When tradition meets innovation

November 05 '18

Jack Loughman, the young founder of Neleya Eco Farm in Vanuatu, discusses his efforts to improve food security through community farming.

Neleya Eco Farm is a social enterprise that empowers farmers in Vanuatu. Neleya was founded in the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Pam on Vanuatu in 2015, when food security became a significant concern for our country.

During our recovery after the cyclone, I was working for the Vanuatu government, and was transferred to coordinate food distribution in Tanna, one of our most affected islands. Vanuatu’s population of approximately 270,000 is spread over 83 chained islands, which creates huge logistical complications for the provision humanitarian relief and assistance. In response to the disaster, local produce prices went up, unemployment increased, and hunger slowly crept into communities all over the country. One in six people struggled to get access to drinking water and almost one in three lost their homes. The government and the international community provided assistance, but this help only reached 59% of the population.

These were eye-opening times, but it was the result of a 2016 government census that really channelled my interest in food security. The census revealed that 87% of the Vanuatu population are heavily involved in small-scale domestic subsistence farming. In addition to this, US$300-400 Million is spent importing food products to Vanuatu every year, creating deep trade imbalances, which are a huge obstacle to food security.

I started to develop an integrated Public Private Partnership (PPP) farming model, and in 2016 I finally left my position in the government after twelve years of service to pursue my idea. Sadly, my father Thomas Neleya passed away that same year, so I decided to take on his legacy and name the farm after him. This act was a symbol of appreciation for the enormous impact he had on my life, and also serves as a reminder of what my true objectives have become with Neleya Eco Farm: to provide high quality organic fresh produce at a low cost for the local population, and to create employment for those who need it.

Today, Neleya supports our local communities in Vanuatu in many ways. It serves as a practical learning ground for farmers of all ages and places an emphasis on the participation of young people. One of the benefits of a PPP farming model is that it can be easily adopted and replicated by others. We cultivate partnerships with farmers to give them the chance to become leading entrepreneurs and to be a crucial part of the success of our project.

As an integrated model, Neleya and its cooperative arm provide a complete solution from production to infrastructure and marketplace, recording and utilizing real-time data to strengthen and maximize the enterprise as a whole. We have made sure that our initiative aligns with national policies and strategic priorities, and we keep up-to-date with the latest technology and communication styles to ensure we share our technical expertise at a very practical level.

We incentivise farmers and young entrepreneurs motivated enough to join us by giving them a share of the farm’s returns. The farm is responsible for providing free seeds, planting materials and the land to cultivate. From the returns, the farmer/partner retains 30%, the land owner retains 50% and the remaining 20% funds the ongoing operational costs and sustainability of the project itself.

Our farmers/partners no longer need to leave the busy work of the farm to sell their market produce in the main market center. Instead, Neleya does this on their behalf by selling produce at our main market outlets and managing payments at the farm gate. To increase our capacity in sales and marketing, we have registered a farmer’s producers cooperative to take over this part of the project in the next year or so.

The established cooperative will then buy fresh produce from registered cooperative members, who are the farmers or the partners registered within Neleya Eco Farm. We hope to reach several key milestones through this cooperative movement, including the addition of a fresh produce packaging program. This will enable the cooperative to add value to its member’s products around the island of Efate, where this project first began.

In the eighteen months Neleya Eco Farm has trialled this farming model it has proven to be effective, with positive returns to the farmers. In January 2018 alone, two separate farmers have earned approximately 300,000 Vanuatu Vatu each (approx. $2,500) by selling watermelons. These farmers have now employed additional workers to help them increase their output. At Neleya Eco Farm we take great pride in being a part of success stories like these.

In the long-term, my vision for this project is to change our national approach to food security in Vanuatu. I believe that the best remedy is a PPP farming model, owned jointly by landowners and civil society, including young people. Just under one sixth (15%) of 15 to 19 year olds are not in education or in work. I want to help young people understand that if they are unemployed, they don’t have to wait for a job to come their way, they can create their own employment by addressing issues that affect their communities. With cooperatives like Neleya Eco Farm, I hope that this attitude will become more widespread.

To make real change, we need a unified movement of people – especially young people – with a similar mind-set to address trade imbalances, provide the unemployed with training and employment, and to strengthen Vanuatu’s food security. I hope that this project helps to increase Vanuatu’s resilience to environmental disasters, while maintaining a sustainable and harmonious relationship with the environment we rely upon.

As of today, Neleya Eco Farm may not have advanced technology or tools like tractors and clearing machines, but we do have an eye to the future. While we only have human power and limited irrigation infrastructure, we have in-depth knowledge about what it takes to create farms that thrive. We also have a deep commitment to our communities, so we will continue to use whatever resources are available within our means to change the livelihoods of those in need. I believe that simply taking that first step is very important in any project. Most importantly, if everything we do is driven by a core purpose we are set up for a brighter future, together.