Sant Kumar is retired from the Natures Way Cooperative these days. Well, as retired as a persistent, energetic fellow like Kumar can be.

These days, amongst other things, he’s growing seedlings. The service cooperative he shaped from its beginning has a need for consistent supply of papaya, mango, eggplant and breadfruit. The cooperative’s job is to do the mandatory quarantine treatment of this production on behalf of its fruit and vegetable farmers and exporter members. Since the cooperative’s foundation in 1995 it’s gone from treating 30 tonnes of papaya annually to 1300 tonnes of mixed production in 2011. So, in his retirement, Kumar is doing his bit to make sure that supply can meet burgeoning demand.

Fiji, where the Natures Way Cooperative is based, is in the midst of changing economic times. The 100-year-old plantation system of sugar cane production is on its way out along with Fijian Indian farmers seeing their land leases draw to a close and the return of this land to native Fijians.

And papaya, once a gardeners’ domain, has moved into mainstream production. As Kumar describes it, the demand from overseas has seen the industry take off. Getting that production off Fijian soil and to its destination has been the greatest challenge for these smaller landholders. Expensive quarantine treatment and food safety requirements, access to transport as well as competition from larger countries were prohibitive, but Natures Way stepped in and took on those activities and in turn made a slice of Fijian agriculture far more profitable. Fiji now exports more than 200 different agricultural products to more than 20 countries – not bad for a series of islands in Melanesia.

But it almost didn’t happen. Back when the cooperative was formed in 1995 around a new quarantine treatment facility it heralded a shift away from former government service. Cooperatives, per se, are an oddity in the Pacific. USAID had only provided the funds for the new plant on the basis that it be privately owned. It also needed start-up capital. However the decision to choose a cooperative structure did create some difficulties. Commercial banks turned it down. The International Finance Corporation refused as well, citing its cooperative structure. Without Kumar’s resolve the start-up capital would never have been found. A visit from the then New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs Don McKinnon was the stroke of luck it needed. McKinnon realised the advantages of the project and ensured the money came through, Kumar recalls with a chuckle.

Not only is its 40-fold increase in production since that moment a nod to McKinnon’s decision making, but so is the way in which the cooperative’s business has expanded. It has also extended its work into ensuring there is a consistent supply of quality produce through research and other well-received initiatives like the bulk buying of papaya seed and field crates for members.