Like his parents and forebears, Josepho Malang Buleban and his siblings are all farmers. "I was born and grew up in Melsisi village on the island of Pentecost. As a village boy, cultivating the land and planting crops such as taro, yam and especially kava have always been part of my life. In Melsisi, we cultivate the land for our daily self-subsistence, to make money and to pay for our school fees," says Josepho.
"I completed my primary education in Pentecost, and after I reached grade 10 at the Melsisi college I opted for 3 years of accounting studies at the Vanuatu Institute of Technology (VIT) in Port-Vila. After achieving a diploma in accounting, I submitted applications to many companies in Port-Vila. As I did not receive any positive answers, I decided to return to my home village and concentrate on developing a kava business," Josepho adds.
Making cash out of kava
The main source of income for Pentecost farmers today is green kava stems and roots, packed in bags and shipped to Nakamals (traditional gathering places where kava is consumed) in the two main urban centres in Vanuatu, the capital city of Port-Vila on the island of Efate and Luganville on the island of Espiritu Santo. While studying in Port Vila, Josepho found that Nakamal owners were making more money than farmers, with their sales of green kava juice. "At that time, when I went back to Pentecost, I already had several gardens of 4-5 year old kava. My family had about 6 ha of kava gardens," he explains.
"When I returned home, I decided not only to increase the kava gardens but also to diversify our kava activities by setting up a Nakamal in Port-Vila," Josepho says. In 2010, he moved to Port-Vila with several bags of green kava from his garden and rented a space on the outskirts of the city to operate his Nakamal. "I started with 2 kg of kava, which represents about 1.5 litres in kava juice. Each day I had to cut my green kava into small chips, wash it, dry it for several hours and take it to a kava grinding operator to grind it. I then had to add the correct amount of water and filter the drink, which are the most crucial phases of green kava juice preparation," he explains.
The shelf life of Kava juice is only 4 hours and with tough competition from other Nakamal, setting up business and establishing a reputation for his product took a bit of time. But through his perseverance and the quality of his kava juice, Josepho's Nakamal business developed and in 2011 he rented a bigger space in the same area. By 2011, his Nakamal was also operating with a daily quantity of almost 100 kg of kava each day. He had his own grinding machine and employed four people. "Last year, I acquired 2 ha of land where I built an even bigger Nakamal and where I also now live with my wife and daughter. The Nakamal's name is Red Light and it is well known today in Port-Vila by expatriate and local consumers."
Today Red Light operates from Saturdays to Thursdays with 150 kg of green kava per day, which produces around 75 litres of kava juice. On Friday and pay days this increases to 200-250 kg of kava, which is processed by eight employees. "In terms of revenue, it is equivalent to around 85,000 Vatu (€672) per day and at least €20,000 per month," Josepho explains.
Back at the farm, Josepho works together with his parents and brothers in Pentecost to make sure their kava production continues smoothly. "My young brother manages our kava plantations with the help of our parents. He's also responsible for buying kava from other farmers in the area and shipping it every week to Port-Vila. Every month, I also send him money to hire labour to weed the plantations and plant new kava gardens," Josepho states. "My Nakamal requires more than 200 bags of green kava each month, so I'm buying kava from all the kava farmers in central Pentecost; I'm not the only one benefiting from the success of my Nakamal," he enthuses.
Although he could not find an office job because of the scarcity of employment in Port-Vila, the 22 year old has succeeded in life by falling back on what he was originally good at, which is cultivating the land and planting kava. But Josepho acknowledges that the accounting skills he acquired at VIT equipped him to effectively manage his business and his accounts. His choice to diversify from planting kava to running a Nakamal business has proven to be a good one.
Further opportunities may arise from the recent lifting of the EU ban on kava. Whilst Josepho is not currently involved in exporting dried kava, used for pharmaceuticals, he believes that once exports to Europe pick up, the price will increase, with Vanuatu kava farmers being the biggest beneficiaries.
By Jean Baptiste Calo