The Samoan Experience - Observations,
Reflections and Conclusions
By Digby Gotts (Published in 'The Exotics'- Rare Fruit
Council Australia Magazine)
I have just spent 12 months in Samoa, a series of Pacific tropical islands (formerly
known as Western Samoa, and not to be confused with American Samoa), as a
UN adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture Fruit Tree Project. I was there
to assist with the training of Ministry
staff and growers of tropical fruits and to encourage the planting of fruit
trees throughout the villages, hopefully improving nutritional status and
providing an economic base for willing people.
The Fruit Tree
Development Project is in line with the Samoan Government initiatives to promote
crop diversification technology through the development of small crops and
the identification of new export and traditional food crops. The Fruit Tree
Development Project has had three phases: Phase I covered the period 1989-1991;
Phase II was from 1992-1996; and I was lucky enough to be involved with Phase
III in 2000 - 2001
Phase I of
the project saw selection of superior in-country fruits with reliable tree
performance; introduction of new fruit species and modern cultivars of existing
species for evaluation; expansion of nursery operations to increase the throughput
of quality certified planting materials, provision and encouragement of technical
support for private nurserymen; initial planting of the national fruit germplasm
collection; procurement of land, orchard planning and initial plantings of
Atele Horticultural Centre; and the identification
of prospective private demonstration orchards.
Phase II looked
at increasing the level of production and quality of fresh and processed fruits
leading to greater availability for local consumption. It was hoped this would
result in improved nutrition, higher income and export products. Many of the
plantings from phase I were also replaced after their destruction in cyclones
in 1992 and 1993
Phase III aimed
to improve the post-harvest handling of fruit and assessed which of the new
fruits could become an export crop. We were also required to encourage the
wider distribution of appropriate fruit trees to villages throughout the Samoan
– January 2000
Samoa is different. There is none of
the noise or squalor of the East and none of the arrogance or affluence of
the West. This is easiest to see on the streets, where most cars actually
stay at the 25 mph town speed limit or lower and in traffic will allow another
car through when not required, just to help. Even pedestrians, and there are
few footpaths, are treated with care. Cars will slow right down to pass or
overtake walkers even allowing oncoming traffic time and space to get past.
Horns are rarely used and traffic signals usually obeyed. There is, however,
a degree of serendipity about driving that makes you watch what’s happening
as there appears to be no set of definitive road rules. You can never assume
that the other driver knows what he’s doing, so give way to him just in case.
‘disposed’ of by NZ and US companies is the cheapest source of meat for Samoans,
apart from local fish and chicken. Turkey tails, lamb flaps and sausages
are the main reddish meat diet items and contribute significantly to the high
incidence of obesity and diabetes. Some cattle are bred and butchered locally,
and this industry appears to be growing. Good red meat is cheap by Australian
standards, about two thirds, but is still expensive for Samoan households.
It’s quite strange dealing with a packet of breakfast cereal costing as much
as a kilo of rump.
Samoan life is still largely based around the village, with
many houses clustered around a central green and community house and or church.
Most households have electricity and town water although only 2000 houses
have treated water. Kitchen appliances are still out of reach of most households,
so open fires are still used extensively, smoke hanging over the valley every
The strong village base means that anyone having a bad time
for money can always go back for support and a subsistence lifestyle. Survival
is easy, if you can live on a diet of taro, banana, coconut, breadfruit,
papaya, with the occasional pig or chicken on Sundays.
- Samoan cuisine
our stay we visited Aggie Grey’s Hotel for a Fia Fia, a Samoan cultural celebration
of dance and food, specially designed for tourists. The buffet had a whole
section of it devoted to Samoan food so we had – wait for it – Sea Cucumber,
Sea Urchin, as well as more normal things like banana cooked in coconut milk
and taro leaves with coconut cream (palusami) and
breadfruit cooked in coconut milk, followed by dessert of papaya cooked in
coconut milk. You start to get the idea that the basis of Samoan cuisine is
something cooked in coconut milk – and it is coconut milk prepared from first
principles (first find your coconut tree) – not the stuff in the can. So one of our resolutions was to learn how to actually make real coconut
cream and a traditional Palusami. Alison
learned to make it in the traditional Samoan style from our Samoan landlady
who lived next door. It tasted great, but the grating of the coconut left
the hands bloody from the edge of the grater, and the effort involved meant
that the experience was never repeated.
One of the aims of the project that has absorbed me,
is to improve diet diversity. My job is to get the new fruit trees into the
villages and get the fruits popular enough so that people will look after
the trees. One of the difficulties is that Samoan tastes are different as
well, so that what I see as a great fruit has little acceptance locally. One
example is the Golden and Purple passionfruits. These are highly rated at the fruit tastings
home on the farm, and grow very well in Samoa, but very few Samoans
like them - too acid. There is a wild species of passionfruit that they find
very sweet and acceptable, that to me tastes of mouldy or smoky overripe orange,
though Alison liked it and purchased it at the local markets whenever she
could. I tried to bring some seed back with me but Australian Quarantine refused
to let me bring it in.
Durian has no value locally, yet the trees are the healthiest
I have ever seen with large crops of heavy fruit. Average weight so far is
around 3 kg. When I arrived, no-one on the research farm was aware that Durian
falls from the tree when ready. So the fruit on the ground has always been
discarded as rubbish, in the same way that the windfall oranges are weighed
and dumped. I have now got the workers collecting the dropped fruit every
morning, but it has to be stored in the fertilizer shed as no-one will have
it anywhere near where they work. Except me. I’ve placed an ad in the Samoan newspaper to see
if anyone in this country is prepared to buy it while we hunt for ways to
test exporting it to NZ as frozen or chilled pulp.
Some of the largest and healthiest Rollinia trees I’ve seen
are also on both government farms, with fruit production spread over a long
period. The fruit are a nightmare to our post harvest specialist as they are
just too fragile to be even worth investigating as an export crop. The food
processing consultant took some for drying, only to find that all the sweetness
and acidity is lost, leaving only a bitter flavour comparable to chewing on
lime rind. The local people do like the fruit, so this became one of the trees
being widely distributed to villages.
Soursop is another fruit with major potential at all levels
if we can educate enough people about how to use it. Trees grow well although
they seem to be short lived with some fungal problems. Some that I recommended
be cut back hard in October last year, have now regrown
and are bearing fruit on the new wood. Large crops of 2-3 kg fruit. After
pulping, the juice has a little sugar added and is frozen as a sherbet or
cooked up as a jam, after adding a little pectin. Kids love it as icypoles,
and it looks like being used as a giveaway on training courses that the dietician
member of the team will be running in the villages and schools.
The more traditional fruits like oranges and mandarins,
avocado, and starfruit that have a high level of
acceptance already, are subject to enormous damage
from a moth pest that pierces the skin and sucks out tiny amounts of juice
but opens the flesh up to fungal attack. There doesn’t seem to be any ready
solution to this problem as the moths breed in the forest as well as the living
fences used around many properties, and they can travel well over 3 km in
an evening. Several species are involved, so the research to identify and
isolate parasitic pests has so far been ineffective. Many more millions of
dollars look like being thrown at the problem, while the organic solution
is to not grow the species that give that level of trouble. Pommelo is immune
from the pest, so I think Samoa should grow that and
learn how to use it and avoid the problem, rather than spend a lot of money
looking for a solution.
Abiu is another fruit that seems immune from the fruit piercing
moth, which in Australia is heavily attacked by fruit fly.
The different species of fruit fly on Samoa seem unable to penetrate the skin. So it seems relatively
immune to pest problems, making it a great fruit for local production. So
there are some interesting times coming when decisions are going to have to
be made about which trees go out to the villages and which get chopped down.
The orchard where I’m working has a huge collection of species, but no more
than two trees of each variety. Of any species, one third seems to be cropping
well, one third seems to have produced nothing in eight years, and one third
have one tree producing well while the other has produced nothing.
2000 - The Workshops
One of the main parts of my job on Samoa was to involve villagers
in growing their own fruit trees. To this end the fruit tree team ran a series
of workshops for representatives of various village based groups who have
sufficient influence to perhaps direct the interest of their village. The
most influential of these is the "women's committee", which is composed
of the women born in each village, and which together with the mayor and the
priest control all activity in every village.
The Samoan government has a "Department of Women Affairs"
(sic) which through the women's committees is running a
campaign called "Healthy Village - Healthy People"
as a competition between about 8 large villages on each island. One of the
criteria for the competition has been that every house should have a vegetable
garden. This has now been rewritten to say that every house should have a
vegetable garden and some fruit trees.
Our first workshops have been to several of the women from
each of the women's committees on both islands to give them some idea of the
range of fruit trees that we have available and how to plant and care for
a young grafted fruit tree. The only fruits that are seen commonly around
the islands are those that will germinate on their own and survive by chance
through to maturity. There is no knowledge in most villages about growing
or caring for fruit trees, with possible exceptions for banana, cocoa and
breadfruit. This benign neglect means that mango, banana, breadfruit and seedling
orange trees are quite common but little else is seen. The trees that are
around are usually poor quality, with small fibrous mangoes and sour oranges
being the norm. There is no food culture associated with fruit except for
breadfruit, banana and cocoa.
As I write this, I have just come back from a two day visit
to the island of Savaii, where the fruit team
ran the second of these workshops. This took place in the fale (an open pavilion)
belonging to the Department of Women Affairs near the ferry terminal. Women
came from all over the island for the day, some travelling by bus for two
hours to get there by 9:00. All very well dressed,
in what must have been best clothes. Bright colours, satins, neck to ankle
without exception for about 25 women.
The workshop managed to complete three sessions before lunchtime
– the latest score on the "Healthy Village" competition was
followed by the fruit variety demonstration and tasting. I had managed to
find 20 species in current fruit, although only a few of these were ready
to eat. Nevertheless, the women all were able to taste Jakfruit, sweet Carambola,
Sapodilla, Pommelo, Rollinia, Abiu and water cherries.
The third session had Tu'ulima (my counterpart), demonstrating
how plants could be grafted, using mango and Pommelo brought for that purpose.
There was general amazement that plants could be joined in this way, especially
with the Pommelo bud stuck to the side of a lemon tree. I suspect that rather
than learning that the lemon shoots have to be cut away to get good Pommelo
growth, the women were more interested in the possibility of having both Pommelo
and lemons on the one tree and will now deliberately not cut away the root
stock in order to get this result.
The workshop wound up at 2:30 with every participant
being paid a travel allowance of 10 - 15 tala (A$5-$7.50) as well as being
presented with two fruit trees (Valencia orange and Rollinia)
to take home and plant. The gift giving at the end of a workshop is an important
aspect of Samoan culture. The gift is usually more food or money, but I had
convinced the bureaucratic keeper of the purse that we could use the trees
as the gift and not have the participants buy them. This was a novel idea
that eventually the bean counters accepted. The women all seemed delighted
with their gift and their day out, and finished with a rousing song to thank
us all for our trouble.
Brenda, Tu'ulima and I headed off then to pay a visit to
all 8 hospitals on Savaii to assess the possibilities for
fruit tree plantings around each set of buildings and to meet the staff to
be involved with the planting and management. This part of the program had
been arranged with the Health department and the Samoan Chief Nurse, so everyone
was expecting us and delighted with having their very own real fruit trees
in the grounds. The Women's Committees again would be supervising the care
and planting, but the actual people would probably be different from the workshop
participants, but not necessarily.
It seemed that everywhere we went that afternoon we would
be seeing well dressed women from the workshop, lugging around two carrier
bags with their potted fruit trees. Two of the hospitals had enough vacant
land for a few hundred trees. My mind was reeling at the possibility that
the Hospital Women's Committees turn out in future to be major exporters of
rambutans from Samoa. Most however have only
limited space, but still enough for 10 - 15 trees, sufficient for a limited
flow of fruit through to the hospital staff and patients.
Only one of the hospitals has major problems with establishing
fruit trees largely because it has been built on an old Tongan fort site.
This was probably a natural lava rock mound that has been raised and levelled
by bringing in smaller rocks to fill the gaps. The buildings are sitting on
a pile of bare stones and rocks around 5 meters above the surrounding soil.
No soil at all exists nor does anything smaller than a 10 cm diameter rock.
I suggested planting trees in large pots, but no one seemed interested in
that. However they do have access to some space across the road where the
trees would be quite happy. It's just that they won't be contributing to the
landscaping of the hospital.
So I'm working hard at depleting the Nafanua
Research Station nursery stock. The trees we're handing out are getting younger
and younger but still should be OK. I will be taking a crew out next week
to visit friendly farmers and raid their old Abiu trees for seed. Should be a fun day, covering everyone with rotten Abiu flesh.
Had a great day on Friday with Nauma taking me to the fruit market to talk to all the mango
sellers. I bought a sample from every stall and found out the Samoan names
for each local type. There is a milk mango, a water mango, several apple mangos,
oka mango (which is eaten
green and crunchy), and one used green for pickling. There is also a Parrot
mango, which is sharply curved into a fish hook. You could literally hang
it off your belt. Took them all back to Nafanua
where we had our own fruit tasting. One of the apple mangos was a worthwhile
fruit but they were all pretty ordinary ie. bland and fibrous with very low acid levels. The milk mango
is actually eaten slightly green after bashing it all over on a rock. The
pointy end is bitten off and the flesh sucked out – hence the name.
We then headed out again to visit the mango seedlings selected
by Brian Watson, several years ago as the mother trees for grafting to compare
their performance with the imported varieties. One of these (Tilafono)
had some dropped fruit on the ground and I was able to have a taste. Like
eating a nectarine. No fibre whatever and a sharp acidity on top of
the high sugar. I've never tasted a mango quite like it. The owner of the
tree came out to chat, and was able to tell us that it was planted by her
grandfather in 1925. So at least that one was a good selection. The variety
has been named after the owner of the property on which it was found, so some
Samoan families have been immortalised in a rather different way.
October 2000 - Judging the farm competition at the Annual
I was asked to be a judge for the annual farm competition.
There were over 40 entrants spread all over Samoa. The judging team of
4 – 3 Samoans plus me – visited 4 farms together and debated the criteria
for deciding what a good Samoan farm would be, then we split into 2 teams
and visited 20 farms each. This week I've managed to spend two days visiting
farmers, both fruit and coconut plantations all over the island of Upolu. We'd usually finish
up in some extreme backwoods spot after many kms of rough tracks and having to ask at several shops or
houses as well as any pedestrians. Nauma, the Nursery
Manager at the research farm would do all the location work, and once we had
actually found the farm and the farmer, would chat lengthily in Samoan with
him to get some of his management details and procedures. He would then pass
on to me what he thought I would find interesting. At about this stage, we
would discover that the farmer, usually dressed in tatters, spoke beautiful
English, having been right through his schooling in NZ.
Went out to Apolima
this morning - a small volcanic island surrounded by reef, located between
Savaii. The boat simply surfed in on a swell through the fringing
reef with about 3 feet clearance on each side. Could be tricky doing it in
a kayak! Coming out was a bit more exciting as the wind had come up strongly
and as soon as the boatman accelerated for the entrance in the reef, the engine
stopped. Lots of grabbing for the fending off poles while the driver was pulling
on the starter, but it started again and off we went. The swells going back
across the channel to Monono Island were higher than the boat and breaking,
but we just bobbed through them all like a cork. He was going very slowly,
except when there was a flat spot, when he'd rev straight across. Lunch fortunately
stayed down, but it was pretty heavy.
The sunken centre of the island is very fertile, with a small
creek flowing through it, but absolutely windless and as humid as the proverbial
Turkish bath. The houses are all out on the beach where there is some breeze.
I was dripping with sweat in 5 minutes as we wandered through the crater.
This area was planted with about 100 Mangosteens about 7 years old but still
no fruit. Nauma found a ripe pandanus fruit,
that is used for making necklaces, and arranged to collect and keep
the seeds. This was about two buckets full, with nothing to carry them. No
problem. Lots of low coconut leaves, 10 minutes later there is a woven basket,
lined with banana leaves, full of seeds.
Back to the farmer's home at the entrance to the island and,
of course, lunch: Taro, banana Samoa, roast chicken and pork, ‘peasoupo’
(canned corned beef) with onions, boiled salt beef as well as green coconuts
and cocoa Samoa.
We arrived back at Nafanua in time for the fruit juice judging. Samoan fruit
juices are another cultural difference we've missed. These were semi liquid
fruit salads, with all sorts of strange combinations. The palangis(Europeans) had been
ruled out of the judging as they don't like what Samoans like. But I wandered
around for a taste of everything anyway. The best one (and the winner) was
a complex blend of all the usual stuff but with peanuts blended in as well.
The taste was fantastic. Abiu and pineapple wasn't bad, and the coconut toddy
was excellent. Another odd fruit juice had the dominant flavour obtained by
boiling lemon leaves and pineapple skin, a sharp tang that I enjoyed, but
the judges didn't.
March 2000 - The Rambutan Harvest
The rambutan harvest has just started with the fruit appearing
in the market again. For many Samoans this is their first experience with
the fruit and many find it too sweet. I suspect that this is more a reaction
to the strangeness of a new food, when the preference is for the traditional
foods. However, for many others the fruit is enjoyed and is sought after for
eating and planting. To encourage the latter, the government nursery has dropped
the selling price of bud grafted rambutan to about A$1!
The fruit itself is selling at around A$4 a kilo, which is still very expensive compared to other
fruits at the market.
The UN fruit project team have finally decided which are
the best rambutan varieties for distribution in Samoa. These include Lebakbulus,
R167, R134, R162, Gulah Batu and Rongrien while some of the no hopers include Jit Lee, Selankeng, R3, R7 and R9.
It remains now to complete the fruit fly host status testing on the best varieties
before we can establish a protocol for exporting the fruit initially to NZ.
The mango season has now finished, such as it was. The trees
grow well here but the high levels of nitrogen, the frequent rains and the high humidity make this
country a less than ideal location for getting them to fruit. One of my challenges
is to develop a horticultural practice that will allow the many mangoes to
produce fruit. The key will lie in pruning after harvest to maintain an open
and low structure, minimizing fungal attack and encouraging new leaf growth,
which will delay flowering until the drier season. The sun and rain tend to
push the trees into flowering at any time, when rapid fungal growth wipes
out the flowers or young fruit. Half the government research farm mango trees
have now been decimated, pruned back to open vase shaped skeletons. The other
half will have their centres pruned out, leaving any other cut backs until
next season. Hopefully they will be able to show some more fruit next season.
The densely planted mango groves, totalling about 400 mature trees had about
10 Kg of fruit total, so it is unlikely they can do any worse!
The Newspaper articles
The Samoan Observer – the local newspaper – has published
a series of articles I have written about tropical fruit from a local Samoan
perspective, and this has raised my profile, as ‘Digby the fruit tree man’.
It is difficult to get used to my celebrity status, and because the newspaper
has my photo published alongside each weekly article, people recognise me
wherever I go – old Samoan women in the supermarket queue seek me out to tell
me how much they enjoyed reading last week’s article. This causes much hilarity
amongst the other consultants who remain anonymous to the general Samoan public.
By the time I leave Samoa I have written 18 articles
and there are plans to publish them as a book. They have become a collector’s
item. I have even received emails from Samoans living in Australia requesting a particular
issue they have missed.
December 2001 - Summing up the Samoan experience
Although the advisory team has returned home, the whole project
is still moving along under Samoan direction with senior staff moving step
by step towards each of the original goals. A new export fruit industry based
around rambutans is being expanded from a successful pilot scheme. A research
scale fruit sterilization plant (high temperature forced air) has been purchased
and is to be installed in the new year, allowing some fruits to be exported after establishing
quarantine protocols. Twenty or so different types of fruit trees have been
distributed to about 200 schools and hospitals throughout the country and
more are still being delivered by local staff where the original trees have
survived. Local cultivars of mangoes, oranges, mandarins, lemons among others
have been selected and are being propagated in their hundreds to distribute
cheaply to willing villages as well as farmers looking to local sales. Fruit
dryers have been purchased and established, to be run by local women’s committees
as small-scale businesses
Although there has been a strong resistance to new ways in
a culture proud of its stability, I am confident that at least many of the
trees we distributed will remain as a tangible part of that project. Kids
growing up with fruit trees around them will inevitably eat the fruit and
as adults enjoy and look for fruit as a part of their diet. While the training
given to staff and farmers may easily be forgotten as people change jobs and
priorities shift, at least the trees will survive and eventually produce fruit.
After 6 months back on the farm, I look back to Samoa as a learning experience
where I think I was able to give as much as I received. Having the time to
reflect on orchard techniques and make detailed observations on the growth
of fruit trees is certainly a luxury that would never have happened while
trying to maintain my own property. Our own farm management has improved dramatically
as a direct consequence of this time away.