Value of Kava Farming for Rabi's Economy
KAVA BUSINESS PLAN
By Donald Teai, Farmer, Rabi Island
This Business Plan was compiled with information provided by Donald Teai when he was sponsored to attend the BodyShop Australia Pacific Island workshop held in Brisbane in 1996. This plan was based on Kava Farming on Rabi and the Youth Program run by the Rabi Council of Leaders. The data shows impressive figures over a 3-5 year period even back in 1996. With today’s kava pricing and Rabi’s reputation for producing some of the best kava in Fiji, Rabi farmers are a valuable asset for Rabi's economy.
DONALD'S INVOLVEMENT WITH RABI YOUR PROGRAM
The Youth Program was initially set up by the Rabi Council and was run virtually on incentive schemes to encourage the unemployed youth of Rabi to earn an income. The program has various divisions which include, Farming, Fishing, Carpentry, and Sports. My main involvement is with farming, but I also participate in other activities. I’m currently farming a two-acre parcel of land in the hills behind Tabwewa Village. The land has been allocated to me through the Rabi Youth Program. My main focus for my farming is kava and small crop production. This year I successfully began the harvesting of my first major, kava crop, the income of which helped pay my fares to come to this workshop.
THE BEGINNING OF KAVA AND SMALL CROP FARMING ON RABI
Kava and various small crops were first planted in Rabi by the Fijians, who Banaban pioneers hired during the first decade of our people’s settlement on the island. At first, kava was not a popular plant, but kava has become a major income source for our farmers on Rabi Island.
Crops such as dalo, cassava, coconuts, eggplants are also part of our small crop industry on the island. The extraction of copra from coconuts has all been adopted from the Fijian traditional farming methods.
Kava or Yaqona (the Fiji word) is locally referred to as ‘grog’ and is not an alcoholic but a mild narcotic, prepared by pounding the dried roots of a pepper plant - Piper methysticum. The powder is soaked in cold water to produce a muddy looking beverage. Kava is grown and drunk in all parts of the Pacific, and Fiji is a leading producer. Rabi Island kava has a very good reputation and can bring up to $16 per kilogram at our local markets. Germany is one of the largest importers of kava which is used in the pharmaceutical industry. The small bushes grow up to 7 metres high and take three years before being ready to harvest. Five to seven years is needed for fully matured plants that are very strong and produce very high yields. Kava is relatively non-perishable, so it is a particularly suitable crop for places distant from the main urban markets in Fiji.
The following statistics were supplied by the Fiji Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Forestry, Economic Planning & Statistics Division of Fiji Government. The Kava or Yaqona (traditional Fijian name for kava) industry is an important yet little documented sector of Fiji Agriculture.
The information available on the industry is as follows and are dated from 19 July 1994.
Fiji Export Markets (As of 19th. July 1994)
There were 52 licensed Fijian kava exporters, and the major export destinations are approx. %
Local Fiji Prices (As of 19th. July 1994)
Fiji $ per kilo prices in local markets of Fiji are:
KAVA INDUSTRY ON RABI
Kava is a long term Agricultural product. Most plantations on Rabi are situated on hillsides which produce an excellent quality grade of kava. Rabi kava has now attained the reputation as one of Fiji’s finest kavas, and our local pounded product is now known for its pure grade and lack of any impurities. Because Rabi is a rich volcanic island and we experience good annual rainfalls, our soils found on our hillsides are rich in organic matter where kava can be produced on our farms in abundant quantities.
FIRST STAGE - 2 ACRE FARMLET
At the moment, our Youth Program farmers are only allotted 2 acres to establish their first plots. If we utilise our block to its full potential, we can then be allocated a further adjoining 2 acres to expand our business and potential income. This process can be repeated every time we fully utilise our 2-acre blocks so that over the years, we can look forward to knowing that we can expand our farm and business to even greater proportions through our hard work. This land is freely given to us, and we are given basic tools such as hoes, shovels, forks, cane knives two days every week free of any charge. This is a great incentive from our Rabi Council to encourage us to get started in the farming industry. Once we establish ourselves, we then have the funds to purchase our equipment. Without the assistance of the Youth Program, we would never have the opportunity to start our own businesses.
GROWING KAVA ON RABI
Kava is grown like sugar cane, just by planting the cut stems into the soil. The cuttings are planted at a depth three inches into the soil, at a distance of 3 feet apart. It takes a minimum of three years before harvesting can begin, but if the plant is left to five-seven years or even longer, each plant will produce high yields with maturity. The quality and potency of kava only increases with age and does not deteriorate like small crops, which have to be harvested when they reach a certain maturity.
TURNING OVER AN INCOME
When I first was given my block, I was still at Rabi High School, and in the first year, I managed to plant a couple of thousand plants on my block. Our Program Advisors advised me to plant as many plants as I physically could manage while still attending school. The kava I planted covered about a third of my block. I estimate that an average 2-acre block of hillside land could hold up to 8,000 or more kava plants, not including small crops.
To provide me with some type of cash crop while I waited for the three years for my first batch of kava plants to reach maturity, I also planted around 600 plants of Dalo in between the young kava plants.
In my second year, I planted another third and increased my total kava plantation to around 5,000 plants. Again I planted another 600 plants of dalo and again received a return from my dalo plantings of approximately $1,200.
The above process was repeated, with my total kava planting now numbering around 8,000 plants. Once again, my dalo plants brought in an average of $1,200.
When I reached the fourth year of kava production, I decided to harvest the plants from the first year. As I had initially had planted over 2,500 plants, I had to decide how many plants I would harvest and how many of those original plants I would leave to mature further. I decided to harvest around 1,000 plants and leave the other 1,500 to grow longer. This harvest of 1,000 plants gave me an average return of approximately $50 per plant, with a total return of $5,000. The average of $50 per plant after only three years is about the average price for young plants. Older plants can realise anything between $100-$600 per plant.
Kava is harvested in two processes. Prices are different for stem and root kava.
Stem (Lewena) Kava
It is taken by cutting the kava plant stem to about 12 inches from the root base, and removing the outer skin, and detaching the stem from the entire root ball. The fresh stem is cut into small sections averaging around one-two inches in diameter. The small pieces are then soaked in water for a period of a couple of hours or up to one day. Then the kava is placed on corrugated roofing iron, either on loose sheets or on the ground. If these are not available, the pieces are scattered over the tin roofs of our home. The drying process is dependant on good dry weather and can take between three-seven days. This allows the stem kava to quickly sun-dry before the process of pounding the kava can begin. Powdered stem kava on Rabi is currently bringing around $12 per kilo. The dried Stem kava can also be bagged and sold without pounding for $10 per kilo.
Root (Waka) Kava
After removing the stem kava from the root ball, the roots are cut away and put into bundles of long strips. The bundled roots are then washed in water and brushed with a scrubbing brush to remove the excess soil. The bundles are then removed and again placed for drying on the corrugated roofing sheets. After the roots are dried, the small bundles are tied together to form larger bundles. These are then weighed and sent to Rabi middlemen, who will buy all the root (waka) kava we can produce at $15-18 a kilo. The root bundles are then bailed and sent off by the Rabi middlemen for markets in Fiji mainland and Fiji export markets. When the root kava reaches the markets, the stems are graded into short, medium and long lengths. The kava is then sold per grade at the following prices: $23, $25, and $27. The pounded version of root kava does not bring as much money per kilo as the dried root (waka) grades. In past years, powdered kava was bringing higher prices on local Fiji markets, but now due to demand for quality, the dried root kava is attracting better prices, as concerning buyers can see exactly what they are getting.
POUNDING KAVA ROOT FOR POWDER
On Rabi Island, we have no machines to help us with pounding our kava. All pounding is done by hand. This usually involves using a heavy steel bar and especially made crushing bowls made locally on Rabi in wood or metal or purchased from special engineering companies in Suva. The purchase of pounding bowl and bars can cost up to $300 to purchase. The bowls hold up from ½ to 1 kilo of the dried roots and depending on the size of the bowl. It takes a full day to pound around 6 kilos if working on your own. I usually set aside a whole day each week to produce at least 6 kilos of powdered kava for sale at our local market. My powdered kava usually fetches about $12 per kilo and gives a weekly income on just the powered kava of $36.
SMALL CROP FARMING
Is a Fijian root crop plant where only the root is eaten. Each mature plant averages around 12 inches at the time of harvest. The dalo plant matures at eight months, and harvesting has to be carried out at this crucial stage.
The plant is pulled out of the ground at harvest time, and the green leaves are removed. Usually, five leaves average for each plant. The leaves are then gathered into larger bundles containing a total of approx 20 - 40 leaves. A bundle of dalo leaves usually brings 50c to our local markets.
The average dalo plant will produce one large bulbous root by harvest time averaging 750g - 1 kg each. Three dalo roots are bundled together and fetch $6 at our local markets. Export prices for dalo only bring around $1.50 a kilo through Indian traders that come to our island to buy our produce. This is not a regular event, so Rabi farmers have to organise their own arrangements with various agents in Savusavu to come across to purchase excess produce at harvest time. These agents then sell our products to markets throughout Fiji.
Dalo A Quick Cash Crop
In the first year of farming, I also planted around 600 dalo plants between the rows of kava, and when harvested, I produced around 200 bundles giving me a total return of $1,200 just on my dalo crop. I have found Dalo as an excellent quick cash crop to provide me with the necessary cash flow while I wait for the returns of kava plants as they reach maturity.
THE FUTURE OF MY BUSINESS
At this stage, I have another two years to wait until my three-year plants reach five-year maturity. Next year the second stage of my three-year plan will be ready for a partial harvest while once again I leave part of this crop to reach more maturity.
My kava production plan shows a cycle of kava growing based on harvesting 1,000 three-year plants each year while growing on 1,700 plants to five years of maturity. These estimates are based on conservative figures on today’s markets(1969) and do not allow for any increase in the costs of kava. The plan is only projected at the original 2-acre allotment and does not include expanding my farm into an additional adjoining 2-acre allotment.
As can be seen here in the above Kava Growing Cycle Plan, unless more land is acquired and farmed, the income from my kava will remain static. Of course, this is conditional on the cost of kava staying at the same prices as they are now.
IDEAS FOR EXPANSION
As a sole farmer working on my own, I have to realistic, as the above plan utilises my total resources. The only possibilities would be for me to hire labour to help with planting and harvesting my crop. On current costs, to hire general labour on Rabi is approx. $10 a day. The going rate for planters to plant kava cuttings is currently around $200 for 1,000 plants. This includes the soil and bed preparation. It does not include the watering or establishment of new plants, only the planting. Harvest labour can be hired at the going rate of $10 per bag. A bag of kava contains two mature kava plants on average, which averages $5 per three-year plant. Five- year plants average one per bag and would cost $10 per plant to harvest.
The above labour charges would impact my net profit, but at the same time, I could quickly expand my operations to a further two-acre lot, with the option in the years to come of employing more labour and expanding even further. My gross estimates would still be based on my basic three-five-year cycle plan.
By charting my three-five year cycle plan for kava growing, I have realised the potential of the kava industry for not only our Rabi Youth but also other farmers on the island. I estimate around 70 - 80 young people are already participants in the Youth Program in Tabwewa Village, with similar numbers in the three other major villages on Rabi. Just on a simple estimate of my own figures multiped by a further 100 Youth Farmers who could base their own farming plan on my model, we are looking at a combined annual income of around 20 million dollars from kava alone. These are very conservative estimates, and we should really be encouraging all farmers to see the potential of the kava industry for our island. These figures do not include all the older farmers who are already well advanced with mature plants and those growing other important small food crops for our Community’s needs.
Written by Donald Teai
13 November 1996
The above figures are based on 2021 Kava pricing* and a conservative average plant weight of between 2.5-3kg :
Waka root kava FJ$50 p/kg sold to middlemen
Waka pounded kava FJ$100 - 140 p/kg sold retail in Suva
Rourou dalo leaves $1.00 sold Rabi
Rourou dalo leaves $3.00 sold Labasa market
Rourou dalo (bundle 10) $10 Rabi
Rourou dalo (bundle 10) $15 sold Labasa market
The above price for the value of a Dalo plant at $2 has remained the same as the 1996 figures, whereas the overall value of a kava plant has increased 140% over the same period. Recently there has been $300 paid by kava middlemen for 6-year old kava plants on nearby Taveuni Island.
* After TC Winston, the price of kava went up from FJ$25 p/kg to FJ$100 p/kg