"The dream is to one day manage a vanilla weigh-in business", Ms. Malia Kakala Vakapuna – Vanilla Grower
My name is Malia Kalala Vakapuna, I am 28 years of age, and I hail from a village called ‘Lapaha’, Tonga. I have seven siblings and I’m the second youngest, but the youngest out of the girls. I am currently employed by the ‘Tonga Airports Limited’ (TAL) going on 8 years now.
As I am part of the Mafoa ‘a e Ata Youth Innovation Challenge Program, there was a task given this one time about ‘overcoming one’s fear’. For me, I have this fear of losing my ‘desk job’. This is because I grew up with the mindset of studying and settling with an ‘office job’. Sometimes I would overthink it and fear creeps in that if I lose this ‘office job’, I would struggle.
Later, I took that fear as a challenge for myself. As I grew out of it, I later examined and compared that fear to my current situation right now. That is when I reminisce about my journey in life.
I got an opportunity to go for further studies overseas. I left in 2017 abroad and then came back last year, 2021 when my studies were completed. When I returned home, I reminisced back in time to when I grew up. Both of my parents did not have a job. My dad would go to our cropland and grow crops solely for the purpose for us to eat from. But if we ever had financial needs, he would then sell what was harvested.
On the other hand, mum would weave mats and make tapa. It was a good income for us with what she did. People would always come to her to purchase the mats and tapa that she was making.
Anyway, dad used to grow vanilla, and that is how it started. While I was studying, his vanilla garden would bring in money for us and it helped a lot with paying for my school fees. Some days I would even have some pocket money for myself from dad’s vanilla garden.
However, I returned home from my studies when I completed my Bachelor of Aviation Management abroad. I learned that the vanilla garden didn’t grow for 3 years which was during the time I was away for further education. Adding to that, dad was mostly ill as well so he wasn’t able to look after the vanilla crops.
I returned home around February 2021. I had a few coins left on me and I came over with it to my dad and had a talk as we made an agreement on our vanilla garden. I asked him to lend me the vanilla farm and I will look after it while he stays home and prioritize taking care of his health.
Moving on, I was fortunate enough to share my story about my vanilla journey with Lusia Latu-Jones, TYEE Director. Doing this, it helped me overcome the fear that I have mentioned earlier. It made me realize that income can come from different sides instead of just a desk job. It has been an eye-opening experience for me. Every time I need to clear my mind, I visit this special place of mine, my vanilla garden; it makes me appreciate nature more.
Our mind-set here in the islands growing up, they usually say that farm/crop work is for males only. I am here to prove that it can be anyone. It can be either male or female and I hope my story reaches out to our young youths who are female and think that only males are supposed to go and do agricultural work. You can too!
With that being said, I want to encourage young girls, to believe in themselves and be more confident in what they’re doing. Find time to get yourself out of your comfort zone, get out of your shell and explore. The truth is, the opportunity is out there and it is up to you to go and grab it and when you do, then you can see what good it gives you and what good you can do to others.
Mind you, this is all a new experience for me. I learned that the vanilla orchids must be hand-pollinated for it to produce vanilla beans. Yes, I didn’t get it right the first few tries, but I never gave up. I kept trying and at the same time, I’m learning from my minor mistakes while doing this. After many failed attempts, now I am glad that I have mastered how to successfully pollinate and maintain a vanilla plant by myself.
However, I want to acknowledge the Mafoa ‘a e Ata Youth Innovation Challenge program. This Youth Innovation challenge program really influenced a lot of things in me. Chris from the Mafoa ‘a e Ata highlighted the importance of being ‘creative’. From my side, being creative is going and doing the hard work at my vanilla farm. I enjoy it so much, definitely out of my comfort zone, but I can say I am happy that I am learning every day and getting good at it.
Dad used to tell me, that vanilla plants normally would only bare 3 vanilla beans from a branch. He thought that it is impossible for a vanilla plant to produce more than 3 vanilla beans. He was super surprised when he came over and found that the vanilla plants that I grew produced 8 vanilla beans growing from a branch (see Figure 5). That’s just how I do what I do. People would tell me to follow this, and I would always be eager to do more and try new things. Just as how dad told me that vanilla plants can only bare 3 vanilla beans on a branch, and here I was experimenting and risking it to know the ‘what ifs’. Super happy to say it was a success.
Anyway, the thing that keeps me going till now is that I have learned and grown to love the vanilla garden. It gives me a sense of refreshment and peace when I visit it. However, knowing the financial struggles that I went through, I wish to offer 2 scholarships for next year (2023) to two ‘Takuilau College’ students (experiencing similar financial struggles) once my vanilla farm gets harvested and sold this year. What I’m doing might be not much, but I like to think that this is the beginning or baby steps of giving back to the community. I am grateful for it all.