SAMOA - An Experience with Tropical Fruit

Digby Gotts recently spent 12 months in Samoa, (a series of Pacific tropical islands formerly known as Western Samoa, and not to be confused with American Samoa), as a UN adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture Fruit Tree Project. He was there to assist with the training of Ministry staff and growers of tropical fruits and to encourage the planting of fruit trees throughout the villages, hopefully improving nutritional status and providing an economic base for willing people.

The Fruit Tree Development Project is in line with the Samoan Government initiatives to promote crop diversification technology through the development of small crops and the identification of new export and traditional food crops. The Fruit Tree Development Project has had three phases: Phase I covered the period 1989 - 1991; Phase II was from 1992 - 1996; and I was lucky enough to be involved with Phase III in 2000 - 2001.

Phase I of the project saw selection of superior in-country fruits with reliable tree performance; introduction of new fruit species and modern cultivars of existing species for evaluation; expansion of nursery operations to increase the throughput of quality certified planting materials, provision and encouragement of technical support for private nurserymen; initial planting of the national fruit germplasm collection; procurement of land, orchard planning and initial plantings of Atele Horticultural Centre; and the identification of prospective private demonstration orchards.

Phase II looked at increasing the level of production and quality of fresh and processed fruits leading to greater availability for local consumption. It was hoped this would result in improved nutrition, higher income and export products. Many of the plantings from phase I were also replaced after their destruction in cyclones in 1992 and 1993.

Phase III aimed to improve the post-harvest handling of fruit and assessed which of the new fruits could become an export crop, We were also required to encourage the wider distribution of appropriate fruit trees to villages throughout the Samoan islands.

First Impressions January 2000
Samoa is different. There is none of the noise or squalor of the East and none of the arrogance or affluence of the West. This is easiest to see on the streets, where most cars actually stay at the 25-mph town speed limit or lower and in traffic, will allow another car through when not required, just to help.

Even pedestrians, and there are few footpaths, are treated with care. Cars will slow right down to pass or overtake walkers, even allowing oncoming traffic time and space to get past. Horns are rarely used and traffic signals usually obeyed. There is, however, a degree of serendipity about driving that makes you watch what's happening, as there appears to be no set of definitive road rules. You can never assume that the other driver knows what he's doing, so give way to him just in case.

Fatty meat, 'disposed' of by NZ and US companies, is the cheapest source of meat for Samoans, apart from local fish and chicken. Turkey tails, lamb flaps and sausages are the main reddish meat diet items and contribute significantly to the high incidence of obesity and diabetes. Some cattle are bred and butchered locally, and this industry appears to be growing. Good red meat is cheap by Australian standards, about two thirds, but is still expensive for Samoan households. It's quite strange dealing with a packet of breakfast cereal costing as much as a kilo of rump.

Samoan life is still largely based around the village, with many houses clustered around a central green and community house and or church. Most households have electricity and town water, although only 2000 houses have treated water. Kitchen appliances are still out of reach of most households, so open fires are still used extensively, smoke hanging over the valley every evening. The strong village base means that anyone having a bad time for money can always go back for support and a subsistence lifestyle. Survival is easy, if you can live on a diet of taro, banana, coconut, breadfruit, papaya, with the occasional pig or chicken on Sundays.

March 2000 - Samoan cuisine
Early during our stay we visited Aggie Grey's Hotel for a Fia Fia, a Samoan cultural celebration of dance and food, specially designed for tourists. The buffet had a whole section of it devoted to Samoan food so we had - wait for it - Sea Cucumber, Sea Urchin, as well as more normal things like banana cooked in coconut milk and taro leaves with coconut cream (palusami) and breadfruit cooked in coconut milk, followed by dessert of papaya cooked in coconut milk. You start to get the idea that the basis of Samoan cuisine is something cooked in coconut milk - and it is coconut milk prepared from first principles (first find your coconut tree) - not the stuff in the can. So one of our resolutions was to learn how to actually make real coconut cream and a traditional Palusami. Alison learned to make it in the traditional Samoan style from our Samoan landlady who lived next door. It tasted great, but the grating of the coconut left the hands bloody from the edge of the grater, and the effort involved meant that the experience was never repeated.

One of the aims of the project that has absorbed me, is to improve diet diversity. My job is to get the new fruit trees into the villages and get the fruits popular enough so that people will look after the trees. One of the difficulties is that Samoan tastes are different as well, so that what I see as a great fruit has little acceptance locally. One example is the Golden and Purple passionfruits. These are highly rated at the fruit tastings home on the farm, and grow very well in Samoa, but very few Samoans like them - too acid. There is a wild species of passionfruit that they find very sweet and acceptable, that to me tastes of mouldy or smoky overripe orange, though Alison liked it and purchased it at the local markets whenever she could. I tried to bring some seed back with me but Australian Quarantine refused to let me bring it in.

Durian has no value locally, yet the trees are the healthiest I have ever seen with large crops of heavy fruit. Average weight so far is around 3 kg. When I arrived, no-one on the research farm was aware that durian falls from the tree when ready. So the fruit on the ground has always been discarded as rubbish, in the same way that the windfall oranges are weighed and dumped. I have now got the workers collecting the dropped fruit every morning, but it has to be stored in the fertilizer shed as no-one will have it anywhere near where they work. Except me. I've placed an ad in the Samoan newspaper to see if anyone in this country is prepared to buy it while we hunt for ways to test exporting it to NZ as frozen or chilled pulp.

Some of the largest and healthiest rollinia trees I've seen are also on both government farms, with fruit production spread over a long period. The fruit are a nightmare to our post harvest specialist as they are just too fragile to be even worth investigating as an export crop. The food processing consultant took some for drying, only to find that all the sweetness and acidity is lost, leaving only a bitter flavour comparable to chewing on lime rind. The local people do like the fruit, so this became one of the trees being widely distributed to villages.

Soursop is another fruit with major potential at all levels if we can educate enough people about how to use it. Trees grow well, although they seem to be short-lived with some fungal problems. Some that I recommended be cut back hard in October last year, have now regrown and are bearing fruit on the new wood. Large crops of 2-3 kg fruit. After pulping, the juice has a little sugar added and is frozen as a sherbet or cooked up as a jam, after adding a little pectin. Kids love it as icy poles, and it looks like being used as a giveaway on training courses that the dietician member of the team will be running in the villages and schools.

The more traditional fruits like oranges and mandarins, avocado, and starfruit that have a high level of acceptance already, are subject to enormous damage from a moth pest that pierces the skin and sucks out tiny amounts of juice but opens the flesh up to fungal attack. There doesn't seem to be any ready solution to this problem as the moths breed in the forest as well as the living fences used around many properties, and they can travel well over 3 km in an evening. Several species are involved, so the research to identify and isolate parasitic pests has so far been ineffective. Many more millions of dollars look like being thrown at the problem, while the organic solution is to not grow the species that give that level of trouble. Pummelo is immune from the pest, so I think Samoa should grow that and learn how to use it and avoid the problem, rather than spend a lot of money looking for a solution.

Abiu is another fruit that seems immune from the fruit piercing moth, which in Australia is heavily attacked by fruit fly. The different species of fruit fly on Samoa seem unable to penetrate the skin. So it seems relatively immune to pest problems, making it a great fruit for local production. So there are some interesting times coming when decisions are going to have to be made about which trees go out to the villages and which get chopped down. The orchard where I'm working has a huge collection of species, but no more than two trees of each variety. Of any species, one third seems to be cropping well, one third seems to have produced nothing in eight years, and one third have one tree producing well while the other has produced nothing.

June 2000 - The Workshops
One of the main parts of my job on Samoa was to involve villagers in growing their own fruit trees. To this end the fruit tree team ran a series of workshops for representatives of various village based groups who have sufficient influence to perhaps direct the interest of their village. The most influential of these is the "women's committee", which is composed of the women born in each village, and which together with the mayor and the priest control all activity in every village.

The Samoan government has a "Department of Women Affairs" (sic) which, through the women's committees, is running a campaign called "Healthy Village - Healthy People" as a competition between about 8 large villages on each island. One of the criteria for the competition has been that every house should have a vegetable garden. This has now been rewritten to say that every house should have a vegetable garden and some fruit trees.

Our first workshops have been to several of the women from each of the women's committees on both islands to give them some idea of the range of fruit trees that we have available and how to plant and care for a young grafted fruit tree. The only fruits that are seen commonly around the islands are those that will germinate on their own and survive by chance through to maturity. There is no knowledge in most villages about growing or caring for fruit trees, with possible exceptions for banana, cocoa and breadfruit. This benign neglect means that mango, banana, breadfruit and seedling orange trees are quite common but little else is seen. The trees that are around are usually poor quality, with small fibrous mangoes and sour oranges being the norm. There is no food culture associated with fruit except for breadfruit, banana and cocoa.

As I write this, I have just come back from a two-day visit to the island of Savaii, where the fruit team ran the second of these workshops. This took place in the fale (an open pavilion) belonging to the Department of Women Affairs near the ferry terminal. Women came from all over the island for the day, some travelling by bus for two hours to get there by 9:00. All very well dressed, in what must have been best clothes. Bright colours, satins, neck to ankle without exception for about 25 women.

The workshop managed to complete three sessions before lunchtime - the latest score on the "Healthy Village" competition was followed by the fruit variety demonstration and tasting. I had managed to find 20 species in current fruit, although only a few of these were ready to eat. Nevertheless, the women all were able to taste jakfruit, sweet carambola, sapodilla, pummelo, rollinia, abiu and water cherries.

The third session had Tu'ulima (my counterpart), demonstrating how plants could be grafted, using mango and pummelo brought for that purpose. There was general amazement that plants could be joined in this way, especially with the pummelo bud stuck to the side of a lemon tree. I suspect that rather than learning that the lemon shoots have to be cut away to get good pummelo growth, the women were more interested in the possibility of having both pummelo and lemons on the one tree and will now deliberately not cut away the root stock in order to get this result.

The workshop wound up at 2:30 with every participant being paid a travel allowance of 10 - 15 tala (A$5-$7.50) as well as being presented with two fruit trees (Valencia orange and rollinia) to take home and plant. The gift-giving at the end of a workshop is an important aspect of Samoan culture. The gift is usually more food or money, but I had convinced the bureaucratic keeper of the purse that we could use the trees as the gift and not have the participants buy them; This was a novel idea that eventually the bean counters accepted. The women all seemed delighted with their gift and their day out, and finished with a rousing song to thank us all for our trouble.

Brenda, Tu'ulima and I headed off then to pay a visit to all 8 hospitals on Savaii to assess the possibilities for fruit tree plantings around each set of buildings and to meet the staff to be involved with the planting and management. This part of the program had been arranged with the Health department and the Samoan Chief Nurse, so everyone was expecting us and delighted with having their very own real fruit trees in the grounds. The Women's Committees again would be supervising the care and planting, but the actual people would probably be different from the workshop participants, but not necessarily.

It seemed that everywhere we went that afternoon, we would be seeing well-dressed women from the workshop, lugging around two carrier bags with their potted fruit trees. Two of the hospitals had enough vacant land for a few hundred trees. My mind was reeling at the possibility that the Hospital Women's Committees turn out in future to be major exporters of rambutans from Samoa. Most however have only limited space, but still enough for 10 - 15 trees, sufficient for a limited flow of fruit through to the hospital staff and patients.

Only one of the hospitals has major problems with establishing fruit trees, largely because it has been built on an old Tongan fort site. This was probably a natural lava rock mound that has been raised and levelled by bringing in smaller rocks to fill the gaps. The buildings are sitting on a pile of bare stones and rocks around 5 meters above the surrounding soil. No soil at all exists nor does anything smaller than a 10 cm-diameter rock. I suggested planting trees in large pots, but no one seemed interested in that. However they do have access to some space across the road where the trees would be quite happy. It's just that they won't be contributing to the landscaping of the hospital.

So I'm working hard at depleting the Nafanua Research Station nursery stock. The trees we're handing out are getting younger and younger but still should be OK. I will be taking a crew out next week to visit friendly farmers and raid their old Abiu trees for seed. Should be a fun day, covering everyone with rotten Abiu flesh.

Samoan Mangoes
Had a great day on Friday with Nauma taking me to the fruit market to talk to all the mango sellers. I bought a sample from every stall and found out the Samoan names for each local type. There is a milk mango, a water mango, several apple mangos, oka mango (which is eaten green and crunchy), and one used green for pickling. There is also a Parrot mango, which is sharply curved into a fish hook. You could literally hang it off your belt. Took them all back to Nafanua where we had our own fruit tasting. One of the apple mangos was a worthwhile fruit but they were all pretty ordinary, i.e. bland and fibrous with very low acid levels. The milk mango is actually eaten slightly green after bashing it all over on a rock. The pointy end is bitten off and the flesh sucked out, hence the name.

We then headed out again to visit the mango seedlings selected by Brian Watson, several years ago as the mother trees for grafting to compare their performance with the imported varieties. One of these (Tilafono) had some dropped fruit on the ground and I was able to have a taste. Like eating a nectarine. No fibre whatever and a sharp acidity on top of the high sugar. I've never tasted a mango quite like it. The owner of the tree came out to chat, and was able to tell us that it was planted by her grandfather in 1925. So at least that one was a good selection. The variety has been named after the owner of the property on which it was found, so some Samoan families have been immortalised in a rather different way.

October 2000 - Judging the farm competition at the Annual Show
I was asked to be a judge for the annual farm competition. There were over 40 entrants spread all over Samoa. The judging team of 4 - 3 Samoans plus me - visited 4 farms together and debated the criteria for deciding what a good Samoan farm would be, then we split into 2 teams and visited 20 farms each. This week I've managed to spend two days visiting farmers, both fruit and coconut plantations all over the island of Upolu. We'd usually finish up in some extreme backwoods spot after many kms of rough tracks and having to ask at several shops or houses as well as any pedestrians. Nauma, the Nursery Manager at the research farm would do all the location work, and once we had actually found the farm and the farmer, would chat lengthily in Samoan with him to get some of his management details and procedures. He would then pass on to me what he thought I would find interesting. At about this stage, we would discover that the farmer, usually dressed in tatters, spoke beautiful English, having been right through his schooling in NZ.

Went out to Apolima this morning, a small volcanic island surrounded by reef, located between Upolu and Savaii. The boat simply surfed in on a swell through the fringing reef with about 3 feet clearance on each side. Could be tricky doing it in a kayak! Coming out was a bit more exciting as the wind had come up strongly and as soon as the boatman accelerated for the entrance in the reef, the engine stopped. Lots of grabbing for the fending off poles while the driver was pulling on the starter, but it started again and off we went. The swells going back across the channel to Monono Island were higher than the boat and breaking, but we just bobbed through them all like a cork. He was going very slowly, except when there was a flat spot, when he'd rev straight across. Lunch fortunately stayed down, but it was pretty heavy.

The sunken centre of the island is very fertile, with a small creek flowing through it, but absolutely windless and as humid as the proverbial Turkish bath. The houses are all out on the beach where there is some breeze. I was dripping with sweat in 5 minutes as we wandered through the crater. This area was planted with about 100 mangosteens about 7 years old but still no fruit. Nauma found a ripe pandanus fruit, that is used for making necklaces, and arranged to collect and keep the seeds. This was about two buckets full, with nothing to carry them. No problem. Lots of low coconut leaves, 10 minutes later there is a woven basket, lined with banana leaves, full of seeds.

Back to the farmer's home at the entrance to the island and, of course, lunch: taro, banana Samoa, roast chicken and pork, 'peasoupo' (canned corned beef) with onions, boiled salt beef as well as green coconuts and cocoa Samoa.

We arrived back at Nafanua in time for the fruit juice judging. Samoan fruit juices are another cultural difference we've missed. These were semi-liquid fruit salads, with all sorts of strange combinations. The palangis (Europeans) had been ruled out of the judging as they don't like what Samoans like. But I wandered around for a taste of everything anyway. The best one (and the winner) was a complex blend of all the usual stuff, but with peanuts blended in as well. The taste was fantastic. Abiu and pineapple wasn't bad, and the coconut toddy was excellent.

Another odd fruit juice had the dominant flavour obtained by boiling lemon leaves and pineapple skin, a sharp tang that I enjoyed, but the judges didn't.

March 2000 - The rambutan harvest
The rambutan harvest has just started with the fruit appearing in the market again. For many Samoans this is their first experience with the fruit and many find it too sweet. I suspect that this is more a reaction to the strangeness of a new food, when the preference is for the traditional foods. However, for many others the fruit is enjoyed and is sought after for eating and planting. To encourage the latter, the government nursery has dropped the selling price of bud grafted rambutan to about A$l! The fruit itself is selling at around A$4 a kilo, which is still very expensive compared to other fruits at the market.

The UN fruit project team have finally decided which are the best rambutan varieties for distribution in Samoa. These include: Lebakbulus, R167, R134, R162, Gulah Batu and Rongrien while some of the no hopers include Jit Lee, Selarikeng, R3, R7 and R9. It remains now to complete the fruit fly host status testing on the best varieties before we can establish a protocol for exporting the fruit initially to NZ.

The mango season has now finished, such as it was. The trees grow well here, but the high levels of nitrogen, the frequent rains and the high humidity make this country a less than ideal location for getting them to fruit. One of my challenges is to develop a horticultural practice that will allow the many mangoes to produce fruit. The key will lie in pruning after harvest to maintain an open and low structure, minimizing fungal attack and encouraging new leaf growth, which will delay flowering until the drier season. The sun and rain tend to push the trees into flowering at any time, when rapid fungal growth wipes out the flowers or young fruit. Half the government research farm mango trees have now been decimated, pruned back to open vase shaped skeletons. The other half will have their centres pruned out, leaving any other cut backs until next season. Hopefully they will be able to show some more fruit next season. The densely planted mango groves, totalling about 400 mature trees had about 10 Kg of fruit total, so it is unlikely they can do any worse!

The Newspaper articles
The Samoan Observer - the local newspaper - has published a series of articles I have written about tropical fruit from a local Samoan perspective, and this has raised my profile, as 'Digby, the fruit tree man'. It is difficult to get used to my celebrity status, and because the newspaper has my photo published alongside each weekly article, people recognise me wherever I go - old Samoan women in the supermarket queue seek me out to tell me how much they enjoyed reading last week's article. This causes much hilarity amongst the other consultants who remain anonymous to the general Samoan public. By the time I leave Samoa I have written 18 articles and there are plans to publish them as a book. They have become a collector's item. I have even received emails from Samoans living in Australia requesting a particular issue they have missed.

December 2001 - Summing up the Samoan experience
Although the advisory team has returned home, the whole project is still moving along under Samoan direction with senior staff moving step by step towards each of the original goals. A new export fruit industry based around rambutans is being expanded from a successful pilot scheme. A research-scale fruit sterilization plant (high temperature forced air) has been purchased and is to be installed in the new year, allowing some fruits to be exported after establishing quarantine protocols.

Twenty or so different types of fruit trees have been distributed to about 200 schools and hospitals throughout the country and more are still being delivered by local staff where the original trees have survived. Local cultivars of mangoes, oranges, mandarins, lemons among others have been selected and are being propagated in their hundreds to distribute cheaply to willing villages as well as farmers looking to local sales. Fruit dryers have been purchased and established, to be run by local women's committees as small-scale businesses.

Although there has been a strong resistance to new ways in a culture proud of its stability, I am confident that at least many of the trees we distributed will remain as a tangible part of that project. Kids growing up with fruit trees around them will inevitably eat the fruit and, as adults, enjoy and look for fruit as a part of their diet. While the training given to staff and farmers may easily be forgotten as people change jobs and priorities shift, at least the trees will survive and eventually produce fruit.

After 6 months back on the farm, I look back to Samoa as a learning experience where I think I was able to give as much as I received. Having the time to reflect on orchard techniques and make detailed observations on the growth of fruit trees is certainly a luxury that would never have happened while trying to maintain my own property. Our own farm management has improved dramatically as a direct consequence of this time away.

Digby Gotts,
Cape Trib Exotic Fruit Farm,
Cape Tribulation, Queensland

DATE: July 2002

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