Vanuatu skills development program ’empowers’ returned seasonal workers to grow small businesses

After nine years of flying back and forth between New Zealand and Vanuatu, Roy Tinning hopes the next regular overseas booking he makes will be for exports of his vanilla.

The former recruiter is one of more than 30 graduates of Yumi Growem Vanuatu, a course in business skills and financial coaching for former seasonal workers.

Mr Tinning said the skills he learned through the program emboldened him to expand his vanilla operation.

“It changed me and it changed my business,” he said.

“Now, I’m selling vanilla everywhere in town.

“People buy vanilla from me online…and my long-term goal is [in] 2028 we will export vanilla.”

With the program now in its second year, other Pacific nations are considering creating similar initiatives, while an Australian organization is looking into running workshops for seasonal workers before they return home.

More than 30 returned seasonal workers have participated in the program.(Supplied: V-Lab)

Growing opportunity

Program founder Marc-Antoine Morrel, from the charitable association V-Lab, says Yumi Growem Vanuatu means “We are growing Vanuatu” in the local language of Bislama.

He said the weekly sessions, held over about 10 months, fostered the professional and personal development of participants.

“Activities have enabled the participant to make informed decisions to analyze risk and challenges and, perhaps most importantly, to build their self-confidence,” Mr Morrel said.

“The work that has been achieved has contributed to give [participants] some hope and some capacities to become successful entrepreneurs.”

Mr Morrel said the program had also created “a lot of interest” in the Pacific region.

“We have been holding discussions with Timor Leste and Kiribati where there is an interest on the part of government [to] establish something similar,” he said.

“It is very interesting and very rewarding to see that what is being tested and piloted in Vanuatu might at some stage be replicated in all the islands of the Pacific.”

Skills and self-confidence

Yumi Growem Vanuatu participants have started a range of businesses from piggeries to poultry farms, fishing, construction and retail.

Before she joined the program Merly Charley said she was just sewing for her daily needs.

But the former packhouse worker, through the training, realised the value of her skills.

This led her to open House of Handicraft — a shopfront in Port Vila.

Ni-Vanuatu woman Merly Charley in a purple dress with a white woman smiling.
Merly Charley has used the skills she learned from the program to develop her business.(Supplied: Merly Charley)

“I am proud of what I am doing and it has served me more to develop this as a business,” Ms Charley said.

“I always recommend to other friends to apply and come to [V-Lab] for support to train and develop their vision.”

Ms Charley said she would like to see Australia and New Zealand provide financial and business guidance to seasonal workers before they returned home.

Australian support

The idea of ​​a pre-program for seasonal workers while they are abroad is being explored by Pacific Islands Council of South Australia chief executive Tukini Tavui.

Mr Tavui said he had been speaking to Mr Morrel about hosting weekly workshops with registered trainers for workers in the Pacific Australia Labor Mobility (PALM) scheme.

“Then people could continue with the V-Lab program when they returned to Vanuatu,” he said.

A bald man with a green and blue shirt standing in a field
Mr Tavui hopes to support the development of business workshops for seasonal workers in Australia.(ABC Rural: Jessica Schremmer)

Since 2020, the Australian and New Zealand governments have provided about $800,000 to V-Lab in grant funding. This will support the program until June next year.

Mr Tavui hoped the development of programs like Yumi Growem Vanuatu could reduce the brain drain in the Pacific, and help others achieve their dreams.

“The key component of our discussions is around sustainability,” he said.

“How do we maximise this opportunity where our islanders are going across to Australia [and] New Zealand to work and earn money?

“How can we maximise that and create sustainable systems and processes to empower people to participate in small businesses to develop their communities, families and homes.”

A group of Ni-Vanuatu men in hi-vis in a vineyard in Loxton hold the Vanuatu flag.
The highest number of workers in the PALM scheme are from Vanuatu.(ABC Riverland: Catherine Heuzenroeder)

It is an issue that led inaugural Yumi Growem Vanuatu participant Mr Tinning to start an association to help others sustain the skills they learned through the program.

He said he was inspired to do so after seeing people get caught in a cycle of earning and returning.

“Some of them, they don’t get much money from the employees and some of them get enough money but the problem is they can’t manage their money,” Mr Tinning said.

“They use that money until it’s finished and they go back again [overseas] and work.

“My encouragement to them all is to keep digging until you find the gold.”


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