer and also went on to being appointed political advisor to the former Prime Minister, Sato Kilman, in his government from 2015 until the February 2016 snap elections. That was when she ran for the second time as a PPP candidate (her first attempt was just the previous year when former VP leader Edward Natapei died, and his replacement was being sought through a by-election).

At the March 19th election, she polled one of the highest for an independent running in Port Vila, the most difficult constituency in the whole of the country. She feels she is making good progress already despite that she may have stumbled in her attempts. Kanegai believes her total tally of 858 votes signifies the momentum she and her network are growing. She is quietly confident her years of networking could still translate into brighter things in future elections, as far as better representation in the national parliament is concerned.

She agrees women do need to have a voice and be better represented in parliament, but again it’s up to the voters to decide. “I have made myself available but the decision was really up to them to decide.”

Nadia doesn’t think reserved seats are a good idea saying people must be allowed to make that conscious decision about who they would like to represent them in parliament. “Reserved seats means you’re not playing on the same level playing field”. If anything, she says reserved seats demeans the status of women and perpetuates the idea of inferiority (of women).

“Maybe women just need to work harder and we need to have the skills and knowledge of how to play it (politics) better,” she says.