Ladies and Gentlemen,
Bula Vinaka and a very good morning to you all.
Thank you for having me here to help celebrate the second birthday of the Merch – Suva’s newest hub for buying pre-loved and good-as-new appliances.
Let me start by recognising the “Man behind The Merch” – Mr Watesoni Nata Jr.
Two years ago, Watesoni had a comfortable position in the judiciary, where he worked full-time as a Member of our Employment Relations Tribunal. Some people – maybe most people – would be content to ride that career out to retirement. But he saw an opportunity in Fiji’s growing economy; he saw a path to becoming a job-maker and building a legacy of his own.
All it took was one massive shipping container, and suddenly he was his own boss, selling imported goods and appliances out of the bottom floor of his garage. Sales were good. He saved up his money, and then moved into his first shop and warehouse in centre point. His set-up back then hardly resembled the new store here today – he was running his shop out of a tent he pitched by a rented warehouse. But he kept selling. He kept dreaming.
He left his full-time job, he forfeited that comfortable salary, and went all-in on this business.
But then, barely over one year into its operations, the world fell into the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic. In so many of the worst-stricken economies, small businesses have had the toughest go, as restrictions on movement have seen many close their doors – oftentimes, for good. When we locked down Suva, Merch’s doors were shut for a time. Meanwhile, as the pandemic raged overseas, Watesoni’s regional supply chains saw serious disruptions.
His story could have ended there. Instead, he adapted, he collaborated, and –in doing so – he showed business acumen well beyond his years. He partnered with another Fijian enterprise – Fiji Chemicals Limited – to start selling hand sanitiser and cleaning supplies. And he rode out maybe the roughest economic patch in Fiji’s history without letting go of a single employee.
While he was hard-at-work sustaining his business, Fiji was leading the world’s most decisive effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. We became a COVID-contained country, our COVID-Safe Economic Recovery kicked into gear, and sales at the Merch slowly and surely picked back up. Last month, Watesoni was able to fund the move to this bigger and better location in Walu Bay.
His timing could not have been better. That same month we announced the boldest budget in Fijian history. And it was a budget designed with businesses – like the Merch – top of mind. It slashed duties on over 1,600 items. It introduced the steepest tax cut in Fijian history. And it put forward a two-billion-dollar economic stimulus. It was also a compassionate budget, allocating another 100 million dollars in direct assistance to those who need it. It extends concessional loans to micro, small and medium enterprises, helping them stay afloat through this global recession. And it stopped families from being cut-off from critical services, like water and electricity.
It also made starting a business easier in Fiji. We completely did away with the archaic process of obtaining a business license. So, if the Merch were to launch as a business tomorrow, it could begin operations that same day it was registered – a process we’ve moved entirely online. It’s certainly good news for the next generation of Fijian entrepreneurs which – as a founding sponsor of Kids Market Day – I’m sure Merch’s management appreciates.
With our budget passed, the stage is set for small businesses like this one to take the ball and run with it. Of course, government can’t fix every problem businesses will come up against, but this budget proved that we understand the big problems businesses face – and we’re prepared to do our part to cushion their bottom-line. In doing so, we’re helping those who need help most of all.
I’ve spoken with the Fijians who have seen their jobs and working hours cut as a result of this once-in-a-century pandemic. These hard-working people don’t want to settle for handouts. They want the dignity of a job. And at its core – whether it’s through cutting taxes, incentivising spending, or spurring new construction– creating jobs is what our latest budget is all about. That is our guiding philosophy through whatever the coming months bring. At every opportunity, we’re supporting our businesses – Fijian businesses – to create and sustain employment. Every time I hear about another “budget sale” on the radio, every time I read about a hotel re-opening its doors and re-hiring staff, and every time we celebrate a morning like this one – I know we’re on the right path.
Ladies and gentleman, almost everyone has sat around a grog bowl throwing around ideas for the “next big thing”. But not everyone actually goes out there and does the work to turn that idea into an innovation. That’s what makes an entrepreneur an entrepreneur.
It’s about getting your costs worked out, finding your competitive advantage, and making your business work for you, work for your employees and – most importantly – work for your customers.
There’s nothing easy about starting a business. Success is always earned and never given. Real entrepreneurs are not fly-by-night merchants. Sometimes it takes years of perseverance before you see real success. So, whenever I meet an entrepreneur, I know I’m speaking with someone who prefers hard work over whingeing. I know I’m speaking with someone who knows what it means and what it takes to work with integrity and make an honest buck; someone who is relentless, or even obsessive, about what they do; and – most probably – someone who doesn’t sleep nearly as much as they should.
But above all, I know I’m meeting someone with a positive spirit. Because at the heart of any new business is faith – faith in an idea and faith in the future.
And that’s what our nation needs, now more than ever. We need faith in our potential, we need the faith to leap into the unknown, and we need the kind of faith found only in entrepreneurs – the faith to risk landing a 40-foot shipping container in your backyard, and start selling second-hand appliances to your friends and neighbours – just like Watesoni.
He put faith in his potential. Now, he is being rewarded –and the proof is all around us today. I know in my bones your government’s faith in Fiji’s potential is equally well-placed. And when the clouds of this global pandemic finally part, every Fijian will see the rewards.
Before I wrap up, I don’t believe we can celebrate the success of any business in Fiji without recognising the healthcare heroes and the members of our disciplined forces who helped keep our people safe from this virus. They implemented our COVID-containment strategy as well as could be done.
Even as I speak today, they’re hard at work securing our borders, keeping our people safe, keeping our businesses open, and keeping our economic recovery on track.
We’re grateful to them all.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you. And Happy Birthday!