“Give them this day their daily bread: Mere Samisoni”
(The Fiji Times, 28 Nov. 2015)
By Professor Wadan Narsey
Fiji’s economic future depends on having enough entrepreneurs, either our own or foreigners, whose efforts are essential if the economy is to grow healthily. Dr Mere Samisoni is one of the rare breed of Fijian entrepreneurs who everyone in Fiji knows about, not because she is a SODELPA politician, but because she is in the business of selling Fiji their daily bread through her chain of Hot Bread Kitchens.
This article is the first in a series I will be writing for the Fiji Times, exploring some of Fiji’s genuine entrepreneurs, who ordinary Fijians can be inspired by, and who they can emulate.
What is an entrepreneur?
To answer this most difficult question you could enroll for expensive degrees in business studies or MBAs, and be “taught about entrepreneurship” by people who have never run a business in their lives. Or you could google with the phrase “characteristics of entrepreneurs” which will give you hundreds of interesting articles. Or, of greater relevance, look at Fiji’s own amazing entrepreneurs, both local and expatriate, who have:
* taken water from a borehole in a Ra cow paddock, and sold it throughout the world, earning hundreds of millions of dollars;
* imported wheat from Australia to Fiji, made biscuits sold back to Australia, despite the double transport costs;
* imported textiles from Australia to make garments sold back to Australia, despite the double transport costs;
* converted coconut oil from a terminally ill coconut industry, into most successful up-market beauty products;
* successfully processed ginger, while most agriculture projects in Fiji continue to fail despite all the government support.
These examples suggest that an entrepreneur is not the “run of the mill” business person like a shop-keeper, although shop-keeping itself can be a challenge as many disasters from the EIMCOL scheme will testify.
He or she is certainly not the business person who has managed to obtain business privileges such as a monopoly license, or tariff protection, or subsidies from government and taxpayers, virtually guaranteeing profits which are ultimately paid for, at increased cost, by consumers.
No, an entrepreneur is one who enters a highly competitive market, and succeeds in some unique kind of way, without any special favors from government.
Mere is an entrepreneur
So Dr Mere Samisoni, the creator of Hot Bread Kitchens, is an entrepreneur.
Hold on, you might ask, there are hundreds of bakeries around in Fiji. What is so special about Hot Bread Kitchen? Of course, there have been hundreds of bakeries in Fiji’s history, mostly run by Chinese families, like KW March in Toorak or Yee Man Sue (my wife’s grandfather) in Korovou selling famous wood-fired bread all over Tailevu. In recent years, seeing the profits made by Hot Bread Kitchen, many super-markets have also set up their own bakeries.
Hot Bread Kitchen was started in 1982, and has become a “brand name”, whose consistent quality is recognized by the public. Perhaps it was inspired by similar bread-shops in Australia, that Mere may have come across. But it sells a wide range of products not provided by the typical corner bakery, and whose prices are less than those of the other trendy boutique bakeries. Hot Bread Kitchen premises are health and safety compliant, miles superior to the typical corner bakery.
It employs staff on union rates or better, and makes proper FNPF payments, unlike the typical corner bakery.
It pays its proper taxes to FRCA, unlike many corner bakeries, who I suspect under-declare their incomes.
In recent years, Hot Bread Kitchen also had to cope with price control imposed by a Commerce Commission, despite bakeries being a competitive industry, and in total disregard of quality of the bread.
The miracle is that despite all these cost disadvantages relative to its competitors, Mere’s Hot Bread Kitchen has been a great success, growing into a chain of shops all around the country. The highest compliment for Mere is the number of competitors which have sprung up, imitating Mere’s Hot Bread Kitchen.
Mere Samisoni is also an indigenous Fijian, an obvious role model for budding Fijian entrepreneurs.
Mere’s explanation for success
If you ask Dr Mere Samisoni what she attributes her success to, you get answers, some you would expect from a person with an MBA and a doctorate in business studies (as Mere has), but also some which are peculiarly Fijian, with relevance only in the minds of the believers.
At a very personal level, Mere attributes her success partly to the great role model provided by her mother, Mere Levu, coming from a poor background in Lomaloma (Lau), schooled only to Class 3, but with great devotion to the principles of Christianity.
Her mother taught the family the importance of: knowing the difference between right and wrong; prudence, frugality and saving, hard work, discipline, acting responsibly with “care and love”; taking up any business opportunity that came along, such as hiring out punts or sewing clothes even while working as a house-girl; and, remembering that even Jesus Christ had to make a living from carpentry.
I suspect that Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist entrepreneurs might say similar things.
But Dr Samisoni also points out that you have to engage in research: decide on your product; identify your market; identify the competition; having a solid pricing policy; have a business plan; make sure you have adequate savings before applying for loans; to work when you need to work and not just the regular “office hours”; paying attention to detail; emphasizing team-work and networking; investing in technology; investing in yourself; and even having an exit strategy, “just in case”.
All these factors are of course recognized globally as the characteristics of “entrepreneurs”.
Mere Samisoni also emphasizes as did Dr Ropate Qalo in his analysis of his family firm (Mucunabitu Iron Works), that indigenous Fijians especially needed to understand that cash flow is not the same as profits; that businesses must pay for employees, purchase raw materials and many other expenses, and save in order to grow the business.
Is this just the MBA and doctorate in business studies “explaining ex post” what has already occurred?
Because I suspect that there are many entrepreneurs in Fiji who follow precisely the same principles without a single degree to their name.
I suspect that Mere Samisoni was following these principles even before she acquired her degrees.
I suspect Mere recognized early on that providing Fiji consumers “every day with their daily bread”, of good quality, with perseverance, discipline, and hard unceasing work, must translate into good profits, whether the consumers recited the Lord’s Prayer or not.
Mere also recognized that with rising incomes, man “does not live by bread alone” but also want to buy multi-grain bread, buns, scones, pies and even roti.
I suspect that the same principle of selling essential products that Fiji’s consumers need, is also behind the phenomenal success of another entrepreneur, Hari Punja (another article).
Mere Samisoni, despite her advanced age of 76, has no intention of retiring, and, like all genuine entrepreneurs, is venturing into new products.
Leaving her Hot Bread Kitchen chain of 25 shops to her children to run, Mere is also now selling solar lighting and electrical chargers, which can make life easier for rural and maritime people.
The Fiji economy could do with a lot more entrepreneurs like Mere Levu and her daughter, Mere Samisoni.