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“Coke versus coconut: is it a no contest?”. Daily Post,4 November 1998.

29/03/2012

Let us face it: if you were thirsty in the middle of the day, at work or at school, would you buy a drinking coconut or a bottle of fizzy drink?

Firstly, you would be extremely unlikely to find anyone selling a drinking coconut near your work-place, at school, or any retail shop in town.  Even if coconuts were available, which sensible person would buy a warm coconut, probably opened with a dirty cane knife, to be drunk from the shell, with the drink inevitably spilling down and staining the work-clothes or school uniforms?  [Cartoons: market, shop-keeper]

Who wants to buy coconuts sold from a dirty market floor, next to a smelly drain filled with rotting vegetables, later to find that the coconuts spill out of the inevitable tears in the plastic bags?  Which urban parent would even trust their children to open a coconut with a cane-knife?

Especially when the alternative is a cold bottle or can of fizzy drink, available everywhere, presumably hygienically bottled or canned, easily carried in a carton, easily opened, even by a child, and easily drunk from.

The example may seem trivial but similar forces are at work in virtually every choice one makes between traditional and new products.

Consumer choice is made not just on the satisfaction one derives from a product (and perceptions), but also on the basis of product availability, convenience, and quality.

Convenience and Quality?

Which person, in their right minds, will buy a heavy, muddy, bundle of dalo, for a bus journey, with a long walk home from the bus-stop?  Who wants to peel the dalo immediately or freeze the massive amounts for later consumption?

On the other hand, a kilo of rice or even a bag of potatoes does not offer the same kinds of problems for consumption or storing.

Which housewife or househusband, after a long tiring day at work, is going to buy a bundle of fresh fish, which has to be scaled (or even gutted) before cooking.  It also needs freezing, to be stored for any length of time.  In contrast, a tin-can of fish or corned mutton, does not pose cleaning or storing problems.

Which Indian consumer is going to go home after work, prepare and steam a bundle of dalo leaves and spicy dhal paste, in order to fry some saina as a snack for the kids?  Or fry some dalo or cassava?

When parents are tired, and kids are clamouring for snacks before dinner, is it not easy to just buy packets of twisties or bongo, regardless of the lack of nutritional value?

You might say, why not buy some saina, or fried dalo or cassava from the carts in the streets?  It is a wonder indeed, that people still do.

But the carts are not available everywhere, and increasingly, children do not want these traditional snacks.  Neither do people want to carry home oily little bags of bhajia or fish and dalo, in their hands or hand-bags, with the food getting cold by the time they get home.

Many parents also very legitimately do not feel comfortable about the health standards under which some of these traditional foods are prepared.

Whatever the criticism of multinational fast-food chains, and whatever the relative nutritional values or costs, parents with the money, will buy products from McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken, because of their belief in the quality of the products: especially when the alternative (buying food from some small cafe, with uncertain health standards) may risk upsetting their children’s stomachs.

The long-term trend everywhere in the world is that small outlets, with their focus on traditional nutritious local products, will keep losing out to large multinational chains, unless the issues of quality and convenience are squarely addressed.

Employment Opportunities?

To arm-chair observers, the drawbacks of traditional products in terms of availability, quality and convenience, simply shout out that, hey, here are employment opportunities where our people can make a good livelihood.

Why do we not have clean-looking, coconut vendors in the street, selling chilled coconuts from clean hygienic carts, serving the coconut water in a plastic glass, perhaps with the soft coconut spooned into it?  Would we not pay between 80 cents and a dollar for such cleanliness, convenience and value for money?

Why don’t the dalo sellers, for a small charge of 50 cents, peel the dalo for taking in a couple of plastic bags, ready for putting into the pot or fridge.  As a bonus, the seller would get a free supply of dalo tops for planting?

Why does not every fish seller in the urban areas have a fish scaling and cleaning service (for a small fee), so that the fish can be taken home, ready to put in the pot?

Such small service activities seem to be the norm in many other countries, both developed and developing.  It would interesting to ask whyFiji’s peoples do not see the income earning opportunities that are seen elsewhere in the world, by equally uneducated people.  Are we not enterprising enough?

Should there be an arm of Government that can foster such activities?  Does FTIB, which finds it easy to deal with large corporations, have the resources to initiate hundreds of small enterprises?

Even existing financial organisations, which have tried to gear themselves to small borrowers, are being forced to cut back on these relatively costly loans, because they reduce the bank’s profitability.

Most members of the public all too easily forget, in their dismay over the NBF disaster, that organisations like NBF and the Fiji Development Bank, whatever their other faults, simply cannot make the same market rates of profit from small borrowers, as the purely commercial banks can from their large loans.

And without this facilitation of small enterprises and borrowers (with the resultant inevitable burden on public funds), I doubt very much if small producers of traditional products are going to be able to compete with the new items, produced and sold by multinationals.

An interesting question is therefore posed by the failure also of big businesses inFiji, to invest in traditional products.

Profitability and Traditional Products?

Some answers are obvious the moment we ask ourselves why an investor would not want to risk his hard-earned money in a business producing drinking coconuts from a plantation (or processing dalo chips).

Would any sensible person want to cope with insecure land leases, road-blocks by land-owners, diseases and pests like the rhinoceros or taro beetles, a hurricane or two during the life of the tree, the short shelf life of the product, and the uncertainties regarding the distribution channels?

In contrast, it is no wonder that an investor (local or multinational) would prefer to manufacture fizzy drinks: no problems of factory space, steady supply and reliable quality of the inputs, quality control of products, long shelf-life of the product, shops eager to buy, and consumers whose demand can be easily fostered by advertisements.

One can also easily understand why an ordinary shop owner, who readily sells cold fizzy drinks, is not likely to be selling cold coconuts.  Who wants to deal with an unsteady supply of coconuts of varying quality, chilling of bulky nuts, swinging a cane knife around to open the coconut, coping with the mess made by spilt drink and scattered fibre, smelly rubbish that attracts flies, and last but not the least, having to dispose of unsold coconuts that won’t keep?  Would a profit of 20 to 50 cents per nut be worth this hassle? [Cartoon]

While the drinking coconut example may be a bit extreme, it is not difficult to see why similar problems would plague investors and shop-keepers, with regard to the bulk production, processing and sale of any other traditional food items, such as dalo chips, palusami or saina.

But this should also be expected.  The modern products are often backed by all the research and development expertise of multinationals who produce similar products the world over.

Who in the world does research on how to produce, package and sell, dalo chips, or bhajias made from tubua, or saina made from rourou, which could be frozen to maintain shelf-life?

Yet without such research and development, it is extremely unlikely that our traditional foods are going to keep resisting the onslaught of new introduced products.

The traditional products and patterns of consumption can only be maintained, if they can match the new ones in terms of profitability of investment, packaging, cleanliness, quality, convenience and price.

I have no doubt that consumers would buy if every super-market (which so easily sells frozen meats, pizzas and French Fries), also sold attractively produced and packaged packets of frozen processed dalo, palusami, fish in lolo, roti, saina, bhajia, burra, idli, etc, which could be taken home, easily heated up, fried, steamed, microwaved etc.?  Why doesn’t every super-market have a “Fijian delicatessen” section?

Of course, these products would need to be advertised in the same fashion as are the modern products.  But we do not even see advertisements for packaged products like sao and fried beans, which can be differentiated, and sold as brand names.

If private investors are not investing in these areas of their own free will, is there any arm of Government which is responsible for fostering the commercialisation of production and sale of traditional products?

Do the large business corporations which operate inFiji, often with public subsidies and protection, have any obligation to foster the nutritional integrity of the communities who generate their profits?   Would Government give them any meaningful recognition even if they did?

Should our tertiary institutions (such as FIT and USP) be asked to have a facilitating role, and would Government provide them with the necessary funds?  [Or would they continue to ask for a free lunch, as it does currently?].

Many of the questions above seem to require that Government become involved in trying to direct free markets into desirable directions.

This may even require investment of public funds- something which is completely against the flow of the current economic mantra, which says that Government expenditure should be curbed.  I speak on this later.

For the moment, let us not be in any doubt, that when it comes to infrastructure that underwrites the consumption of goods in Fiji’s economy, the Government’s past decisions have virtually guaranteed that our traditional products and producers fight a losing battle on the playing fields of our free markets.

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