“PRIVATE SECTOR MUST BE A WILLING PARTICIPANT”

Dear Editor,

I am writing in response to your recent interview and articles with former Chamber of Commerce President Mr. David Robinson. 

As a longstanding member of the private sector myself (until my recent appointment as Director of the Department of Commerce), I too, at times, would point to the Government and say the same things that Mr. Robinson shared with you. The Government should do this; the Government should do that. Having now been on both sides of the fence, it is clear to me that while the Government’s role in many ways is essential to progress, our private sector must be a willing participant and must invest in development should we ever achieve any of the goals this or any previous administration has had.

While the Chamber’s duty is to be ‘advocates for the business community’, our small island economy requires that the Chamber and members of our private sector do more if we are to see real development.  

Take the breadfruit project for example, which was mentioned by Mr. Robinson. The Government (local and federal) has supported this project for the past 4 years and has financed much of the work done by Papali’i Dr. Failautusi “Tusi”Avegalio and his team. For the most part, the R&D has been completed and the product is now ready for commercial trials and eventual production. The baton is ready to be passed on to the private sector. This is a perfect opportunity for the Chamber of Commerce to lead from the front to foster new industry here in American Samoa.

The challenges mentioned by Mr. Robinson, like cost of business considerations, are all part of building a business case for any business enterprise, regardless of industry. This is what the private sector does every day. Businesses make business decisions based on the bottom line. Will I profit, or will I lose? If there is a way to make money, business people will make it happen. 

Building and developing new industry is not easy to do. This is apparent by the mere fact that in 2016, we only have one viable industry here in American Samoa – the tuna canning industry.

I can appreciate Mr. Robinson’s recommendation of focusing on technology and building a technology park because I too recognize the potential.  This is no new idea; it has been discussed since the purchase of the ASH Cable in 2009.

In fact, it was Mr. Robinson who handed me a copy of a Technology Park proposal prepared by Mr. John Newton (a former resident and businessman of the territory). Technology, call centers, etc. — all promised but never materialized, and all after ASG invested $9 million into the purchase of the cable.

The problem we faced then were that the decision makers at the time failed to properly evaluate the business case of the ASH Cable investment, particularly as it related to job creation. Internet was never going to be affordable enough to convince businesses to move their operations to American Samoa.  The average cost of per Mbps of broadband is approximately 20 times higher here than in many of the cities in the U.S!  This high cost of internet has been the primary barrier to entry into the Am. Samoa market for any internet-based or technology company.

Contrary to Mr. Robinson’s view, we have continued to work on finding a viable and sensible way forward in this area.

Last year, ASTCA’s O3B project went live increasing their capacity and lowering the cost of broadband. This was a step in the right direction but more needs to be done.

With this in mind, ASG, through the Two Samoa Talks, has been working with Samoa Submarine Cable Company (Samoa) to gain equal and fair access to Tui-Samoa cable when it goes on line in December of 2017. This new connection will lower our Internet costs by 75% over ASH-Cable prices!

This has the potential to transform our economic landscape overnight.  Moreover, ASTCA’s Hawaiki project aims to lower broadband cost even more in 2018 and beyond.

To ensure we move forward in a logical and efficient manner, and that we take advantage of regional and global developments in the areas of telecommunication and technology, ASG is developing a Territorial Broadband Policy to lay a pathway forward for the development of an Information & Knowledge-Based industry. There are several layers to this initiative and it requires much more than simply building a technology park.

The recently completed project with Aviana & Datamatics (a BPO Services operation) provided us with an opportunity to work through a real case study on developing a contact or data processing center (and industry) in American Samoa. We learned a great deal and this work has in fact set the stage for near-future BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) operations in American Samoa. 

Lastly, I feel it is necessary to also respond to Mr. Robinson’s statement that “our children do not want to be farmers or fishermen, and they do not want to do those sort of jobs.” It is an irresponsible statement.

Our people want jobs; our people want opportunities to build a better life for themselves and their families. Agri-business and aqua-business are great business opportunities and they have yet to be fully taken advantage of. The potential in these industries is tremendous.

What we should be telling our children is that there is a future for them here at home, in either of these fields. And then show them how to build a future for themselves and their families by building businesses of their own. Set the bar higher for our children, and they will rise to the occasion.

Having said the above, I wish Mr. Robinson nothing but successes in his future endeavors, in New Zealand, and thank him for his contributions to our business community and works of charity.

God Bless.

Keniseli Lafaele

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