Pivoting during COVID: responses from Fiji

Recently, we caught up with Deb Sadranu at Essence of Fiji to see how things are going for her, her business, and Fiji in the face of COVID-19.  Tourism is a key industry for Fiji, and Essence of Fiji usually serves the tourists. As a result of COVID-19, Deb’s whole business model has pivoted from predominantly local, in-store sales, to predominantly international, online sales.  New challenges have emerged with the evolving circumstances, but so have creative solutions.  Deb even shared how communities and the government are responding in interesting ways too.  You can read more about Essence of Fiji here.

Tell us a bit about the last few months for you…

Pre-COVID-19, we were having a really, really good tourism season in Fiji, which is good for us, because our products are stocked in hotels and spas. We also had our US distributor visit earlier this year.  They stayed for three weeks, and we were able to take them up to the villages, show them our facilities and talk through plans. So we were pumped and ready for a fabulous year. And then they had just made it back to the US… And basically, Fiji just stopped overnight with COVID-19. Business just stopped and we were earning no revenue at all.

Oh no! That must have been so stressful…

It was really stressful, processing the shock of it all, and then thinking about what to do.  We had to shut our factory down.  Basically, I had to think about how to pay rent for the company and pay my staff. All I knew was that we didn’t have a choice.

So where are things at now?

Well, so then, out of the blue our US distributor who had been to visit earlier this year, touched base to say they were up by 256% and needed to place an order with us! They had launched our product in the Oscars and Grammy Awards and it had been received really well.  With spas and beauty salons closed in the US as well, online sales of premium skin care had gone up.

Wow!  Congratulations!

I know, thank you!  It’s really exciting, and it means now that we have secured our cashflow to keep operating in some capacity until the end of the year.  I’ve been able to touch base with the women harvesters in villages to let them know we can pay them for Nama (sea grapes) and keep them afloat as well.

nama harvest

Siteri harvesting Nama from the lagoon

I’ve been looking at my revised cashflow.  As tourism in Fiji won’t be back for at least 12-18 months I’ve had to dissolve my transit lounge and shifted my focus to supplying product only.

So you’ve seen a flip in your business model from local, in-store sales to international, online sales?

Yeah! Where there’s been closure and downturn in some areas, there’s been uptake in others. It’s interesting because I now have another issue, which is being able to import enough packaging to fulfil the new order!  Our last order of packaging that came from China, we had ordered in December, and it has only just got here. And we didn’t project an order this big.  So that’s my next challenge to tackle, along with finding the capital for it.  And for our distributor, we’re having to look into sea freighting, as airfreighting is astronomical at the moment!

Interesting.  Have you adapted in other ways to deal with COVID-19?

Hmm… I’ve also changed my local customer.  I can’t supply to hotels, but hair salons have started to open again, so I’ve looked at a consignment model with some hair salons to stock my previous product range.

Great.  And what about Fiji more broadly?  How has COVID-19 impacted Fiji? You mentioned tourism before.

Yes, thousands upon thousands are out of work because tourism is our biggest industry.  And unfortunately, there’s no unemployment benefits or financial support other than early access to your superannuation if you have it. Having said that, local councils have been setting up flea markets in all our towns and cities.  In Nadi alone, four flea markets have been set up with 100 + stalls selling everything from homemade cakes, second-hand clothes, creative jewellery. Government is also reaching out to MSMEs offering micro-loans to encourage new business and create financial stimulation – those who were reliant on tourism.  There’s a focus on agri- and aqua-culture businesses.

It’s hard to get a sense of just how much the shutdown of tourism has impacted the country.

Yes. It’s huge! Really, really bad.

Is garment manufacturing a big industry in Fiji?

Yes, well it used to be 25 years ago, but most of it is off-shore now in India and Asia because it has traditionally been cheaper. I think there’s a real opportunity for things like this though.  Lobbying the Tourism and Trades Minister to shift focus onto industries like manufacturing and exporting. I also think there’s an opportunity to locally produce some of what we import.  For example, our products contain Aloe Vera which we currently have to import from other Pacific countries.  We could grow it here.

Mmm, some food for thought! What about at a community level?  How are communities coping?

We’ve seen communities revert to two things.  Firstly, everyone is returning to their villages and are farming on their land to sustain their family and community.  The government is providing seedlings to support this. And secondly, we’ve seen a return to the bartering system. There’s a Barter Better For Fiji Facebook group where people are trading, so as to not rely on cash.

That’s really resourceful.  It’s great they’ve been able to set up these systems so quickly. But we’re thinking of you all in Fiji, as you continue to shift away from the tourism market and wish you well as things evolve! 

Yes. It’s a long road ahead but thank you.

Deb, thank you so much for sharing more about what’s happening in Fiji, and about how your business is adapting in the face of COVID-19.  You’ve shared some real insight that can hopefully spark some ideas for other entrepreneurs and businesses out there.

No problem. Thanks for checking in.

TDi works with SMEs across the pacific.  We worked with Deb in 2019 to help engage impact investors to grow her business.  To read more about this and other work we do with businesses in the Pacific, check out our case studies.

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