FIJI: Branding the embassy to stand out in Washington
Thomas Cromwell

How does a small country like Fiji, located far from the American mainland, get attention in mighty Washington? “Branding,” says Ambassador Jesoni Vitusagavulu. “Unless you brand yourself and communicate your message in a smart way, your message is bound to be lost in all the noise.”

A novel approach for sure, but an intelligent one. Working with East West Communications, a nation branding consultancy (and owner of DiplomaticTraffic.com), the Embassy of Fiji is taking on a new, business-friendly identity and aggressively targeting American companies to consider Fiji for investment. The embassy has also undergone a face-lift, using attractive furniture from back home. 

The ambassador does not have more US assistance in mind when he speaks of the need to raise Fiji’s profile. Rather, he wants Fiji to be known to American political and business leaders as a great place to do business, whether as a location for a call center, filming a movie or investing in tourism.

The ambassador came to Washington after his country suffered a $50 million drop in apparel exports to the United States last year, after national import quotas were lifted under a global WTO agreement and the Chinese juggernaut began to flood the American market with low-cost products. In a recent interview with DiplomaticTraffic.com, Ambassador Vitusagavulu said he is determined to cover that loss and build trade with the US to even higher levels than they were in the past.

A down-to-earth man with a background in business and a fine sense of humor, the ambassador offers a refreshing example of what even small countries can do in Washington, with vision and determination. Below are his comments.

His agenda for developing the embassy
One of the things I faced in taking up this mission is the situation where exports from Fiji to the US had taken a decided decline. For the first eight months of last year, 2005, they fell by 20 percent. The main reason was a decline in apparel exports, which were the principal export to this country for about 10 years. The main reason for the decline was the expiry of the bilateral agreement between Fiji and the US. For the first eight months of last year, apparel exports plummeted by about 70 percent. This trend will continue as more apparel imports come from China. There is no way we can compete with China.

That’s the sorry state I faced, and for Fiji, relying on exports as it does, with its small and open economy, such a decline is very worrying. Not only exports to the US are declining, but also to countries like Australia, where we also export apparel and gold. And sales of sugar, which we export to the European Union, are bound to drop because the price is expected to drop by 40 percent over five years when preferential prices are lifted. 

What I have done is to refocus the activities of the embassy to address this decided decline in exports. That is the overriding emphasis of the work we will do over the next three years while I am here. We want to check this decline in Fiji’s exports to the US. Not only to bring it up to previous levels, but also to grow it.
 
Strategies to develop business
If one product is falling off, you want to work on the other exports to see how they can be expanded to cover the shortfall. Among the products from Fiji is Fiji Water. During the eight months of apparel export decline, Fiji Water exports to the US grew by 90 percent. It started from a small base, but exports have increased to $40 million a year. (Over 90 percent of Fiji water is exported to the US.) This is one product we are working hard to increase exports to the US.

The new owners of Fiji Water are Stuart and Lynda Resnick, owners of Rolls international of Los Angeles. We are working with them to see how we can help them increase their imports here.

The other major product we are working on increasing exports of is Tuna loins, which are canned by San Diego-based Bumble Bee. Fiji also exports fresh fish to the US, including Albacore, Big Eye and Yellow Fin Tuna. Then there are other products, such as Pacific Green Furniture (gracing the embassy), with two outlets in Washington and three on the West Coast, and with another three planned for the East Coast (Florida, New York and Atlanta).

These products can be relied on to help fill the export gap for Fiji. They are the low-hanging fruits. In fact with Fiji Water selling well, it alone could cover the apparel shortfall.

For the long term, we really need to be growing our exports. But not only should we plug the gap, because then we would only be back to square one. We need to move on to square 10. We need to expand.

This is where new exports need to be developed. If we try to compete on price, we will be slaughtered by countries like China and Vietnam. What Fiji needs to do is niche marketing. This is the route we should be following. We need to develop more organic products. Fiji is very pure. I am eager to work with the Resnicks, because they are used to taking products from nothing and making them big. Fiji should be selling products for which people will pay top dollar, because of their value. That message has to go out from Fiji: that the way forward is to brand our niche products.

As long as Fiji is where it is, in the middle of nowhere, as you can see from the map, we will be constrained by the tyranny of distance when it comes to the export of goods. I think the way forward for us is to be looking to export things that are not constrained by distance. This is where greater emphasis should be placed on services, especially ICT (information and communications technology), such as call centers and data processing.

The beauty of this strategy is that we already have, basically, the infrastructure, or platform to launch this. We are pushing in a big way the development of call centers and data processing. We have a few companies already, including a US company. ACS (Affiliated Computer Services) has started a business in Fiji doing data processing for Qantas and Air New Zealand. This used to be done out of Juares in Mexico, but it is easier to send the material to Fiji. With the right encouragement and promotion, this is an industry that really can expand.

We are working with a company called Worldbridge Connect, which is one of the companies that pioneered outsourcing in India 12 years ago. They set up companies and then after they grow to a certain size, say in four years or so, they sell them off. They say that major clients, like American Express, want centers in several geographic locations to mitigate location risk. Fiji is in the middle of nowhere, so it is safe.

Exports of niche products and services is the way to go. Another industry is movie production. Fiji has developed a world-class financial structure to encourage this industry, which is already big in Australia and New Zealand. We have been able to attract a few movie productions. In the past some came for the beauty of the place, but now they are coming because of encouragement. Anaconda 2 was shot in Fiji, rather than South America. Smileadon, Elf Strike and Pirate Islands: Lost in Fiji are also to be filmed there. Fiji has an office in LA to promote this.

Another area is tourism. This is an area that we should be pushing, working in tandem with Fiji Visitors Bureau, which promotes tourism. In 2004 over 500,000 tourists arrived. The highest source of foreign exchange earnings, tourism brought in close to $700 million last year. By 2007 the plan is to become a $1 billion a year industry.

We need more infrastructure, more hotels. Recently a Sofitel with just under 300 rooms was opened. Marriott has two hotel developments, and Intercontinental has one. This year we hope to see 1,100 new rooms added. US companies can be more involved in this.

What Fiji offers investors
Fiji is the most developed economy among the Pacific islands. We are not the fastest growing, but we have been doing pretty well for several years. Fiji would have to be a first choice for investors, because of first class physical and banking infrastructure, quality accounting services and telecommunications, and the Southern Cross international fiber optic cable.

Fiji has excellent air links to the US, and most countries of the region use Fiji for travel and transport. We have been the hub of the Pacific for a long time. We also have our own Air Pacific, which is the only successful national airline in the Pacific. It posted a profit of $36 Fijan million last year. These are bright spots in Fiji’s favor. Air Pacific has four direct flights a week to Los Angeles. Air New Zealand has three flights a week from LA too.

We have several US investors already, including Sheraton, Marriott, Holiday Inn and several individuals. Wakaya Island owned by David Gilmore, is used by many stars, including Nicole Kidman (who is an avid Fiji Water drinker). Richard Evanson owns Turtle Island, another destination for stars. Then we have several US companies that were set up by subsidiaries in Australia. 

For many, going to Fiji is a ‘lifestyle investment’. You may not make a great deal of money but you enjoy life.

Branding the Fiji Embassy
Fiji Water and Pacific Green Furniture and others are unique products that teach us the way forward for Fiji is branding and clever, niche marketing. If we are going to score in a discerning market like the US, we have got to make ourselves different. We’ve got to play up our edge.

Learning from the lessons of products we must brand ourselves. There are so many embassies in Washington, and they are all clamoring for the attention of the US government. Unless you brand yourself and communicate your message in a smart way, your message is bound to be lost in all the noise.

Before leaving Fiji, I had a good discussion with outgoing US Ambassador to Fiji, David Lyons. He said: ‘I am going to be frank with you. It is not easy for Fiji, small as it is, to be heard in Washington. We like Fiji, but in terms of pushing your agenda it is going to be tough. So you really need to strategize a way to be heard.’ He suggested that instead of trying bilateral negotiations, to get Pacific island countries together to negotiate as a group, to create a critical mass.

Fiji’s issues with Washington
One of the things we are doing is moving away from bilateral issues towards working on multilateral issues. There is a platform already there, the US-Pacific Islands Joint Commercial Commission, which we can use to push our agenda. We have formed the Pacific Island Ambassadors Group (PIAG). We hope the next meeting of the Commission will be in Washington, rather than Hawaii.

One of the bilateral issues is remittances from Fiji workers in the US (probably about 4-6,000, most of them caregivers to the elderly in California). We are trying to legalize their status. Most are women and many have been here as long as ten years. Unfortunately many are undocumented. However remittances are second only to tourism as a source of foreign exchange earnings for Fiji. We would like to nurture them.

In addition to caregivers, there are also soldiers serving in UN peacekeeping, which Fiji has done since 1978. Fijians are good at winning the hearts of people. Our friendly nature captivates the hearts of people, making us good peacekeepers. This is also why tourism is big in Fiji.


H.E. Ambassador Jesoni Vitusagavulu

Jesoni Vitusagavulu or Vitu, as he is commonly known, took up his new appointment in August 2005. He joined the Foreign Service from the private sector. He was managing director of TOPtier Management Consultancy an investment & management consulting firm which he founded in 2003. The firm provides investment facilitation to local and foreign investors particularly in tourism, ICT, and audio visual industries. He also lectured at the University of the South Pacific in its MBA programme.

He was the chief executive of the Fiji Trade & Investment Bureau for 7 years from 1996-2003. Before that he held senior management positions in Air Pacific, Fiji Development Bank, Unit Trust of Fiji, Suva Stock Exchange, and Fijian Property Trust.

He was a trustee of the Fijians Trust Fund, chairman of Food Processors (Fiji) Limited, chairman of Agricultural Marketing Authority, chairman of Kontiki Growth Fund and director of Kadavu Development Company. He was also a member of the PM’s Think Tank Advisory Group.

He holds a bachelors degree in economics & politics from the University of the South Pacific, Masters of Philosophy in development studies from the University of Sussex UK, diploma in airline management from the University of Bar Ilan Israel, and a graduate certificate in management from the Australian Graduate School of Management of the University of New South Wales.

He is married to Silina and they have three daughters.