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“Our market mess: can we do better?” Daily Post,16 November 1998.

29/03/2012

There is little doubt in my mind, that our nutritional decline is helped along by the continuing failure of Government and City Councils to provide level playing fields for imported items and locally produced goods.

Helping good nutrition is not just about educating the consumers into make the right choices in food and drink. It is also ensuring that systems of production and distribution encourage the sale and purchase of the desirable products.

Historically, Government and private support has been readily forthcoming to facilitate the channels (such as ports) for imported items.

In contrast, Government and City Councils, by neglect, succeed in providing every manner of discouragement to those who wish to sell traditional food products to the consumers.

We help imports no end

Imported items usually need little assistance.  The international exporting companies generally take the initiative to find local partners; finance is usually easily available from banks, especially since the collateral can be the goods themselves; and retail outlets are readily available throughout the country, most allowing shoppers to buy in comfort.

Government has been extremely willing, to use public funds (through international loans if necessary), to finance whatever transport infrastructure is necessary to facilitate transfer from ships to retail outlets.

Often, the foreign loans (paid for ultimately by theFijitaxpayers) are strongly supported by the international financial organisations (such as the World Bank, the ADB) for whom the facilitation of imports from developed countries, is an important policy objective.

Thus millions of Fiji’s public funds have been used to upgrade the Suva Ports facilities, whose major function is the transfer of imported goods into the local wholesale and retail networks (although the export of items has some importance as well).

There is a large statutory organisation- the Ports Authority, which is given control over a major resource while a very large and critical area of theSuvaCity, the wharves and surrounds, is devoted to the facilitation of imports.

Even environmental concerns are overlooked when large coastal areas, previously mangroves, are converted into container parks for largely imported goods (see the area before theSuvaCemetery).

By making the import of goods more efficient, Government of course, directly and indirectly, is using the public purse to subsidise the prices of imported goods.

Government therefore directly encourages the greater consumption of imported items, a very large proportion of which is food.  And what of locally produced food?

The Suva Market Mess

For decades,Suvashoppers and produce sellers have had to put up with a Suva Market that manages to make life incredibly difficult for shoppers and sellers alike.

If in a car, the drivers from most ofSuvahave to accept that getting to and from the market car-park will entail a long unnecessary loop aroundWaluBay, because of road system around the market.

If you succeed in getting to the car-park, you find that it is the size of a postage stamp, with long queues, awkward parking and turning spaces.

The inside of the market is a dank, damp, dark and dingy dungeon, with piles of smelly, half-rotting vegetables and peelings; and open smelly drains.

On market days (Friday afternoons and Saturdays) the bulk of the produce is sold outside.  If the day is fine, the buyers, the sellers and the vegetables all bake in the sun, and we all lose our shelf-life.

If it is raining, the buyers have to trudge through large, muddy, smelly puddles, again with rotting vegetables thrown everywhere, battered by flapping ragged tarpaulins, which dump buckets of rainwater now and then.

Our primary producers, having already sweated and slaved away in muddy fields, slushy mangroves and tossing seas, and withstood bone-shaking rides in open carriers, then have to put up with wet backsides outside the Suva Market, until their vegetables and marine produce are sold.  Often they have had to bring their young children with them, who share in their miserable conditions.

Can Suva City Council (or Government) honestly say that the primary producers and fishers are being given every encouragement to sell their produce in the Suva Market?  Certainly, there would be few retail shop-keepers who would put up with such discomfort, for such paltry returns.

I must acknowledge that the Suva City Council are certainly doing some things right in the suburbs, where they are encouraging the mini-markets, and even building the fish selling facilities alongside Nabukalou Creek.

No doubt they probably also have got plans to build a bigger market somewhere, in a few years’ time, perhaps.

But the Suva Market does not seem to be a high priority for them, certainly not as high as building themselves comfortable new multi-storied offices in Victoria Arcade, or yet another car-park (underneathSukunaPark, for goodness sake?).

More importantly, the Suva City Council does not seem to appreciate that if consumers, as a result of “interim measures for ten years”, are turned away from locally produced food to imported items, such changes in habit cannot be reversed overnight, if at all.

By not planning appropriately, the SCC is therefore directly contributing to the worsening of nutrition amongst its Suva inhabitants, whose tastes and habits also set standards for the rest ofFiji.

In my next instalment, let me thrown in my tuppence for the outlines of a new Suva Market, which could not only serve the interests of produce sellers and buyers alike, but encourage good nutrition, and directly and indirectly, provide many economic benefits.

 A FUTURE SUVA MARKET: should Government contribute?

The Suva Market, instead of being a major turn-off, could be one of the crowning glories ofSuva.  It could give great encouragement to rural people to grow crops, or catch marine products for sale inSuva. It could provide an interesting and comfortable shopping experience for our consumers.  It could also become a major tourist attraction in a capital city, which has little else to offer tourists.

As a priority for good nutrition, I suggest that the Suva City Council (in co-operation with Government and the public) plan an integrated market, bus-stand, car-park and key services complex.

Can we please request that planning and eventual construction of such a key feature of the City be done through open competitions and tender?

Can the SCC guarantee that the public will not be imposed upon, through quiet “committee deals” where favourite architects and construction companies suddenly plant less than desirable structures on theSuvalandscape?

Can there be reasonable opportunity for the public to comment on alternative designs before decisions are made, just as some Nasese dwellers did, when their own sea-side property values were suddenly threatened by a major development?

A Bare Bones Outline

The Suva City Market, could be a large, high domed, simple affair, many times the size of the current market, with natural light and ventilation.

To ensure optimal utilisation, weekdays would see all kinds of tourism vendors and flea markets using up the areas not used by sellers of agricultural and marine produce.  To serve working people, it might even be open on Sundays.

There would be a large car-park running the length of the market, to enable easy access, especially in rainy conditions, with special bays for taxis.

There would be a totally covered access way to the new bus stand at the other end, to serve the thousands who travel by public transport.

Inside the market, there would be separate sections for marine products and “heavy duty” messy goods such as root-crops.  There would be special provisions for marine products to be stored on ice (cheaply available at the market), to preserve their shelf life.

The market design would ensure efficient waste disposal lanes, so that madly driven wheelbarrows carrying rubbish bins are not whacking into legs and vital parts of consumers.

Each stall would be designed in such a way as to enable produce sellers security for their produce, some space to put their sleeping children who have to be brought to market at 4 in the morning.  Certainly, produce sellers should not have to sleep out in the open, as they do now.

It goes without saying that there would be an adequate number and distribution of clean toilets and showers (for which a modest fee could be charged, to cover maintenance).

How Pay For This Utopia?

Of course, such a Market will cost heaps. But the City Council could make some money as well, and there is every reason why Government should be approached for cost sharing with the Council, on purely economic grounds.

There could be small fees for the car-park, and the produce stalls.  But such fees should be quite low in order to encourage maximum usage of the Market.

The City Council could earn significant rental income, by incorporating a Services Block at the end of the market, towards the Bus Stand, which would be an additional attraction for both urban consumers, and rural producers.  What could be in the Services Block?

Many supermarkets would pay through their teeth (through open competitive tender) to lease a super-market space which would provide a virtually captive market of both buyers and sellers of produce (have two for competition).

There would be spaces leased out to providers of essential services who delight using our money to advertise their grand service to us, but still make us trot all over town every month: there could be small offices for payment of electricity, water and city rate bills; registration of births, marriages and deaths.  There could be a small medical practice, post office; pharmacy; bank, video library.

And what about space for a children’s library so that farmers could even bring their children to read and/or borrow books, while the parents are busy selling (or buying)?

The Hidden Economic Benefits

Of course, the rents and fees are unlikely to pay for the full cost of such a Suva Market.  But let us not forget all the direct, as well as indirect and frequently invisible benefits that can accrue to theFijieconomy.

If just twenty million dollars were to be switched from imports to locally produced food and drink items, Fiji  could directly gain employment for 5,000 to 10,000 households or sustenance for 20,000 to 40,000 persons.  A large part of these benefits will accrue to indigenous Fijian producers and land-owners.

This is not taking into account the indirect multiplier effects of other investments and spending.  Reducing the import content of our food consumption will undoubtedly increase the multiplier effects of all other investment and spending in the economy.  These effects must not be under-estimated.

If such urban produce markets encourage people to stay in rural areas, and produce crops for urban dwellers, rural employment and incomes will be enhanced, urban drift and crime will be reduced.

Greater output of crops will stabilise (or even reduce) the prices of locally produced food-stuffs, lowering the cost of living, for the benefit of urban consumers.  In the long run, the lower cost of living also increases real wages, indirectly helping urban employers.

And of course, to come back to the topic of these articles, our people will be encouraged to consume our traditional food items, thereby improving our nutrition and health, reducing our medical bills, and increasing worker productivity.

The last three of these benefits provide some justification for rate payers to share in the costs of such investments.

What price can we put on the long term value of all these hidden economic benefits (even if economists are reluctant to put a definite monetary value on preserving traditional foods for the future generations)?

Could such benefits indicate that a Suva Market Project should not just be a Suva City Council Project, but may economically justify a major Government contribution?

Should Government Intervene for Good Nutrition?

Without doubt, a major cause of nutritional worsening is thatFiji’s consumers have in recent years, been consuming more and more of imported food items and consuming less of the locally produced food.  The reasons are many and varied, as I have outlined in this and previous articles, but they relate to the natural working of free markets, in an environment largely established by Government.

There are many costs to this trend, but many of the costs are unfortunately not visible.  Many of those affected, such as the thousands of small dalo, churaiya and bele producers, are not articulate enough, neither are they influential over Government Ministers.

On the other hand, a modern snack-food manufacturer, with a factory employing 50 workers, can make enough noise to get sympathetic consideration from Government or FTIB, and even get a Minister or two to bless their factory opening or periodic cocktails.

Make no mistake, money matters in the market place, and sports tells us the story.  Many of us are sickened by the nationalistic flag-waving and anthem-playing at the Olympics, knowing that while there are exceptions such as the Fijian and Samoan rugby teams, the general rule is that levels of funding and Government support largely determine how many gold medals are won, not just athletic prowess.  Just compare the continued dismal failure ofIndia, with the recent successes ofChina.  It is no different when it comes to good nutrition.

Nutritional regression is therefore not just a problem for the Food and Nutrition Committee to tackle through advertising campaigns, but for the authorities to tackle in a multi-sectoral approach that involves all the key Ministries of Government.

For traditional producers and products to compete, Government will have to ensure genuine level playing fields in the market place.  How this is done can, and needs to be debated.

Should there be strong guidelines or laws enacted by Government with respect to acceptable advertisements?  Should there be taxes on certain items?  Should there be public funds set aside for advertisements of traditional items?

Should there be a special arm of FDB, financed by public funds, just to foster small enterprises producing nutritious foods and drinks, through loans, and assistance with research and development, packaging, advertising, and whatever it takes to help them compete in the market?

While many of these possibilities may go against the current economic dogma of “smaller Government and less Government intervention in the economy”, our Government still intervenes, does it not?

The Fiji Government selectively provides tax-free holidays, accelerated depreciation allowances, import duty concessions, subsidised interest rates, advertising allowances and other benefits to Export Processing Zones, chosen industries and firms, and 5 star hotels (but not to small family-run tourist businesses).

Such interventions and public subsidies are justified by the importance of the objectives, not by any 11 th Commandment of God.  So why doesn’t Government intervene in the interests of good nutrition?

It is all too easy, in the current international economic climate, for economists and planners to put up their feet and leave it all to the “free markets”.  It is also easy to write bad poetry about nasty Big Macs taking over island paradises.

And yes, I know, we sixties’ types all sang along when Joni Mitchell lamented about trees being chopped down and her father being taken away by a Big Yellow Taxi: yes, “we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone.  We pave paradise, put up a parking lot”.

But we do know how free markets lead to certain nutritional outcomes, and that the alternatives require in the short run, higher taxes, as well as extra effort from Government, producers and consumers alike.

Are we up to it, or do we wring our hands, and look for a free lunch?

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