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Co-funded by the European Union

Revitalizing Tonga’s kava industry: a strategy for inclusive growth in a male-dominated sector




For Tricia Emberson, necessity was the mother of invention. Her family-owned Reload Bar and brewing business in Nuku’alofa, the capital of the Kingdom of Tonga, was reeling from the twin impacts of Covid-19 and the volcanic eruption and tsunami of January 2022. Her search for new sources of income led her to experiment with a traditional brew and the result was ‘sparkling kava’. As she explained to RadioNZ Pacific, the idea was to give a modern, bubbly twist to a time-honored drink and offer it for sale to tourists and locals at the Reload Bar as a way of testing its appeal for the export market.

A path to inclusive prosperity

Kava has a venerable tradition in Tonga, but from cultivation to consumption the sector has historically been dominated by men, leaving few opportunities for women to get involved. Emberson’s innovative and entrepreneurial approach reflects the vast potential that kava holds for Tonga and the benefits of involving more women and young people in the industry. Leveraging this potential is the aim of a draft national kava strategy commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture, Foods and Forests which finds that kava could help Tonga profit from a global boom in herbal medicine and wellness products, attract foreign investment, and create needed jobs for women, youth and people with disabilities.

 

The genesis of this strategy dates to 2022 when the ministry requested technical assistance from the ICR Facility to develop the kava value chain with a focus on exports and sustainability as well as increasing the participation of Tongan women, youth and people with disabilities in the sector. To that end, the ICR Facility drew on its experience in supporting women’s economic empowerment and in taking a gender lens to introduce business environment reforms in male-dominated sectors. ICR Facility consultants conducted mixed methods research that included desk research, site visits, national stakeholder consultations and a case study from Vanuatu, which is more experienced in adding value to its kava industry. The result is a draft National Kava Strategic and Execution Action Plan that was presented in February 2024 to the ministry, which called it “a major milestone” that provides “a very useful baseline for the next stage”.

From traditional roots to global markets

Kava (Piper methysticum) is a pepper plant native to the South Pacific Islands whose root is used to produce a drink with mild sedative and euphoriant properties. Kava drinking is deeply embedded in Tongan culture and rituals: bowls of kava are shared by men before weekly religious services and during royal ceremonies, such as those bestowing titles on chiefs. The plant is widely cultivated across the Tongan archipelago, where a majority of the country’s 100,000-plus people in its 45 inhabited islands make their living from farming and fishing. Additionally, it is an important source of foreign exchange in this developing country, accounting for 28% of all agricultural exports in 2019.

 

By one estimate, more Tongans live abroad than at home, and expatriate Tongans in New Zealand and Australia have historically accounted for the bulk of Tonga’s kava exports. Now, however, the kava market is expanding and diversifying, notably in Europe, the US and China, spurred by growing global interest in wellness, nutraceutical products and traditional medicines. Kava is being consumed in new ways, including baked goods, cosmetics and non-alcoholic beverages, and sold as herbal medicine to treat anxiety, insomnia and depression. And while in the past kava has been exclusively consumed by men, young Tongans at home and in the diaspora are opening kava drinking establishments catering to new types of customers, such as tourists and women.

It is estimated that the global ‘kava root and basal extract’ market will grow from USD 1.18 billion in 2022 to USD 3.41 billion in 2029, at a compound annual growth rate of over 16%. And Tonga, as a leading producer alongside Fiji and Vanuatu, is positioned to capitalise on this growth. Yet producers in Samoa, Micronesia and Hawaii are also competing for market share, and kava cultivation is expected to be introduced soon in Australia.

Recommendations to overcome barriers and shift mindsets

The draft strategy developed with support from the ICR Facility offers a number of recommendations. These include attracting foreign direct investment to bolster Tonga’s capacity to manufacture high-end, value-added kava products for the international pharmaceutical and nutraceutical markets. This will require quality enhancements across the supply chain, the plan notes, including access to more clean water, new machinery to process kava, and investments to ensure more hygienic storage and transportation.

But the plan identifies a significant challenge in attracting foreign investment and positioning the country to take advantage of the global rise in environmental, social and governance (often called ESG) investing. And that is the internationally held perceptions arising from the fact that Tonga is one of the few countries in the world not to have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which is seen as the most important human rights treaty for women.

The plan calls for an inter-ministerial taskforce to assess the need to better align with international treaty obligations, which could signal a strong dedication to gender equality. It recommends including Tongan women and youth in marketing missions abroad. It proposes the establishment of a national kava council with guaranteed representation of women. It also suggests a a nationwide educational campaign which demonstrates the importance of increased participation of women, youth and people with disabilities in the kava industry.

 

Another significant barrier is access to farmland. In Tonga all land is the possession of the Crown and it is only allotted to male Tongans. Land can be inherited but only by male heirs, usually by the eldest son. Women can only access land rights if they acquire a lease, but this can be financially challenging.  Helping women and young people to obtain their own affordable farmland is all the more important as it takes at least three years for kava to mature sufficiently to be harvested. As a remedy, the plan calls for land ownership reforms and the introduction of a low interest fund to make it easier for women and young people to lease land for commercial kava farming. It also encourages public-private partnerships designed to support land leasing by women and young people from absentee land holders who have migrated overseas. To help more women and people with disabilities to break into this industry, the plan also calls for subsidies for women’s farmer groups and for kava seedlings and other resources to be distributed to women and people with disabilities to help them build their business as kava farmers. It advocates for training for women and people with disabilities and for promoting women, youth and disabled kava farmer ‘champions’ to shift mindsets about who belongs in the sector.

Building a more resilient and equitable future

Increasing the participation of women and youth in the sector will create much needed job opportunities in a country where 60% of the population is aged under 25 and where youth and female unemployment are high, leading many to emigrate in search of better prospects. The departure of young people, who often play pivotal roles in kava cultivation, threatens to have an impact on the continuity and vibrancy of the sector, leaving an ageing population of farmers facing farm labour shortages. Conversely, creating opportunities for women and youth will help sustain kava production, introduce innovations resulting in higher kava yields, and help address the broader economic consequences of youth migration. Additionally, encouraging the participation of women in the kava value chain will create impact far beyond the farms. The plan cites examples of empowered women from Vanuatu and other Pacific Islands who are agents of change within their communities. They reinvest in education, healthcare and social initiatives, creating a positive ripple effect that can strengthen the fabric of Tongan society and pave the way for a more equitable and sustainable future for the industry and country.

The ICR Facility is advancing women’s economic empowerment across the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States, notably by supporting member states to introduce business environment reforms with a gender lens in male-dominated sectors. To find out more, read the report “How to make the Business Environment work for Women’s Economic Empowerment?” which includes examples of support for women in the sesame value chain in Togo and in the agroforestry value chain in Rwanda.

This publication is part of an intervention supported by the Investment Climate Reform (ICR) Facility. The ICR Facility is co-funded by the European Union (EU), the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) under the 11th European Development Fund (EDF), the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the British Council. The ICR Facility is implemented by GIZ, the British Council, Expertise France, and SNV. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the donors or the implementing partners

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