Picture: Manasa Waqa (left) on his farm with Agriculture Technical Officer Ra Veniana Nabitu 

62-year-old Manasa Waqa of Vunisea Village in the District of Tokaimalo in the Ra Province is the true epitome of perseverance. 

After winning the Vanilla Farmer of the Year award at the 2023 National Agriculture Show in Suva, Waqa said that he has tripled his efforts in growing his vanilla farm.

The award boosted his morale further and he is still on the farm even during this festive season to continuously check on his prized plants.

“I have 6.4 hectares of land which I have divided for farming. I am an integrated farmer and have a cocoa farm and I am also engaged in bee-farming,” explained Waqa.

“Vanilla farming is not new to the family as I grew up working on my father’s vanilla farm,” he said.

“Anyone who knows vanilla farming can say that it is quite challenging and is certainly not for the impatient. Once the plants flower, they must be hand pollinated. The curing process for vanilla pods takes another few months to complete,” he explained.

“While growing up, I would watch my late father working on the vanilla farm and would follow whatever he taught me,” said Waqa.

He closely followed his father’s advice and after completing his high school studies, Waqa went straight back to the village and ventured into dalo, yaqona and cassava farming.

“The idea of going back into vanilla farming came about after I attended a training provided in 1993 by the Ministry of Agriculture at Naiserelagi.”

“I was convinced to restart vanilla farming as this wasn’t a new thing for me as I knew and understood the tricks and trade of vanilla farming through my late father,” he said.

“I didn’t waste a single moment after that training and started with 15 vanilla vines.”

He got the hang of it and expanded his farm by planting another 30 vines and after 3 years he finally harvested and sold his vanilla to the then Spices of Fiji Ltd at $40 per kilogramme. The prices gradually moved up to $150 per kilogramme.

Waqa knew that he had been spending a lot of time on his vanilla farm and the money he earned was not enough.

So he kept pushing on because he knew that all his sacrifices would not be in vain.

His perseverance is now paying huge dividends as he is currently supplying vanilla to a New Zealand buyer for $500 per kilogramme.

“Initially I was selling to a buyer in Japan and then to Spices of Fiji Ltd starting at $40 per kilogramme. Now, I am a happy man because all the efforts put into vanilla farming are paying off,” he smiled.

Not only is the hardworking farmer vigilant on his farm but he is also offering his 30 years of experience on vanilla to tertiary students and interested farmers from the planting to the pollination stages of vanilla.

Hard earned money from vanilla farming has helped put his children through school, built and furnished his house in the village, and rebuilt his house after it was damaged by Tropical Cyclone Winston in 2016.

The plants start producing vanilla beans after three years so he has been planting them in phases to ensure he has vanilla to harvest at most times throughout the year, he currently pollinates 800 vanilla flowers daily.

“Vanilla needs a lot of patience, it may look easy but it is a very fragile process and attention is really necessary to carry out effect pollination. The flowers are all hand-pollinated and only stay open for one day therefore you will have to be careful to pollinate it within its blooming time,” he said.

“Hard work is needed for the first three years and when the plant flowers and produces beans that take nine months to mature and a few more months for curing, you then give it all your attention and it will give you good quality vanilla and revenue,” he said.

Like any other farmer, his future plans include purchasing a vehicle and putting his youngest daughter through tertiary education as a private student.

Waqa also has a total of 406 cocoa trees on his land and eight double super honey bee boxes. Last month he harvested a total of 35 litres of honey which he supplied to his two major markets.

Under the 2019/2020 Vanilla Farming Program of the Ministry of Agriculture and Waterways, he was assisted with a vanilla drying shed and vanilla curing equipment to assist him on his farm.

Waqa is grateful for the assistance that has been rendered to him by the Ministry of Agriculture and says that he will continue to expand his vanilla farm.

“My family has been helping me on the farm and hopefully one day they will be able to expand our farm to a bigger and better one.”

He hopes that more farmers in his province will have the courage and determination to venture into vanilla farming.

“Yes, I admit it is not easy but look at me, I am still going despite my old age. Please talk to the agriculture officials about any plans that you wish to make regarding agriculture and always heed their advice.”

There are currently 25 established vanilla farmers in the Ra Province.