26 Sep 2016

Fiji's exporters say Australia's biosecurity changes 'overdue'

1:06 pm on 26 September 2016
Leo at the Walu Bay wharf works long hours to load ships.

A worker at Fiji's Walu Bay wharf in Suva. Soon, all containers headed to Australia will undergo biosecurity cleaning and clearance here, instead of at Australian ports, in a bid to speed up the process for small businesses. Photo: RNZ / Alex Perrottet

At a recent business event in Fiji, Australian authorities were quizzed over long-term delays in clearing containers at Australian ports.

A new container cleaning deal with Fiji could lead to more efficient clearance times - something exporters say is well overdue.

The new Sea Container Hygiene System will allow for containers to be cleaned in Fiji before leaving.

Fijian exporters say for many years, the excuse for long delays in Australia was a concern over the Giant African Snail, that Fiji does not have.

A spokesperson for Australia's Department of Agriculture and Water Resources said it's not a problem with the snail, but an issue over soil contamination.

Michael Towler owns a business that exports flotation devices.

He said container hygiene is very different from biosecurity risks such as pests and Fiji should be treated fairly.

"The story has changed dramatically, they were simply saying to us we acknowledge that Fiji doesn't have a Giant African Snail problem, it's a container hygiene issue," he said.

"And I kept saying well treat it as one, instead of a biological problem."

Michael Towler said the problem has been around for more than a decade and has hurt his business and others.

Michael Towler from Performance Flotation Developments in Fiji

Michael Towler from Performance Flotation Developments in Fiji Photo: RNZ / Alex Perrottet

He said his exports to China are cleared more quickly than those to Australia.

"Our products are taking longer to get to our customers from a port that's much closer to Australia. And secondly, until the actual product is delivered to the customers, we don't get paid," he said.

So it's actually having an impact on our cash flow."

In April, the Fiji Biosecurity Authority intercepted 28 adult Giant African Snails and 500 eggs - the largest effort in the history of quarantine operations in the country.

They said it was proof that Fiji's standards are high and officials are vigilant.

But Australia's biosecurity officials said they too need to be vigilant and there are pests that can hitchhike on ships, as well as dangerous seeds and microbes that can harm soil.

That's why Fiji remains on what Australia calls its Country Action List.

New entrepreneurs in Fiji said they work hard with Fiji Biosecurity to ensure products meet those high standards, and some have had surprising success.

Jodie Smith is the award-winning operator of the Ranadi Plantation, which exports organic ginger.

Jodie Smith with one of her new products from Cocoterra

Jodie Smith with one of her new products from Cocoterra Photo: RNZ / Alex Perrottet

She said much of her success is due to her hard-working staff.

"They've undergone rigourous training too, training is one of the most important things that we do at Ranadi plantation," she said.

"We also have a lot of support from biosecurity, from farmer, and they have helped us, basically set the standards, and then our training has helped us implement them."

Ms Smith has now formed her own company, Cocoterra, and is exporting 100 percent coconut products.

Australia's Minister for International Development, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.

Australia's Minister for International Development, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. Photo: RNZI/Alex Perrottet

At the recent business council meeting in Fiji, Australia's Pacific Minister, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said Australian businesses were excited at being a part of Fiji's infrastructure boom, but said the benefit should be felt by Fijian businesses as well.

"It should also help Fiji's businesses secure competitive contracts and reliable and competitive-priced supplies."

Fiji's Trade Minister Faiyaz Koya said he is committed to helping local entrepreneurs like Ms Smith and will continue to work with Australia on biosecurity issues.

Fiji's Trade Minister Faiyaz Koya talks to business people in Pacific Harbour

Fiji's Trade Minister Faiyaz Koya talks to business people in Pacific Harbour Photo: RNZ / Alex Perrottet