A new initiative picking up local steam is the "Fiji Made" or "Buy in Fiji" campaign. Discounting the fact that I'm unable to determine what the campaign will actually be named yet, there are a few issues surrounding the idea which have been on my mind.
The idea of a Fiji-Made brand being put out there to encourage recognition of the country's products is a good one. At the same time, the idea may be extremely difficult and costly to pull off due to the inevitable over-thinking which will likely be associated with it. There are so many possible variations in the way the idea is implemented that it might be like pulling teeth in order to get any traction. That, however, is neither here nor there. If it's going to happen, it's best for as many people as possible to try and make it happen. Branding Fiji as more than just tropical beaches is a long-time coming. It's something which is sorely needed and it's going to become even more essential when trying to support the growth of other industries. It is this area which I feel is worth commenting on...
What appears to be left out of the "Fiji Made" discussion (at this point, at least) are services. This is relatively surprising when considering Fiji's ongoing push for ICT relevance in the world. Fiji’s service providers need to be able to benefit from the "Fiji Made" push as well. No one is actually saying they won't be but thus far, all the coverage I’ve seen has been about packaging labels and shelf space. Perhaps that's an easier visualisation when planning this thing but it doesn’t change the fact that if we’re only looking there, we could be missing the bigger picture.
There's a sad irony presented in this Fiji-Made campaign, as well. I'm a Fiji investor running a company which focuses, in part, on software and application development. I see way too much work being sent abroad to India, China and Malaysia, among other countries. My question is this:
How can Fiji build a brand with the core message being "Fiji-made" when the country itself looks elsewhere in an industry it has been intent on building up? This is frustrating for businesses like mine.
In fairness, I don't see Fiji's government as intentionally swiping at the local service industry at all. In fact, I think this issue is simply not being considered or discussed in the larger scheme of things. It is, however, a HUGE issue for any Fiji-based service provider struggling to build its skills and win local development work.
This essay is also not intended to be a xenophobic rant arguing that foreign companies are screwing local ones over and thus, should be banished. Indian and Chinese firms have as much right to pitch for work here as companies with real operations on the ground. What Fiji's government does not appear to be doing is REWARDING local businesses which choose to have software and application development done in Fiji. I believe that if they did do this, it would do wonders for both encouraging local ICT development further as well as promoting the "Fiji-Made" brand.
When I think about the emphasis and heavy financial commitment Fiji continues to make in trying to establish itself as an efficient ICT destination and developing the country's capabilities, it feels like only HALF of a strategy is being implemented. That half is made up of information technology parks, financial incentives and marketing efforts built around the sole goal of bringing IT companies in to establish operations. All important initiatives, yes, but it’s only halfway there.
The missing part of this strategy (i.e.; the other half) feels significantly more important to the industry's future; namely encouraging the development of local skills. This can happen via tax incentives for ICT-related training, duty-free imports of educational material, books and trade collateral, software discounts, and most important, tax incentives for ANY Fijian business choosing locally-developed custom application or software. Nothing is more critical towards building up capabilities than encouraging this local consumption of "Fiji-Made" services.
There are related issues which will need to be addressed with this kind of incentive-based activity. For example, many non-Fiji IT companies have established local offices as satellite locations for their foreign operations. The Digital Group is one shining example I can think of off the bat. Local tenders are pitched for by these companies but most or all of the development work is being managed and conducted abroad. Fiji as a country loses out when this happens and I'm not referring to just FJ$ going abroad. Fiji loses out because the experience and knowledge of how to build and manage that type of work disappear offshore with very little experience remaining behind. This is a key hindrance to the industry's local growth. To reiterate, the companies which send work abroad have every right to do so. I’m not arguing against their right to conduct business this way. I’m simply stating that in order to really develop the local industry, there need to be benefits to Buy Fiji. That is the purpose and focus of the “Fiji-Made” campaign, after all.
Fiji-based ICT companies with the majority of their workforce in-country should be able to easily demonstrate where their technical development resources are based. In fact, I believe these checks and balances already exist within the garment manufacturing industry.
If a local business or a government ministry wants software and application development, they should be strongly encouraged to use local ICT businesses wherever possible. Not directed, mind you. Encouraged. No one should be penalised for going abroad but getting benefits for working with local companies will become a win-win for everyone (except the companies who send all their dev work abroad). That, however, is just business.