Meet Varanisese Maisamoa, who is helping increase women's access to resilient infrastructure in Fiji.
Can you please introduce yourself as well as your organisation?
My name is Varanisese Maisamoa, and I am the former Rakiraki Market Vendors Association President in Fiji.
How did you become a market vendor?
I have been a market vendor for 12 years now. I started coming to the market 12 years ago when I was facing financial difficulties. I planted a few plots of cabbage in my backyard and brought them to the market to sell. That’s how I became a market vendor, and I have never regretted my journey from that day till today.
I have grown, diversified, and expanded my business a lot. I have been able to buy a piece of land and start farming with chickens for eggs and meat. With the money I have earned in the market, I have also been able to buy myself a fishing boat which I’m renting out to fishermen around the Rakiraki area. In addition, I’m also doing handicraft in the market in Rakiraki.
What challenges have you have faced and how you have been able to help the women vendors in Rakiraki?
When I came to Rakiraki market 12 years ago, we used to sell from the ground. I noticed that there were a lot of elderly women from the village sitting on the ground and selling their produce. It was dirty, very unhygienic and it was smelling most of the time.
So when I came to sell my cabbage, the one that I planted in my backyard, I was surprised by the condition of the market. Most of the women vendors had been selling at the market for 12-15 years in the same bad market conditions. That’s when I started going around and talking to government officials in Rakiraki asking them to improve the selling conditions in Rakiraki market. I started to knock on doors back then. We visited the District Officer’s Office here in Rakiraki; we reached out to the Commissioner Western’s Office in Lautoka, and we even paid to take a bus from here to visit the Prime Minister’s Office in Suva.
The Prime Minister promised to come and visit us at the market, and he did. He came and talked to us, and he saw the issues that we were raising with him. He saw the conditions that we were selling under and thanks to him, the government funded the first building in the farmer’s shed in Rakiraki market.
What recent disasters have you faced?
Through all our struggles, the women market vendors of Rakiraki have faced through the years, Cyclone Winston in 2016 was one of the worst disasters we experienced. When Cyclone Winston came, it took everything from us. It took our house, it took the school where our children learn from, it took our churches, and it also took our market, something that the women of Rakiraki rely on. The market is the women’s livelihood and the cyclone took everything that was in the market. Around two days after Cyclone Winston, I was here with a group of women market vendors trying to pick up the pieces of what was left by Winston.
Journalists from TV New Zealand came and interviewed me and that’s how the story of our struggles got out to the world. The interview aired in TV in New Zealand and it was also aired in Australian ABC and they got to learn and hear about the struggles of the women market vendors in Fiji, especially in Rakiraki when we were hit by Cyclone Winston.
How have you since been building women’s resilience to disasters in Rakiraki market?
A few months after that I started to get phone calls from UN Women, from the Australian Aid, and from the Australian High Commissioner. People were calling trying to get the story of how we were trying to pull ourselves together here in Rakiraki.
So that’s how this new market came about. That’s how the Australian government, together with UN Women managed to build this market. I want to say, that if this new market was here before Cyclone Winston came, we wouldn’t have gone through such a struggle, because this market is built to category 5 standard and it’s in the centre of town. It’s also like the community centre and meeting place in our town.
This market has also become an evacuation centre. You know when Cyclone Harold came, this market was here. The vendors were safe here. Since this market is built to category 5 standard, the vendors are very assured that if another Winston came, we would be safe in this market. This market serves the whole of Ra Province, it serves us all, even if you are not a market vendor, even if you are a fisherman, even if you are in this town and a category 5 standard cyclone came, you can come to this market as an evacuation centre and you can be safe in this market.
Women everywhere are very resilient. After disasters you see women standing up and making things happen. They make things happen for their family and their children. They are very resilient. They know what a disaster is. They know how to look after their family and look after their business during the disaster and from that they grow.
The Rakiraki market was funded in partnership with the Government of Fiji and the Government of Australia. The Markets for Change project is implemented by UN Women in partnership with UNDP and the Government of Australia, Canada and New Zealand.