Bula Vinaka and a very good morning to you all.

It is my pleasure to be with you here to kick off the third day of my tour of Vanua Levu and spend some time with our Fijian family here in Labasa.

I’m relieved that I have the chance be here today after Tropical Cyclone Ula postponed my trip to the North. I thank God that Fiji was spared serious damage but I assure you, we are doing our upmost to repair any damages and bring assistance to those who were affected. I want to thank you all for making your preparations and listening to the advice and instructions of our emergency response authorities. And I wish to thank those agencies responsible for emergency preparedness and response—and law enforcement agencies—for working around the clock to make sure that all Fijians are safe.

This week, I had the opportunity to open a number of initiatives and projects that have been implemented by my Government. These include the opening of the Nabouwalu to Dreketi 70km road extension, water purification projects, classroom buildings and handing out micro and small business grants to deserving entrepreneurs.

My fellow Fijians,

Today, we will be inaugurating this new First Floor Market Extension of Labasa Market. Something you have needed and waited for a long time. This new area of the market serves a commercial purpose and a social purpose. At last, we have a facility that provides a modern and orderly place for the people to conduct their most basic business—buying and selling the necessities of life.

But a market is far more than a place of buying and selling. A market is the centre of the community, a place where we meet neighbours and share news, a place that reinforces our beautiful Fijian culture every day through the foods we grow and eat and the things we make with our hands. It is a place where rural dwellers and urban dwellers come together.

My Government has been deeply concerned for some time about the need for vendors to have proper places to await the opening of the market in the morning. There is also a need for enough market stalls so that vendors coming in from the countryside with produce from their farms will not have to sell on the streets near the market and behind the Macuata Provincial Building.

This extension solves most of those problems. It has 110 vegetable stall spaces, 50 handicraft stalls, 20 sleeping spaces for women, and a training centre for 25 persons.

We have solved the problem of overcrowding and uncomfortable spacing. Selling will be more comfortable and secure, and vendors can be more confident about leaving their produce and goods unattended—even overnight. This marks a new experience and a new way of doing business for all the vendors here.

The total project cost was $688,000, with $500,000 funded by my Government and the balance by Labasa Town Council. But I am very pleased that UN Women saw the economic and social value for the women of Vanua Levu and reimbursed the Council for 50% of the cost. That frees nearly $350,000 for the Council to use for other market projects.

Most of the vendors are women who work long and hard every day. They know the hard economic lessons of buying and selling. They have to know their customers and their products. And, of course, they need to stay safe, to protect themselves from thieves and worse as they travel to and from their places of business.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This is also a day of enormous importance for the people of Vanua Levu as my Government comes one step closer to guaranteeing a future of land security for those living in informal settlements on State land throughout Fiji.

To truly call someplace home, there needs to be a sense of ownership, a sense of belonging and a sense of security. Many Fijians occupying State land with no legal status don’t enjoy these comforts. They do not have the peace of mind of knowing that they and their children will have a place that they can call as their permanent home.

Today, we are handing out 72 approval notices to people who have been living as squatters for years. The Ministry of Lands after today, will also work with other squatters on State land to issue approval notices through a transparent process.

Ladies and Gentlemen, by having security of tenure, these squatters will no longer be squatters. They will have 99 year leases that will give them a sense of dignity and security that every Fijian deserves. It will also mean that these people will now build proper and permanent homes and they can now access funding from main stream banks and other financial institutions to help them build their homes. They will also have access to government housing grant initiative.

In my vision of what we can become as a country, equal opportunity applies to every Fijian. Without secure access to land, that vision can’t become a reality. So I hope you take advantage of this opportunity and build a strong future for yourself and your families.

My fellow Fijians, today I am also here for another Micro and Small Grant disbursement in the Northern region.

I’ve already travelled all around Fiji, including Bua just on Monday, 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 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 252 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 4,700. And when you count their family members, it means that we have helped improve the lives and prospects of 23,500 people total. After this event, I will move to Seaqaqa where another 245 entrepreneurs will receive grants.

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.

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 Labasa:

• Miriama Tukana of Wailevu Village will utilise her grant to purchase her stock for canteen business.

• Mohammed Khan of Vunimoli will also utilise his grant for extension of his poultry business.

• Asenaca Natagane of Nakorowiri will purchase pineapple seedlings and utilise the funds for development costs.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to take this opportunity to discuss an important issue that is affecting the women and children of Fiji. I am talking about the very serious problem of domestic violence and sexual assault in our society.

I am calling on all of us to take a stand against what I have called the ugly underbelly of Fijian culture. The home is a cherished and sacred place, and it is no place for violence. When we let violence into our homes, that violence spreads and infects every layer of society. The harm it does to women and children lasts a lifetime, and the harm it does to our society lasts generations. As a people, I know we are better than that.

We have set strict laws in place to punish these crimes, but the law alone cannot change behaviour. The unfortunate reality is that these are crimes that thrive on fear and secrecy–and they continue because too many Fijians tolerate them. Too many people accept violence against women and children as inevitable. That is why it is our duty as a society to condemn these crimes wherever they arise, to shame and shun those who abuse or prey or even think of abusing or preying on our women and children. We need to do what we can to stop these crimes from happening, not be quiet about them.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As I had stated earlier, my goal is to ignite the Fijian economy by empowering micro and small businesses- by developing good infrastructure,—by getting behind the people.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Given the recent prolonged drought and the hardships faced by our cane farmers, I am also pleased to announce today that this Friday; the Fiji Sugar Corporation will be making an advance payment of $2 per tonne to all cane farmers. This payment will be deducted from the 3rd and 4th quarter payments. What this means is that the tonnage that each farmer delivered to FSC last year multiplied by $2 is the amount that will be paid out this Friday. No deductions will be made from this advance payment.

So as you can see Ladies and Gentlemen, My government is here to assist all Fijians irrespective of their background, of where they come from and irrespective of their socio-economic status. In fact my government has a number of initiatives such as the ones announced today, that is made to look after and assist ordinary Fijians. We understand your difficulties: -whether you’re a market vendor. Whether you’re a squatter on State land. Whether you’re a woman seeking to sell your produce in the market or whether you’re a cane farmer who has been affected by the drought. My government has been there for you and my government will continue to be there for you.

We Fijians must all work together to harness the enormous potential that we have as a nation and together, create a brighter and better future for ourselves and our children.

Thank you and vinaka vakalevu.