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Women in business development in Samoa: Overcoming challenges by harnessing digital opportunities

Gillian Stewart of WIBDI shares how the organisation is leveraging ICTs to support an organic grower group of family farmers in Samoa, who rely on agricultural production to generate income and savings.

Gillian Stewart is the Programme Manager for Women in Business Development Incorporated (WIBDI) – Samoa, which is located on Savai’i, the biggest island in the chain of islands. When talking about how she joined the organisation, Gillian explains, “I’m not sure if it was serendipitous or if it was just meant to be. I was astonished by the work that WIBDI were doing. It just started off as a conversation with the Executive Director about if I wanted to work there and I’ve been based on the big island building capacity of 520 families in one island and 250 in another.”

WIBDI manages a Certified Organic Grower Group comprising 750 families who rely on agricultural production to generate income and savings on a regular basis, amongst other programmes. Although Gillian has made huge gains for the families she works with, in terms of employment and income generation over the past 27 years, she explains that the biggest persistent challenge remains ‘the poverty of opportunity’. In particular, although digital tools are often referred to as an opportunity, geographically, as Savai’i is not part of the mainland, she sees first-hand how access to technology remains a pressing issue to harness the opportunities it can provide.

With CTA support, Gillian was able to discover the different digital opportunities available to the community and WIBDI has developed a farm-to-table app. The app aims to connect consumers with fresh produce from local supplying families at the front end. The model WIBDI uses clearly manages to balance respect of community culture and tradition with a strong business model. For example, with cocoa production, traditionally women do the roasting of the cocoa, they make the paste and the husband supports the process, bringing the whole family together. Adding digital tools and technology to this equation takes their work one step further. Gillian noted, “When people have been able to see lands from above it has been incredible, especially for our certified organic record keeping. The tablet system and the database system have been extremely useful and the farm-to-table app continues to be developed as we speak.”

WIBDI has managed to secure some major contracts and partnerships in order to ensure that they can continue their major work, ‘supporting vulnerable families’. They have a number of products including, cocoa, coconut oil and tea and sell to the Body Shop in the UK, as well as to companies in New Zealand. In Gillian’s perspective, “It was important to bring companies out there. We work with families and try to do things that embrace culture & tradition. We cannot just go into villages to work – we have to go through the chief system. It is a talking culture – we have to talk through a lot face-to-face but this embeds a good working relationship, which can ensure a vibrant future with a strong supply chain.”

While acknowledging the new range of exciting possibilities to scale up business, Gillian does recognise other issues that need to be addressed. She explained, “…at the back end, we need to do work on financial literacy; developing a business mindset and the realisation that agriculture is a respectable and honourable field of work. This is about changing the attitudinal culture, and also ensuring that quality and timeliness are seen as important.”

A face-to-face meeting with Gillian is a powerful exchange – she embodies an individual who works for the passion of what she does by exploring all possibilities to go beyond the isolationism of being on an island in the Pacific with limited access to information communication technologies. Although she is constantly faced with challenges – slow digital connectivity, limited and costly data – she sees further to the opportunities for delivering reliable market opportunities. For example, they are currently developing the potential of agri-tourism as income generator on the island. She explains, “It helps to create ways in which urban people can experience tradition and authenticity with Samoan families. They can make their own chocolate or press coconut oil. People can tap into the support of WIBDI and buy laptops and phones. Technology can be used to our best advantage while helping our families through efficiency and timeliness in the supply chain.” Although we were able to meet Gillian face-to-face at the European Development Days in Brussels in June 2018, she was keen to go back to Savai’i to continue to translate the challenges into opportunities by harnessing the connectivity that digital tools offer.

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