From Savai’i to Alaska: Farmer’s export dream

By Elizabeth Ah-Hi ,

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Zero days off: Michael Ulugia at M.A.F packing house in Nu’u.

Zero days off: Michael Ulugia at M.A.F packing house in Nu’u. (Photo: Misiona Simo)

A first time farmer and exporter from Savai’i will export his first container of frozen taro to Alaska, United States of America.

Michael Ulugia from Satupa’itea is the first Samoan to export frozen taro to Alaska and on Thursday he was at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Packing house in Nu’u helping to pack his first shipment. 

Mr. Ulugia was elated that he had finally achieved what he set out to do four years ago.

Originally from Vaiusu and Satupa’itea, Savai’i, Mr. Ulugia was born in American Samoa and lived most his life in the U.S, spending the past 10 years in Anchorage, Alaska.  

Mr. Ulugia said his home country was never far from his heart and he always wanted to do something for his family back in Savai’i.

“My plan always was about the work that we’re doing, to provide a future for the family,” he said. “This is something that has been in my heart for a long time. I was always in despair about the situation in Samoa so this is why I have returned and my family has given me their blessings and their approval to do the work in order to help our family out but also help our country.”

Coming from a commercial cooking background, the former head-cook for the Mexican restaurant franchise, Qdoba, spent years working and saving up to get together enough money to invest into a business venture that focused on the agriculture and fisheries sector - the backbone of Samoa’s economy.

From his home in Alaska, Mr. Ulugia contacted Small Business Enterprise Centre (S.B.E.C.) in Samoa to help him with start-up capital. 

S.B.E.C. Consultant Susana Liufau answered the call. For four years, she assisted him by doing the market research and all the due diligence required in setting up an export business in agriculture and fisheries.

“Michael is more or less a client of ours that we will mentor around marketing,” Mrs. Liufau said. “He came through our website and he needed help with the possibility of investing in Samoa’s agricultural products and creating jobs for his family and that’s the main reason why we got connected with him.” 

Mrs. Liufau spoke about the many challenges they encountered along the journey starting with the initial plan to focus on fisheries, which fell through due to challenges with the perishable nature of fish products as well as investors backing out at the 11th hour.

“From fish we came to taro and taamu which is why I communicated with our clients at S.B.E.C. but the price that Michael offered was too low compared to the price that our people can get from people companies like Ah Liki. So it was fragile one for him because he was a first timer and nobody wanted to see give him any produce for his container.”

The next challenge Mr. Ulugia met was the logistics around trying to run a plantation in Samoa from Alaska and one of the biggest lessons learnt along the way was he needed to be present in his village and his family in order for his plantation to flourish.

“When Michael couldn’t buy taro from farmers in Samoa, he went back to his family land in Satupaitea and Sili and started his plantation,” said Mrs. Liufau. 

“But problems arose when he went back to Alaska and left the plantation to his family sending money for the planting and the upkeep of the plantation."

“When he returned last year to get his container ready and everything was organized including the transport, he arrived at the family plantation to find that nothing had been done despite the money he had sent.”

Mr. Ulugia then decided to bite the bullet and stay on longer to work on his farm. He realised that capital wasn’t the only thing he needed to invest into his business venture; he also needed to invest in building good relationships with his family and his villages. As a result he came to appreciate the hard work that goes into being a farmer. 

“I’m not a business man because I’m pretty new in the game, but if you get hit and you fall but you never get back up then you’re not going to get anywhere but if you get back up then God is going to bless you in many different ways. Working as a farmer is not an easy thing; it’s a lot of hard work. But I’ve had some experience of farming when I was a kid so this is like coming back to my roots."

“My family is happy and so proud of me, especially Sana is my right hand man here and she’s been guiding me around because I’m pretty new at what I’m doing, so if it wasn’t for her I would have not been able to put this together.”

Through his journey, Mr. Ulugia’s has learnt that there are more ways to skin a cat - securing a market in Alaska and starting his own plantation instead of solely relying on other taro farmers.

“We got a lot of Samoan people and other Polynesian people in Alaska, so it’s really nice to provide them with a product they want that reminds them of home,” he said. 

“There is taro there but it’s from Fiji and it’s been in the market for long but the thing is that our taro market has just started to pick up again and Samoa has got the best taro."

“This taro is coming from our family plantation planted by myself and my uncle. It’s pretty big it's 15 acres. We are hoping to develop more, I have a farm but at the same time I’m always looking for taro from other farmers so let’s work together. You know this is why Fiji does it well, they know how to work together and I wish that our business people here in Samoa didn’t look down on the newcomers because you just never know what’s going to happen.”

Mr. Ulugia hopes to use Alaska as a platform to reach other markets in the United States.

“My dream is so big because the world is big and you don’t want to live in a big world and dream small,” he said. “So today its Alaska, but my dream is to look at more markets in America and it’s just a matter of working on making those connections.”

Mr. Ulugia cannot contain his excitement at being able to finally export to Alaska. He is enthusiastic about the future and wants others to know they can create opportunities for themselves.

“I’ve worked hard all my life so I want to share my story so that I can help inspire other people. I want people to look at their life differently, to not always see that life is hard right now but to look ahead at the possibilities in the future."

“Samoa has always been with me the whole time and I always have a plan on how to do things in life, that’s how I work. I have plans but I also leave it up to God to make sure everything will turn out alright. I walk and do, but it’s God who blesses our work.”

© Samoa Observer 2016

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