Kustom Gaden At a Crossroad

Islands Business

By Ivor Hanson

The dozen or so men and women sitting at the rough-hewn tables in a large leaf hut in Honiara pondered their worksheets, sketched pictures of crops, trucks, ships and markets, and carefully answered their questionnaires on value chains and cost reviews.

Earlier that morning, Heiko Bammann, an Enterprise Development Officer based in Rome with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, had impressed upon this group of Solomon Islanders the link between better farms and better income, sharing information, and pinpointing every step taken from seed selection to final sale.

“What do farmers need?” Bammann had asked before detailing farmer-driven success stories in Papua New Guinea, Thailand and India. “They need to know what the market needs! They need to get their produce to the market!”

Welcome to the new Kastom Gaden Association. Or, rather, the new role this Solomon Islands NGO is fashioning for itself.

No longer just a resource to help its members get the best use of seeds, soil, crops and yields, KGA now emphasises marketing and sales margins as well.

And no wonder: with Solomons’ food trade recently estimated by the AusAid-supported Community Sector Programme at $800 million, and the country’s population due to double in the coming decades to 1.1 million, the demand for food will be increasing—along with the chance to profit from it.

At the two-day Value Chain Workshop last September—at which four provinces were represented—Kastom Gaden began implementing this new approach of getting farmer-members to regard their plots of land as a business. And themselves as not just producers but entrepreneurs.

As FAO’s Bammann made clear: “The farmer has to be at the center of it all.”

Founded in 1994 as a project of APACE, an Australian non-governmental organisation, 2009 marks 10 years since Kastom Gaden became one of this country’s first local NGOs.

Tasking itself with “promoting self-reliance”, Kastom Gaden has made “improving the lives of rural people” its direct if daunting mission.

And although the means by which Kastom Gaden seeks to achieve its goals—“strengthening food security and sustainable livelihood development”—echo mission statements adopted by other such players, what sets Kastom Gaden apart is its focus at the village level, what Tony Jansen, a founder of, and now an advisor to KGA, calls “our farmer-to-farmer approach.”

Johnson Ladota, a Taro farmer from northern Malaita who has worked with KGA since 2003, bears this out.

When the Value Chain Workshop ended, he looked forward to spreading the word on entrepreneurship to the highlands.

“I see the chain,” Ladota said, “I see the market in a new way now. It is a new challenge for us, another challenge, but we can do it. We will organise ourselves.”

In its own way, Kastom Gaden has faced its own challenges and has organised itself as well.

After recently experiencing what co-founder Jansen calls a “painful but necessary” re-structuring that did away with a fragmented “to-and-fro” management approach, KGA is now in a position where it can “make the projects fit the structure and not the other way round”.

Still, just as its members must now take on an entrepreneurial role to improve their incomes, so too must KGA to ensure its own future.

In its 15 years of existence, Kastom Gaden has grown from having a few hundred farmer-members and a handful of staff, to now having over 2000 members and a staff of 22.

In addition, it has 10 partner organisations in five Solomons provinces, works with the S.I. Planting Material Network, is a member of the Melanesian Farmer First Network, publishes newsletters, offers a library service, broadcasts nationally a weekly radio show—and has a budget of SB$4 million.

Although Kastom Gaden has had a long relationship with Australia’s Agency for International Development—AusAid funded the Australian NGO that established Kastom Gaden, and is currently KGA’s major donor. Both sides recognise the risk of being overly dependent on one source of funding, what Paul Greener, a Honiara-based AusAid Rural Development Advisor, calls a “moral hazard.”

Simply put, if an organisation wants to make the leap from being a donor project to becoming a social enterprise, it needs to broaden its funding base and open itself to various means of income.

In regards to Kastom Gaden, such possibilities exist. KGA could pursue having a range of donors, with KGA’s Clement Hadosaia mentioning New Zealand and the European Union as potential candidates, along with Oxfam and the ICCO, both of which recently funded projects with them.

Community Sector Programme Agricultural Livelihoods Advisor Grant Vinning cites successful marketing efforts by peanut, vegetable, and fruit growers, in particular a man known as Patterson the Pineapple Seller, who successfully covers his transportation costs by selling to shops, thereby making his sales at Honiara’s Central Market pure profit.

“Solomons farmers are entrepreneurs-in-waiting,” Vinning says, adding, “Food Security is not just about growing food, but having the money to buy food.”

KGA has bolstered its once vibrant, then faltering, fresh fruit and vegetables delivery business, “Farm Fresh”, by having Jennifer Kellie, a Honiara businesswoman who also runs a successful dried fruits company, take charge.

Indeed, KGA co-founder Jansen, sees the possibility of Kastom Gaden “incubating” other such businesses and then spinning them off to KGA members, with Kastom’s Hadosaia suggesting poultry, seedlings and seeds as likely candidates.

Hadosaia doesn’t seem too worried about his organisation’s future down the line.
“We’re serious about sustainability,” he says. “There are plenty of possibilities and we are exploring them as ways for us to make money.”

Hopefully Hadosaia’s take will turn out to be a case of well-placed confidence, and not of complacency.

It would be a shame if KGA’s less than perturbed outlook turns out to be an instance of so-called “Last Match In The Box” thinking, when a problem is only dealt with once it’s upon you, i.e. once you’ve run out of matches, run out of options.

Ideally, KGA will market itself successfully to a range of donors, foundations, even private companies; build up its Farm Fresh enterprise and spur others; complement even further its work with the Ministry of Agriculture.

Ideally, in other words, KGA has been going over its equivalent of a Value Chain.

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