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Making hay while the sun shines
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02 June 2011

    

   

Chandra Lekha is not your ordinary grandmother. The soft spoken5’2” 58 year-old dairy farmer, can easily be mistaken for a push over, but you’d be well advised to reconsider – she is as tough a sold boots - not in a worn, leathery way, but in a weathered,resilient way.

“When my husband passed away in 1993, I knew nothing about
how to run a business,” she recalls of the event that cascaded a sea change in her life, “I didn’t even know where to go and do the FDB payments. I didn’t even know where Rewa Dairy was!”

Like many women of her time, husbands were the bread winners –
they did the worrying about the finances, the business and everything else that concerned their family’s livelihood.The women in turn, concerned themselves only with tending the hearth and nurturing the children.

“I wish my husband shared more of his troubles with me, if he did I
don’t think he would have had his heart attack and died when he did,” Chandra reflects.

Krishna Deo Jaggesar passed away at age 53, not long after
Cyclone Kina tore through Fiji with Category 5 winds, leaving in her wake, a country devastated and reeling from over $200 million in damage. Chandra’s farm in Naluwai, Vunidawa was not spared Kina’s wrath either. The deluge accompanying Kina, submerged the 87 acre farm in over 15 feet (4.5 metres) of water in places, all 40 heads of cattle drowned. Their livelihood left in ruins.

“The water reached all the way up here,” Chandra gestures at a
height three feet (0.9m) off the floor of her living room. Chandra’s homestead is on stilts over 12 feet (3.6m) above ground. The view from the porch overlooks the farm all the way down to the river, less than a kilometre away to the left and the milking shed about 500m up the road to the right.

The river was further away previously but TC Kina and more
recently, Cyclone Mick in March last year, have redirected it closer to the homestead.

“After we lost everything I could see that he (Krishna) was very
worried, but he never said anything to me. He just carried that stress alone, inside him,” she said with a wistful smile.

Krishna was a dairy farming client of the Fiji Development Bank (FDB) since 1980. His death intestate gave rise to problems with his family but Chandra soon sorted that. Concerned for her young family, Chandra walked into FDB after Krishna’s untimely passing and took over his loan.

 FDB’s Dairy Farm Loan allows eligible farmers to borrow for land purchase, and development, build or renovate farmhouses,
purchase new or used farm vehicles, plant equipment and implements as well as stock for milk production.

Chandra is a well-known and respected figure amongst the agriculture centre at the FDB. All her account managers over the
years refer to her as tinana, mother in Fijian. Seems odd that they would call her an affectionate name in a language not native to her, but Chandra speaks fluent Fijian and so do her two teenage grandsons – Alvin and Melvin, who live with her.

As one of very few Indo-Fijian families living in the area, life has
been about assimilation for Chandra who moved here as a 16 yearold bride from Kavanagasau in Sigatoka in 1969. The day we visited Chandra, Melvin had an i-Taukei friend over for a visit. Sitting in his room, it was hard not to miss the loud Fijian pop music blaring over the radio, its note scales broken only by the competing choral of Melvin and his friend. This is the Fiji that many speak of but rarely experience.

Of Nepali descent, Chandra was raised a farmer’s daughter and the
move to a dairy farm about 30 kilometres off the main Sawani Road in Nausori, did not present any problems for her. Living in relative comfort, Chandra and Krishna had four children – two boys and two girls. The youngest, a daughter then aged two, drowned in the same river nearby in the 1970s.

In 1990, Chandra, Krishna and their three surviving children
converted to Christianity from Hinduism. It just made sense to
them to do so which they have since, ardently maintained. For someone who by age 39 had suffered two personal tragedies,
Chandra was to endure one more, the loss of her 19 year-old son under tragic circumstances in 1994. Chandra is matter-of-fact about her losses and bears no ill or lingering regret - a rare state of mind when many would have wilted, worn from the grief – a reflection perhaps, of her practical nature and steely resolve to “get on with it”.

“You can’t keep looking back,” she said, “you have to keep looking
forward or you will trip and fall.”

Wise words indeed and ones well heeded if one is to continue
living, as Chandra did for her two surviving children both of whom have gone on to live their lives outside of the farm. Her son is an academic at a local university and her daughter is remarried and lives in Suva – her daughter’s sons from her previous marriage live with Chandra and help out on the farm when they aren’t in school.

In the years following Krishna’s death, Chandra worked hard to
rebuild the farm. Her achievements are testament to her business and farming acumen. Today, Chandra is the highest milk producer in the Naluwai sector. She produces approximately 350 litres a day from her 28 milking cows and looks forward to bring in more over the next year from the 41 she has at various stages of growth. On average, her cows produce between nine and 11 litres per cow per day. Well over the average of between four to six litres that is the norm on most local farms.

“I had targeted a production of 400 litres per day but I lost 11 cows
to Cyclone Mick last year and hopefully, in the next year or two, I will recover my stock and hit that target,” she said.

Chandra’s farm operates on milking the cows manually, something
she doesn’t think is a problem for her at present because of the low number of cows she has for milking.

“I milk about 22 on my own and my grandson and the two
labourers do the rest and within two hours, we are finished,” she
said.

 Earning 55 cents a litre for her efforts, Chandra believes that a price of between 70 to 80 cents would mean a better return to farmers and encourage more to go into dairy farming. Fiji needs an estimated 80 million litres of milk per annum to meet domestic demands of which, the local dairy industry only produces between 10 to 12 million litres annually.

The taste of real full cream milk compared to the processed
watered down version that comes off the supermarket shelf is
beyond compare. Anyone who remembers the days of direct milk delivery from the farm before milk in tetra pack cartons will tell you that there is no taste like real milk.

Chandra’s endeavours have earned her recognition by FDB at its
2005 Small Business Awards where she won first runner up for the Agriculture/Livestock/Marine Category. She continually updates herself by attending workshops related to dairy farming, her farm being the focal point for many of these trainings.

For the future, she is seriously considering diversifying to dalo
planting along the river and buying another farm in Navua, where she hopes to run dairy as well as plant vegetables and root crops. She has seen the farm that she wants and already she’s in discussions with FDB on acquiring the property.

Chandra’s view to business is simple. Make hay while the sun
shines.
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