Bula Vinaka and a very good morning to you all.

My Fellow Fijians, this past week has proven to be a trying one, given the effects of the tropical cyclone and tropical depression. Please rest assured that my Government will provide full assistance to all Fijians in the affected areas. I especially thank you all for your preparedness. I also wish to thank the relevant agencies such as DISMAC, the MET office and law enforcement agencies for their untiring efforts in ensuring the safety of all Fijians.

Now that I have made it here, let me say it is my pleasure to kick off my tour of Vanua Levu and spend some time with our Fijian family here in Bua.

Over the past year, Fiji has done very well. We’ve recorded our sixth consecutive year of economic growth and attracted investment all over the world from people who recognise what we’ve accomplished and who believe in our future potential.

This week, I will have the opportunity to spread that prosperity to the North by bringing our micro and small business grant to your deserving entrepreneurs and by opening the new Vuya grid extension.

The North is unique in many ways. Every time I have the opportunity to visit I am reminded of again of the natural beauty that is found all over Fiji—and especially here. And, of course, I am overjoyed and humbled at the same time by the hospitality and warmth with which I am welcomed. But our people here are also faced with their own challenges, most especially the challenge that location and geography present in providing Government services.

My Government has prioritised a number of projects in this region because we are dedicated to making sure that all Fijians have the same quality of life and the same opportunities, regardless of where they call home. This is my first stop this week. Later today, I will have the pleasure of opening the new highway linking Nabouwalu and Dreketi, which will make a big difference in the economy of Vanua Levu and the daily lives of many people. I will also inspect the new irrigation canal in Nasarawaqa and commission the new water purification project in Naividamu.

As Fijians, you are each entitled to your share of the tremendous progress we’ve made as a country — because you each have played pivotal roles in moving our country forward. We’ve achieved great things through hard work and commitment to our new, unified Fiji, and now we are blessed to be able to invest even more deeply in our people in the Northern region.

These are investments that my Government is confident will see great returns. When we improve our infrastructure–in this instance by bringing electricity to more remote corners of the country–we give more Fijians more opportunities. More opportunities to participate in our national life, more opportunities to grow their businesses and more opportunities to contribute productively to our society. In the process, we begin to overcome the barriers of distance and ocean that keep us physically distant.

This grid extension is very much a part of this vision–a vision of a Fiji in which every part of our country can count on a robust, modern infrastructure, and every Fijian has the tools they need to build a better life for themselves and their children. When we achieve that, when we truly unleash the power of the Fijian people, we will begin to realise the potential of this great country.

This grid extension project will produce benefits that far outweigh the costs. It has a total cost of $696,293 and was funded by my Government.

This grid extension will make electricity more available and more accessible for hundreds of people. It will provide safe and efficient energy for the residents of Vunirara, Nanuku, Sigana, Lakeba, Nasauto, Lomate, Natewa and Vuya villages. Electricity is essential to modern development, and not just for our livelihoods. Having reliable electricity means we can make our communities safer. It means our children will be able to read and study under lights that won’t deteriorate their eyesight. It also means access to amenities such as refrigerators and television sets. But please make sure you pay your electricity bills. We all have to play our part. But remember, your bills will be subsidised since Government will pay half of the tariff rate if your household annual income is $30,000 or less and you use 95 kilowatt hours or less of electricity a month. And you will need to fill out an application form with FEA.

129 households will receive these benefits due to this project. That represents more than 500 Fijians whose lives will become brighter in many more ways than one.

Today I am also here for our first Micro and Small Grant disbursement of 2016. I am extremely proud that this program has achieved such great success and has become so popular that it will continue into this New Year.

I’ve already travelled all around Fiji bringing this scheme to entrepreneurs who have outlined ways they plan to grow or begin their enterprises, and I know there are many of you in the Northern region who are equally deserving of this investment in your future.

This program has done so well because it is relies on the ability of the Fijian people to work hard, be innovative and strive for greatness. Our ability as a people to create industry and grow our economy is our most important natural resource, and this grant program taps that potential.

This is not a handout. It is a grant that can only be used to purchase materials that you have identified as important to start or expand your businesses. Collectively, as your businesses grow, you will build wealth for yourselves and you will contribute to our economy.

In December, two weeks before Christmas, I was in Nausori, where I was honoured to see 1096 recipients receive their grants. That was the biggest single grant disbursement carried out so far. This morning, an additional 228 recipients will benefit from this initiative through my Government.

And today’s event marks another significant milestone, because today’s recipients bring the total number of entrepreneurs receiving these grants to 4,448. And when you count their family members, it means that we have helped improve the lives and prospects of 22,240 people total.

We have been so overwhelmed by the response to this initiative that we have increased the allocation for this year to $2.2 million. I was confident that our micro and small entrepreneurs were worthy of this scheme, but this program’s popularity and success has gone beyond what we anticipated. We will continue to support the spirit of entrepreneurship in Fiji and foster an environment that allows small and micro businesses to develop.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I take this opportunity to relate a number of success stories so far from those that have been assisted.

• Mr Iokimi Nayau from Vunidavo Village in Namosi was provided grant assistance for his canteen business. His income has increased from $800 to $1000 a month. The grant has improved his standard of living and now he can meet village obligations. He has diversified his canteen business to also start selling petroleum products such as kerosene and premix.

• Mr Deo Chand of Navua was provided grant assistance for his poultry farm, which included chicken feed and building materials. He has completed the construction of his poultry shed and fenced it. He currently has 50 chickens and will earn $1,000 from the sale of his chickens after 7 weeks. This income will be used to purchase more feeds and day old chicks to breed.

• Ilinieta Teresia of Namuana Village, Namosi was provided grant assistance for her tailoring business. The grant has boosted her existing business, raising her sales revenue from $300 to $800 per month. This has enabled her to meet her family needs and elevate her family’s standard of living;

• Mere Naceva of Navua was provided grant assistance for her Market Vending Business. Her income has increased from $350 to 500 per week. The grant has enabled her to expand her business by producing more fresh agricultural produce, which resulted in more customers and earnings and improvement in her family’s standard of living.

• Ramesh Chand of Navua was provided grant assistance for his poultry business. The grant has enabled him to expand his business and improve standard of living—and give jobs to two other villagers.

I would like to also take this opportunity to make mention of a number of people who will be benefitting from today’s assistance here in Nabouwalu:

• Mr. Mohammed Hassad will use his grant to purchase his galaxy crab net for his crab business.
• Mrs. Salote Savuli of Tavulomo will use her grant to purchase fishing implements for her fishing business.
• Mr. Sila Watisoni of Nasavu Village will use his grant to start up his diesel business.
• Mr. Rohit Prasad will use the funds to purchase barbed wire and material for fencing of his goat farm.
• Mrs Susana Tagi will purchase material to upgrade her fish pond.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to turn briefly now to a different subject of great importance. As you know, I ended the year speaking out about domestic violence and violence against women and children, and promised to mention it at every opportunity. Our laws punish these crimes severely; however, we need to create a culture without our society that does not condone such acts.

I would like to remind all of us that we must never abuse our women and children, hurt or intimidate them. So today, as we celebrate progress, I would like remind all of us to commit ourselves to social progress—to ending the scourge of rape and domestic violence in Fiji. We must stop these acts from happening. And when someone even thinks of committing these terrible acts of violence, shame them. Because it is wrong, terribly wrong, and that is the only way it will stop.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As I had stated earlier, my goal is to ignite the Fijian economy by empowering micro and small businesses—by getting behind the people. I therefore, challenge all you recipients here today to make use of this opportunity to do even better, to contribute to the growth of our economy and join the successful small business men and women who form the backbone of our country. It my great pleasure to also commission the Vuya Grid Extension.

Thank you and vinaka vakalevu!