11 October 2010

Business in Tonga: as seen by the new Peace Corps Tonga Group 76!

To the great jubilation of all, this year's Peace Corps volunteers arrived five days ago from the US, stylish and sharp and "smelling of dryer sheets," as one of our speakers yesterday joked.
The business trainees with Angus, manager of the Church of Tonga businesses

Understanding business in Tonga is like uprooting a plant: as soon as you think you have most of it uncovered, you discover another root stretching out from the stalk.

The 5 new business trainees were having an overview of business in Tonga I have been organizing, as part of a group of volunteers managing an orientation for all of the trainees. We got to talk to some really excellent leaders in Tongan business, and it took two days and more than seven interviews to even get a basic feeling of the subject.


Church Donations, Church Business, and Good Food
Our first exploratory trip...
... was to the Church of Tonga headquarters and business centre. We talked with the manager of their five small businesses, including money transfer, retail store, travel agency, lumber yard, and inter-island ferry. They have been running for less than two years, but thanks to the director's vision and banking experience, the ventures have made a considerable profit for the church. Their vision is to ease the burden of huge annual donations required of all church members in Tonga; a common obligation in almost all church denominations in Tonga and a considerable detriment to family finances every year. Most families donate far more than a 10% tithe, and often get a loan in order to be able to give more. The business arm of the Church of Tonga hopes to make the church self-sufficient through their activities so that their members can have the freedom to donate only when they feel especially moved.
Explaining the Church of Tonga businesses

In typical Tongan fashion, one of the first things the manager did when we arrived was to invite us to a lunch feast they were having to celebrate the return of the church's General Secretary from a trip overseas. Visitors are always invited to any occasion with copious amounts of food, something that Mark and I have loved in the year we've been here, and we feasted later on specialties: fried rice, lobster, clams, plantains in coconut milk, sauteed cucumber in sauce, in a table creaking with dishes. I gave my first real thank-you speech, or fakamalo (mostly in English), an art that is well-crafted, strictly patterned, and essential at Tongan events -- and managed not to sound like an awkward foreigner.


Profit isn't just Money
Mataele presenting about culture and business
We also heard that day from Mataele, a Tongan pastor who grew up in New Zealand and Tonga, and started a fabulously popular primary school in the capital city several years ago. Profit, he emphasized, is not strictly monetary in Tonga; a family will often start a business to gain "social capital:" the social benefits someone gets from giving their store's produce to friends and family, or by giving their family access to the more expensive imported foods often is the kind of "profit" that a business person will value, sometimes to the detriment of monetary profit. It is common to "invest" in neighbors and family for example by giving generous, lavish gifts at a funeral, knowing that when you have a need, you will get a "return" on your investment.


Getting Money in Tonga
That was yesterday, but today, we had delicious scones for morning tea at Tonga Development Bank while we heard from Sina, my manager, and Leta, the deputy managing director of operations about lending in Tonga and the social goals of the Bank. A major emphasis was the need for training in business (hence the reason that the Business Advisory Services department where I work was created), and the importance of standardizing the loan approval process, so that loans don't get approved based on family ties, social connections, or nobility.
Jason, Charity, Connor, Norah, and David outside of South Pacific Business Development

Talking with the Chamber of Commerce
After a walk-through of the main city market to analyze the vendors and goods available, we stopped by South Pacific Business Development to learn about the even smaller side of lending in Tonga- the tiny microbusinesses that their members run with the group loans the organization gives to women. We also stopped in to Tonga Chamber of Commerce and learned about their training programs, business associations, and plans for the future.

Jason, Norah, and Charity
 Tongan Economy and Cultural Change
Our final session of the day was to hear from Kalafi Moala, writer of several books and owner of Taimi Media: a group that runs two newspapers, a radio station, and TV programming. He is a huge name in Tonga, and was fascinating to listen to about the Tongan economy, political reform, and business environment. He talked about the legislative difficulties in Tonga that often sources of money coming in to Tonga are restricted to the most elite, often foreign businesses because of the expensive fees and licensing requirements.

David and Connor
Kalafi Moala
He also said that in his opinion, many young people are much better equipped than his generation to help Tonga because they have had the chance to examine their own culture and choose to be in it. According to Kalafi, there is a huge population of people between about 25 and 40 who, because of having had access to good education, a changing Tongan culture, and travel outside of Tonga are now coming back to Tonga and valuing Tongan culture much more than his generation that simply lived in it and did not have a choice. The difference, he said, is between someone of his generation who goes to church because that's what your father did, verses a young person who goes to church because they have made the decision to go.


One of the things that we experienced throughout these two days is the real privilege of being Peace Corps in Tonga; we have access to some amazing people in very high positions, simply by virtue of Tongan norms and our status as volunteers. The last two days went off without a hitch, and I think the trainees will now leave for training in Ha'apai (the middle island group) tomorrow, prepared with a rich introduction to business in Tonga thanks to the eloquence and explanations of the people we met with.

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