Curious developments as kava business goes cutthroat

kava shell

Word of mouth… Friday afternoon there was consternation in Port Vila kava bars. Kava was no longer generally available word went around the town. And if there were a few wholesalers with some available the price was generally phenomenal. Vt 350 a kilo used to be the normal for clean kava roots. All kava bars have been reporting the price going upwards in recent months. Latterly Vt 600 has often been the price.

On Friday it was doubtful if any kava bar could obtain the local euphoric for that price. It was more likely Vt 800.

Saturday we see in Vanuatu Business Review, a 24-page supplement in Daily Post, a publicity article on JPO Investments Limited was headlined ‘Locally Owned Business Booms’. Its main business is kava buying and selling. JPO is certainly trying to make the kava business boom. JPO is the company regularly advertising on television and radio. Now they are extolling their business in print.

There is a strange denomination of the vatu currency in the article in which JPO speaks of the price per kilo previously being, and I quote exactly, “(VAT) $150 per kilo and JPO got it raised to (VAT) $500 per kilo”. Rather than (VAT) or dollars, we must assume they mean they enabled the price rise from 150 vatu per kilo to 500 vatu per kilo. They go on to explain that they are eliminating the competition “since there are so many middlemen in the capital” and that they are providing farmers “with just payment for their equally hard work and simultaneously eliminate competition in the process.” This involves a price of (VAT) $1000 which readers I have spoken to say must mean Vt 1,000 a kilo.

JPO is listed in the worldwide Marketplace as a Vanuatu locally registered company purchasing green kava in the islands for export and local sale, amongst other things. That’s what they are doing – though a search at VFSC for JPO Investments Limited lists the company’s business activities as “Other service activities”.

Now at the same time we read in the weekend Fiji Sun that some Fijian local kava suppliers are exporting Vanuatu kava labelled as Fijian made. This was revealed during the week by Fiji’s Standing Committee chair on Natural Resources, Joeli Cawaki, during a meeting on the submissions for the Kava Bill 2016 submissions for the Fiji Parliament. He said that local kava suppliers had been importing kava from Vanuatu which was then packaged and exported as made in Fiji. It was one of the issues to be addressed by the Bill.

Cawaki added “Whatever yaqona that goes out of Fiji should be Fiji kava because of the quality and the standard; we don’t want to export sub-standard commodities.” (‘Sub-standard commodities – what a charming example of Fijian chauvinism). If the Bill was passed a council would be established to review the standard, packaging and labelling, he said. The council would also make sure that whatever was exported from Fiji was genuine Fiji kava.

Now is the time for a kava congress of a kind, and possibly that proposed recently by Ambassador Roy Mickey Joy, along with trade ministers to discuss kava being sold by variety as local kava expert agronomist Vincent Lebot has tried to have legislated for and policed for many years. Just as it is unacceptable and commercially stupid to put anything from a grape into a bottle and call it wine just because it is Sauvignon blanc, Merlot, Champagne, or even Barossa Pearl, so it is crazy to think there is any value to the kava growing industry in calling borongoro, melomelo, memea or even yaqona simply kava. The industry is belittled, and the makers of any particular variety will find their product diminished.

Especially if the price is always rising.