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A Beacon of Hope for Wailevu Women

 

Members of Veimataqali Co-operative of Wailevu Village take a break from their chores

 

LOCATED on the shores of Savusavu Bay on Vanua Levu's natural, lush and beautiful paradise, Wailevu Village sits secluded on a long dirt track away from the hustle and bustle of Savusavu Town.

The village is also home to Niu Health Fiji virgin coconut oil (VCO), which is a signature brand for the Veimataqali Co-operative.

Virgin coconut oil is known for its nice fragrance, taste, antioxidants, medium chain fatty acids and vitamins, among other things. It is rapidly gaining popularity throughout the world in comparison with ordinary coconut oil.

In this day and age women are increasingly regarded as the backbone of their communities. This statement rings true for the women of Wailevu Village, who had founded the co-operative and are behind its daily operations. But how did the women come to know about the process of making VCO?

Interestingly, the co-operative was started in 2011 after Peace Corps volunteer Michelle Ferreira taught the women how to make VCO. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Ferreira had helped establish the Veimataqali Co-operative in partnership with members of the Wailevu community.

The idea started with a visit Ferreira made to Fiji in 2003 when she was introduced to virgin coconut oil. Coming from Alaska's cold and dry climate, it was only one of the things she found useful in combating dry skin. With a little research, she also discovered a myriad of health benefits associated with VCO, including antifungal and antiviral properties.

After being posted for two years to Wailevu in 2010 with her husband, Ferreira was fascinated by the acres of coconut trees that were under-utilised. So she recommended using VCO as a health and women's empowerment business project.

Remarkably, after learning how to make VCO herself, Ferreira had taught three of the village ladies how to make it using materials they already had. Those three went on to teach the other ladies in the village how to make VCO.

Previously, the women had been using their plentiful coconuts for copra, which requires intense physical labour to produce with low financial return. After careful assessment, Ferreira saw the potential and the high profit VCO could rake in for the Wailevu community.

After careful planning with the women producing and marketing VCO, Niu Health Fiji was born. The name was appropriate — Niu Health Fiji. Niu, pronounced new, means coconut in the iTaukei language, and can also be translated as "bula vou"— new life. With this dexterity, Niu Health Fiji was befitting.

Wailevu Village turaga ni koro Tevita Beka recapped the struggle the women had to endure to establish the co-op.

"The first challenge was to come up with ways to raise funds to buy materials like sterile bottles and get proper labels for the bottles. Amazingly, the first fundraiser on March, 2011, collected $138, which was sufficient to buy the first batch of materials."

Beka said it wasn't until March 8, during International Women's Day, that Niu Health Fiji VCO made its first public appearance on the Savusavu market, where the women sold $300 worth of VCO.

"That was a fantastic beginning for the co-operative. The women together with Michelle had worked tirelessly to produce the first batch of VCO. It was during this Women's Day that people in Savusavu came to know about our new brand — Niu Health Fiji."

"The money collected thus far was not enough to continue VCO production as well as selling it. The women submitted a proposal seeking funding to the Ministry of Strategic Planning and National Development. This proposal was approved and the ministry had provided funding of $30,000 to build a factory with suitable machinery, as a pilot project to serve as a training facility for other communities in Fiji."

The president of the Veimataqali Co-operative elaborated the 28 women who had initially founded the registered co-op with Ferreira also sought funding from the Ministry of Social Welfare, Women and Poverty Alleviation in May 2011 for a $4000 grant.

"The ministry supplied the co-operative with proper materials for making VCO, including funnels and basins. With all the funding secured, the co-operative was able to operate smoothly and scale up production.

"Thanks to this incredible initiative by Michelle, the women had opened savings accounts (most of them for the first time in their lives). The co-operative is also the 'mother' of two more income-generating projects in the village — yasi nursery and copra drier."

The Veimataqali Co-operative now employs 19 women, who are directly involved in the daily operations of the co-op.

According to Beka, one litre VCO is equivalent to 20 coconuts. Each member is to produce a minimum of two litres of oil per month and dividends derived are distributed four times a year.

"To make VCO, the women carefully select fresh young coconuts which are then scraped and squeezed. The oil is then carefully harvested, filtered and sunned. This fermentation process is usually for 21 hours and then dried for two weeks thereafter."

Beka stressed that in addition to the VCO project being a sustainable source of income for the village, the project has boosted the women's self- confidence and was a source of optimism for their future.

"This co-operative has contributed to improved livelihood for our women and has served as an avenue in which women have exercised their right to participation. Our women are also able to receive business management training as well as support their children's education."

The Veimataqali Co-operative was founded to increase earning potential of women in Wailevu and to improve the living standards. In accordance with that it will also empower them to venture into business utilising their skills and knowledge.

Buying the product will help provide a sustainable source of income for the people of Wailevu Village.

 

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