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    International Trade Forum - Issue 2/2009 

    Photo courtesy of Tamara Haig 

    Businesses in Tonga, like those in other small island states, face many trading challenges. Never deterred, 'Ofa Tu'ikolovatu is turning obstacles into opportunities for better business and the development of her country.

    Gio Recycling, a waste management business, and its Managing Director 'Ofa Tu'ikolovatu are a visible part of Tonga's business landscape. Ms Tu'ikolovatu is well known and respected in business and in the community for her efforts to reduce waste in Tonga. She describes herself as a scrap broker - she buys and sells scrap. Her aim is to clean up Tonga; providing employment, she says, is really a bonus.

    But trading in Tonga is not always easy. Tonga shares the challenge of most small island states: the dependence on other nations' goods and services. The reliance on shipping and transport networks for exporting and importing is an everyday challenge, with most businesses in Tonga continuing to find the process of clearing customs costly and time-consuming. A male-dominated culture on the wharves makes the challenges even greater for women in business.

    So Ms Tu'ikolovatu has needed to be creative in her approach to trading across borders. Although her business is small, she now employs a dedicated customs broker, for efficiency and to comply with recent government regulations. Like other business owners in Tonga, she laments the cost to business in time, goods tied up on the wharves and the need for assistance when dealing with customs.

    She began Gio Recycling in 2003 as a sideline to an automotive shop started by her father and carried on by her husband for some 20 years. Continued demand has meant the recycling business has now become the primary focus of Gio.

    The company's work entails collecting and packing scrap, often metals, that they then ship and sell. Copper, aluminium, stainless steel and even abandoned motor vehicles can be recycled. The business exports metal to a scrap recycler in New Zealand and paper and plastics to a firm in Brisbane, Australia.

    Gio employs seven staff members; this can go up to 14 at peak times. Because of the heavy physical nature of the work, most of the employees are men. Ms Tu'ikolovatu estimates annual turnover to be around $100,000.

    She works in the office five days each week. On the sixth day she works at local flea markets, selling perfume that she imports from the United States and Singapore and clothes from the United States. It takes one month to receive these imported goods, at an approximate cost of $1,800 per delivery.

    Overcoming challenges

    Freight costs, machinery maintenance and staffing are Gio's main expenses. At busy times, Gio Recycling exports between seven and ten containers a month; at around $650 per container, the costs certainly add up. Each time Ms Tu'ikolovatu exports to her key clients in Australia and New Zealand, the company has to complete seven documents, which can be time-consuming and laborious. With even the slightest error, the forms need to be resubmitted; this part of the process alone can take up to a week.

    In December 2008, the Government imposed new regulations that each importing or exporting business must use a certified customs broker. In compliance, and in a bid to make her dealings with customs more efficient, Ms Tu'ikolovatu helped a staff member to study for the difficult customs exam and, once he had passed, paid his licence fee of approximately $2,500. He is still one of only a handful of customs brokers in Tonga.

    In the rush to clean up Tonga for the new king's coronation celebrations in mid-2008, Gio Recycling gained a government contract to collect over 2,000 abandoned cars from across the main island of Tonga'tapu. These cars were to be crushed and exported to her client in New Zealand. The only problem was that Gio didn't have the car-crushing machinery. Undeterred, Ms Tu'ikolovatu leased land from the Government to store the cars on and sourced the machinery from Australia, which arrived some months later.

    Training across borders

    Ms Tu'ikolovatu frequently travels for work, mostly to New Zealand, Australia and the United States. "I really enjoy these chances to learn more," she says. She learnt about the value of cross-country learning from her work at Royal Tongan Airlines before starting Gio, and now affords the same opportunities to her employees. She knows of just one other company in Tonga that facilitates such overseas training programmes for staff.

    The overseas work placements enable staff to visit the office of Gio's client in New Zealand and to learn about freight, safety, packing of containers and treatment of machines. Gio covers all costs, pays their wages while overseas and applies for the one-month working visa on their behalf. Her longest-serving employee has been with Gio for three years; during this time he worked for almost eight months with a freighting company overseas.

    The placements are not only an investment in staff, but in the business at large, and have even generated new ideas for its operation. For example, returning from a placement, an employee suggested changing the working hours to avoid sweltering in the middle hours of the day. Initially other staff were resistant to the change and it was not implemented, says Ms Tu'ikolovatu, but they later agreed it would be better and now enjoy the arrangement.

    On women in business

    In 2007, Ms Tu'ikolovatu won Tonga's Westpac Business Woman of the Year Award, which recognizes the important role women play in families, communities, public enterprise and business. Through the networking and travel opportunities afforded by the award, she learnt more about waste management, including how to treat waste and how dangerous it can be if burnt. "I learnt not just for me but for all of Tonga," she says.

    Indeed, her business has made a substantial contribution to the country's environment. For example, Ms Tu'ikolovatu was a key participant in the AusAID-funded Tonga Solid Waste Management Programme, which focused on recycling practices in Tonga. The recycling and waste management industry is a significant contributor to beautifying Tonga and improving living standards for both residents and visitors. "But there is so much more to be done," she says.

    "In the face of men in business, women are still a minority. Women are too often held back by not knowing what they want and how to get the information they need," she says. She believes women should speak out and seize opportunities to broaden their experience through international travel, create regional networks, develop mentor relations and foster knowledge and capacity-building partnerships.

    "Our culture fits women under its wings," she adds. "If it were just me (without my husband in the business), it's true that I could still keep the shop running, just not the auto mechanics side of the business… now I take strength from knowing that if anything happens to my husband, I will survive."