Reflections on my trip to Solomon Islands

Following on from my previous post about the Pacific Mission I thought I’d share some of the highlights and learnings from my time in the Solomon Islands. I’ve also written up a post about my time in Vanuatu.

Solomon Islands are a bit behind on their development journey in comparison to many of their neighbours (GDP per capita was estimated down around $2,380 USD per annum in 2017), but they surprised me the most in terms of the things that are going well and the potential represented. They’ve just gone through a successful election that, while tense, has had plenty of international oversight and appears to have been the most successful yet in terms of voter turnout and engagement (a particular shout out here went to the NZ Police trainers who have been working on helping bring community engagement strategies to the Solomon Islands Police Force).

Invariably the first thing people said to me after they learned I was in technology was that the country is finally getting a cable connection in about six months. That’s going to allow for a much more connected experience with the rest of the world. Even if access doesn’t make it to everyone immediately, the benefits of being more connected to their neighbours and being able to use the tools that other countries are using for planning and growth will be immense once they’re no longer dependent on satellite. To put this in perspective the roaming deal I was offered on mobile data was $5 NZD per megabyte and even locals were paying upwards of $250 NZD per month for less than a gigabyte of data.

Other pieces of infrastructure are also heading in a good direction. I was particularly impressed by our visit to the Honiara Port where the international side was in extremely good order and had deployed a fair amount of forward looking technology in terms of tracking systems and comprehensive dashboards in the main offices. New Zealand has also funded a second international airport in Munda to build a tourist zone around – this seems particularly positive in terms of allowing Honiara to focus on building itself out as the capital and industrial centre of the country.

On the industry side I found visiting Kokonut Pacific, an organisation teaching Solomon Islanders how to process coconut oil, interesting in terms of it illustrating a relatively complete supply chain all the way from small coconut growers through to export. People working in the coconut industry are producing a range of products including: oil, soap, copra, charcoal, bowls, carved items, and coconut water. This can then feed into the port that has plenty of backfill capacity allowing for cheap exports.

Coconut soap
Coconut oil soap at Kokonut Pacific

Most of the rest of our time was taken up by tours or events relating to the activity of New Zealand in Solomon Islands ranging from our support for the youth centre in Honiara through to official dinners more focussed on the political necessity of exchanging gifts between New Zealand and our hosts.

Solomon Islands has one particularly huge challenge in front of it – a huge youth population that is also mostly unemployed. To fix it they absolutely need to develop more industry but they’re taking many of the right steps to head in that direction. If they manage it then it’s likely they will end up in a good position as they have more scale and resources to work with, being comparatively larger (~600,000 people), than many of their neighbours.

The visit featured an amazing example of well-intentioned people making a small decision that has deeply negatively affected how they’re perceived. At some point someone on the policy side in Australia decided that the Australians should import Dole pineapples from outside Solomon Islands instead of buying the local produce as they were concerned buying locally would warp the domestic market. I’m sure the Australians did this with other things but everyone remembers the pineapples because it appears to be a point of local pride that their pineapples are extremely good (something I can attest to having sampled the produce). So a number of people bring this up in a variety of contexts including: talking about fruit, using it as an example of how the Australians didn’t engage with the community, and weird policy interventions when the price of pineapples seems so minor in comparison to how much aid money has warped the property market in Honiara. These three contexts match the three times I was told this story over the course of two and a half days on the ground. I found this fascinating as I’m sure no one agonised over this particular decision but it’s become so deeply entrenched as a bit of perception that people roll it out in conversation regularly.

Solomon Islands surprised me in terms of how far along their development journey they are versus what my preconceptions had been from outside the country. They’ve taken a number of positive steps towards building industry and infrastructure and what appears to be solid government vision for continuing to do so. Coming away from the visit I’m much more optimistic about what the next decade will bring for the country.